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The front 3/4 view of a black restored 1981 Jeep J10 at the 2021 Mecum auction in Chicago

The Jeep J10 Was Both a Gladiator Truck Prequel and Sequel

The longest-running Jeep truck series finished its run as the J-Series. But before that, it was called the Gladiator--the same as the modern Jeep pickup. And a well-modified, well-restored Jeep J10 like the 1981 example at the 2021 Mecum Chicago auction can still be a solid workhorse.

Like many other automakers, Jeep likes to reuse historical nameplates, such as Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer. But those aren’t the only Jeeps named from the pages of history. The Cherokee name, for example, dates all the way back to the 1970s. And while it’s the only Jeep truck on sale today, the modern Gladiator isn’t the first Gladiator. That honor belongs to the Jeep J10 and the rest of the J-Series.

Built on the Wagoneer’s bones, the OG Jeep Gladiator was the brand’s longest-running truck series

A light-blue 1963 Jeep Gladiator
1963 Jeep Gladiator | Jeep

As noted earlier, the Jeep Gladiator is merely the latest in a series of Jeep pickup trucks. But it’s also one of the brand’s earliest pickups, even though it didn’t always bear that name. And while today’s Gladiator is based on the Wrangler, the original model was built on the SJ Wagoneer’s chassis.

Let’s start at the beginning. The original Gladiator was Jeep’s third pickup truck model, coming in right behind the Willys-Overland 4×4 and FC Series. And when it launched in 1963, it shared a platform with the contemporary Wagoneer. The Gladiator even used Wagoneer bodywork from the cab forward, Silodrome says.

But given that the SJ Wagoneer is arguably the first luxury SUV, none of these are bad things. Plus, it’s worth remembering that the original Wagoneer offered features like independent front suspension, power steering and brakes, dual-speed wipers, and a snowplow, Hagerty reports. And the 1963 Jeep Gladiator, like the Wagoneer, had the only American overhead-cam engine, the 140-hp, 210-lb-ft (SAE gross rating) 3.8-liter ‘Tornado’ inline-six. Also, Dana axles and 4WD.

However, the Jeep Gladiator didn’t keep that engine or its name for long. In 1964, the truck got a 133-hp version of the Tornado as its base engine, and a V8 became available in 1965. Then, in 1971, Jeep updated the truck’s styling and gave it a new name: the J-Series.

Previously, the truck’s trims were named according to their wheelbases: the 120” model was the J-200 and the 126” one was the J-300. But they also got new names in 1971: the 119” J10 and the 131” J20/J30. The Jeep trucks would use these names up until production ended in 1987. That makes the J-Series the longest-running truck series in Jeep’s history.

With a few modifications, a 1981 Jeep J10 like the one at the 2021 Mecum Chicago auction is still a fine workhorse of a classic truck

The front 3/4 view of a black restored 1981 Jeep J10 at the 2021 Mecum auction in Chicago
1981 Jeep J10 front 3/4 | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Obviously, a Jeep J10 doesn’t have all the features the modern Gladiator enjoys. However, these classic trucks—especially the post-1973 ones—are stout bases for a variety of builds, ranging from rock-crawling to lumber-hauling, MotorTrend says. Case in point, the restored 1981 Jeep J10 that recently sold at the 2021 Mecum auction in Chicago.

By 1981, the Jeep J10 had a beefier chassis, stronger front axle, and front disc brakes. It also offered two engines: a 115-hp (SAE net) 4.2-liter inline-six and a 170-hp 5.9-liter V8. The J10 pictured above has the V8, but it likely makes more than 170 hp. That’s because it’s bored out to 6.0 liters and has an Edelbrock intake manifold and Holley Truck Avenger carburetor. Plus, its 4WD system is linked to a rebuilt three-speed automatic.

The black-and-stainless-steel interior of a restored 1981 Jeep J10
1981 Jeep J10 restored interior | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Besides the restoration work, this 1981 Jeep J10 also features a 3” roll bar, tubular rear bumper, Rancho Shocks 2” lift kit, and stainless-steel brake lines. Plus, it rides on 10” American Racing wheels wrapped in BFGoodrich all-terrain tires. And underneath the new carpet is a LineX liner, which is also found in the trunk bed and floor bottom. Also, this J10 has a new headliner, center armrest, Retro radio, Laredo seats, and A/C.

These classic Gladiators are still reasonably priced

The 1981 Jeep J10 shown above was one of two J-Series trucks at the 2021 Mecum auction in Chicago. The other one was a 1986 example that had significantly more miles but was still in great shape. And both sold for less than the price of a new base Gladiator. Admittedly, vintage trucks and SUVs, including the Jeep Wagoneer, are going up in value, and the J-Series/Gladiator is no exception. However, for now, these classic pickups are still fairly affordable.

The restored 1981 J10, for example, sold for $30,800; that’s about the average market value for an excellent-condition one, Hagerty says. But you can find well-maintained examples for less; case in point, that 1986 J10 went for $27,500. Though special-edition models like the Golden Eagle do command higher prices.

Nevertheless, here’s hoping that the 1981 J10’s new owner takes it out regularly. It might be old, but the original Gladiator still has some fight left in it.

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