As I mentioned (arguably novella’d) in the first and second posts in this series, we collectively seem to have forgotten the long history of Jeep trucks. I’ll be honest: when I bought my Wrangler, I didn’t know anything about them. I probably would have recognized the name “Comanche”, but “Gladiator” would have drawn a shrug, and while “Jeep Truck” from the Willys era would have been recognizable as an abstract term, I certainly didn’t know it was a product offering.
Jeep had a truck offering for 45 years uninterrupted, until the retirement of the Comanche in 1992. How did we erase those trucks from history?
I suspect this cultural amnesia traces back to two incontrovertible facts. When most people hear or see the word “Jeep”, the image that springs to mind is the classic topless 4x4; just as importantly, it’s been 26 years(!) since Jeep built a production truck.
Entire nations have risen and fallen in less time. George H.W. Bush was still president the last time Jeep offered a truck. The U.S.S.R. had just collapsed. I still had hair!
This narrative resumes in 1970, halfway through the truck era at Jeep. Like Willys before it, Kaiser decided that making and selling automobiles was expensive and someone else could do it better. Enter AMC, who bought Kaiser Jeep from Kaiser Industries in 1970.
(Incidentally, if you’re a fan of the Humvee, AM General traces its roots back through this sale as well. Kaiser bought the General Products Division when Studebaker decided to get out of the auto business—sensing a theme here? AMC later renamed it to AM General and sold it to offset some of Renault’s losses.)
Before we dive into the AMC era of Jeep trucks, let’s take a moment to revisit how we arrived here. Under Kaiser in 1963, Jeep introduced what’s termed the FSJ line, short for “full-size Jeep”. The first vehicles offered were the Wagoneer station wagon and Gladiator truck; later wagons on this platform would include the original Cherokee and the Grand Wagoneer.
All of the FSJs were body-on-frame, and all offered four-wheel drive of one sort or another.
During the early years they all sported the Brooks Stevens-designed Rhino grille. Kaiser started branching out with grille design on the wagons in the mid-60s, but the Gladiator trucks retained the Rhino grille until the AMC purchase.
The other truck that AMC acquired with Jeep was the Jeepster Commando, which was available in several body styles, including a roadster and a pickup.
The original Willys Jeepster from 1948 was a design icon created by a design icon. Unfortunately it wasn’t off-road capable and couldn’t compete with cheaper roadsters from other American automakers, so it led a brief life.
When Kaiser introduced the Jeepster Commando in 1966, it didn’t match the timeless beauty of the Willys, but it was nonetheless a very attractive vehicle.
AMC was a scrappy underdog in the U.S. automobile industry, and buying the iconic Jeep brand surely seemed like a coup.
It’s not clear, however, that AMC knew at first what to do with its new prize.
Amidst declining sales, AMC decided to shake up the design a bit. Regrettably, the new Commando design was not entirely in keeping with the previous aesthetic.
AMC at least had the decency to take away the “Jeepster” designation and just call it the Jeep Commando. Its nickname was “Bullnose”, which pretty well sums up the drastic (and many would say unpleasant) changes.
Unsurprisingly, the new Jeep Commando died a swift death.
(I’ll admit: the Jeep Commando is starting to grow on me, just so long as I don’t compare it side-by-side with the Willys Jeepster.)
The name “Gladiator” was used for marketing purposes; each Jeep truck had a model number that started with “J”. Thus, when AMC dropped the Gladiator branding after 1971, the trucks were simply Jeep trucks, or J-series.
The Rhino grille had been one of the key stylistic touches on the Gladiator throughout the Kaiser years, but in 1970 AMC replaced it with the razor grille then found on the Wagoneer. Of the several grilles that festooned the FSJ lineup over the years, the Rhino and razor are probably the favorites among enthusiasts.
AMC also dropped the Buick “Dauntless” V8 in favor of their own V8 engines, supplementing the famous AMC I6 that remained in use until 2006.
Among the more notable AMC features introduced to the FSJ trucks and wagons was Quadra-Trac, a full-time four-wheel drive system.
Quadra-Trac featured a limited slip center differential that could be locked for more challenging terrain.
The J-series trucks did not survive the Chrysler purchase of AMC in 1987, although the Grand Wagoneer was sufficiently popular that it continued for a few more years before being retired and replaced with the Grand Cherokee.
Jeep in its classic form, a topless 4x4 aerodynamic brick, isn’t a car. Or, really, a truck (hence its exclusion from this series until now). Years after its introduction automakers would start using the term “sport utility”, but very very few SUVs have ragtops, and not all that many even have part-time four-wheel drive or solid front axles, so within the SUV market the Wrangler is unique.
(No, the Jimny no longer has a ragtop, sadly.)
A Jeep enthusiast will tell you that a Wrangler isn’t a car, and isn’t a truck: it’s just a Jeep.
Nonetheless, on two occasions the CJ platform morphed into something resembling a traditional pickup truck, and Jeep is poised to announce the third such “crossover”, so let’s take a peek at the best-known prior example, the Scrambler.
Its name isn’t actually the “Scrambler”; that was just a popular appearance package. In some foreign markets it was named the “Overlander”.
The CJ-8 is tied with the CJ-6 as the longest wheelbase on a true CJ at 103.5”. (Yes, the CJ-10 was longer, but we’ll get to it shortly.)
It didn’t have a separate pickup bed, just a cab separated from the rest of the body, a modification which has been available for many other Jeeps over the years via the aftermarket.
I warned you in the first post that we’d be seeing the CJ-10 eventually. Alas, its time has arrived.
The CJ-10 was not, in fact, a “real” CJ: it had a CJ body, but was otherwise a modified J-series truck (J-10).
It was not sold in the U.S., and given its unconventional styling, it’s not clear whether it would have been successful here. Certainly it was another sign that AMC (charitably speaking) wasn’t afraid to tamper with the traditional Jeep design language or (uncharitably speaking) was clueless about what made a Jeep a Jeep.
Much like the Cherokee (XJ) and Wrangler (YJ) to come, it had rectangular (no, not square) headlights. Unlike other CJs the headlights were in the fenders, not the grille, and the grille had 10 slots; certainly not unprecedented as I covered in earlier parts of this series, but never before were the outermost slots cut off by the fender.
And now we reach what some feared would be the last ever Jeep truck, the (relatively) famous Comanche.
The MJ Comanche shared a platform with the XJ Cherokee, a unibody SUV that sold more vehicles than any other Jeep, ever. (Admittedly that’s true only if you treat the ZJ and WJ Grand Cherokees as two different vehicles, which some object to, but they’re not writing this so they can take a back seat.)
The Comanche was a unibody design like the Cherokee. Mostly. The cabin was unibody, but the bed was on a frame.
Also like the Cherokee, it had a solid front axle even when not equipped with four-wheel drive.
It had a very long bed (7’ for the first model) but was too narrow for a sheet of drywall to lay flat between the wheel wells.
AMC threw a variety of darts at the wall: different bed lengths, two-wheel vs four-wheel drive, bucket vs bench seats, several appearance packages. The unibody construction, however, made it difficult to chase the crew cab trend.
The Comanche was a solid competitor to the existing mid-sized pickups of the day, but that fact helped seal its fate. Dodge had the Dakota for the same target market, and the Cherokee assembly line was busy churning out XJs, so ultimately Chrysler decided to end Comanche production.
In hindsight, Jeep trucks were doomed the moment Chrysler bought AMC.
The Gladiator/J-series trucks were long in the tooth and competed with Dodge; the Comanche was much younger but its unibody design wasn’t ideal for a long-term truck platform. And competed with Dodge.
It’s certainly not surprising that Chrysler decided Jeep needed to stay in its lane and out of the truck market, but that leaves open the question of why FCA has decided a Wrangler-based pickup truck is now appropriate.
Obviously, the answer involves money, and lots of it. The Wrangler has massively increased in popularity, primarily thanks to the controversial introduction of the 4-door Unlimited model. As distinctly unfond as I am of other design choices for the JK Wrangler model, making it family-friendly was obviously a huge boon, no matter how the purists howled.
Jeep is once again carrying an automobile company, much as it did AMC, and Kaiser before that, and Willys before that. This time, however, it’s profitable enough to do more than simply allow FCA to tread water; hopefully that means that the Jeep brand has a long life ahead of it, and that the Jeep Wrangler will continue as it always has: ragtop, solid axle, removable doors, foldable windshield. Unadulterated fun.