Clicking "Buy it Now" on a Military Vehicle can be more expensive than you think - Military Trader/Vehicles

Before you click “Buy now” on an antique or surplus Jeep, truck, or other military vehicle, ask yourself these five questions.

“I bought this Jeep,” a recent email began. “What do I have?” Attached were several photos that my friend had taken of his recent purchase. It appeared he was just beginning his research…and from the looks of the photos, I wasn’t going to be able to deliver the kind of news he was looking for.

Avoid Buying "on an impulse"

My buddy is what I would describe as a “casual car guy.” He grew up through the muscle car era, and, until recently, had the same El Camino for nearly 40 years. He had decided it was time to pass this “family heirloom” on to his adult son, who was delighted with his dad’s give of the old Chevy.

But now, my buddy was feeling a little empty nest syndrome. The El Camino that had enjoyed for most of his life, was gone. A vacant spot in the garage was all that remained. He asked himself one of the first questions I encourage all potential buyers to consider:

1. What sort of vehicle do I REALLY want?

Vehicles lined up for deployment

There are a LOT of military vehicles out there. Decide what you want before you click "buy it now."

Growing up as the son of a WWII vet, my friend had always had a soft spot for military vehicles, and in particular, Jeeps. Deciding that, yes, he wanted a military Jeep, he began searching online. Here, I will interject, he missed a few stages, failing to ask himself the next important question:

2. How much do you know about the vehicle you want?

To be fair, my buddy felt he knew the basics: He had seen lots of military jeeps in movies, at shows, and even ridden in a few. That underlying confidence coupled with the knowing that he had loved and maintained an El Camino for four decades, gave him the bravado to begin his online search.

Had he asked me before he made his purchase, I would have recommended a few books, suggested that he even contact a local historic military vehicle club, or try to direct him to another person who owned a Jeep like what he wanted. So many troubles and pitfalls could have been avoided had he researched before he bought.

Though he failed to do this preliminary research, and because he was a bit of an old “motor head,” unknowingly answered the third important question before he bought:

3. Do you have the space and mechanical knowledge?

Kevin Kronlund gassing up an M4 High Speed Tractor

Do you have the cash, space, and tools for the vehicle you want to buy? 

While coming home announcing, “Honey, I bought a tank,” has its own built-in problems, an impetuous military vehicle purchaser is best-advised to consider the space for a new addition.

Two-and-half-ton trucks seem to be a great value. A person can buy a lot of truck for about $10K. But how much of a bargain is it if you have no place to store that truck, or worse yet, your community or homeowner’s association won’t permit you to park it outside?

Before you finalize on the type of vehicle you want, make sure you have the resources to store it, the tools to service it (remember, that Craftsman socket set probably isn’t going to do much good when working on a 5-ton cargo truck), or know of someone who can hire to service. Historic military vehicles are like pet elephants: They are amazing to look at, rather fun to ride (though, at times a bit “rustic” in nature), and a lot of work to take care of.

So, consider where you will store your new purchase, how you will take care of it, and who will do the dirty work of servicing it before you buy. This will help you avoid some unexpected responses from your spouse, friends, and mechanic. As you ponder this, you will run into the fourth question every new buyer should ask themselves:

4. What’s your budget?

This really isn’t a military vehicle question, just one of basic management: How much money do you have to spend on a historic military vehicle? Before you answer or become discouraged, consider a couple of things:

First, how much do you have for the “purchase.” Again, a deuce-and-a-half might seem like a “steal” if described as “running when parked” and priced at $7,000. It is too easy to be blinded by a bargain — blinded from seeing red flags or considering the “what-ifs.”

For example, “running when parked” is a meaningless statement to make you believe that it will take very little to get a vehicle on the road and enjoy the OD aroma has it blows past your face. “Running when parked” can mean a lot of things. It may have last ran 10 years ago. It could mean, “it rolled to a stop and has sat there ever since.” Or it could mean even worse, like, “After I parked it, I began to take parts off of it, squirrels nested under the hood, and the kids use the cargo bed as a wading pool each summer.”

“Ran when parked” is a meaningless term. Don’t allow it to seduce you into making a premature decision to purchase.

But, no matter what you spend on the initial purchase, what’s your annual budget for the vehicle? In the old car world, there is a phrase, “It really isn’t yours until you mess with it.” Heck, you want to buy a military vehicle as an expression of your interest. You don’t want to drive around in a vehicle unit marked for the previous owner’s father or maybe you have dreamed of a SAS-style desert patrol sort of Jeep, so that Willys on eBay that is painted in US Navy gray is going to do it for you, no matter how cheap it sells.

Your dream has its own special characteristics. Make sure you budge for it. But don’t buy yet, ask yourself one last important — though seemingly boring — question:

5. Will you be able to title and license the vehicle?

DO NOT — and I mean, DO NOT — buy a historic military vehicle that doesn’t have a clear title. Don’t accept a “bill of sale” or a promise to send you the title. While many states have made it much easier to license historic military vehicles, all of them require that you have a title.

It doesn’t matter how cheap, how exciting, or how historic a vehicle is, if you can’t title it, you will never be able to drive it on public roads. It has become increasingly difficult to obtain a missing title in the last twenty years.

Save yourself the grief and work: Make sure the vehicle you are about to buy has a clear title. If dealing with a seller at long distance, ask him to snap a photo of the title and send it to you before you commit the time and expense of traveling out to pick up the vehicle. If the seller is hesitant, suggest that he black out the registration number before photographing. That as easy as piece of electrical tape. If they still hem and haw about sending you a picture of the title, walk away.

So where did he go wrong with his Jeep?

A technician closes the door of an American Motors Corporation CJ-5 Jeep, the official car of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron.

While it looks like an M38A1, all the clues point to the fact that it is a CJ-5 in a nice paint job. 

This brings me back to my buddy’s recent purchase. While he did have the cash, the space, and the interest to buy a Jeep, he didn’t have the basic knowledge. In a Jeep-fever search of Craigslist, he found a candidate priced within his budget, just one state away, being sold by a “former military policeman.” He made contact and made the purchase.

He rented a trailer and bought home his new “M38A1 army Jeep.” Then he started to research it. He began asking questions.

Why doesn’t it have an engine number that doesn’t start with “MD?”

Why are only two gauges military style?

What happened to the body tag behind the passenger seat?

Where are the data plates?

Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy"

Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy"

When there is just “too much ‘splainin’ to do,” I refer to the vehicle as a “Ricky Ricardo” (you have to be old enough to have watched “I Love Lucy” to understand that reference!). And, boy, this Jeep required a lot of ‘splainin’, all of which was leading me to the conclusion that it wasn’t a military M38A1 at all, but rather, an early civilian CJ-5 that had been made to look like an “Army Jeep.”

At that point, there isn’t a lot a guy can do. Learn to love it, or try to sell it. Hopefully, if he chooses the latter path, he will share a bit more information when the next potential buyer is trying to answer his or her five questions before they buy.

Keep ‘em rolling,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

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