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Jeepster: CJ-based convertibles, 1948-50 and 1966-73, and concept cars

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After World War II, Willys was the only company to adapt the military Jeep to civilian use started looking for ways to get more sales from their core vehicle (which had mainly been developed by Bantam).

Without the ability to stamp complex shapes for mass production, the company leaned on Brooks Stevens to create more simple, yet still attractive, designs: the Jeep pickup, station wagon, and the two-door open car Jeepster. None were barnstorming successes, but the Jeepster was probably the least popular, with its odd appearance, convertible design, and general lack of fit with the general car market.

The original Jeepster was launched in 1948, and produced for just two years, with fewer than 20,000 made. Many have survived, and are seen at car shows across the country. Lloyd VerHage wrote of his, "This is truly a fun car to drive."

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The 1948 Jeepster was well outfitted with standard features from whitewall tires to a locking glovebox; it had a four-cylinder engine, unusual for the time, with plastic side curtains, but was priced above high-level Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth convertibles with far more powerful engines. It started out with rear wheel drive along, and while its performance garnered praise, it was not in line with the times. The basic chassis was derived from the CJ, and there was no automatic transmission option, with all models having a three-speed manual with overdrive.

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Willys tried cutting the price and features in 1949, adding a new six cylinder model since the four cylinder weighed 2,459 lb and had a 72 horsepower engine. These actions did not help.

For 1950, they redesigned the front end, to no avail. First-year sales were highest, with just over 10,000 sold. The factory price in 1951 was $1,426 for the four-cylinder; just 5,488 were made in this final year.

Second generation Jeepster

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A second run of Jeepsters was created by Kaiser Jeep in 1966, after the success of the International Scout and Ford Bronco.

Dubbed the Jeepster Commando, it was available as a pickup, convertible, roadster, and wagon; when launched in 1966, it used the 75-horsepower, 114-lb-ft, 2.2 liter "Hurricane" four-cylinder, driving all four wheels. An optional Buick 225-cubic-inch V6 engine - made by Jeep using purchased tooling - produced 160 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, a three-speed GM automatic optional; a console shifter was optional with the manual and standard with the automatic. The exhaust was made of aluminized stainless steel.

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Kaiser Jeep gushed about the "4-wheel drive action that really moves!" and told buyers to "Fall in with the fun-makers! 'Jeepster' is the new mod car for the movers!" They pointed to the bucket seats, color-coordinated trim, and console shift.

The front axles were full floating, the rear axles semi-floating, with hypoid pinion and ring gears. The rated capacity was 2,000 lb for the front axle and 2,500 for the rear axle; shafts were heat treated. The company used a two-speed transfer case with a single shift lever and 2.03:1 low range, along with a neutral range for "stationary power takeoff applications." The Jeepster Commando brochure claimed, "Off-center rear springs and [the] front stabilizer bar flatten ruts and straighten curves - provide smooth passneger car riding comfort." Yet, as the brochure pointed out, "deep snow, muddy job sites, and rutted terrain are no obstacle to your kind of work." As usual, options included a snow plow.

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Brakes were self-adjusting, self-energizing drums, with ten inch diameters and bonded lining; front and rear brakes were handled by independent lines from the dual master cylinder for safety. The wheelbase was 101 inches until 1972, with (for the convertible) a 175.3 inch length and 50 inch tread. (In contrast, the compact Plymouth Valiant had a 108 inch wheelbase, 188 inch lenth, and 57 inch front track.)

The Jeepster Commando roadster had the same wheelbase, but a 168 inch length, and 7.5 inches of ground clearance. Most of the other specifications were, as one would expect, shared with the convertible. The pickup version had a 64 inch bed, 36.0 to 59.0 inches wide (minimum and maximum, due to the wheel housings).

The frame had five crossmembers and reinforced side members for strength; the 15-gallon fuel tank was mounted between frame side members. The gross weight of 3,550 or (as an option package) 4,200 lb, giving the Jeep a decent payload.

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In 1966, the Jeepster "4-Wheel Drive Sports Convertible" had two ranges, standard and Custom. The Standard had full metal doors with roll-down windows, front arm rests, "continental" spare tire, chrome bumpers, hood latches, and hinges, hub caps, manually operated convertible top with a glass rear window, and the four-cylinder Hurricane engine.

The Custom added vinyl pleated seats, carpet, rear armrests, courtesy lights, wheel trim rings, and a boot for the convertible top.

For those getting the Jeepster Commando ("roadster styling with 4-wheel drive go-power"), bucket seats were still standard, along with full metal doors with roll-down windows. Buyers could choose between a full and half fabric top. More substantial options included power take-off, pintle hook, heavy duty springs, and the aforementioned snow plow and tow groups.

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Weight paralleled price; the roadster was 2,461 lb, the pickup 2,610 lb, the wagon 2,673 and the convertible 2,724 lb.

The 1967 Jeepster started at $2,466 for the roadster; the pickup cost $2,548, the wagon at $2,749 wagon. The convertible sitting on top of the pecking order at a steep $3,186. AMC did not release sales figures for the lineup, but made only 29,858 civilian cars for the year, including CJs, Wagoneers, and J-series trucks.

For 1968, Kaiser Jeep provided a new convertible top, hinged tailgates, and slightly different nameplates. With military production falling quickly, they were able to make 86,886 civilian vehicles, including, again, Jeepsters, CJs, and Wagoneers, and big pickups.

1969 brought new side marker lights. Civilian production for all their vehicles was 95,208, but production fell sharply for 1970, with just 45,805 vehicles made.

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In 1971, the roadster (2,510 lb) cost $3,197 and the wagon (2,722 lb) cost $3,446; both had a 100-lb V6 option. The convertible, now V6-only, ran $3,465 and weighed 2,787 lb. Jeep had 54,480 sales, again, across all vehicles.

AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep in 1970, and for 1971, brought out the Hurst Jeepster; similar to other period AMCs, it included a "champagne white" paint job with red and blue stripes, a roof-rack, special steering wheel, and wider, 15-inch wheels. Hurst provided the nameplates, tachometer (on the back of the hood scoop), and shifter - a T-handle for manuals, and a dual-gate console-shift with the automatic. Another specialty Jeepster was the SC-1, with a Butterscotch Gold paint, white top, black stripes, and standard V6.

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The "Jeepster" name was dropped in 1972, when the car was renamed Commando, put onto a 104-inch wheelbase, and redesigned to use the 3.8 and 4.2 liter AMC straight-sixes and 304-cubic-inch V8, dropping the four-cylinder and Buick V6 (the same changes were, not surprisingly, made to the CJ; Commandos also got a new stamped steel grille, open-ended front axle, larger brakes, better clutch, and repositioned front seats). This redesign was unsuccessful, and the vehicle was dropped in 1973.

Concept Jeepsters

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A concept Jeepster was brought out by AMC in 1979, and another by Chrysler in 2005. Designer John Sgalia said at the time that the 2005 Jeepster concept was "the one until recently I'm most proud of." It was, in his words, "more of a hot rod," with a high-output 4.7 liter V8, an experiment to see if a non-wagon form could expand the brand.

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Despite its sports-car looks, the Jeepster concept had four wheel drive; thanks to an adjustable-height suspension, you can "speed off to the mountains and then hit the trail" in the same car. The dashboard was a thing of beauty and precision, imparting a look of luxury and utility that shows up the spartan (in 2005) LX series in the same way a Jaguar body shows up an entry-level Ford.

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The body appears to have been designed with aerodynamics in mind, while still preserving the basic Wrangler styling in the dashboard. Extensive use of metallic surfaces in the interior were reflected in the mirror supports.

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