Finding the right replacement parts for classic cars isn’t always easy. To begin your search for replacement parts, knowing which car you’re working on is important. Keep in mind that having a Jeep isn’t enough detail when you’re buying replacement parts. Any collector who feels lost trying to identify their Jeep shouldn’t lose hope, as there are a handful of key ways to find out exactly what you’re looking for. To help collectors narrow down their search quickly and accurately, we’ve put together a guide to identifying early models of Willys Jeeps.
Finding the VIN
VIN stands for “Vehicle Identification Number,” something even everyday vehicle owners are aware of. If you have the VIN, finding information on a Jeep online is incredibly quick and simple. As some enthusiasts may already know, you’re not always going to find a VIN on an old-school Jeep. If you’re wondering why, don't worry; the answer’s pretty simple—VINs weren’t around until the mid-1950s. On the other hand, Jeeps have been around since the early 1940s, hence why you won’t find VINs on the oldest Willys models around. Again, don’t lose hope just yet—this doesn’t mean pre-VIN Jeeps are impossible to identify.
Seeking Serial Numbers
Although many old-school Jeeps lack VINs, they do have easy-to-locate serial numbers. Various Jeeps have various locations where you can find the serial number. In the case of old-school models such as the GPW and MB, inspect the engine block. It’s not uncommon for engines in classic Jeeps to accrue grease or grime buildup on the exterior, so you may have to remove some debris to find the serial number.
Once you find the serial number, a quick search online will help you find production details regarding that specific Jeep. When it comes to classic Jeeps, some collectors install new parts that aren’t era-accurate, which can cause some confusion if you’re trying to figure out exactly which model you’re looking at. Luckily, the serial number never lies.
Anyone having trouble finding the serial number on their Jeep’s engine should look at a few more areas, such as the water pump, front frame, and glove compartment. Even if there isn’t a glove compartment in a Willys, the passenger-side dashboard sometimes has the serial number clearly displayed.
It Starts With Spark Plugs
One of the best ways to identify early Jeep models starts by looking at spark plug placement. If you’re looking at a Jeep whose spark plugs are sitting at the top of the head, the next step is to look at your windshield—is it a single piece or split? After confirming your spark plugs are on top of the head, and the windshield is single-piece, walk over to the spare tire. If your spare is on the rear passenger side quarter panel, you’re likely looking at a 1949-1953 CJ3A. However, if the spare tire is on the back tailgate panel, you’re probably in the presence of a 1950-1952 M38.
Just because your Willys’ spark plugs rest on top of the head doesn’t automatically mean it’s either a CJ3A or an M38. When a Jeep’s spark plugs are up top, but the windshield is split, inspect the windshield’s frame for the word “Willys.” The lack of a Willys stamp means you’re probably looking at a 1941-1945 MB or GPW, two of the oldest Jeep models around.
That said, if you do find the Willys name clearly stamped on the windshield frame, then it’s more likely you’re looking at a 1946-1949 CJ2A, one of the first Jeeps to be successfully used domestically instead of overseas on the battlefield. In some cases, the stamp will read “Jeep” instead of “Willys,” so keep that in mind to prevent any confusion during your inspection.
Staying on the subject of spark plugs, what does it mean if you find them on the side of the head at a 45-degree angle? Such scenarios call for you to walk over to the Jeep’s front fenders. The presence of side-mounted spark plugs and front fenders that curve downward means you’re probably looking at a 1955-1971 CJ5.
CJ2A and the Column-Shift
Jeeps were swiftly invented due to the arrival of World War II. When WWII was over, Willys didn’t ditch the Jeep; instead, Willys successfully retrofitted their wartime vehicle for domestic use. However, the first Jeep made for U.S. residents—the CJ2A—wasn’t for your average mom or dad, nor was it the new ride that younger drivers were clamoring for.
Instead, the CJ2A was specifically aimed toward farmers. Willys was trying to offer farmers a vehicle that was both easy to drive and compatible with various farm tools. In doing so Willys originally designed the CJ2A to be the first Jeep with column-shift. Since column-shift was exclusive to the CJ2A, finding this attribute in your Jeep narrows down the search quite substantially.
That said, not every CJ2A was carrying a column-shift setup back in the day. All CJ2As to debut in 1945 did have this component. The following year, Willys officially stopped supplying civilian jeeps with column-shift. Although some 1946 CJ2As have column-shift, not all of them will, so keep that in mind before immediately identifying something as a 1945 model.
When in Doubt, Surf the Web
If you’re running into dead ends with each method, there is still one thing to do—peruse the internet. Head to Willys forums or the official Jeep website and sift through the various images and details you can find regarding old-school models. This isn’t the most efficient way of identifying your Willys, but this method can help you find a suitable answer if all else fails.
This guide to identifying early models of Willys Jeeps is something all collectors should use. Not only will this help enthusiasts ensure they’re investing in the right Jeep for their collection, but it will also come in handy during the restoration stage. Due to the varying parts you’ll find in classic Jeeps, such as the column-shift we discussed earlier, accurately restoring one can be tough if you don’t know each model's key identifying features.
Unfortunately, restoring classic Jeeps without using authentic parts isn’t something all collectors do. That said, if that’s the tactic you want to take with your restoration, you can easily find reliable replacement CJ parts and other classic Jeep components online.
A Guide To Identifying Early Models of Willys Jeeps