“We have no intention of copying our competitors, cookie-cutting their cars.”
-Gerald C. Meyers, President, American Motors Corporation
Jeep’s Scrambler was many things; cookie-cutter was not among them. It was a 4×4, a pickup truck and a convertible, yet was different from every competitor in every one of those categories. The Scrambler was also an enigma. Buyers, reviewers and even Jeep itself seemed unsure just what it was supposed to be. Three decades later, the easiest way to classify Scrambler is to say that it was a pickup in disguise, and not just because of the extended soft top on this particular example.
To understand how the Scrambler came to be, we should first glance back at Jeep’s CJ series development. Civilian Jeeps (known as CJs) began life as slightly modified versions of the World War II Willys MB, and were initially purchased mostly for agricultural or commercial use. The concept quickly evolved into the legendary CJ-5, introduced in 1955.
When American Motors acquired Jeep in 1970, CJs were increasingly used as fun “lifestyle vehicles” rather than as beasts of burden. Jeep buyers fell into several discrete categories, such as hard-core off-roaders, rural dwellers, and affluent young people (“college boys,” in the day’s parlance). This necessitated AMC to walk a tightrope with Jeep marketing – continued success required satisfying all of these groups, but not catering excessively to any one of them.
For 1976, AMC introduced a notable Jeep advancement, the CJ-7 – a longer-wheelbase CJ-5 with added amenities. Additionally, special trim packages like the Renegade became ever more popular. Jeep brand sales nearly doubled between 1975 and 1978, showing that that AMC was on the right track with marketing what had become its most profitable vehicle.
Jeeps weren’t alone among 4x4s and light trucks in breaking sales records during this period. Broncos, Blazers and vans all started appealing to more buyers – as did another type of vehicle: Compact pickup trucks. Rising from a negligible proportion of US pickup sales in the mid-1970s, the energy crisis and recession made small trucks highly desirable. Within 10 years, they accounted for a quarter of US truck sales. In the middle of this period is when the Scrambler’s gestation began.
All four US carmakers scrambled to get compact pickups to the market, however AMC took a head start. Its Jeep CJ-7 could easily serve as the platform for other configurations, and doing so would fit into one of AMC’s core specialties: Creating low-budget niche vehicles.
Jeep was no stranger to the pickup market. In addition to its full-size pickup (made since 1962), the company also had some experience with smaller trucks – Jeepster Commandos were offered in pickup form in the 1960s and early ’70s, and AMC once produced a compact pickup prototype called the Jeep Cowboy, which was to be a Hornet-based truck. Most importantly, Jeep’s CJ platform had the simplicity and ruggedness to make it a good candidate for a pickup conversion.
Hence, the Scrambler (known internally as the CJ-8) was born, debuting partway through the 1981 model year. The conversion was simple. AMC added two feet to the CJ-7’s length (including 10” of wheelbase) and reconfigured the newly extended rear into a pickup bed.
The result was as different from other pickups as Jeeps were from other cars. Unlike other pickups, Scrambler came standard with a completely open body. Two optional tops were available – a vinyl soft top (with soft doors) or a removable fiberglass hard top (with steel doors). The pickup bed itself was smaller than those of other compact pickups. At just over 5 feet in length, Scrambler’s bed was a foot shorter than that on Datsun’s King Cab. Finally, Scrambler was available only as a 4×4 – at a time when 2WD pickups ruled the marketplace.
If there was a niche market for open-top, short-bed 4×4 pickups, Jeep would have struck gold. However, sales figures suggest otherwise. By 1985 when our featured car was produced, the Scrambler accounted for 0.1% of the total US compact pickup market. Whatever Jeep’s market penetration goals were when Scrambler was first conceived, it was probably higher than that.
Price didn’t help, either. Scramblers were priced at the high end of the compact pickup market, with a 1981 base price of $7,288 and well-optioned models listing for around $11,000. While not completely beyond the range of other compact trucks, Scrambler certainly didn’t entice buyers with any price advantage.
One can often read the life story of a pickup by examining its bed, and our featured truck’s cargo bed contains… a seat. With children’s car seats, no less. Adding a rear seat was a simple modification to Scramblers, as the bed contained seat mounting holes identical to those in CJ-7s. Scramblers such as this one – with an extended aftermarket soft top and a rear seat – expose an identity crisis: Just what was this vehicle intended to be?
Jeep’s sole Scrambler ad suggests that AMC itself wasn’t quite sure of this car’s role. This ad shows Scramblers romping around outdoors, similar to other Jeep ads, just with some more cargo capacity. In fact, the pickup bed melded so effortlessly to the CJ platform that many potential customers weren’t even aware that it was a pickup.
Brochure photos tend to show Scramblers in more expected pickup roles, but it is doubtful that many customers cross-shopped the Scrambler’s supposed rivals of Japanese compact trucks. Instead, to most consumers, the Scrambler likely resembled just another Jeep configuration. Scrambler was perceived as more Jeep than pickup, and most sales probably came at the CJ-7’s expense.
One noteworthy sale was to President Ronald Reagan, who bought a 1983 Scrambler for use at his California ranch. Reagan, incidentally, had a penchant for oddball vehicles, as his Scrambler joined a ranch fleet that contained an equally rare Jeep CJ-6 and (believe it or not) a 1978 Subaru BRAT.
Scrambler was a perfect vehicle for a 700-acre ranch like Reagan’s, but unfortunately for Jeep, most consumers were not ranchers. In its introductory year of 1981, Jeep sold 8,355 Scramblers. 1982 sales were slightly less, but the concept quickly lost appeal, decreasing steadily for each of the following three years. By the time our featured car was produced in 1985, few Scramblers left Jeep’s Toledo, Ohio factory. Sources disagree whether 1,050 or 2,015 Scramblers were built for 1985, and some sources indicate that 128 were sold as 1986 models (likely leftover inventory from 1985’s production run).
Regardless of the exact figures, it was clear that after five years in production, the Scrambler did not connect with buyers.
But it did come close. Toyota’s 4Runner, a very similar concept introduced in 1984, was an immediate hit. Maybe Scrambler would have seen more success had it featured a standard rear seat and hardtop like the 4Runner… pure speculation of course, but it’s hard to deny the similarity of these two vehicles – or the discrepancy in their sales success. With better marketing and a slightly tweaked product, the Scrambler would likely have been much more propitious for AMC.
Although Scrambler flopped as a pickup competitor, it certainly wasn’t a dull vehicle. Jeeps of the era were just plain fun, and Scrambler was no exception. The rough ride and bouncy handling delivered by leaf springs and solid axles felt similar to the Scrambler’s ancestral Jeeps from the previous several decades. However, compared to other Jeeps, Scrambler delivered a slightly smoother and less darty ride, thanks to the extended wheelbase.
Of course no one bought Jeeps for comfort, and in the early 1980s, few bought them for build quality, either. A 1980 Popular Mechanics survey reported that 60% of owners experienced problems with their new Jeeps (but still, 89% would buy another one). In Motor Trend’s 1981 Scrambler road test, the magazine noted numerous quality control defects with their test vehicle. While Jeep’s core customer base seemingly put up with such hassles, quality shortcomings hampered the brand’s prospects of attracting new customers. If the Scrambler’s main targets were Toyota and Datsun pickups, mechanical problems made for a poor first impression.
Where Jeeps shined, though, was off-road. Everything in this vehicle was designed to aid off-roading, from the standard 4wd system with manual hubs, the 7.6” of ground clearance, skid plates, low first gear, etc… these vehicles could take their owners practically anywhere, even if few Jeeps were actually called upon to do so.
1985 Scramblers came in three versions – a base model, Renegade and Laredo, each distinguished by levels of exterior and interior trim. Our featured vehicle is a base model, with a spartan interior that appears out of another decade. Like other CJs, a large central speedometer is flanked on one side by a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge and on the other side by hefty stainless steel knobs for cabin controls. Scramblers ordered with one of the appearance packages received niceties like additional padding and other trim upgrades, but all Scramblers shared a no-nonsense interior. There’s no mistaking this for anything other than a Jeep.
Mechanically, CJ-8s offered the same standard and optional equipment as other CJs. While a 2.5L 86-hp 4-cylinder engine was standard in 1985, most buyers opted for the available 4.2L 102-hp inline-six. A manual transmission came standard with either engine, while an automatic was optional with the Six. Our featured car is equipped with the most popular combination – 6-cylinder engine with manual transmission.
During the 1980s, Jeeps were produced on 6 continents. Most North American Jeep models had counterparts in international markets, and the Scrambler was no exception. CJ-8 bodied Jeeps were produced both in Australia (sold as the Overlander) and Venezuela – with both countries receiving a fixed hard top version dubbed the “World Cab” by Jeep. World Cab CJ-8s were never sold to the North American public, though the US Postal Service purchased 230 right-hand drive examples for rural Alaska mail delivery vehicles.
Changes during the Scrambler’s six-year lifespan were relatively minimal. 1982 saw an increase in the CJ’s tread width, and 1984 brought a new 4-cylinder engine, but otherwise the CJ-8 (and its CJ-7 sibling) remained models of consistency throughout the early to mid 1980s.
As the Scrambler faded out of production, Jeep dealers finally received a traditional compact pickup for 1986 – the XJ-based Comanche. Ultimately, the Comanche didn’t quite live up to expectations, and the company never again sold a vehicle such as the Scrambler.
However, such a vehicle is not entirely out of the question, as a new Wrangler-based pickup is planned for 2019. That such a concept would re-emerge is not completely surprising; after all, Jeep has survived by changing with the times while maintaining its traditional appeal. Back in the 1980s, who would have guessed that an extended-wheelbase 4-door would be the Wrangler’s best-selling format? With pickups now more popular than ever, a new Jeep pickup might well succeed where the Scrambler did not.
AMC designed the 1981-86 Scrambler to avoid any known cookie-cutter mold in the hope that it might strike gold with a new market niche. Instead, it slipped through the cracks of both the pickup and 4×4 markets thanks to a combination of an unusual concept, unfocused marketing, a high price, and questionable quality control. But at least they tried, because the result was one of the 1980s most interesting off-roaders. Today, Scramblers have found the interest that they failed to generate when new. Like a starving artist whose work is respected only long after his demise, Scramblers are now prized as collector vehicles; quality examples fetch well over $30,000. No one can still quite understand what the original intent was supposed to be, but after three decades, maybe this vehicle’s appeal is the fun of trying to unscramble the message.
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in May 2017.