When Chris Benjamin, Jeep head of interior design, said at the launch of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator that “the Jeep brand has an amazing, storied history that we’re able to pull from,” he wasn’t kidding. Inspiration for the new Gladiator came from several points in Jeep history—from the seven-slat grille, to the logo, to the CJ-inspired dash pad. In many ways, however, the Gladiator distances itself from the CJ-8 Scrambler mini-truck that so many remember from the 1980s. And it does so on purpose.
In fact, looking around the presentation room at a winery in Sacramento, where Jeep showed off the truck to media ahead of test drives, there isn’t a CJ-8 in sight. Jeep’s last pickup from 27 years ago—a 1992 Comanche Pioneer with just 10 miles on the odometer—is there. A low-mileage, 100-percent original Scrambler is not. Not once in the presentations by six Jeep executives, designers, and engineers did anyone mention the last pickup was based on the brand’s most successful, recognized model. And the new pickup’s name comes from the way-back 1962 Jeep Gladiator, which eventually became the J-Series after 1970.
“The debates we had internally when it comes to naming? It was not a short discussion,” says Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director. “It’s emotional. We looked to the past because we had a lot of great trucks over the years, and this one… we felt that Gladiator was almost the perfect fit for it.”
For at least 20 years, there has been incessant discussion in chat rooms, fan groups, and Internet forums that Jeep needed to reintroduce a CJ-8 Scrambler—the CJ-based pickup sold from 1981–86. In the decades since it went away, the CJ-8 has become the gold-plated member of the CJ family, good for five-figure sums even in the days prior to the dot-com bubble. A quick scan of results at Bring A Trailer shows clean, original, unmodified CJ-8’s selling in the $20,000–$28,000 range, which is in line with Hagerty’s valuation numbers. Average value for a 1983 model is $14,400, while a #1-condition Concours-quality ’83 Scrambler is $30,500.
The voices got louder and more insistent when Jeep itself showed concepts like the JK8 Independence at the Easter Jeep Safari, fueling speculation that a JK-based Scrambler successor was in the works.
Until now, however, the only real product available was from the aftermarket, where companies like DV8 OffRoad built Scrambler-like pickups on JK-generation Wrangler chassis and running gear. For the CJ-8 faithful, those specially built Wrangler-based pickups were great, even if they weren't official Jeep issue.
The Gaucho that started it all
The irony is that those modern, cottage-industry CJ-8 wannabes actually share more with the original Scrambler concept than most people realize.
The idea for the Scrambler launched back in 1977, when Jeep dealer and legendary off-road racer Brian Chuchua was without a product to sell at the height of the mini-truck boom. “Jeep says there’s no market for a small pickup truck,” Chuchua told Four Wheeler magazine that year. “But I say there is.”
Chuchua set out to prove it by using a long-wheelbase CJ-6 chassis with a CJ-7 tub cut into a two-seat cab. He purchased beds from California Mini Truck, and in no time, Brian Chuchua’s Jeep Center in Placentia, California, was in the mini-truck business—a CJ-7 and $2000 could get you a Gaucho in 1978, three years before Jeep introduced the Scrambler. The Gaucho received coverage in Four Wheeler and Off-Road magazine, and it didn’t go unnoticed at Jeep.
Chuchua was on to something. There was a huge market for mini-trucks, and Jeep was way behind with an offering to counter the Ford Courier, Chevy LUV, and other Japanese-based offerings.
The Scrambler arrives, but fails
While Chuchua went full Gaucho, AMC watched as the entire mini-truck market passed it by. It didn't have the captive import relationship with a manufacturer that could spool up a quick competitor, and it didn't have the ready cash to build one from scratch.
According to AMC/Jeep historian Patrick Foster, when Jeep finally got the CJ-8 Scrambler project in gear, the product was conceived as a more upscale competitor to the mini-trucks.
It didn’t arrive until 1981, but the CJ-8 Scrambler certainly looked the part, and developing it as a longer-wheelbase version of the CJ-7 wouldn't have cost Jeep much of anything in those days. It featured a 103.5-inch wheelbase—10 inches longer than a CJ-7. And the media certainly dug it. Car and Driver called it “a long-awaited dose of refinement to pavement Jeeping.” Ronald Reagan liked it enough to get one for his ranch. Still, the CJ-8 sold in pretty grim numbers. In 1981, 8355 found homes across the country, and by 1985, Jeep sold only 2015 of them. In the Scrambler’s final year in 1986, there were only 128 takers.
Foster—who began his career selling AMC/Jeep products in the 1960s and 1970s—notes that Jeep simply couldn't pull off the value proposition that the imports could. “They were pretty expensive,” Foster says, reading off the starting MSRP of a base CJ-8 in 1981: $7288 with a soft top and painted steel wheels (that’s about $21,217 today). And that was before you went up the Renegade and Laredo ladder, which offered some of the stylish add-ons that most consumers liked about the truck.
Pretty quickly, you could be up around $10,000 ($29,112 today), a ton of money in the early-Reagan era, especially when Datsun was offering a 2WD 720 pickup truck for $6000 ($17,467 today).
The CJ-8 was for a different customer than the cheap mini-truck, and in the depths of the Malaise Era, there simply wasn’t enough demand, outside certain pockets of America. Foster sold Jeeps in the verdant Connecticut suburbs of Manhattan and managed to sell quite a few to the well-heeled for use in the Hamptons or the Vineyard.
Fool me once, shame on you...
Probably the biggest lesson for the 2020 Gladiator's product planners learned from the CJ-8’s less-than-stellar sales: know your audience.
The mini-truck market is gone, and it's not coming back. The trucks that now occupy the space that mini-trucks once occupied are much larger, much more powerful, more complex, and way more expensive. Trucks—no matter what the size—are rarely considered a cheap alternative to an economy car. The cheapest Toyota Tacoma, for example, starts at $25,700, while the cheapest car in Toyota's product line, the Yaris, is $10,000 less.
Pickup buyers want capability, but they also want features and aren't afraid to spend money to get them.
Now, though, the Gladiator—especially in Sport and Sport S trims—aims to compete directly with the kinds of midsize trucks that Americans already buy. (Look out Tacoma, Colorado, and upcoming Ranger.) Yet the Gladiator is unlike any vehicle in the market: a go-anywhere off-road vehicle with removable top and doors, with the utility of a pickup bed. It’s a single vehicle that meets a whole lot of wants and needs in a crowded pickup market.
That’s exactly what the CJ-8 aimed for, but it swung and missed the market. The Gladiator hits it square on the slatted-grille nose.