Curbside Classic: 1986-1992 Jeep Comanche – It Coulda Been A Contender

(first posted 7/15/2011)    Some things just make no sense whatsoever. Like the odd ratio of hot dogs to buns on offer at the supermarket. Giving politicians power and authority when most of them are silly fools. And calling what we drive on a parkway and what we park on a driveway.

That said, I’m still at a loss to explain why today’s CC was not a runaway smash on the sales charts. In fact, the Jeep Comanche was probably one of only a couple of cars that its dealer network actually asked to be discontinued by the parent company. (The other is the Hudson Jet after Hudson shacked up with Nash in 1954. Rambler dealers understandably didn’t want two compacts in the same showroom)

First, some background. By the early 80’s Jeep was on life support and the power was flickering. Ailing parent American Motors had gotten by for years by wits, guile and David Copperfield–type accounting, but the endgame was in sight if there wasn’t a modern replacement for the hoary old Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer. The company was still building CJ 5s and 7s but every year there were fewer customers for crude designs that had been on the showroom floor practically unchanged since they had come back from WWII. The company was dying and radical surgery was needed, or the patient was a goner.

AMC was a hodgepodge of obsolete Spirits, Concords and Eagles in the twilight days of malaise-era motoring. The passenger cars were a dead end and everyone knew it. The company’s salvation would be using the “halo” of the (still) magical Jeep brand to launch a line of smaller, lighter four wheel drive “sport utility” vehicles that were of sensible size, returned reasonable fuel economy and could use existing mechanical bits to appeal to a nascent thirty-something market that wanted to drag their expensive canoes to the lake on the weekend, haul the kids to soccer games during the week and throw a golf bag in the back for a quick nine holes at the country club. It was to be a make or break product and its writ ran large.

Forests of trees have been felled to produce the history and praise of the ’84 Cherokee. We won’t revisit that here, other than to note that this monocoque design was extremely adaptable to the needs of a wide range of configurations (2WD, 4WD, 2Door, 4Door V6, I4, etc). This gave the product planners at Franco-American Motors (after the de facto takeover by Renault) the idea that a light pickup would be an easy way to flesh out the line beyond two models for very little incremental cost. (The full size J-10 on offer had been essentially unchanged since it was first sold as the Gladiator in the early 60’s. Its days were numbered).

The Comanche was to be marketed as a “mid size” pickup. Not as small as an S-10 or Ranger, not as big and thirsty as a F-150 or Scottsdale. Mid size it was- three seat belts in front, a seven foot bed (one foot longer than S-10/Ranger) and a choice of 4 and 6 cylinder engines along with 4X4 options that made it an all things/all people type pickup. The name on the hood would bestow backwoods cred on what was a new generation of feminized, civilized four wheeling.

Jeep tried hard. There was a Comanche for every purse and purpose. The absolute stripper was the “SportTruck” with a 150 CID AMC four, 4 speed manual, rubber floormats, cheap plastic seats, radio delete and not much else for $6499 (A come on – you couldn’t find one for that price because dealer then and now wouldn’t stock an ultra stripper) . The SportTruck could even be had without a rear bumper (in theory, anyway) and a 6 foot bed. A 2.8 GM V6 was available on the upmarket XLS, which was the Ne Plus Ultra of the Comanche line in the early years. Buyers were not impressed with that V6; the GM mill drank a lot more gas and produce only marginally better HP and torque than the AMC four. The gutless 2.8 would be dropped in ’87 for a proper 4.0L I 6 which had buckets of power and torque.

That took some doing, as the Renault designers made the engine compartment small, because in their world view, a big six would never find a home there. What did they know about American’s love of torque and power? So the big six was shoehorned in, probably by American engineers who grew up doing shade-tree engine swaps. The radiator got pushed forward about as far as possible.

Lots of special edition option packages and an official line of accessories and appearance packages could make the truck just about whatever the buyer could ever want. It seemed so foolproof and destined for success.

Or so it seemed. For a while the Comanche was in demand. The first two years saw more than respectable sales of about 35,000 of both wheelbases, but then demand dropped like a stone. The mid sized truck experiment died with a quiet announcement in mid June 1990 that the Comanche was going to the happy hunting grounds due to low sales and dealer apathy hostility. At the end, only about twelve copies a day were rolling off the Toledo assembly line. The last few were quietly shipped to dealers at a big discount and the Comanche ceased to be.

What went wrong? In hindsight, lots of problems were apparent that could not be foreseen at the time. First, the Comanche was a truck built from a unit body design (no frame) that did not lend itself to the lengthening needed to produce a crew or club cab. That severely limited its marketing appeal when all its competitors added a back seat (however useless for anyone but Santa’s elves).

Second, Dodge introduced their Dakota about the same time and aimed it squarely at the “mid size” market that Jeep had identified and tried to fill. There was an opening there, but maybe it just wasn’t big enough for two major competitors. Other problems were more size related: the bed was not wide enough for a sheet of plywood or drywall to fit flat between the wheelwells, (a major faux pas for the construction market), there was almost no room behind the seat, and despite three place seating in the cab, it was impossible to get three adults in there with the manual transmission. They just wouldn’t fit.

Then there was the intrigue in the boardroom- Chrysler bought AMC for 1.5 Billion in 1987 and there was no way that they were going to source two pickup trucks that competed head to head. The Comanche had no future and no place in the MoPar universe.

This Comanche was spotted in historic, beautiful, White Springs, Florida on the banks of the Suwannee River.