Classic 1963 Jeep Gladiator Review

Nov 1, 2016 by Cedric (Driver Weekly)

Most people think of Jeep for their pioneering SUVs, but this is a big misconception. In fact, one of the first popular Jeeps was the 1963 Gladiator, a full-size pickup truck. This inaugural pickup from Jeep was an innovative truck with an optional single overhead cam six-cylinders and independent front suspension, something you were hard-pressed to find on any other model at the time. One of the first vehicles designed by Jeep for civilian use and later adapted for the Army, the reliable truck remained in production for over twenty years with only minor changes. There was even a 2005 Jeep Gladiator concept that previewed a potential pickup. But if you want the classic pickup that everyone can admire, look no further than 1963.

Origins


1963 Wagoneer / Jeep Blog

To understand the importance of the Gladiator, you need to take a brief look at the previous pickups available from the small company. Based on station wagons from 1946 to 1962, these reliable four-wheel-drive models had simple yet robust drivetrains. This was part of the growing trend of recreational pickups. Jeep knew, however, that they could pioneer a superior body-on-frame truck on their Full Size Jeep (“SJ”) chassis developed in the 1950s. (The SJ underpinned the Wagoneer, one of the direct predecessors to modern SUVs, also released in 1963.) In 1962, Willys Jeep coupled their chassis with the growing popularity of pickups and a few innovative tweaks to produce the new pickup that replaced the uninspiring Willys “Jeep Trucks.”

Introducing the Gladiator


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If you are interested in the 1963 Jeep Gladiator, know that this is the very first model year of the pickup; the first generation ran until 1971. The original models had an upright grille known as a “rhino grille” that was created by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, also responsible for the Wagoneer. In 1963 the pickup came in two versions, the J-200 Series on a 120” wheelbase and the J-300 Series on a 126” wheelbase, and two styles, Thriftside with flared fenders and the more Townside with slab fenders. The new model also stood apart from other pickups on the market in two important ways. The 230 Tornado engine had overhead cams and was the very first mass-produced overhead-cam engine designed in the USA. The four-wheel drive models with an independent front suspension system was another way this model stood out. The suspension was a rare $160 option at the time and was discontinued before the 1966 model year. Most models had a simpler and durable suspension. If you happen to find a Jeep Gladiator that has both the original engine and suspension system, you have a true classic on your hands, and it will be in high demand.

The Tornado Engine

In addition to being the first mass-produced engine of its kind, the 230 Tornado had good low-end torque and fuel economy. The new engine was designed for hard work without sacrificing performance, perfect for the first SUVs and 4WD pickups. Despite that, the engine had the lowest specific fuel consumption of any gasoline engine on the market in 1963. However, the new system did have oil leaks that required frequent repairs, and the company replaced it with the AMC inline six in 1965. (In 1963, Willys was bought by Kaiser and collaborated with AMC, which then purchased the company in 1970.) Also available at that time was the AMC V8. However, original models from 1963 should only have the Tornado.

Drivetrain and Transmission


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The drivetrain and transmission also made the 1963 Jeep Gladiator stand out. This was one of the only models that had 4WD and worked with an optional GM THM400 and Borg-Warner AS-8W heavy-duty three-speed automatic—despite the fact that the transmission wasn’t even available on GMC trucks. You couldn’t find 4WD and an automatic on GM, Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, or international trucks of the time. Jeep clearly saw ahead to the future uses of pickups as recreational and everyday vehicles, with advanced features and rugged off-road capability. The Jeep Gladiator is an impressive vehicle in its own right and an important piece of automotive history that is ideal for a collector or an off-road enthusiast, while drivers hoping for a new edition might just be in luck—Jeep has announced that they are considering a new pickup.

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