When the ’63 model year Gladiator debuted in November 1962, it brought Kaiser Jeep close to parity with the Big Three in the light-truck market. They were burly, stylish trucks that came in a vast array of models from light 1/2-ton to 1-ton dual-rear-wheel. The Gladiator also offered an impressive array of options, but there was one thing missing: a V-8 engine. That shortcoming would hurt Jeep in the marketplace, and today, nobody really understands why the company went down that road. They were working on a V-8 option, but elements within the company believed its whiz-bang new Tornado overhead-cam six should be more than enough for anyone.
By mid-1965, the V-8 problem was solved with the addition of an AMC 327. The many teething problems the overhead-cam Tornado six suffered early on were also fixed, but its reputation problem was unsolvable. As a result, the Tornado was phased out by mid-1965 and AMC’s new 232ci six was phased in as the base engine.
The Gladiators were divided into two basic categories: the J-200 group with a 120-inch wheelbase and a variety of GVWRs and the J-300 line with a 126-inch wheelbase and a similar array of GVWRs. Both lines were further designated within in their GVWR classes. The J-200 and J-300 were base 1/2-tons with a 4000 or 5000-pound GVWR, respectively. The 210 and 310 models were in the heavy 1/2 or light 3/4 range with a 5,600 and 6,600-pound GVWR. The 220 and 320 were featured a 6,600 and 7,600-pound GVWR and were the full 3/4-ton offerings. Gladiators with the 230 and 330 designation were 8,600-pound-GVWR 1-ton dual-rear-wheel pickup trucks. All but the 230 and 330 had the option of four bed choices (five if you count a chassis cab): the smooth-sided Townside, the step-sided Thiriftside, a platform, and a stakeside. The two pickup beds came as 7 or 8-foot beds, depending on the wheelbase. The 230 and 330 were only offered with platform or stake beds, or as a cab-and-chassis design.
Up to about June 1965, the only engine was the Tornado OHC six (140 hp, 210 lb-ft). It was a peppy six but still a six, so the 250 hp, 340 lb-ft, 327ci V-8 was a welcome addition. The AMC 232 OHV six was phased at about the same time, and it made 145 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque. The OHC six was backed up by a standard T-90A three-speed column shift in the lower GVWR and a burlier T-89 three-speed in the heavier GVWR. The dually trucks came standard with a T-98, which was optional in all the trucks, as was a Borg Warner AS-8W automatic (except in the one tons). All transmissions in the trucks were mated to Dana 20 transfer cases.
The 4x4 Gladiators all used a Dana 44-1F, 3,000-pound-rated front axle with 5-lug hubs, except the 230 and 330. The only difference was the hubs for the 6-lug split-ring wheels. In back, the 200, 300, and 210 used 3,500-pound-rated Dana 44 semi-floaters. The others used 4,500 or 5,000-pound-rated Dana 53 semi-floaters, and the duallys used a Dana 70 full-floater with a 7,500-pound rating.
The Gladiator introduced two industry firsts to the American truck world: an overhead cam engine and an optional four-wheel-drive IFS front axle. Neither were anything close to a home run in terms of reliability, but they were still industry firsts. The IFS was designed by Miguel Ordorica and operated a bit like Ford’s later Twin Traction Beam. It’s far too complex to describe here, but it used a Dana 44-sized center section. The J-Series Wagoneer used a similar setup, but with a Dana 27 center section. It was a $250 option (about $1,800 in 2015 dollars), so it wasn’t commonly ordered. It was also somewhat problematic, so it was another item dropped in the mid-1965 upgrades.
The Gladiators came in two generations, the ’63 to ‘65.5 and the ’65.5 to’ 70. From ’70 on, Jeep was owned by AMC and stopped using the Gladiator name, and the signature grille was gone, but people continued calling them “Gladiators.” The early Gladiators are marked by the OHC six, optional IFS, and “hundred-series” designations such as J-200, J-300, etc. Production of most first-gen Gladiators models stopped early in 1965 (January to February), apparently to retool for the second-gen units that began production in late May and early June with AMC six-cylinder or V-8 engines, without an IFS option or new “thousand-series names.” There were a number of smaller changes and upgrades as well, but they aren’t noteworthy.
In a rapidly expanding pickup truck market and due to Kaiser’s limited development budgets, the Gladiator line soon lost its luster and fell behind the times again. Unlike the “Big Three,” Jeep couldn’t offer major changes every few years. They retained a loyal following, however, and today they are one of the most stylish and collectible vintage trucks you can own.