“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.
One good thing about the Scrambler is AMC, like you said, had very little investment in it. And it certainly makes for an interesting oddity 30 years on.
Looking at these pictures, it seems somebody is Virginia is taking their ’95 Thunderbird out for regular flights. That’s a good thing as those 4.6 liter cars certainly like to be driven.
Good eye on the T-bird — it’s been take flights pretty often this year.
20/20 hindsight being what it is, surely it would’ve been cheaper and overall sales-neutral for Jeep to have offered the “World Top” Scrambler instead of the two-door XJ Cherokee which ended up being a minor bottleneck in production of the wildly popular four-door.
The World Cab CJ-8 was a neat vehicle, and I agree that in hindsight it would have been a great addition to Jeep’s North American lineup. I suspect there were two (or possibly more) reasons it wasn’t offered:
1) Jeep may have seen it as too much competition for the Cherokee (either the SJ or still-planned XJ Cherokees), and/or
2) When the Scrambler was being planned, many Jeep purists were still upset over the CJ-7 being too big and cushy for a “real Jeep.” AMC folks may have feared a revolt among their most loyal following if they then offered an even bigger, hardtop version of the CJ-7.
These are just guesses on my part. But given where the market would end up with SUV popularity, a North American World Cab would almost certainly have been successful.
Lovely article, thank you. I’ve owned one of these for 30 years. I agree with the article it was a great vehicle, pootly marketed, as a niche variation of an already niche vehicle.
In reality, it was more useful and versatile than the CJ7, and thus should have been more successful. As suggested in the article, Jeep entirety ignored thr easy conversion into a passenger varient that was built into the design. Not only does the CJ seat bolt in with seatbelts, but the steel divider behind the front seats is easily removed, opening up the interior.
The downside of the Scrambler is the same as any other CJ. It’s noisy, drafty tiring and uncomfortable to drive on longer trips. I found I disliked driving mine as daily transportation accordingly. But as a versatile second car, it was great.
Finally, my Scrambler was built with full steel doors and the soft top, a combination not mentioned in the article. Maybe it was a special-order.
Great to hear a first-hand account of Scrambler ownership!
The soft top / steel doors combination was (I believe) available from the factory — this brochure outtake shows all four top/door combinations. Though I imagine it was a rather uncommon combination.
Thank you. IMHO your article is quite perceptive in reviewing the circumstances of these vehicles and I agree with your conclusions.
I’ve known for quite some time the Scrambler is collectible and sought-after, by some Jeep fans.
Frankly, this vehicle was a bit like the original 2-seat T-bird, an instant classic shortly after production stopped. My Jeep was 7 years old when I bought it, but the market placed a substantial price -premium on Scrambler over a CJ of the same age. The fact this situation existed tells me there was un-met market demand due to poor marketing efforts.
I still have my Scrambler and it’s in excellent condition, although I rarely drive it.
Noisy, drafty, cold… yep. Sounds like a Scrambler. I have two Scramblers and I drove one of them across the country in the winter. Not a fun trip. I use mine primarily for off road use and the longer wheel base allows it to handle snow and ice better than the typical CJ.
Sorry to nitpick but the 80’s era CJs had inline 6s – not V6s. The “Dauntless” V6 – Kaiser modified the original Buick designed engine for Jeep applications – was phased out by AMC when they bought Jeep and replaced with AMCs inline 6.
Thanks for the reminder of these, I actually sat in one in the showroom waiting on my salesguy when I bought my first new car, an 84 Dodge Omni GLH. Looking back I kind of wish I’d bought the Scrambler instead though that never would have happened – not only did it cost more but with a baby on the way we needed a real back seat!
Thanks — that was an oversight on my part. Now fixed.
The TJ Wrangler Unlimited (2004-2006), with its extended wheelbase and payload, might be considered a modern cousin to the Scrambler.
It was foreshadowed with a concept called ‘Scrambler’, half cab and all. Several companies make a half cab/bulkhead to make a ‘synthetic’ Scrambler. GR8T Tops and Rubitrux come to mind. Why Jeep didn’t just suck it up and offer both half and full top variations at once instead of one or the other is beyond me. Demand is there, additional investment is nearly nil and it makes 2 totally unique vehicles serving different audiences.
I wanted a Scrambler so bad when they came out. I was ready to buy after graduating Army OCS, but came out on orders to Korea. While there I keep reading tests of the Scrambler. One writer panned it by saying “It is the perfect vehicle for someone needing to carry a telephone booth to the top of a mountain – but cargo carrying capacity was otherwise pretty useless.”
I got cold feet and never bought an original Scrambler. Years later in 2009, I saw a lightly used ’06 TJ Unlimited down in Louisiana that had been converted.
The price was reasonable and it reminded me of how I still liked the concept after all these years. I bought it and still have it 8 years and 120k miles later.
I’ve never carried a phone booth to a mountain top, but this thing turned out to be a great fit my off-work lifestyle preferences of hiking, camping and otherwise just spending time outdoors. It pulls my little tent trailer without complaint and has taken me places few other vehicles would.
The clutch survived two 20-something sons abusing the hell out of it when they borrowed it for their own camping trips. After 8 years of ownership, the only thing that would induce me to get rid of it would be Jeep introducing a better model.
Luckily, I have a company car for traveling. Much as I like the Jeep, I think I’d get sick of it as a daily driver for a traveling salesman. It may be suited to my recreation, but it sure as heck isn’t suited to my work.
The Scrambler looks downright awkward with that huge convertible top!
If AMC was smart, they would’ve just made the half-cab and a full top standard, tweaked the styling a bit and just reintroduced it as the Commando. I’m sure it would have had more success.
When I bought a Jeep in 2006, there were rumblings that DaimlerChrysler would revive the Scrambler with the introduction of the JK Wrangler. Given the financial woes and the inability of its subsequent owner (Chrysler LLC/Cerberus Capital Management) to raise capital, it never happened.
At that time, and now, the Internet was full of posts saying, “Build it…I’ll buy one!” So imagine my amusement to see that AMC sold just shy of 28,000 over four or five model years. Not even enough to cover the costs of the tooling and EPA certification, I’m sure.
A definite oddity, alright. Count me among those who never thought of these as a legitimate pickup truck. But then I never really paid much attention to them, either. It is a fascinating variation that should have been more popular than it was.
I would suspect that one reason for the sharp jump in Jeep sales from the CJ-5 to the CJ-7 was that the 7 made an automatic transmission available for the first time.
I actually test-drove a 1976 CJ7 with AT.
Almost didn’t bother, though, because at the time, an automatic in a Jeep was sacrilege!
I think quite differently, now.
I always thought of CJ8’S as a Jeep with some carrying capacity rather than a legit pickup truck.
The cargo bed in the Scrambler is pretty short, at a bit over 5 ft long.
It’s interesting the advertisement showing the 2 dirt bikes in the back uses Honda XR 80’s. These are pint- sized kids’ dirt bikes, too small for the adults in the ad to use comfortably.
Any adult-size dirt bike simply will not fit without the tailgate down and back half of the wheel hanging off the edge.
Nice! My first exposure to “four wheelin’ ” was in one of these. A friend had one and he took us out through some trails on his family’s farm. Back in the day, 2 up front and as many as could fit in the bed. The lucky ones were the ones that stood up front between the roll bar uprights in the wind. And don’t go giving horrified gasps – we survived riding in the back of pickups. I was never ever put in a car seat either. lol
My friend drove his mostly problem free for several years til one day the paint started bubbling on the hood while he was driving. By the time he got stopped, the fire under the hood spread quickly and the whole vehicle went up. No damage to people, but the Scrambler was lost. If memory serves, he did not have the hardtop and doors on at the time and that was all that was left. And the insurance company made sure to get that.
It did serve him and his dad well. They used it as a small truck as it was. they had bigger trucks for bigger jobs and the Scrambler worked well for its size and for a daily runabout. And weekend camping vehicle and trail vehicle.
It was also the first vehicle I was in to be turned over. On its side, my side. In a parking lot downtown, 11:30 at night. When my buddy thought a J turn would be impressive. There was a moment where we hung in space, waiting to see which way gravity would take us. On my side as it was. Glad it was cold enough we had the doors on and windows up. We just had to unbelt, which meant my buddy had to be careful not to land on me. We weren’t small either. We escaped without harm.
We called a friend – he came quickly from his house about 2 blocks away. We had the chain hooked to his pickup and was about to pull it back on its wheels when the fuzz pulled up. They let us pull it upright and gave my buddy a “good talkin’ to” about his habits – he was known to the local LEOS. And since it was in a “private” parking lot, they couldn’t really write him up for it. The Jeep was mostly unharmed. Bashed a mirror and the windshield frame moved a little.
Anyway, thanks for that trip down memory lane…
For many years a Scrambler was my absolute dream rig. I clipped that ad with the red Scrambler out of a back issue of Four Wheeler magazine (along with many other CJ ads) since posters of Jeeps were nonexistent. Ferarris and Lambos were cool to me but Jeeps were my passion.
Fast forward to ’95, Id just turned 21 and my 3rd Jeep was an ’85 Scrambler that brand new would have resembled that black one with the dirt bikes in the bed. 258 and T-176 4spd, the only manual transmission available on ’80-’86 CJs that wasn’t a weak POS often shredded by the combination of gobs of torque and abusive owners. Mine had come factory with soft top/doors and i added a Kayline soft half top for summer months. Mine was a bit rough cosmetically but mechanically it was an anvil. This thing soaked up all my abuse including some half asleep hag cutting in front of me. Scrambler: bent bumper, broken spring shackle. Brand new Buick Regal: totalled. I had to put a water pump on it, and other than routine maintenance it never cost me a dime in the 3 years/50K miles I put on it.
This thing was one of the best rigs I’ve ever had. The combination of unstoppable off road, the fun of a roadster, and usefulness of a pickup is unbeatable. The collectibility of these was just starting to materialize after I sold mine. I got $500 more than I paid for it after my time with it. Now the price is insane for a decent one and there are cottage house companies making conversion kits for TJ-Ls and JKs, as well as 20 plus years of teased returns about to bear fruit.
Id love another Scrambler. How many people can say they got their favorite ride on the planet, let alone just a month after legally buying beer? Ive scored other dream cars/trucks but the Scrambler was the first. Thanks for bringing me back!
Looks to me like Jeep were just trying to mirror Landrovers range of pickups which came in short or long wheelbase soft or hardtop short or long roof or just cab/chassis, they had that market pretty well covered and six or four cylinder engines later with alloy V8s.
If only Jeep had wrought out the CJ/Wrangler platforms in the same way LR had done the Defender. The way LR gets infinity billion unique variations on the Defender by using 3 different chassis lengths and a few modular body configurations is pure genius. Like the Defender, the Wrangler is hands down Jeep’s strongest and most versatile platform. Theyre leaving a LOT of money on the table by not offering multiple cab and body configurations on the 2 chassis lengths they already have. There has been a 2 door based on the 4 door’s chassis for military use since day one (mirror image of the Defender 110) yet they don’t offer it on the civvy Wrangler. The JT concept truck was a direct Scrambler successor that cost next to nothing to parts bin together and had Jeep fans clamoring for them to build. Pure idiocy not offering it. That exact rig with the 345 Hemi and 6 spd manual would have been my first brand new vehicle purchase had it been greenlighted.
I remember the Scrambler being described as a next generation CJ-6, which makes sense and places more in the lineage of the Wrangler Unlimited as a stretched CJ family vehicle than part of true Jeep pickup line of succession of Gladiator to Comanche to not yet built.
These always made more sense to me with a full length top and a rear seat than as a to small to be really useful truck.
I actually didn’t know that these were kinda rare. I remember seeing quite a few in “the day”. What really surprised me was the Hornet based “Cowboy” concept. I never heard of it! I’m digging the concept. Even cooler would be an Eagle based one! PS I also like the colors on Mr. Reagan’s Scrambler.
That jumped out at me, too. Could have been a very cool competitor to the El Camino and Ranchero. And, as a more sensibly sized vehicle, might have stolen some of their sales before the El Camino was downsized in ’78 and the Ranchero departed after ’79.
The Scrambler is just a ripoff of the Scout Terra, or the Cabtop’s that preceded it. The early Scout also had an option for a soft Cabtop but that went away by the time the Scout II came along.
“Ripoff”? Hardly. The Terra didn’t come along til the mid ’70’s. Broncos and Commandos had factory half cabs since the ’60’s along with the Scout 80s. And before THAT, there were aftermarket steel and canvas full and half cabs for CJs going back to the first CJs in the ’40’s. Calling a halfcabbed CJ 2/3/5 a ‘pickup’ with about a 2′ bed is a stretch. But a halfcabbed CJ-6 (stretched CJ-5) would be as legit as any other open deck bobtail. The reality is, all open topped 4x4s start at the Willys MB. Halfcabbing them for some pickup utility would have its roots with the Ford Model T roadster pickups.
It was a response to the success of the Terra specifically and small trucks in general. My point was that it was far from unique or innovative in any way. No the aftermarket 1/2 cabs for the early CJs don’t really count since they are aftermarket for one thing and usually they were incredibly crude items that were flat packed and it was up to the purchaser to assemble and hope to weather proof it somewhat.
Ok I see your point. One thought on the Terra: I was a kind of ‘tweener’ size that was a hair under the size of the F-100, W-100 and K-10 of the same era, but had a bit longer than the halfcabbed variants of the Bronco, Blazer and Ramcharger. And at this time, IHC didn’t really have a single cab swb truck in that slot…the Terra more or less did that duty. An interesting and cool way to be there while being different.
Youre right, the Scrambler wasn’t really THAT unique, just a rehash of an idea that had been kicking around for decades. Having owned one though, I can say it met or exceeded all the expectations one might have of a small truck. Bed was smaller than any minitruck but the torque of the AMC 6 also meant it had everything outgunned in the power department until bigger V and I 6’s started coming out around 1987.
And now it appears that the upcoming Wrangler-based pickup will wear the Scrambler name. The platform is JT, an extended version of the new Wrangler’s JL.