Classic Pickups: '65 Jeep Gladiator J-210


Story and Photos by Jim Allen

The Jeep Gladiators of the 1960s are remembered as one of the most iconic pickups of the decade. They debuted late in 1962 as 1963 models, replacing a line of Willys trucks that were getting long in the tooth. The Gladiators were stylish, well-equipped and in some ways decidedly different from anything else on the market.

But different isn't always a good thing. The new Jeeps were at the leading edge of light-truck technology in many ways, but that position left them vulnerable to instances of nose-bloodying face-plants.

Jeep had been working on the new truck design, along with a new station wagon, since the late 1950s. Its lines of utility station wagons and pickups went back to the mid-1940s and looked decidedly dated, but they remained well-liked. For a time, having four-wheel drive was enough to balance out the behind-the-times styling, but as the rest of the auto industry began offering light trucks with factory-built four-wheel drive, Willys realized it was time to step up its game.

Willys Motor Co. was the corporate entity that emerged from the 1953 merger of Kaiser Motors and Willys-Overland. Kaiser cars were doing poorly, not so much from the product side as the business side – kind of like what happens when a little guy goes nose to nose with the Big Three. Willys-Overland was holding its ground in a niche market, but it didn't have the capital to expand.

Great things were forecast from the marriage between Kaiser and Willys, but they didn't materialize. At the time of the merger, Willys had just reintroduced a line of cars. Kaiser cars had practically flat-lined at that point, and the company was stinging from the abject failure of its low-cost compact, the Henry-J; Kaiser pulled the plug on it shortly after the Willys deal went through. Kaiser then doubled down on Jeep.

The Gladiator was introduced alongside another iconic Jeep, the Wagoneer station wagon, with whom the Gladiator shared styling and a large number of components. From 1962 to 1965, Gladiator trucks were divided into two categories: the 120-inch wheelbase J-200 line and the 126-inch wheelbase J-300 line. Both categories were sold with several gross vehicle weights.

Two pickup boxes were available. There was the old-fashioned Thriftside, which is better known as a step-side these days, and there was the more stylish Townside bed. A factory-installed flatbed/stakebed was available on the higher GVW trucks. And, of course, you could get any Gladiator as a cab and chassis.

Gladiators were available in two- or four-wheel drive during this era, but you could also choose between a solid front driving axle or an independent front suspension. Jeep was the first to offer a four-wheel-drive pickup with an independent front suspension. Designed by Willys engineer Miguel Ordorica, the suspension provided carlike ride and handling with high cross-country mobility. However, it was an expensive option that not many people ordered. The system was known to be troublesome, and many historians consider it as nosebleed No. 1. The option was discontinued after 1965. Two-wheel-drive trucks were discontinued after 1966, except for special commercial orders.

Spartan was the rule for 4×4 trucks back in the '60s, but that was beginning to change. The upholstery shown here is not original to this truck but from a later one. The original door panels and seat were pretty disreputable, with most of the seat having gone to build a mouse metropolis. A cigarette lighter and four-wheel-drive indicators were ordered a la carte.

From 1963 to 1965, the Wagoneers and Gladiators had only one engine, the 230ci overhead-cam Tornado six. This was a free-breathing powerhouse that delivered more power than competing sixes of similar displacement (for more on the Tornado, click here). It came in two varieties: the standard 140-horsepower, high-compression version (8.5:1) with a two-barrel Holley carburetor and an optional 133-hp low-compression version (7.5:1) with a one-barrel carb.

It all sounded great and the test drive yielded a pretty snappy vehicle, but Willys Motor soon got its second bloody nose. Persistent oil leaks and oil consumption on the early production engines created a large number of warranty headaches.

Probably more at issue overall was Jeep's lack of a V-8 in the lineup. This was an era when you simply needed to have a V-8 option because those engines usually outsold sixes. Willys had always been conservative when it came to engine power; it's a corporate legacy from the company's economy-car days of the late 1930s. Partway into 1965, Willys solved the problem by adding an AMC 327 V-8 into the options list. In mid-1965, the Tornado was quietly replaced by an AMC six – namely the newly minted, oversquare overhead-cam 232ci that made 145 hp.

Power steering, power brakes and air conditioning were available, as well as an upgrade to a Borg-Warner T-98A HD four-speed or Borg-Warner's AS-8W automatic. The Custom Cab offered a plushier seat and door panels with armrests on both sides, as well as bright trim inside and out, sun visors, cigarette lighter, hubcaps, a chrome front bumper and the coveted "Custom Cab" badge.

Optional GVWs in the J-200 line ran from 4,000 pounds for the J-200; 5,600 pounds in the J-210; 6,600 pounds in the J-220; and 8,600 pounds in the J-230 dualie. The GVW in the long-wheelbase J-300 line started at 5,000 pounds and ran through 6,000, 7,600 and 8,600 pounds in the J-300, J-310, J-320 and J-330 models, respectively.

Nothing can get a truck collector's blood flowing faster than a barn find. The 1965 J-200 First Series owned by Rick and Paulette Riley doesn't exactly fit the standard definition of a barn find, but it did spend most of its later life in a barn, and it was purchased in unaltered condition from a farm in Kansas. It sat unused in a barn for years because of a transmission problem that Rick Riley found fairly easy to correct.

It's a base model Gladiator J-210 4×4 with a Thriftside bed and a GVW of 5,600 pounds. The paint and interior are Amber Metallic. The few options include an oil bath air filter, "deluxe" oversized rear window, chrome hubcaps, locking front hubs, heater/defroster, diamond plate rear bumper and a few other odds and ends. It has the Tornado six, standard T-90 "three-on-the-tree" three-speed column-shift manual transmission and a Dana 20 transfer case. The front and rear axles are Dana 44s with 4.09:1 ratios.

The truck may eventually get restored, but Rick Riley has been enjoying it as a time capsule. In any case, since the Rileys have several buildings full of the other members of their collection, it has to work its way up the list for restoration. For now, it's just gotten some basic repairs, cleaning and maintenance.

This rather basic Thriftside truck is fresh from a long sleep in a barn, showing only 88,459 miles. When we looked up the serial number in monthly production records, it shows this truck was assembled in October 1963. It must have hung around somewhere unsold because the serial number shows up again in the Aug. 17, 1964, issue of Confidential Trade Bulletin, where it was designated a '65 model. In those days, unlicensed leftover trucks at dealers (as well as trucks still at the factory) were frequently redesignated for the current year. Base price on this truck was $2,866, but options probably brought it up over $3,100. People who picked the Thriftside needed a bed with no intrusions. An otherwise identical Townside truck cost only about $30 more. You can see the large size and the deluxe rear window, an option that more than doubled the rear glass area. This rear window became standard in 1967.


When you say "Jeep Gladiator," this is what comes to mind: steel trucks and iron men. The Wagoneers got a grille upgrade in 1965, but the Gladiator kept this look through 1969. When the Wagoneers got a new grille in 1970, the Gladiators got the hand-me-down.


The Tornado overhead cam was a sprightly six, and it adequately powered the Gladiator. Comparison tests showed Tornado-powered Jeeps were a bit faster than the six-cylinder trucks of its competitors. The engine came as a high-compression two-barrel and an optional low-compression one-barrel. The latter is seldom seen in civilian Gladiators. Note the nice, flowing exhaust manifold. The intake ports were “Siamesed” and fed through two large ports. Jeep was one of the first manufacturers to offer a standard alternator, a 35-amp unit in this case.

The Gladiator trucks of 1965 came in two series. The First Series could also be called the Hundred Series. From their inception, the Wagoneers and Panels were the J-100, the 120-inch wheelbase J-200 and the 126-inch wheelbase J-300. When the two engines appeared to part ways in 1965, the new trucks became the Thousand Series – the J-200 became the J-2000, and the J-300 became J-3000. A J-4000 joined the family later.


These Co-Op tires are at least 30 years old. The stock size was 7.60-15 4-ply tires, but other sizes were optional. Note the Warn hubs, which were an extra-cost item in those days.


Here's what a 1965 Townside J-200 looks like. Frank Sanborn's First Series 4×2 has the standard small rear window. Otherwise, it's pretty similar to the Rileys' truck, including the three-speed Tornado six and basic accessory level.


This is the modern interpretation of the J-Series truck that Jeep put together for this year's Moab trail ride. Called the Jeep Concept J-12, the Wrangler Unlimited-based vehicle had all the sophistication and technical 4×4 prowess of the new platform, with all the attention-grabbing style of the old.  


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