The 2020 Gladiator will bring Jeep back to the pickup truck segment after a 26-year hiatus.
Many of Jeep’s early CJ models were offered with a half-cab option that turned them into small pickups, but the 2020 Gladiator is the latest in a surprisingly long line of purpose-designed trucks from the brand envisioned as leisure vehicles, workhorses, or both. Jeep consistently offered at least one pickup between 1947 and 1992 and, in hindsight, it only abandoned the body style to avoid creating internal competition for Dodge.
From military vehicles to concept cars, join us as we explore Jeep’s little-known pickup heritage:
Willys-Overland Jeep 4x4 truck (1947)
Willys took Jeep into the pickup segment as fast as possible. In 1947, merely two years after it released the CJ-2A to civilian buyers in America, it launched a line-up of bigger models that included a pickup truck and a station wagon. The pickup – which was simply called the Jeep truck – offered an all-steel cab and full metal doors so it was more comfortable to drive on a regular basis than the open-top CJ. It came with a 63hp engine and four-wheel drive.
Willy’s sold several variants of the truck, including a standard pickup, a cab-chassis and a bare chassis. Some were stripped to the bare essentials to make them as cheap as possible but the list of options grew during the 1950s with the addition of upmarket features like chromed bumpers, chromed hubcaps and what Jeep called ‘deluxe’ cab trim. Production ended in 1965.
Note: 1954 model pictured
Jeep strayed far from the commonly-accepted definition of an American pickup when it introduced the Forward-Control (FC) in late 1956. Noted designer Brooks Stevens drew inspiration from cab-over semi-trucks as he penned a model closer in style to the Volkswagen Bus than to the Ford F-100. Jeep parent company Kaiser hoped the FC would revolutionize the pickup segment; it didn’t.
Annual FC sales peaked at about 10,000 units in 1957 and production ended in 1965 after Jeep made about 30,000 examples. Unsurprisingly, decision-makers chose not to replace it.
The Gladiator truck that Jeep introduced for the 1963 model year shared its front-end design and most of its mechanical components with the Wagoneer. Buyers could initially choose from three wheelbase lengths and a wide number of variants including a standard truck with a narrow or a wide box, a cab-chassis model and a platform stake. Every Gladiator came with a straight-six engine until Jeep added an optional 250hp V8 for the 1965 model year.
The original, Willys-designed Jeep truck which the Gladiator replaced occupied a niche in the pickup market. With its newest model, Jeep went in a more mainstream direction to compete in the same arena as Ford, Chevrolet, International-Harvester and Dodge.
Jeepster Commando (1967)
The Jeepster nameplate returned to the Jeep line-up in 1967 to compete in the growing leisure-oriented off-roader segment. Called Jeepster Commando, its main rivals included the International-Harvester Scout, the Ford Bronco, the Toyota Land Cruiser and, later, the Chevrolet Blazer. The 1967 catalog listed four models called Roadster Coupe, Convertible Phaeton, Station Wagon and Pickup Truck, respectively. Every variant was built on a CJ-6 chassis.
Jeep learned from its past mistakes. The original Jeepster introduced in 1948 was rear-wheel drive-only, a configuration its target audience endlessly criticized, but the born-again model came exclusively with four-wheel drive. It filled the gap between the CJ and the Wagoneer.
Jeep dropped the Jeepster nameplate after 1971 and the model soldiered on as the Commando. It received a new-look front end that shifted away from the timeless design fans had come to expect from a Jeep. Production lasted through 1973. The Commando was replaced by the Cherokee, a model which period sales brochures presented as a “Jeep and a half.”
Essentially a two-door Wagoneer, the Cherokee was in a much better position to compete against the Bronco, the Scout and the Blazer but Jeep never offered it as a pickup.
Jeep parent company Kaiser commissioned the development of the M-715 when the United States army began searching for a replacement for the Dodge M-37, a model introduced in 1951. The M-715 stood out because it was based on the Gladiator and largely built with off-the-shelf components; previous trucks – including the M-37 – were more expensive to build because they were designed specifically for military use and not closely related to a production model.
That’s not to say it was a standard-issue Gladiator. It came with a soft top, a feature never offered on the civilian version, a 24-volt electrical system and an army-specific box. Four basic versions were made: a regular pickup, a cab-chassis, an ambulance and a maintenance truck.
The M-715 notably served in the Vietnam War. Government agencies in the United States (including forestry and fire departments) also used the truck.
J4800 Camper Special (1970s)
Though Jeep primarily designed the Gladiator as a work truck, many examples ended up touring America with a spacious camper installed in the cargo box. Product planners saw a golden opportunity to lure adventurers into showrooms, so Jeep entered the 1970s by releasing a variant of the J4800 Gladiator named Camper Special developed specifically for campers. It offered a 3930-pound payload capacity and came with an extra-heavy-duty suspension, an upgraded cooling system plus 10-ply tires.
Equipped with four-wheel drive, a four-speed manual transmission and a 175hp V8, the J4800 with an eight-foot bed stood out as Jeep’s most expensive pickup. Pricing started at $4370 in 1971, a sum that represents about $27,000 in 2018.
Jeep stopped using the Gladiator nameplate in 1971 and renamed the members of its pickup truck line-up J10, J20 and J30, respectively, in 1974. Improvements like a stronger frame, front disc brakes and a tighter turning radius accompanied the new designations. Jeep regularly increased payload ratings during the 1970s in a bid to keep its aging trucks competitive against more modern rivals made by Detroit's Big Three.
Note: J20 pictured
Trucks for fun (1970s)
Jeep catered to the growing number of customers seeking an off-road toy by offering a number of appearance packages during the 1970s and the 1980s. The Honcho package (pictured) was unquestionably one of the more memorable ones. It added Levi’s denim upholstery on the seats and on the door panels, a chromed front bumper, a blue steering wheel and package-specific graphics.
The list of options included a factory-installed citizens band (CB) radio, which Jeep charged $349 for in 1978 (about $1400 in 2018 money) when it was ordered with an AM/FM stereo.
Jeep stretched the CJ-7’s wheelbase to create the CJ-8 in 1981. It competed against the increasingly popular compact pickup trucks made by companies like Ford and General Motors but it put a different spin on the concept. Jeep clearly positioned it as a truck that felt more comfortable going off-road with a pair of dirt bikes in the back than hauling plasterboard to a construction site. Base models initially came without a top but upmarket variants gave buyers the choice of a soft or a hard top.
The name Scrambler came from an appearance package which added special decals and wheels. Many CJ-8s were equipped with the package and the name stuck over the years; numerous rumors indicated Jeep's 21st century truck would resurrect the Scrambler nameplate.
The CJ-8 wasn’t nearly as popular as Jeep hoped and the CJ-7 outsold it by a wide margin even though the two models were very close in price throughout most of the 1980s. Jeep made about 28,000 examples of the truck between 1981 and 1986; to add context, the firm manufactured roughly 42,000 units of the CJ-7 during the 1984 model year.
In 2018, the Jeep CJ-10 is as unknown as if it had never existed. Jeep developed the model primarily for export markets, including Australia. The CJ-10 was based on a comprehensively updated J10 chassis and it wore an unusual front-end design characterized by a 10-slot grille and square lights.
The CJ-10 couldn’t end Japan’s dominance over the Australian market and sales were much lower than product planners predicted. Jeep needed to recoup its investment so it also tried selling the model to the Australian army, to no avail. Ultimately, and somewhat unexpectedly, it found its calling as an aircraft tug on US Air Force bases, and named CJ-10A in that purpose.
The CJ-8 struggled to compete against America’s most popular compact pickup trucks because it wasn't utilitarian enough so Jeep approached the segment from a different angle. It introduced the Comanche for the 1986 model year in a bid to take the fight directly to the segment-leading Ford Ranger.
The Comanche was very visibly based on the XJ-generation Cherokee, a model built on an innovative unibody platform called Uniframe in Jeep-speak. Jeep retained the Uniframe layout for the front half of the truck but it installed the cargo box on a separate frame that it attached to the cab. This atypical construction technique created a truck that was rugged yet reasonably light.
The end of the J-series (1987)
Jeep stopped making the J-series truck after 1987 because, like the Grand Wagoneer it was based on, it had become seriously outdated. Decision-makers ruled a replacement wasn’t required. Jeep had joined Chrysler in 1987 as part of the latter's acquisition of American Motors Corporation and product planners were concerned about creating internal competition for sister company Dodge, which was having a difficult-enough time competing against Ford and General Motors.
The Jeep pickup burns out (1992)
Though rugged and capable, the Comanche lived in the shadow of the Ford Ranger and, more problematically, the Dodge Dakota. When Jeep and Dodge ended up under the same roof, product planners worried that the Comanche would needlessly cannibalize the Dakota. Executives politely asked Jeep to leave the pickup segment after ending Comanche production in 1992.
No one used the words “Jeep” and “pickup” in the same sentence for the rest of the 1990s and the brand instead focused on selling SUVs.
Gladiator concept (2005)
Truck sales were strong in the early 2000s and the idea of a Jeep-badged pickup resurfaced. The Gladiator concept unveiled at the 2005 Detroit auto show explored what a Wrangler-based truck developed for off-roaders could look like. It made its debut as a two-door model with an extended cab and a removable hard top, while its side-mounted spare wheel echoed the original Jeep truck.
Though well received, the Gladiator remained at the concept stage. Chrysler’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 didn’t help its cause. The reports claiming it would morph into a production model were false but the concept accurately previewed the front-end design of the third-generation Wrangler.
JT concept (2007)
The Gladiator concept generated such a positive response that product planners always kept the possibility of turning the Wrangler into a pickup on the table. Jeep again tested the water in 2007 with the JT concept. It was similar to the Gladiator unveiled two years earlier but it was less futuristic and much closer to production. Jeep noted the design study was based on the military-spec variant of the JK-generation Wrangler so turning it into a production model would have been relatively cost-effective.
The JT remained at the concept stage. Chrysler’s bankruptcy and rising fuel prices in America squashed whatever chance it had of seeing the light at the end of a production line.
Jeep Wrangler JK-8 (2011)
The 2005 Gladiator and the 2007 JT gathered dust in a warehouse but calls for a new Jeep truck were getting louder and louder. Jeep and Chrysler-owned parts manufacturer Mopar teamed up to create a close-to-production concept named JK-8 Independence in 2011. It started life as a four-door Wrangler Unlimited; again, Jeep used as many off-the-shelf components as possible to add a touch of realism to its design study and gauge how buyers would react if the model entered series production.
Mopar’s JK-8 kit (2011)
Jeep hesitantly put the JK-8 on the back burner. However, the concept was popular enough to convince Mopar to sell built-to-order conversion kits to the public. Delivered in pieces, Ikea-style, the kit cost $5500 and needed to be installed by a factory-authorized body shop. Mopar noted turning a Wrangler into a pickup took between 12 and 16 hours and stressed the conversion was permanent.
J-12 concept (2012)
Every year, Jeep builds a batch of spectacular concept cars and sends them on an off-road excursion in Moab, Utah. One of the design studies from the 2012 event was a Gladiator-inspired pickup called J-12 that was based on the Wrangler Unlimited. Jeep hinted the concept needed only headrests and side marker lights to be street-legal but there is little indication it considered producing it.
Comanche concept (2016)
In 2016, while enthusiasts were impatiently waiting for a series-produced truck, Jeep unveiled a fully-functional design study named Comanche that was based on the Renegade and inspired by the M-715 of the 1960s. The firm rapidly noted it had no plans to bring a Comanche-like model to production. Behind the scenes, however, engineers and designers had already started working on the 2020 Gladiator.
Crew Chief 715 (2016)
Jeep’s 2016 concepts were a clear attempt to gauge how buyers would react when it returned to the pickup segment. The Crew Chief 715 looked a lot like the M-715 that served in Vietnam but it received a set of rear doors. In hindsight, one of its styling cues – the vents chiseled into the sheet metal behind the front wheels – previewed the fourth-generation Wrangler.
Jeep Gladiator (2018)
Jeep put an end to years of rumors, leaks and speculation when it introduced a pickup based on the fourth-generation Wrangler at the 2018 Los Angeles auto show. Called Gladiator, it will arrive as a four-door model equipped with either a soft top or a hard top.
It's a truck, so it will be capable of towing and hauling, but Jeep stresses it designed the model for the great outdoors, not for the construction site. Users will be able to remove the doors, take the top off and fold down the windshield.
The Gladiator, by the numbers (2020)
The truck will come with Chrysler’s venerable 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine bolted to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic. Four-wheel drive will come standard regardless of how many pedals are in the driver’s footwell. Jeep will add a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 engine to the line-up in 2020. Properly equipped, the Gladiator will be able to tow 7650 pounds (3477kg), with a payload capacity of 1600 pounds (727kg).
Despite its utilitarian brand values, it comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and the choice of 7.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreens with pinch-and-zoom capability.
Built in Toledo, Ohio, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator arrives in US showrooms in the second quarter of 2019. Pricing will start in the vicinity of $35,000.