Classic 1963 Jeep Gladiator Review Nov 1, 2016 by Cedric (Driver Weekly)
When you think Jeep, you only think about their pioneering utility vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler. But this is a slight misconception. In fact, one of the first popular Jeeps was the 1963 Gladiator, a full-size pickup truck. This innovative pickup from Jeep was available with a single overhead cam six-cylinder engine and independent front suspension, something you were hard-pressed to find on any model sold at the time. One of the first vehicles designed by Jeep for civilian use and then adapted for the Army, instead of the other way around, the Jeep Gladiator 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.
To understand the importance of the Gladiator, you need to take a brief look at the previous vehicles available from the small company. Willys sold the Civilian Jeep (CJ), based on the famous wartime utility vehicle, starting in 1945. The CJ carved out a successful niche as an off-road champion and durable do-anything work vehicle. But the company never just sold one type of vehicle. Jeep also sold pickup trucks based on the Jeep Wagon from 1946 to 1962. These reliable four-wheel-drive models had simple yet robust drivetrains that reflected the company’s dedication to durability. They capitalized on the growing post-war trend of recreational pickups, something that might be familiar to today’s buyers.
Jeep knew, however, that they could pioneer a superior body-on-frame truck using their Full Size Jeep (“SJ”) chassis developed in the 1950s. In 1962, Willys Jeep coupled their chassis with the growing popularity of pickups and a few innovative tweaks to produce a better vehicle that replaced the uninspiring Willys “Jeep Truck.” The result was the Jeep Gladiator, Jeep’s new pickup, and the Jeep Wagoneer SJ, one of the direct predecessors to modern SUVs.
Introducing the Gladiator
The Jeep Gladiator rolled out of Toledo, Ohio, in 1963 and the first generation ran for eight years until 1971. 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. There were two styling options, the traditional Thriftside with flared fenders and the more modern-looking Townside with slab fenders. All the original models had an upright grille known as a “rhino grille” that was created by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, also responsible for design elements on the new Wagoneer. This explains the styling similarities between the more well-known Wagoneer and the Gladiator.
The new model also stood apart from other pickups on the market in two important ways. First, the four-wheel drive models had an independent front suspension system that offered superior ride quality. 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, but dealers could brag about the available option. 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. Second, the 230.5-cubic-inch Tornado engine had overhead cams, improving power output through better engine breathing. This was one of the very first mass-produced overhead-cam engines designed in the USA.
The Tornado Engine
In addition to being the first mass-produced engine of its kind, the Jeep Tornado had good low-end torque and fuel economy. Development had begun almost ten years earlier in the 1950s under Chief Engineer A.C. "Sammy" Sampietro. The new engine was designed for hard work and low-speed torque 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. It’s important to note that, given how advanced and new it was at the time, the engine did have issues. The new system suffered from 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 operated as Kaiser Jeep. Kaiser Jeep cooperated with American Motors Corporation on parts and engineering, and AMC purchased the company outright in 1970.) Also available at that time was the AMC V8. However, original models from 1963 should only have the Tornado.
Drivetrain and Transmission
The drivetrain and transmission also made the 1963 Jeep Gladiator stand out from the more staid competition. 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 this particular 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 was discontinued in 1988. In fact, the last time Jeep sold a pickup truck was over two decades ago when the Jeep Comanche MJ was discontinued in 1992. Since the Comanche was yanked from production, Jeep has only released SUVs in a range of sizes. Since that time there have been multiple rumors regarding the possibility of a new pickup truck, rumors that were refueled when Jeep released the Gladiator Concept in 2005. But the concept has nothing on the original. 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. But drivers hoping for a new edition might just be in luck—Jeep has announced that they are considering a new pickup, based on the popular Jeep Wrangler.
Article updated 2 August 2017.