My Curbside Classic: 1965 ‘Jeep’ Gladiator J-3000 Townside – We Got A New (To Us) Gladiator Before Anyone Else

(Ed. Note: I didn’t realize my friend Crip and his wife owned this awesome J-3000 Gladiator until I was taking pictures of it in town last week and he walked out of the place it was parked in front of and asked me why I was taking pictures of HIS Jeep.  After getting over the surprise, I asked him to write about it so I wouldn’t have to, thankfully he loves writing…please welcome him!) 

Jeep’s website lists the new 2020 Gladiator as starting at $33,453, but you’d have just as much luck buying a French castle for that price. My neighborhood Jeep dealer lists the cheapest Gladiator Sport at over $10k more than that, with the Rubicon versions at $62k+. These markups are the rule currently, particularly in a market like Colorado. And on average a new Gladiator owner is spending over a grand on accessories, according to Motor1. 

My Gladiator had an original MSRP of $2369 and currently has two accessories: a gun rack and an old GPS I use as a speedometer (since I don’t have that particular accessory either).

Specifically, my truck is a 1965 J-3000, advertised as a ‘Jeep’ Gladiator Townside, with an AMC Vigilante V8. The “Thriftside” (step-side) truck is the one you saw in the movie Tremors starring Kevin Bacon. The Gladiators were initially designated as the J-200 and J-300, which somehow translated to 120” and 126” wheelbases, respectively.

I’m not sure why they added the extra zeros around ‘65, and for the longest time I was convinced our truck was built right in the middle of the changeover since the driver side says “J-3000” and the passenger side “J-300”. Alas, right before I wrote Jeep/FCA thinking I possessed some kind of missing link I found the broken zero under the seat. For our purposes today we’ll discuss my, and these, original first generation J trucks known as the Gladiator, which were produced from 1962 – 1971. They have the name in common with the new Jeep pickups, if nothing else. 

The early ‘Jeep’ Gladiator ads tried to hammer home the fact that it *could* be had in 4-wheel-drive, would haul or climb just about anything you wanted, and yet handle like a passenger car on the highway. It’s easy to forget that many 60’s passenger cars handled like pickup trucks, so perhaps this wasn’t an outright lie. As evidence, Jeep offered independent front suspension as an option, which nobody bought because it was pricey, problematic and decidedly un-truck-like. You could get an automatic transmission or even A/C if you were the kind of fancy person that liked independent front suspension.

The day she arrived…

The “torquey” straight six Tornado engine was the only option at first, and continued to be offered if you were concerned about fuel economy…in the 60s. There was a slight upgrade to this motor in 1965 but the bigger news was the introduction of the aforementioned 5.4L, 327 cu AMC Vigilante V8 as an option that same year. All two-wheel drive versions were killed off in 1967, and in 1970 they changed the grille to what most people consider the Wagoneer style. After ‘71 Gladiator was dropped from the name and marketing. To be fair, it says Gladiator in exactly one spot on our truck (inside the driver door jamb).

Like all these J-trucks from this early era, ours is a very simple rig. The wiper fluid was housed in a plastic pouch that looked suspiciously like a colostomy bag. Not surprisingly, our bag has long since pooped out, if you’ll excuse the pun. A Gatorade bottle served duty as a reservoir for a time until we got sophisticated and put an actual new washer pump/reservoir in the ample under-hood space which, as sophisticated electronics go, worked for about a week. I’ll likely be going back to my more reliable squirt bottle-and-hose set up this winter.  

I won’t go into too much history of our particular truck. Suffice it to say the previous owner found it dormant, bought it and had noble intentions of resurrecting it to its former glory. As is sadly the case 99% of the time, the truck didn’t move for well over a decade.

Once we procured it our main priority was to get it running reliably and then perhaps refurbish the Presidential Red paint. Side note: our registration actually lists the truck as ORANGE since there’s apparently no drop-down menu option for “heavy patina”.

After the truck was exterminated and assessed for major repairs, the only items found to be truly amiss (outside of the usual stuff) were the wheels. We opted for the most like/kind replacements we could find and had them coated in a subtle off-off-white so they wouldn’t totally stand out like James Bond wearing New Balance dad shoes (or the exact opposite of that, if we’re being precise).

The engine was overhauled and painted and – far most importantly – a new sticker advertising the Vigilante V8 was placed on the valve cover right where the old one used to be. We added power steering so my wife could actually make turns.

The brakes, while still the original drums, were machined and now kinda sorta stop the 4400 pound old man. The front leaf springs were replaced but everything else, including the interior, is largely original. The four speed is still notchy and rock solid, and although the 4WD functions, its floppy shifter doesn’t inspire confidence.

Seriously, the first time I used it I was convinced it simply didn’t work because the mechanical engagement was so subtle as to be virtually non-existent. Speaking of, the one time I found the 4×4 beneficial included the only time first gear was used in earnest to pull a stump out of a neighbor’s yard. Believe me, you’ll want to avoid first and start in second pretty much all the time, and you’ll like it fine.

Most of the J-series trucks from this era have a tail pipe nowhere near the tail. Rather, they exhaust just underneath the cab. And because the cab is full of gaps, both from age and design, plenty of fumes are riding right alongside you. Any trip in the Gladiator usually means a change of clothes or perhaps even a shower afterward. These are from an era when trucks weren’t at the top of the food chain price-wise and were thereby short on hospitality on the inside regardless of what the Mad Men of Toledo would have you believe.

The roof liner in ours was riddled with mold and dead critters, so our cab is even more spartan than most Gladiators. Radio? Nope, and I doubt I’d be able to hear it over the hot roar of the thirsty Vigilante anyway. Seatbelts? They’re around here somewhere, officer. Heater? It’s basically on all the time – what do you think that is coming out of the shriveled shifter boot? Do I care? No. And I’m glad I don’t have a fancy new $62,000 mid-sized Jeep pick-up because I wouldn’t want to wear dirty jeans in the thing, let alone throw unmentionable detritus into the bed and run it to the landfill (which also happens to be the windiest place in our county).

Speaking of the dump, there was one issue with The Gladiator that vexed and perplexed us for over a year: sometimes it just wouldn’t start. If I was lucky, occasionally a couple of raps with a hammer would wake the starter up; other times a jump would be needed. Other times I would shamefully call for a ride. Not wanting to repeat getting stuck at the landfill or, worse, American Furniture Warehouse, I did what any amateur mechanic would do: I consulted forum pages that were likely created on Netscape. This led me to exactly one shop that produced a new starter that would allegedly fit our grumpy 50 year old.

One local shop simply couldn’t get this “guaranteed-to-fit” starter to engage. I took it to another that promised to make it work. The new starter obstinately refused to fit once again, even after removing a supposedly vestigial piece of frame. So the original 1965 starter took a little tour of restoration shops around the US, and apparently found rebirth at one in Michigan that happened to have parts for it. All told, it took two months and more money than I care to disclose to get it done. Anyone with a project car knows avoiding money questions is like lying about how much you drank the night before. Jokes aside, I have yet to be stranded by The Gladiator since the rebuild so it’s been worth it.

I will confess that I lied a short while ago – I would actually love a new Gladiator. However, I would use it as more of a daily driver than a dump runner. One quibble though – why did Jeep forego the rhino grill on the new version? It’s iconic and super cool, and allows other Gladiator owners to spot their kin from far, far across the landfill.

Those prototypes from a few years ago looked absolutely amazing, especially with the hip old font on the tailgate. Now of course the New Gladiators look like, and probably are, merely a cooler and more useful Wrangler. Like I said, I would drive a new one without hesitation but that would also mean fewer conversations with fans of old trucks, which is one of the pleasures of driving the beast.

Believe me, I love the truck but it has a long way to go. The bench seat lists painfully toward the driver door. The roof condensates and basically creates its own water cycle. The door panels are from a hideous Wagoneer. It leaks oil no matter how hard one cranks down on the plug. While the body is relatively straight and it doesn’t have too much rust for its age, it has some.

The vertical side mirrors, with their cool looking yellow chevrons, are almost worthless. (Side note: the only other time I’ve seen mirrors like this were via this CC post about another J-3000 that could be my truck’s twin.) The tailgate latches also seem to mysteriously change in size. Refueling is an exercise in patience as you, friend, are likely well aware. Also, refueling is something I often do because it doesn’t have a fuel gauge. The headlights are like candles. The taillights are also like candles and need to be replaced about as often as candles do. But again it matters not – I’m gonna take it for a spin with the windows down so I can release the fumes and give the thumbs up to anyone throwing J-signs my way. I know J-signs aren’t really a thing, but they should be.


Related Reading:

Paul Niedermeyer’s Curbside Classic on the virtual twin (go figure!) to this one

We get invited to (briefly) drive the brand new 2020 Gladiator

JPC finds and discusses a J-2000 Gladiator