Skip to main content

You may have already heard that the Jeep brand boasts roots going all the way back to its troop transport 4x4s in WWII. But did you know that Jeep didn’t actually build the first Wrangler SUV until 1986? The Wrangler was a rebranding of the Civilian Jeep (CJ) model series dating back to 1945.

Jeeps transported troops during WWII

Old photo of a Dodge Command Car and Willys Jeep MB parked on a mountain road during a WWII training exercise in Idaho.
WWII vehicles | Jim Heimann Collection via Getty Images

As the Allied troops planned an invasion of war-torn Europe, they knew they would need a good 4×4 to transport troops through the broken infrastructure. The U.S. military put out a bid for a lightweight vehicle, with similar specs to a modern side-by-side. Their target weight was just 2,160 pounds.

The winning design was a 4WD convertible with solid axles and a full frame that was originally a collaboration between Bantam, Willys, and Ford. The military called it a 1/4 ton “light reconnaissance vehicle,” but it became known as the Jeep. Willys went ahead building prototypes, and then several generations during the war.

The Willys Jeep MB “did everything. It went everywhere. Was a faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going.”

Ernie Pyle, war correspondent

Willys built Civilian Jeep (CJ) 4x4s in peacetime

Tan Willys Jeep CJ-2A parked on a dirt road beneath a setting sun.
Willys Jeep CJ-2A | Stellantis

After the Allies won WWII, Willys had loads of surplus Jeep components. In addition, the little open-air 4×4 had endeared itself to millions of soldiers. The company decided to offer a civillian version in peacetime.

After several redesigns, the company struck gold with the Jeep CJ-2A. For just $1,090, a farmer or outdoors person could order their very own Jeep 4×4. The CJ-2A had a top speed of just 60 mph and a comfortable cruising speed of about 47 mph. It had no roof, no features or comforts of any kind–and it cost the equivalent of $17,973.37 modern dollars.

The value of the Jeep was not its on-road prowess or comfort. Willys marketed the “Universal” as the tool for any outdoor job. It had a Power Take Off (PTO) capable of operating farm equipment. It was advertised as capable of running at low speeds for 10-hour days. And it sold like hotcakes.

Americans adapted the CJ-2A to every job imaginable: from farm tractor work to powering ice-rink Zambonis.

Chrysler bought Jeep in 1987

Gray modified Jeep Wrangler JK Unlimited SUV parked in the woods, trees visible in the background.
Jeep Wrangler JK | Dan Gomer via Unsplash

By the 1980s, Kaiser-Jeep was actually a part of American Motors Corporation (AMC). In 1987, Chrysler bought AMC. But the AMC company was already transforming Jeep. It had developed the Cherokee and its Comanchee pickup truck variant. In addition, it had rebranded its Civilian Jeep series (which had lasted through the CJ-7) into the Jeep Wrangler.

The Chrysler Corporation found the Jeep WRangler YJ to be a strong seller. It invested in a redesign, returning to the CJ’s round headlights, for 1996. The result was the iconic Jeep Wrangler TJ.

Chrysler Corporation’s next major change to the Wrangler was the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. Chrysler introduced this option during the 2006-2016 Wrangler JK generation. Finally, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles introduced the modern Jeep Wrangler JL for the 2017 model year.

Next, find out what was the best selling car of all time or see more about the Jeep Wrangler in the video below:


This 1986 Suzuki Samurai Stole An Off-Road Record From a New Jeep Wrangler