Story and photo by Bill Vance

1948 Willys Jeep All-Steel Station Wagon
1948 Willys Jeep All-Steel Station Wagon. Click image to enlarge

Today’s Jeep Liberties and Grand Cherokees can date their heritage back more than five decades to a little station wagon introduced in 1946, a direct descendant of the famous military Jeep.

During the Second World War almost 600,000 military Jeeps were built by Willys-Overland, and Ford under licence. But as peace neared, Willys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, like other motor manufacturers, was anxious to get back into civilian production.

The company concluded that its immediate pre-war cars, which had not been especially popular, were not suitable for the post-war market. Brooks Stevens, a noted industrial designer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had been engaged during the war to design a post-war Willys car. One prototype was built, but it was destroyed in a train collision, and the idea of W-O returning to car production was shelved.

As the end of the war neared, W-O management, particularly president Charles “Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen, realized that the Jeep had developed a deep reservoir of goodwill. Sorensen had lots of experience to draw on; he had recently joined W-O after having been Henry Ford’s production wizard and confidant for 40 years, before drifting out of favour with dotty old Henry.

The thousands of returning military personnel had fond memories of the Jeep’s universality and toughness, and they represented a wonderful source of potential customers. Why not cash in on this by quickly converting the Jeep to peacetime use?

It was a simple enough task to convert the military Jeep into the CJ-2A (Civilian Jeep) Jeep for the emerging consumer market. The C-J was promoted as a dual-purpose machine for agricultural and road use. It proved capable of both, but turned out to be better suited to the road, and to off-road recreational pursuits, and the farming aspirations were soon abandoned.

With the successful transition of the wartime Jeep to the CJ, the company became even more enthusiastic about other possible models. The call again went out to Stevens to come to Toledo and design a line of civilian Jeep-based models, including station wagons, pickup trucks and panel deliveries.

Being the astute production man that he was, Sorensen laid down a few rules for Stevens. These included retaining the Jeep front-end styling, not using any wood, and confining the design to what were called shallow-draw metal stampings. Shallow-drawn panels with no compound curves were easier and cheaper to produce.

Stevens set to work, and the first result was the all-steel Jeep station wagon that went into production in July, 1946. It was the first such production passenger vehicle, although the eight-passenger steel Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, which came out in 1935, was a kind of station wagon, but was based on a panel truck.

Tiny Crosley of Cincinnati, Ohio, introduced its little car-based steel station in 1947, although it was too small to be practical. It was Plymouth’s 1949 Suburban model that could claim to be the first truly car-based, all-steel station wagon.

No matter how fine one wishes to split hairs on who made the first all-steel wagon, the new Jeep wagon was well accepted. Willys produced 6,533 of the stylish little machines during the first year, and could have sold more in that car-starved era if they had had the capacity to build them.

The military Jeep had become famous for its four-wheel drive, go-anywhere capability. Thus it was surprising that the Jeep wagon had two-wheel drive, probably because Willys was touting it more as a car than as a utility vehicle.

Power came from a 2.2 litre, 69 horsepower, side-valve, four-cylinder engine that could trace its origins back to the 1926 Whippet car, although it had been considerably improved over the years. Power reached the rear wheels through a three-speed-plus-overdrive manual transmission.

The front end and the top of all early Jeep wagons were painted maroon. The passenger compartment from the windshield back was finished in a combination of yellow and light brown that was intended to look like birch and mahogany; from a distance, it almost did.

Sales jumped to 33,214 for 1947, a station wagon record, and the new Jeep was truly a success. The wagon was refined and improved, and four-wheel drive finally became an option in 1949.

Bigger and better engines were fitted, and although it suffered some ups and downs in sales – and a new parent when Kaiser bought Willys-Overland in 1953 – the Jeep wagon lasted until 1962. It was then replaced by the Jeep Wagoneer, also designed by Stevens.

The Jeep station wagon made history by pioneering a new type of more luxurious sport-utility vehicle, one that went on to become an extremely popular model.

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