Before the Cherokee, the Grand Cherokee, the Compass, the Renegade and many other past models, there was only one Jeep: the Willys jeep. The Willys jeep (lower case, since it wasn’t yet a brand name) debuted in 1941 as a U.S.-Army vehicle in World War II, and it was initially manufactured by Willys-Overland in Toledo, Ohio, where Jeeps are still built today. During World War II, Ford was also contracted to produce the quarter-ton truck in order to meet military demand. After the war, Willys continued jeep production and made it available to the public as the CJ (Civilian Jeep).
Few changes were made to bring the military Jeep to the CJ. It was offered in a variety of colors; it had chrome trim, and there were clunky vacuum-powered windshield wipers. It appealed to (and was marketed to) rural buyers, as it was perfect for a ranch or farm.
By 1961, then brand owner, Kaiser Jeep, tried to broaden the appeal of their compact off-roader by introducing the CJ-5A Tuxedo Park Mark IV. This was Jeep’s first trim package, and it was a major attempt to civilianize their product. The Tuxedo Park Mark IV introduced chrome bumpers, badges and latches, model-specific hubcaps and chrome taillights. The trim package didn’t catch on, and only 460 examples of the CJ-5A Tuxedo Park Mark IV were produced. Although it wasn’t successful initially, this model paved the way for many subsequent trim packages. Think Moab, Mojave, Renegade, Rubicon and even the "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" Edition — to name a few.
Fast forward to today, when I recently had the chance to drive a 2017 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler press vehicle from Fiat Chrysler America — an outgoing "JK" Wrangler, sure, but an especially cool version of it. The Willys Wheeler package is a $6,400 add-on that consists of knobby off-road tires, high-gloss black wheels and grille, Jeep’s Trac-Lok differential solid rear axle, rock rails, performance suspension, tinted windows and "Willys" hood decals. In addition to the other nice add-ons are LED headlights and an Alpine 9-speaker sound system with an all-weather subwoofer, both of which were a nice upgrades. These items and more pushed the sticker price to $35,000, from a base price of $24,000.
Over the course of a week, I put 600 miles onto the odometer. My test course consisted of four types of driving. I drove the Jeep on city streets, on the 90-mile stretch of highway separating New York City from the Hamptons, on country roads and — most importantly — I took the doors off and drove it on the beach on a sunny Saturday morning.
On the last warm-ish Saturday of the year, I set an alarm and woke up early to take the doors off, put down the top and go on an early morning drive down the beach. This activity is allowed where I live in the Hamptons (though there are additional rules), and I absolutely had to take advantage. By this point in my week loan, I had already driven the Jeep through the city, on the highway and on country routes, so off-roading was the only thing left to do.
Removing the doors was easy. Lower the windows to not damage the glass, disconnect the wiring, remove a bolt from the bottom of each hinge and lift the door off. Putting them back on was harder. It wasn’t because of the weight, or the size, or how they seemingly got heavier as I fumbled to line up the hinge pins. It was because doors don’t belong on a Wrangler, and I was genuinely sad to put them back on.
I drove down to the beach, and I let out 10psi from each tire, watching the numbers decrease on the car’s computer. I shifted into the 4-Low setting, and the otherwise loud-ish off-road tires went silent as they rolled onto the sand. The Jeep glided assertively and comfortably over the sand; the turning radius was incredible, and — geared down in 4-Low — the gearbox felt perfect. "This is what this truck was designed for!" I exclaimed while sticking my left foot through the door-less body, watching the sand fly by.
Yes, you can drive it on roads — but does it actually belong on them? There are many superior vehicles for daily driving. But where the road ends is where the Jeep begins — and sans pavement, the Willys configuration was perfect. Yes, it was bouncy. Yes, it was loud. Yes, my retired mother could barely climb into it. It isn’t practical, but that’s the trade-off for true off-road euphoria.
Fifty-six years have passed since the Tuxedo Park Mark IV attempted to civilianize the now Wrangler — and although many cars today share little with their automotive heritage beyond the nameplate, the Willys Wheeler has stayed true to the original. Take one off the road, and you’ll see. It’s hard to go back. Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale