The First Samurai – Universal Jeep CJ-3B Review

  • Oct 04, 2013

By: Syed Shiraz Shah! 

Can we talk about Rock music without a reference to Jim Morrisson? Or discuss Eminem's contribution to Rap/Hip-Hop and not mention Tupac Shakur? The answer (for the uninitiated) is a strong NO! In a similar vein, how can we celebrate JEEP's entry into India (finally! Courtesy: Fiat-Chrysler) without honoring the vehicle that started it all here? The aforementioned analogies might not be the best ones, but the fact is ladies and gents, that the legendary "Universal Jeep CJ-3B" was the first 4x4 in India, and if the current Indian 4x4s were to trace their lineage, it would take them back to their grand daddy – the CJ-3B. Therefore, a homage to this iconic piece of machinery would be more than befitting right now than ever before. Heck, M&M, the name synonymous with brute vehicles in India, learnt to make 4x4s by assembling these jeeps under license from Willys, USA! And oh yes – please forgive the heading Jeep enthusiasts; no pun was intended!

The CJ-3B was introduced in 1953 and in India it continued to be sold in a Left Hand Drive format until 1969 when Mahindra started offering Right Hand Drive models. By the time the agreement with Willys ended in 1975, M&M were manufacturing complete jeeps but the chassis was still being imported from the US of A. The global production of the CJ-3B stopped in 1968, however, various iterations by M&M based on the 3B, such as the Mahindra Major, were in production until as recently as 2010.

Back in the day, the Jeep shared the road with Ambys and Fiats, and the fields with Massey Ferguson and Belarus tractors! Yes, upon request, you could get your jeep fitted with a PTO (Power Take Off) and a host of agriculture equipment could be used in conjunction. How about running the tube well, to irrigate your fields, from your jeep sounds? Of course, the potential of the jeep for use in such purposes among others was marketed by the company to promote their product further, but the real pleasure was in driving this gem! The CJ-3B was powered by the legendary F-Head 'Hurricane' engine and at that time the 2.2 L petrol engine produced 72 bhp @4000 rpm and 15.7 kg of twisting force @ 2000 rpm. Today, the top-of-the-line Thar produces 105 hp from its 2498 cc diesel engine while the Gypsy manages 80 hp from its 1300 cc petrol mill (make your own inference from this..). The gearbox was a simple 3-cog unit (with synchro only in 2nd and 3rd) and it had selectable four-wheel drive with High and Low ratio options. That basically meant that it could go anywhere... and it did (and still does)! Want to drive through that 100-meter, one foot deep slushy track? No problem! Just engage 4x4 Low, put the vehicle in 1st gear and go!

Again, it's the driver and his skills that eventually count and you WILL get stuck if you overestimate your abilities and/or the jeep's (or any vehicle for that matter) capabilities. Nevertheless, the jeep, even in its stock form, gave you sufficient hardware to sail through some of the harshest terrains that the Indian subcontinent could offer. The mods possible in the present day and age on this vehicle are endless but that would be a story for some other day.. At that time, putting speed governors and fiddling around with carbs in their quest to better the 7 km/l fuel average sufficed for most owners! Also, these guys were so hands-on that they could take out the front prop-shaft by themselves (when 4x4 was not needed) and put it back in ten minutes flat when the front differential was to be summoned! And installing “Shikaari” lights on the jeep was something that they were most adept at…

Coming back to the drive of the Jeep, the first thing that you notice when you sit behind the wheel is, er, the wheel. The three-spoke roundel has a thin circumference, peculiar to the automobiles of that era, and the size might seem to be a bit intimidating to people used to momo-steerings and the ilk… You would also think that hitting the gym a lot earlier would have paid dividends now; however, the steering feels surprisingly light on the move! Of course, turning the wheel at zero km/h does take some effort but you soon get the knack of giving steering input while making the Jeep crawl ever so slightly in tight spaces; the idea is to keep the vehicle moving to ease off the steering effort. Driving a petrol jeep, with the windshield folded down on the bonnet, is a surreal experience; one has to drive it to believe it! With excellent visibility all around, you forgive the vague steering, the exposure to elements (masochism??), the harsh ride (thanks to the leaf springs all around), brakes that feel wooden; rather, you enjoy the pure wind-in-your-face experience, the silent nature of the jeep (owing to its petrol heart), the king-like seating position, the feeling of being indestructible, the admiration at traffic signals…

Nowadays, you see a craze for jeeps in almost every strata of the society, for reasons that also vary hugely from person to person – a college going kid would want a ‘shiny black (or red!) jeep with balloon tires, blaring music, thousand lights, and diesel economy’ (ironical, as the jeep would see a weekly odometer reading of 5 km – that’s how close the malls are nowadays, aren’t they?). More often than not, the bloke would not know what ‘4x4’ actually means, and he won’t care less as he is just after the ‘looks’ – the jeep’s as well as the kind it draws for him!

The more discerning of buyers would want a jeep that has been kept as close to the original factory specs as possible. This type of buyer would want the factory fitted engine and tranny, and of course the 4x4 should be working too! He may later modify it as per his own off-road needs but this is the genre of jeep users that have rightly glorified the original Jeep. And it's not hard to see why the CJ-3B is still one of the most revered vehicles among the off-road enthusiasts. At 1017.4 kg (kerb weight), it is light and does not sink its tires easily in sand like the heavy 4x4s, yet, its NDMS (Non Directional Mud & Snow) rubber make it a walk-in-the-park for the jeep in mud and slush. Also, the ground clearance of eight inches (203 mm) ensures that you don't grate the underbelly while driving over those helmet size stones in the jungle trails… Short overhangs endow the 3B with impressive angles of approach and departure of 46 and 35 degrees, respectively. And the fuel tank was placed on the body and not under it to prevent it from getting damaged during off-road excursions. But the feature that truly stands out is the jeep's 'gradability' or the 'incline climbing ability' in layman terms. At 78.8 percent (@GVW) it humbles the mighty Hummer that ‘only’ manages a gradability figure of 60 percent!

We did not talk about the looks of the jeep, did we? Now we shall – if there ever was a vehicle whose description can have the words ‘simple, beautiful, purposeful, lithe, and butch’ all in one line, then it has to be the CJ-3B! I mean, just look at those timeless lines! The increased height of the new overhead valve Hurricane engine necessitated the high bonnet of this jeep (the WW II jeeps, the CJ-2A, and the CJ-3A were all ‘low bonnet’ jeeps and had the ‘Go-Devil’ side valve engine). Form following function has never looked this good!

I still get astounded by the fact that something that was essentially conceived around the Second World War can still continue to work so efficiently day in and day out! I guess it has something to do with the very foundation of all military vehicles (the prefix ‘CJ’ for Civilian Jeep notwithstanding; the jeep was designed for the military), and the vehicles derived from them for civilian use inherit their robustness, the no-nonsense attitude, and the longevity as well. The charm of these simple but extremely effective vehicles has made a place in the enthusiasts’ hearts the world over and although, in the CJ-3B’s case, the parts are not that hard to come by, running and maintaining this jeep still cannot be classified as an easy hobby by any standards! The passionate jeepers leave no stone unturned in ensuring that these jeeps run in their full glory and I am thankful to them for allowing the current and future generations to not just read about these magnificent machines on the internet, but experience them in flesh as well! For me, the CJ-3B is the best off-road stock vehicle in the world; some might not understand that… Well it’s a JEEP THING!


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