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  • Truck Trend Legends: The (Original) Jeep Gladiator

Truck Trend Legends: The (Original) Jeep Gladiator

Colin Ryan
Nov 21, 2019
The new Jeep Gladiator is now among us. If anyone has just dropped back into this dimension from an alternate universe after a freak particle accelerator accident in the '90s, the Gladiator is a pickup truck variant of the Jeep Wrangler. Oh, and there's this thing called the Internet now. You're going to love it.
Back to the Gladiator. Sport-utility vehicles are big sellers, pickups are big sellers; it would have been shocking if no one thought about a hybrid of the two before now. Someone did, as far back as the '40s.
The original Jeep was transformed into the Willys-Overland medium-duty truck that ran from 1947 to 1965. Naturally, it had the option of all-wheel drive, which neither Chevy nor Ford could offer from the factory during those immediate post-war days.
There were also the quirky, cab-forward FC-150 and FC-170 workhorses, manufactured from 1957 to 1965. The first-ever Gladiator, however, was based on the Jeep Wagoneer.
Photo 2/4   |   1963 Jeep Gladiator J200 Thriftside
The Wagoneer, codenamed SJ, was a fullsize SUV that leaned more toward the posh end of things. In a way, it set the template for a luxury SUV with serious off-road chops that the Range Rover would follow. Its body-on-frame construction, though, allowed for several variations and one of them was a pickup, which looked quite a bit like a Wagoneer up to the B-pillar.
On its debut as a 1963 model, the Gladiator, or J-Series, was offered with a variety of beds. For example, there was a narrow box, called Thriftside; wide box, aka Townside; stake bed, Wrecker; and a cab/chassis arrangement. Total payload was close to 2 tons, and it came in wheelbase lengths of 10 feet (J-200) or 10 feet (J-300).
The first engine was a 3.8L (230ci) inline-six making 140 hp and 133 lb-ft of torque. Called the Tornado, it had the distinction of being the only overhead-cam production engine in a light truck and among the first of its kind to be built in the United States at the time.
Photo 3/4   |   1963 Jeep Gladiator F3q Bw
Rear-wheel drive was standard with all-wheel drive available as an option. It came with Dana 44 axles front and rear with a Dana 20 transfer case. In the 21st century, we're used to 10-speed automatic transmissions, but the original Gladiator offered the option of a three-speed, which was a step up in those days. Other "innovations" included power steering and power-assisted brakes. The all-wheel-drive system could also have a power take-off function, common with early Jeeps.
The Gladiator didn't stand still. Just two years later, Jeep provided an optional AMC 5.4L (327ci) V-8 generating a chunky 250 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. In 1967, rear-drive models were discontinued, except for a panel van version. The next year saw the Thriftside variant being ditched, while a new 5.7L Buick-sourced V-8 came on stream, bringing 230 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. A camper version also debuted in 1968.
During the Vietnam War, the Gladiator was conscripted into military service as the M-715. Jeep describes it as "the first tactical vehicle built primarily from civilian components." It deployed the Tornado engine, a BorgWarner T98 four-speed manual transmission, Dana 60 front axle, and a Dana 70 rear axle.
This formed the basis for several applications. For example, the M-725 variant was a military ambulance. The M-715 also performed duties for other government departments such as forestry, and fish and game.
Photo 4/4   |   1968 Jeep Gladiator J3000
In 1970, the front end was revised to look even more like the Wagoneer, but the Gladiator officially disappeared in 1971. Jeep pickups adopted the J2000 and J4000 names (there was a short-lived J3000), which soon turned into J10 and J20. The J4000 had a wheelbase of 10.9 feet and came with a choice of Dana rear axles.
Just to add to the confusion, there were a couple more inline-six and V-8 engines, plus some gearbox variations. Buyers could also choose a dumper body, snowplow attachment, and a front-mounted winch.
More morphing took place as Jeep attempted to make the J10 and J20 appeal to a wider audience. The Honcho model had gold graphics on the body and denim seat covering (it was the '70s, after all). The 10-4 package had, predictably, an optional CB radio. The J20, meanwhile, was joined by the heavier-duty J30 which also had a "dually" rear axle.
The J10 was the longest-lasting of these and continued until 1987. A Comanche pickup, with a Jeep Cherokee XJ front end, spanned from 1986 to 1992. By this time, Jeep was owned by Chrysler, which had Dodge trucks in its portfolio. So, Jeep pickups were no more, despite all that heritage, research and development, brand equity, and denim upholstery. Perhaps Chrysler's marketing department had never heard the term "niche" used in this context.
Like its ancient fighting namesake, the Gladiator seemed destined to live on only in history books—until Jeep drew up a new concept in 2005. Between then and the present, it took on an almost mythical status. Would Jeep ever produce it? Could Jeep ever produce it? We now know the answer to those questions. And it's perfectly capable of carving out its own niche in the pickup arena.

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