Curbside Classic Capsule: Jeepster Commando – Buick V6 (and THM-400) To The Rescue

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Jeep had the 4×4 utility vehicle market all to itself, until 1961, when the International Scout 800 arrived. It’s an endlessly-debated point, but one could arguably call the Scout the first SUV, as it was the first to break away from the WW2 military format of the original Jeep CJ, with its full-width body and contemporary design. And Ford soon followed that approach, with even greater refinement with its 1966 Bronco. Jeep needed to respond, as it the idea of Ford, with its huge dealer network, getting into the 4×4 market was seen as a very serious threat.

The 1966 Jeepster Commando, styled by Kaiser-Jeep’s Jim Anger, was the response. Technically, it was hardly groundbreaking, as it was really just a new wider body sitting on the 101″ wb CJ-6 frame, suspension and axles. But an optional ex-Buick V6, was one critical new ingredient. Without it, the Commando would undoubtedly have been stuck in the mud. 

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Base power was the 75 (gross) hp F-head Hurricane 134 cubic inch four, whose roots were in the early 1930s. This gnarly little four might have been adequate in a low-geared CJ-3B or CJ-5, but the whole point of this new generation of 4x4s was that they were more civilized and suitable for the daily drive to the office as well as weekend off-roading adventures. The four was more like a tepid breeze (or fart) than anything resembling a Hurricane, but then the Scout’s half-a-V8 wasn’t much better either.

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Which explains why this little V6 badge graced a goodly majority of these Jeepster Commandos. Kaiser-Jeep had started buying the compact little 90 degree 225 inch V6 from Buick in 1965, to use in the CJ-5 as well as the upcoming Jeepster line. In 1967 Buick sold K-J the whole V6 tooling/transfer line, preferring to just use the Chevy six in their B-O-P mid-size cars. Given the trend at the time towards ever more V8s even in ever-larger compacts, it seemed to make sense at the time. Until the energy crisis hit, anyway.

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The V6 was dubbed Dauntless, and sported a 160 (gross) hp rating, or more than twice that of the Hurricane. It utterly transformed the little CJ-5, making it rather terrifyingly fast, given its intrinsic instability due to its very short 80″ wheelbase, narrow track, and high center of gravity. The “Flying Jeep Universal”; a rather unfortunate choice of words given its proclivities to not keeping its four wheels on the ground.

I knew a guy in Iowa City in around 1972 who had one of these V6 CJ-5s, and it was scary to ride in it, given how he drove it and it being winter and all. Sure enough, he rolled it on a country road not much later and was killed.

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This one is even sporting a console and an automatic. This is a real indication of where the 4×4 utility market was going, or trying to go. The console shifter controls no less than a GM THM-400, the finest and newest automatic in the land at the time. You certainly couldn’t get a Buick Skylark V6 with a THM-400. Or even a V8 version, until about 1969 or so, and then it was the THM-350. But here it is, a Caddy-grade 400 teamed up with the little Buick V6. And undoubtedly the only time it ever was.

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There’s something timelessly appealing about the Commando’s angular lines and utilitarian details.

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The Jeepster Commando sold rather modestly, some 8-10k per year. But it was enough for AMC to to keepit alive after it bought Jeep, and redesign the Commando with a new longer nose to fit the AMC inline sixes under it, as well as their V8s. It sure didn’t do much for its proportions, to put it mildly, but it kept it alive for a few more years.

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Despite its crude underpinnings, or because of them, I’m very drawn to this Jeepster. It’s my favorite of these early SUVs, and an even-fire 231/3.8 V6 under the hood would make this a very compelling car. Just the thing for those really distant wilderness trailheads.