Curbside Classic: 1972 & 1967 Jeepster Commando – Jeep Gets Stuck

(first posted 2/10/2011)    The history of Jeep from WW2 until the eighties is a lot like the rough terrain it’s so famous for conquering. Before the SUV boom lifted all four wheel drives, Jeep had to scramble to keep from getting bogged down, and a few were lost along the way. The most glaring victim was the Jeepster Commando, known just as the Commando after 1970. I consider this to be  one of the ugliest and malformed cars ever made. I also lost a girlfriend to a guy in a 1972 Commando like the one here. Is my hate valid, or am I just still licking my wounds?

Now this earlier (1966-1971) C101 version is still no thing of beauty, but I harbor no ill will to it. Its original proportions, before it had one of the worst nose-extension and front-end remodeling jobs ever, were just that: proportionate, more or less. And if looks a bit crude and cobbled together, well, that’s because it was. Kaiser-Jeep was a notoriously under-capitalized outfit, and their development and styling departments were probably in a walled-off corner of the big Toledo factory. At least the handsome and timeless 1963 Jeep Wagoneer was penned by the very capable industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who had worked with Kaiser for some time. If Stevens is also responsible for the gen2 C101 Jeepster, well in its defense, it looked a lot better in the light of 1966, when it first appeared, then by 1972.

I say gen2 Jeepster, because there was of course a prior one, the VJ Jeepster built from 1948 through 1950. It was Jeep’s attempt to create something other than the very utilitarian CJ3 Jeeps, the market for which was flooded by vast WW2 Army surplus stocks. The original Jeepster, also designed by Stevens, tried to slip into a tiny niche in the market that Jeep thought existed but apparently wasn’t wide enough to drive a Jeepster into it.

A sporty open-top utility vehicle without four wheel drive, it never caught on, selling less than 20k in its three model-year run. But it did become collectible very early on, due to its uniqueness and rather irresistible rugged yet not macho charms. The Jeepster was of course heavily based on the Willys Jeep wagon, except for the different bodywork from the A-pillar back. So Jeep’s investment was modest; they probably spent more on the advertising than the tooling.

The fifties saw Jeep soldiering along with its short and long wheelbase CJ models, the Wagon, and the also ill-fated FC forward control models (they deserve their own CC). But the arrival of the IH Scout in 1963 and the Ford Bronco in 1966 must have scared the pants off Jeep. Suddenly, the rather small market they had for themselves for two door utility off-roaders was being penetrated by the big guys. It was time for a quick defensive measure: reincarnate the Jeepster.

And just like the first one was based on the existing wagon, Jeepster v.2 was based heavily on the CJ, the 101″ long wheelbase CJ6, to be precise. The CJ6 was never a good seller, which was kind of odd, since it actually offered some meaningful room, unlike the midget-sized CJ3/4/5. Anyway, a new body was cobbled up (by Stevens?), but it reflected a rather schizo personality. Kaiser wanted the Jeep to play two roles: a sporty 4×4 convertible, even with a partial fixed rear cover, and a practical rugged utility. Hence the two names, I assume. It’s pretty obvious which personality type our example is.

Unfortunately, all the two-tone paint and fake mag wheel covers couldn’t hide the fact that the Jeepster sat on rather elderly and primitive bones, even for the times. With its narrow track, extremely vague steering, harsh and bouncy ride, and a tinnitus-inducing noise level, it was hardly state of the art. An old Jeep with lipstick, and lots of it in the convertible version.

The standard engine profoundly underscored all that antiquity: the Hurricane Four was an F-head (Automotive History on F-head engines here) conversion of the original flat-head four, now producing all of 75 (gross) HP. But fortunately Kaiser had the wisdom to pick up the tooling for the Buick V6 for a song, and quickly put it to use in the Jeepster and the CJ. GM practically walking away from their V6 was such a boon, because it fit into the short Jeep engine compartment like a charm. Without it, the Jeepster would undoubtedly have fallen even flatter on its traditional Jeep face. The Dauntless V6 churned out 160 (gross) HP, and was the preferred engine choice for obvious reasons. This is the same engine that GM later bought back, and eventually evolved into the legendary 3800 engine.

In addition to the convertible and hardtop, there was also a pickup truck version, although they were mighty scarce on the ground. A total of some 57k Jeepster/Commandos hit the ground between 1966 and 1971. With the takeover of Jeep by AMC in 1970, change followed. The wheelbases of both the Jeep CJ and Commando lines were lengthened by three inches in the nose, to accommodate the AMC in-line sixes. This manifested itself in the 1972 C104 Commando, with not only a longer hood, but also a wildly crude attempt to remake the front end styling. Instead of the traditional Jeep face, a pathetic flat grille cribbed from the Bronco was grafted on. Looking at it now one can only conjure up some ex-military vehicle from Mongolia or maybe Kazakhstan.

This was a very unfortunate make-over, for which the doctor should have been sued for malpractice. Brooks Stevens was long gone, so I assume some flunkies from the AMC’s Gremlin studio were given the job. Ugh!

Of course, there was a silver lining in that elongated nose, which looked positively absurd in profile in relation to the rest of the body. That was the availability of both AMC sixes (232 and 258 CID) as well as the 304 CID V8. The sixes were particularly well suited to the Commando with their excellent torque curve and adequate power.

The nose job didn’t boost Commando (the Jeepster name was dropped in 1971) sale though, with some 20k sold for its two year run. And this was during the heyday of the K-5 Blazer and other early SUVs. The narrow and antiquated feeling Commando just wasn’t connecting with a new breed of 4×4 buyer.

Well, there was one buyer it connected with: one of Iowas City’s more successful drug dealers. Perfect, no? A brand new 1972 Commando with the V8, no less; exuding plenty of “don’t mess with me” attitude. And after I left a particularly attractive sweetie for a hitch hiking adventure, it shouldn’t have surprised me she found someone else in my absence, one with wheels instead of a thumb. But Mr. Commando, no less. The Commando was never a lovable car, but ever since I’ve had a deep revulsion for it. And this C104 does it/him justice, you ugly piece of crap! I feel better now. And the Commando is growing on me.