Classic Pickup: 1963-1971 Jeep Gladiator

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By Richard Truesdell

Revolutionary in its day, the full-size Jeep pickup saw a long production run, from 1963 to 1987. Here, we look at the first generation of the full-size Jeep pickup, which, at times, seemed to have nine lives.

With ongoing speculation that Jeep might re-enter the pickup truck market with a Wrangler-based pickup — either 2005's Gladiator or this spring's J-12 — it’s a good time to review the history of the original Jeep Gladiator, introduced in 1962.

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The Gladiator full-size pickup was ahead of its time in many ways. It was marketed and sold primarily as a four-wheel-drive truck, yet it was offered with an innovative single-overhead-cam six-cylinder engine and independent front suspension that was advanced for its time.

The history of the Gladiator starts with the Jeep pickup that preceded it, which was built off the chassis of the 1946-62 Jeep station wagon. A rugged and reliable truck, the Jeep station wagon and pickups were a four-wheel-drive alternative to the Spartan Jeep CJs from that era. With simple and robust drivetrains, they competed against few vehicles in the emerging four-wheel-drive marketplace, one that was moving from its utilitarian postwar beginnings toward dual-purpose trucks aimed at a growing recreational market.

In the late 1950s, Jeep designers and engineers were already looking forward to develop a platform that would end up serving four different corporate masters – Willys Motors, Kaiser-Jeep, American Motors Corp. and Chrysler – over the next three decades. The chassis for the Jeep Gladiator (SJ platform) was developed concurrently and shared with the granddaddy of the modern SUV, the Jeep Wagoneer.

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Although the overall Wagoneer/Gladiator design was often attributed to industrial designer Brooks Stevens, in reality his main contribution to the design was the upright grille, often referred to as the “rhino grille” found on the early 1963-65 Wagoneers and the Gladiator trucks up to 1970. In 1971, after Jeep was purchased by American Motors, the Gladiator adopted what was then the full-width, vertically slotted grille found on the then-current Wagoneer, which got a more upscale grille itself.

Many Jeep enthusiasts don't realize that when the Gladiator was introduced, it had two innovations that set it apart from its competitors besides being engineered from the ground up for four-wheel drive. (Two-wheel-drive Gladiators made up a small percentage of overall sales.) First was the overhead-cam 230 Tornado six-cylinder engine. It was the first mass-produced U.S.-designed overhead-cam engine, introduced before Pontiac's Sprint OHC Six in 1965.

It was an update of Willys' 226 Hurricane flat-head six that was a mainstay of the Jeep lineup from 1954 to 1962. While the OHC Tornado Six was an economical engine with good low-end torque, it developed a reputation for oil leaks that led to undeserved warranty headaches. It was replaced halfway through the 1965 model year with AMC's new overhead-valve 232-cubic-inch Six. This basic engine architecture served for four decades in a variety of Jeep products, all the way to 2006, when the fuel-injected 4.0-liter version in the Jeep Wrangler was replaced by a Chrysler V-6, a move that many Jeep purists lament to this very day.

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(Think of the Willys Tornado Six as the EcoBoost V-6 of its era, a time when a gallon of gas cost just 25 cents per gallon. For a more detailed analysis of the Jeep Hurricane and Tornado six-cylinder engines, read Jim Allen's earlier excellent writeup.) 

While Jeep trucks have a well-deserved reputation for durability because of their robust front solid axles and Dana drivetrain components, one of the innovations introduced on the 1963 Gladiators was a unique independent front suspension. The 1963 brochure described it this way.

SUSPENSION SYSTEM: For better handling and improved ride, the all new “Jeep” Pick-up Trucks are available with an advanced-design independent front suspension system – a “Jeep” exclusive in 4-wheel drive. Front driving independent wheel axle with protected torsion bars and enclosed axle shafts provide the ultimate in extra 4-wheel drive traction and still retains unparalleled comfort of front independent suspension. And don't bother to look for this feature on competitive 4-wheel drive trucks … you won't find it.

Like the OHC Tornado six, this $160 option lasted just a few years before being discontinued at the end of the 1965 model year, making it (like the IFS)  a quiet footnote in full-size Jeep history. While rare, an original Gladiator equipped with the Tornado six and IFS isn't considered collectible by anyone but a full-size Jeep purist. In all my years in the Jeep community, I've never seen a Gladiator with the SOHC six and IFS, as most Gladiators were built with the standard solid-axle setup. In fact, I've seen only one Wagoneer with IFS. But just to prove that Willys and Kaiser built such a beast, check out Bruce Rice's 1963 Jeep Wagoneer over on John Meister's website.  

What really made the Gladiator unique in 1963 was its combination of four-wheel drive with an automatic transmission. The transmission offered was Borg-Warner's AS-8W heavy-duty three-speed automatic. In 1963, not even Chevy, Dodge, Ford, GMC, or International offered such a combination. It's almost as if the engineers in Toledo could see the personal-use, recreational 4X4 pickup truck on the horizon and decades later housewives would use their three-ton heavy-duty pickups to run down to Costco for bulk purchases of groceries. 

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Without a V-8 in its lineup, Jeep certainly lost potential sales to its Big Three competitors in 1963 and 1964, as the Gladiators were ill-equipped to carry big loads or tow increasingly larger boats and travel trailers. This was addressed in 1965 when Kaiser began to offer AMC's 327-cubic-inch V-8. Not to be confused with the small-block Chevy with which it shares nothing but its displacement, the AMC Vigilante V-8 addressed the Gladiator's biggest shortcoming, horsepower, and served to forge strong commercial ties between Toledo, Ohio, and Kenosha, Wis. The result ultimately was AMC's purchase of the Jeep brand from Kaiser in 1970.

The AMC V-8, which dated back to the mid-1950s, was almost perfectly suited for the Gladiator. It was a low-revving, high-torque engine, but as AMC was moving to a new family of thin-wall, small-block V-8s, it was discontinued after the 1967 model year, replaced by a 230-horsepower, 350-cubic-inch V-8 supplied by Buick. But after AMC bought Jeep, the entire full-size Jeep lineup, trucks and Wagoneers, was engineered in a crash program to use AMC's 304-, 360- and 401-cubic-inch V-8s in place of the Buick 350.

By the time of the AMC takeover, the Wagoneer SUVs were the true prize in the acquisition. To AMC’s credit, after switching over the Gladiator moniker to J-Truck in marketing its line of full-size pickups, the company did whatever it could to continue to update the pickup trucks alongside the Wagoneer. Throughout the rest of its production run, AMC offered a number of option packages, like the Honcho that ran from 1976 to 1983. Chrysler almost immediately discontinued production of the full-size Jeep pickups, competing as they did with Dodge's poor-selling pickups. But the AMC era of the full-size Jeep truck story is best left to the next article in this series.   

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If you want to see a well-preserved example of an early Jeep Gladiator, look no further than Frank Sanborn's 1965 Gladiator. Well, it's a Gladiator in that it was first titled in 1965, but the vehicle identification number indicates that it was built in 1963, according to Sanborn. “It's a pretty unusual truck being a 4,000-pound GVW two-wheel-drive truck,” he says.

“The truck was originally purchased in early 1965 by a potato farmer in Munger, Mich., and was in use on his farm until 1999,” Sanborn says. “I bought the truck in 2000 from the second owner and have done a lot of mechanical work to keep it on the road. It had 44,000 miles on it when I got it and now has just turned 60,000. The original owner had repainted the truck himself in the mid-‘90s.

“The engine is the 230-cubic-inch OHC Tornado six with a three-on-the-tree transmission,” says Sanborn. “The exhaust manifolds on the 230 are prone to cracking, and somewhere along the way, a very nicely built, handmade six into two header was installed. I added true dual exhaust all the way back. It's got a very unique exhaust note! It has manual steering and manual drum brakes. It's very basic, very Spartan, and wonderfully trucklike. It currently rides on 7.00-15 bias-ply snow tires, which complement the no-nonsense personality of the truck, but in all honesty are miserable to drive on.”

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The most striking element is the NOS Whitco convertible topper Sanborn found in 2004. “It's practical and complements the look of the truck,” Sanborn says. “The truck gets lots of use as my weekend errand runner and the occasional back road cruise. It will run down the highway comfortably at 55 to 60 mph, and I've driven it on a few longer drives, up to 250 miles in a day. But long-range comfort isn't exactly its forte. It does get parked for the winter months here in Michigan, as I don't want the road salt to make the rust any worse.”

With plans for sympathetic restoration and cleanup, Sanborn has all the makings of a true survivor, representing a different era of the classic American pickup truck. “I don't want to make it so nice that I'm afraid to drive it or use it as a ‘truck'. It's most happy when it gets to actually do some work,” says Sanborn.

The Jeep Gladiator, along with the companion Wagoneer, has a large and vibrant community online. If you want to learn more about these remarkable trucks, visit the International Full-Size Jeep Association, as well as Wagoneers.com hosted by John Meister.

For additional reading, check out this complete dealer brochure for the 1963 Gladiator.

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Comments

Thanks for the article Richard, I remember these trucks and it is nice to see an article about them. Brings back some memories.

Thanks Jeff. I really enjoy doing these and appreciate the opportunity Mark gives me in publishing them. I try my best to bring something fresh to each one, like in this case finding the original 1963 Gladiator brochure, converting it to a PDF, and posting it so anyone can view it. I think this gives a unique view into the way these trucks were marketed by Kaiser. The Gladiator/Wagoneer program was a significant investment for a company this size to bring to market.

I'm working on the direct follow up to this feature, a story on the AMC-era full-size Jeeps. I'm looking for someone who has a Honcho J-Truck for that feature. I've already found some great AMC-era advertisements for that piece. But I still want to find a really original Honcho to feature in photographs.

Suggestions on how to make these retrospectives are welcomed. I really like that the Dodge Power Wagon generated so many comments, lets me know that people are reading them.

@Rich Truesdell--I will be looking forward to more of your articles. I would like to see an article about the 1963 thru 1968 IH pickups particularily the 1000 Series. I use to have one and I regret letting it go. Thanks again.

The ride height of the Gladiator was (and is still) a good idea
versus what is offered today. I like the sensible load/cab access
in my Ranger. Looking at a F150 how are you supposed to reach
stuff in the bed?

Yum, yum, and yum. Me want. Me want bad. Jeep, do the right thing and bring it back!

@Steve Pummill--I agree all the beds are too high for me. If I were younger it might not be such a big deal but it is hard to lift things into the bed particularily if they are heavy. Nice old truck.

Great article. After AMC quit making the 327 V-8 in 1967 and before AMC bought Jeep in 1970, Kaiser used Buick 350's in the Wagoneer and Gladiator.

@Richard Truesdell, Good work again. Always learn something from these articles. Nice truck. Very rare. The Dodge Power Wagon article you did was excellent. Thanks again.

@Steve Pummill -- I thought exactly the same thing when I viewed the early Gladiator ad when I found it. I'm thinking the actual ground clearance is probably higher -- depending on the tires selected -- on the Jeep as opposed to a comparable Chevy, Dodge, Ford, GMC, or International 4X4. I haven't been able to find brochures to chart the numbers.

What was so remarkable was seeing how far ahead engineering-wise, the Gladiator was in its day; IFS, OHC engine, automatic transmission in a factory-built 4X4 light-duty pickup.

Then you look at all the variations Kaiser offered initially in the Gladiator line, all shown in the brochure, had me thinking how difficult it must to have been for Kaiser to keep components on hand to build all the different possibilities. This was way before computers could make just-in-time inventory control possible as it is today.

And to give you an idea of how forward thinking they were in Toledo in the early sixties, Jeep offered the first true luxury SUV, the Super Wagoneer, starting in 1965. I know about this as I own one of the last ones built, a Buick 350-powered 1969 model. What was in the water in Toledo back in the sixties that had these Kaiser Jeep guys so forward-looking?

Some interesting links into the history of Willys and Kaiser Motors:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willys_MB
http://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Willys
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Motors

@Richard Truesdell
Jeep Gladiators were actually built in RHD, in Australia. This was prior to the AMC takeover of Jeep.
http://www.angelfire.com/nb2/jeeppickups/Australia%20pickups.html

Australian models
http://www.angelfire.com/nb2/jeeppickups/Australia%20pickups_files/image002.jpg

http://www.angelfire.com/nb2/jeeppickups/CJ10.FQ.jpg

Put the Concept into production !! That thing looks sweet !

I wish Jeep would bring these trucks back!!!!!!

Thanks for this informative blog.

I've always had a soft spot for the Jeep trucks (even the Comanche). Nice write up.

I may be alone here, but I can't stand the seating position in Cherokees, Wranglers, and especially Toyota's. It's a great idea, high ground clearance, low overall height, but sitting with your butt on the floor and your feet in front of you is for asian sports cars, NOT TRUCKS.

Cool Tires!

A gladiator P/U would be a great way to wiggle a little more life out of the JK platform, once the new Wrangler arrives. They could even build J10 and J20 versions using the stronger frame and components from the J8 Millitary trucks.

IFS? Looks like a solid axle underneath. Was it similar to the twin I-beam system Ford used?

The IFS 2WD and 4WD were very similar to the Ford Twin I-beam.

The truck shown, however, is not an IFS 2WD, it's the solid axle 2WD. It shares the same suspension, steering, etc. with the solid axle 4WD - it just has an empty tube in the front.

Thanks for the nice article, Richard! And thanks for letting me be a part of it!

@Lou Click on the link in the story, (http://wagoneers.com/FSJ/rigs/63_ifs_rice/ALL.html). It shows the same IFS setup in detail, installed in a 1963 Wagoneer, very detailed photos.

@Rich Truesdell - thanks. It is an interesting front end set up. I like these old truck stories. Keep up the good work.

ram/dodge is afraid a new jeep truck (probably from a wrangler platform....right???) would cannibalize sales from the first class, class leading Dakota. OPPS SORRY.... i forget they killed that sloth off.........

You can see Frank's Gladiator featured in the 2013 Holy Toledo Calendar. Also, check out his Tonka Jeep collection there too.

I'm just curious, my dad has a 1965 jeep pickup, long box, regular cab.with a 327 amc engine, how rare is that truck?

I have two 1977 AMC Jeeps, first is a Wagoneer, with 401 engine, full time quadratrac . Second is my full sized 1977 J20 Jeep Pickup with the 401 engine, full time quadratrac also. I looked for an automatic in the J20 models, hard to find. I have had two J10 with 360, full time and wanted a J20. I found it, in 1990, have had it since. My wagoner, I have had since 1987. My run of wagoneers has been since 1976, when I bought my first 1967 Wagoneer. Since that time, I have had so many, I lost count. I also currently own a 1984 AMC Eagle wagon, with rebuilt 258 motor. Love AMC. My wagoneers with the full time Quadratrac have gone places where others had to stop. To bad they stopped making the old quadratrac.

I have a 1964 Jeep Gladiator Step-Side. Serial # 2406X 200223
Looking for a few parts.
Upholstery material, steering wheel and original rear bumper. Any information would be greatly appreciated

Thanks in advance!

In 1975 I bought a 1972 J4000 PU. 360 2bbl, 4 spd with compound low, manual 4WD. No power steering. Non power boosted 12 inch drum brakes. No AC. manual windows. No radio. It was a manly beast, indeed. And not for sissies! I did a lot of off roading in it and can tell you it easily out performed the Fords and Chevies.
For many years i towed a 10,000 lb boat and trailer combo. The torquey 360, 4.09 axles and compound first gear made it easy. I drove the truck as my daily transportation for 20 years from Florida to the Adirondaks and only sold it because the rust finally out ran me. I cried when it left my driveway.
Look under the hood and you'll see the main reason it out performs the others off road. The engine and drivetrain are mounted way up high. The air cleaner barely clears the hood. Look underneath it, and you will see nothing hanging below the frame rails. No transfer cases, oil pans, gas tanks or even the exhaust.
It is also the narrowest and the lightest truck in it's class.
The engines, whether kaiser, Buick or AMC always made more torque at lower RPMs than anybody else's.
The clutch was operated by cable, rather than linkage, so as not to bind up when the body and frame flexed over rough terrain. Even the brake lines were run along the tops of the frame rails so as not to be damaged. It really was designed from the ground up as an off road truck.
In all the years I owned it, with all the abuse I gave it; it never broke on me. The guy I sold it to (with 250,000 miles on the clock) made a swamp buggy out of it, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was still slogging through the Everglades somewhere.
And now that I once again need a truck, I've got my eye on another one, just down the road... They aren't easy to find, but they are definitely different!

My first jeep was a J-10 that I bought new in 1976. Despite the low mpg from the Quadra-trac unit the truck went everywhere that the Ford and Chevys couldn't. I have owned ten Jeeps since and my heart is with the AMC era. Easy to work on; original styles which I always enjoy due to their design and limited availability. I have worked in the high country of Lake Tahoe for over 30 years and still feel safe in a Jeep.

I have the 1970 gladiator with the 350 Buick, 4x4, J-4000. This was my dad's and can remember when He brought it home. He dismantled the truck so he could paint foundation tar coating as an undercoat protection. This vehicle is still as solid as day one with the exception of a couple of pin hole rust spots. Is mounted with a Fisher snow plow and I still use it to this day. She's tired with 83000 original miles but still is able to push 12-18" of snow with the 8 foot blade. wish I could restore this but just don't have the funds....Will run her till she completely dies. Even then there will be so little rust; parts would be valuable.

The new 64 J-300 $5000. with Meyers plow, (sierra) blue truck was mostly indestructible, as I did everything including snow plowing (back when we had snow in kitchener/Wateroo Ont. Canada, with 4 on the floor (option) & a low range, that made a rock crawler. Finally stolen by?, from inside a garage their during engine (Tornado 230 overhead cam) work, by "Gold Seal", & was never found. Restored today, (if you can find one) sells for 15-30 G. Other options were, custom cab with chrome trim, padded dash, cigar lighter, am radio, chrome frond bumper & rhino grill, rear bumper, snow tires, styleside or thriftside body etc. Check "Jeeptruck.com" for more info. Thanks. PS. See you in Jeep heaven Mr. J-300.



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