When Jeep unveiled the 2020 Jeep Gladiator earlier this year and made it crystal clear that the pickup was neither designed nor intended to be the second coming of the CJ-8 Scrambler, fans of the classic mini-truck slumped in disappointment. The 1981–86 CJ-8, meanwhile, has seen a major uptick in the collector market.
While the Scrambler solidified its place among the CJ elite long before, its median #2 (excellent) value is up about 21 percent over the past year. Values have risen 44–47 percent in the last 36 months, with the biggest increase occurring in January 2019, when #2 median values jumped 10 percent (from $20,300 to $22,300).
The bump in values and an increase in both insurance policies and insurance quoting activity we track have combined to propel the CJ-8 to a sizzling Hagerty Vehicle Rating of 91 (on a 100-point scale). That makes the Scrambler the 10th-hottest collector vehicle on the market, according to our scale.
“People are drawn to the Scrambler because it’s a classic Jeep with classic Jeep looks, but it’s fairly unique with its pickup body style,” says Hagerty valuation editor Andrew Newton. “Because they were never big sellers back in the day, they’re also relatively rare. And the name is just plain cool.”
[The Hagerty Value Rating considers the number of vehicles insured and quoted through Hagerty, along with auction activity and private sales results. A 50-point rating indicates that a vehicle is keeping pace with the overall market. Ratings higher than 50 show above-average interest; vehicles with a sub-50 rating are lagging.]
Gen-Xers make up 50.2 percent of CJ-8 insurance quotes, compared to 32.26 percent across the rest of the market. Millennials don’t share the same enthusiasm—only 12.06 percent of CJ-8 quotes are from Millennials, compared to 20.88 percent across the market.
AMC was late to the mini-truck party when it rolled out the CJ-8 in 1981. The Scrambler featured a 103.5-inch wheelbase and measured 177.3 inches from bumper to bumper—more than 22 inches longer than a CJ-7. Base models received a 150-cubic-inch four-cylinder engine rated at 82 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque.
There was also an optional 258-cu-in, 115-hp six-cylinder engine, and—in ’81 only—a 304-cu-in, 150-hp V-8.
First-year models came with a four-speed manual transmission, but an optional five-speed manual with overdrive arrived in 1982.
Car and Driver called the new CJ-8 “a long-awaited dose of refinement to pavement Jeeping,” and Ronald Reagan liked it enough to buy one for his ranch just before he became the 40th president of the United States.
The rest of the country seemed less enthused, however. In 1981, a total of 8355 CJ-8s found homes, followed by a steady decline: 7759 in 1982, 5405 in ’83, 4130 in ’84, 2015 in ’85, and a mere 128 in ’86 (possibly leftover ’85 models). Meanwhile, the previous CJ-7 averaged 34,482 units annually during an 11-year run that began in 1976.
Jeep simply couldn’t pull off the value proposition that the imports could. In 1981, the MSRP for a base CJ-8 with a soft top and painted steel wheels was $7288—about $21,217 today. And that’s before you climbed up the Renegade and Laredo ladder, which offered stylish add-ons. Meanwhile, a 2WD Datsun 720 pickup truck could be had for about $6000 ($17,467).
These days, CJ-8s from 1981–83 have an average #3 (good) value of $14,400, while 1984–86 models are at $15,500. Scramblers in #2 (excellent) condition leap to $22,000 and $23,400, respectively, while CJ-8s in #1 (concours) condition are worth $30,500 to $32,300. [There’s a 5-percent bump for a soft-top pickup, a 2-percent reduction for a hard-top wagon.]
With that said, custom Scramblers—namely, restored examples that have received an engine swap—are selling for much more than that. A 1981 CJ-8 with 6.0-liter LS sold for $49,500 at Barrett-Jackson’s 2019 Scottsdale auction, a 1982 model with a 5.3-liter Vortec engine went for $46,200 at Barrett-Jackson’s 2019 Palm Beach auction, and a 1981 Scrambler with 350-cu-in LT1 V-8 sold for $45,100 at Mecum’s 2018 Dallas auction.
Restored examples that still have their original 258-cu-in inline-six engines are more reasonable—and more in tune with average prices according to our data. A 1983 model sold for $33,750 on Bring a Trailer in February 2018, a 1982 model (rated #2-) went for $29,150 at Mecum’s 2018 Dallas auction, and a 1981 model brought $24,000 on Bring a Trailer in February 2018.
It seems the once-unappreciated CJ-8 has turned the tables. Just be careful not to get burned; they’re pretty hot right now.