(first posted 5/30/2013) In the early sixties, the vast majority of pickups were wimpy, low-riding, six cylinder-powered things; downright effeminate, one might almost say (with a bit of tongue in cheek). It’s a good thing that men were so secure in their manhood back then. What’s a truck without a big V8, four wheel drive, a ton of carrying capacity, a (relatively) tall stance, and most of all, a really big, macho chrome grille? And an intimidating name to go with it. Well, the Jeep Gladiator had all of that and more, way back in in 1965 – The truck of the future.
This was as burly and tough as it got back then, except maybe for a tall-boy International 4×4. But tallness actually wasn’t so in back then; looked too old-school. Even the tough Gladiator sat pretty low to the ground compared to today’s blue-collar chariots. And there’s no mistaking the Gladiator’s calling.
As well as predicting the future, up to a point.
Here’s a work-site pickup that’s both ansehlich und ausdaurend. Good looking and durable, as if a translation were necessary. How many Gladiators ever made it to Germany is a good question, but Kaiser was always very export-oriented, and I suppose there wasn’t exactly quite anything like built over there at the time.
The “All New All Jeep” Gladiator arrived in 1962, looking very modern indeed, except for the “classic” grille. How to explain that, as well as the miraculous self-leveling suspension that allows this Gladiator to stand level on that steep hillside? Brooks Stevens, America’s “ego designer” who coined the term “planned obsolescence”, played a major role in the neo-classical revival that was under full swing at the time, or just about to take off. Ironic, that the designer that most played up the benefits of “planned obsolescence” would have his Wagoneer and Gladiator designs become evergreens.
Here’s Mr. Stevens, in his 1964 Excalibur, the first of a long line that eventually degenerated into something unspeakable. Of course, Stevens can’t really get credit for the trend; Virgil Exner does, with his famous 1963 drawings for Esquire magazine. But Stevens acted on it, not surprisingly. A man of considerable design skill, he had done wonders for Studebaker in their final years, including the Gran Turismo and the never-built Sceptre and other proposed next-gen Studebakers.
The Gladiator was of course the pickup brother to Steven’s excellent Wagoneer, which also debuted in the fall of 1962. The Wagoneer lost its butch upright grille several years sooner than the Gladiator, which soldiered on through 1969 with its battle shield.
Nevertheless, finding a Gladiator with the original grille is becoming difficult, never mind a comparable Wagoneer. So this one beckoned me from some distance as we rolled by its Pleasant Hill parking place. And such a well-kept, original one at that. Let’s face it; way too many of these ended up rolled in ditches or such, as a favorite plaything for a sector of the off-roading fraternity. Not surprisingly, of course, given its pedigree and Dana solid axles.
Actually, there was an optional independent front suspension with torsion bars, but only on the half-ton models and the Wagoneer. And they’re really rare. But this is the 3/4 ton, long-wheelbase J3000, with heavy duty everything all-round.
For these very new vehicles, Kaiser spent some bucks trying to breathe new life into its ancient flathead six by crowning it with an alloy hemi SOHC cylinder head. The 230 cubic inch long-stroke “Tornado” six only lasted for the first two years; it was problematic, and was shipped off to IKA, Kaiser’s Argentinean ops, where it found a new home in the IKA Torino, which was built from the cast-off body of the 1963-1964 AMC Rambler American hardtop coupes. But this was all well before AMC bought Kaiser Jeep (1970).
Which makes the fact that this Gladiator is powered by the venerable 250 hp AMC 327 V8 (no relation to the Chevy 327) doubly ironic. One, because this engine was heavily based on a V8 design first hatched at Kaiser. When Kaiser punted on the new V8, it reappeared at AMC along with its chief designer. And two, because Kaiser Jeep only used the 327 for three years; in 1968, they switched to Buick for its supply of V8 engines, as well as the “Fireball” V6 (which they bought the whole transfer line and rights to). Of course, after AMC bought Jeep in 1970, the Buick V8 was sent packing, in favor of AMC’s 360 and 401 V8s.
But Jeep also bought the AMC 232 six starting in 1965, and it (as well as its bigger 258 inch version) stayed the course, as if predicting AMC’s future buyout.
This Gladiator has an automatic, and I was somewhat surprised to see in the 1965 brochure that it’s a THM (400). 1965 was only the second year for that august transmission, and apparently Jeep was worthier than GM’s own trucks. Good luck trying to buy a ’65 Chevy truck with anything other than a Powerglide. Go figure…
Truth is, I’m not really sure that this one is actually a ’65. It might be a ’66 or ’67, but I’m not OCD enough to know the difference without spending way too much time on it. The white steering wheel went away at some point, but it might have been after the AMC 327 did. Anybody care?
Here’s what’s called the bed. And it’s in mighty nice shape for the age. I suspect this truck may have had a camper or shell on its back for much of its life, or it must have spent winters under a roof.
It was bought locally, at Neuman-Strong Jeep in Springfield. Now that second name is a good one to have if you’re in the car business, especially a Jeep dealer.
What’s left to say about the Gladiator? It was an evergreen, soldiering on until 1988, only three years less than the Wagoneer. But it was never as popular as the wagon, especially when the Grand Wagoneer version went all upscale with fake wood and leather, and found a new lease on life.
The graphic-splashed Honcho enjoyed some sunshine during the 4×4 wave of the mid-late seventies and into the early eighties, but was soon eclipsed by more modern and comfortable offerings from the Big Three. But a 25 year production run is nothing to sneeze at, and the Gladiator has become an icon in its own right.
No wonder Jeep is trying to keep the name alive, but whether its perpetual cock-teasing will ever amount to anything is a good question.
In the meantime (or forever), we’ll have to content ourselves with the likely eternal presence of the original. At the rate this one is aging, that will be a long time, if not forever. The truck of the future – still.