It was in 1947 when Willys-Overland gave the world what it deserved, and it also happened to be one of the most direct military tech trickle-downs of all time. It was a powerful, capable, and more or less unstoppable truck with definitive style with unprecedented (and necessary) off-road capabilities. Between then and now, the world has changed greatly, but two things have remained the same: one is Jeep’s identity, and the other is America’s demand for pick-up trucks.
Jeeps are utilitarian in many ways, but let’s be honest, when we look at the new Jeep Gladiator, we aren’t imagining it doing the kind of hard and dirty work depicted in typical truck commercials laden with gruff voices and bags of concrete and other heavy things being tossed around a brand-new vehicle, are we? Not because it doesn’t seem like it could handle it, but mostly because it looks too good to be abused.
The Jeep design team, led by Mark Allen—the father of nearly all Jeep models stretching back decades—had a very challenging mission with this car: the brand hasn’t released a production pick-up since 1986, but the seven slot grille’s fans have never stopped asking for one in all that time. It took a while, but I think it was worth it: the new Gladiator combines the iconic Wrangler style with greater functionality and a more refined interior, still respecting the heritage and meeting all the Jeep diehards’ expectations, while making something that can appeal to the drivers who don’t live very “trail-rated,” let’s say. Usually we wouldn’t look at a pick-up truck thinking that it’s much more than something to borrow from a friend when we move, but this is more than a workhorse.
The first Willys pick-up was born and raised in the 1950s, meant to be used as a farm vehicle when the world was recovering from World War II—sort of like a stronger, more brash 2CV in a lot of ways. It was rarely on main roads though, and after its success the first truck specifically designed for everyday civilian life came to be: full size, body on frame, it saw the light in 1962.
Back then “Gladiator” was just an advertising nickname for that truck, the J200, but it perfectly expressed the attitude of the Wagoneer-derived pick-up. The Jeepster Commando followed in 1966, the model that’s commonly considered to be the ancestor of all modern Jeeps. Like its predecessor, the Commando was available in different versions, including, of course, a pick-up.
When AMC bought Kaiser Industries (the makers of Jeeps for a time after industrialist Henry Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland), they continued production of Jeeps with rear beds, building the Scrambler in 1981, a CJ-based compact pick-up. Today these are extremely popular among collectors. After only five years, the truck was radically updated, changing its name in the process to Comanche. The Comanche was based on the Cherokee rather than the CJ (the CJ being the ancestor of the Wrangler). The AMC chairman at the time really believed in this segment, developing a vision (and marketing strategy) around an idea that is still very much a part of Jeep today: “People are finding trucks a reasonable and sophisticated alternative to cars.”
Today’s Wrangler JL-based 2020 Gladiator couldn’t be a better example. Four doors, offered in gas and diesel versions, it has the same comfort level and adventurous bent as the Wrangler, but with a five feet of additional cargo space: ready to load dirt bikes or a barbecue and a few steaks to be cooked under the stars somewhere you can’t reach in a Camry. It will also happily do errands around town, just like a Camry. The Gladiator will come with FCA’s 3.6L Pentastar V6, which produces 285hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque and is specifically designed to target the low-end part of the powerband. In other words, great for trails and scooting between stop signs alike, and better yet is the fact that the standard transmission for the 3.6L Gladiator is a six-speed with three pedals—there’s also an eight-speed automatic for the more cruising-oriented lot out there, which is the only option for the diesel models with the 3.0L EcoDiesel (read: turbo) V6, rated at 260hp and 442 lb.-ft. of torque.
The body-on-frame Gladiator is a capable off-roader, and its frame is 31″ longer than the current four-door Wrangler, and its wheelbase is just shy of 20″ longer, and there are four skid plates and bars to protect the underbelly should you decide to bring it somewhere unpaved. It’s being touted as the most capable midsize truck ever made, and it seems like the claim isn’t off-base. There will be multiple trim levels for the Gladiator, with the Sports and Overlands equipped with a two-speed transfer case and a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio. The Rubicon, the top rung, has Jeep’s Rock-Trac 4×4 system with more stump-pulling ratio of 4:1. The Rubicon models also boast longer total suspension travel, and they will have sway bars that connect and disconnect electronically. Pretty trick stuff.
There’s also an interesting transformable feature to the Gladiator wherein the included tool kit lets you customize it to your liking like a big LEGO. Take the top off, ditch all the doors, fold the windshield down, and you’ve got a a 4×4 rock-capable roller-coaster. There are more than 200 accessories offered by Mopar that can be used to further personalize the big Jeep. This Gladiator is a faithful, modern interpretation of the 77-year old brand’s cornerstone: GP, the two letters that stand for General Purpose, which slurred by the soldiers became “Jeep.”