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Jeep had already sold a full-size pickup truck, the J-series née Gladiator, for decades when it started making Scrambler pickups based on the CJ-7. Billed as the “America’s first small 4x4 pickup,” the Scrambler launched on March 25, 1981 — the only roadster pickup or convertible pickup. While small, it was a good two feet longer than the CJ-7, with a ten-inch longer wheelbase. The result was a smoother ride than the CJ series.
With its full-size J-series pickups barely registering in the sales reports, one may wonder why Jeep spent the money on developing and manufacturing its own compact pickup. The answer may come in the increasing popularity of small pickups, both Japanese and American, as Toyota Tacomas, Isuzus, (Mitsubishi) Dodge D-50s, Ford Rangers, and Chevy S-10s gained traction with buyers. Many of those pickups were sold as 4x4s, and Jeep had one of the toughest, most versatile 4x4s out there. By adding two feet of length to the standard CJ-7 (with ten more inches of wheelbase), altering the hard and soft tops, putting in a pickup bed, and making as few changes as they could along the way, Jeep created its own compact pickup at relatively low cost.
Like the CJ, the 1981 Scrambler had a choice of the GM-sourced 82-horsepower four-cylinder, or an optional AMC 4.2 liter / 258 cid in-line six-cylinder, weighing in at 445 pounds, and pushing out 110 hp. The in-line six, the basis of a later four cylinder and the 4.0 six, built up a reputation for durability, though some of the associated hardware did not. Most buyers wisely chose the six. Both engines had two-barrel carburetors and electronic ignition.
A synchronized four-speed manual transmission was standard; the optional three-speed automatic (with a locking torque converter) was the Chrysler A-909 for the four cylinder and A-999 for the six. Electrical power came from a 42-amp alternator, either way.
Unlike most pickups, Scrambler used the CJ series’ choice of soft or hard (fiberglass) tops, both of which could be removed by the owner. Both had standard bucket seats. There was also a “world cab,” which converted the pickup into a van; Alaska’s branch of the U.S. Postal Service ordered 230 of these for mail delivery in harsh conditions.
Scrambler was a two-seater, with 39.1 inches of legroom, and 53.8 inches of hip and shoulder room. The box was 61.5” long, 55.8” wide, and 16.4” high.
Technically, the Scrambler was dubbed CJ-8; in some countries it sold as the CJ8 Overlander. AMC itself referred to it as both CJ-8 and Scrambler in its brochures.
Like CJ-5 and CJ-7, the Scrambler had part-time four wheel drive with manual-locking, free-wheeling front hubs; the Dana 300 transfer case had a 2.62:1 low gear. Brakes were manual, with discs up front and drums in the rear; power brakes were optional. The fuel tank took 20 gallons of fuel, but when skid plates were ordered, that dropped to 15. Standard-for-the-time recirculating ball steering had a 24:1 ratio, with variable power optional (that dropped the ratio to 17.5:1).
Scrambler rode on G78x15 (P215/75R15) tires; the front and rear suspensions both used leaf-springs, with four leaves (170 inch-lb) in front and four or five in back (185 inch-lb; five leaves for hardtop). The minimum ground clearance was 7.6 inches, the same as CJ-5 and CJ7.
The pickup was moderately expensive ($7,288 list), albeit in line with the CJ-7, and much cheaper than the J-trucks. It was also much smaller than full-size pickups (103.5” wheelbase, 177” length, 69” high — 70.5” with hardtop). The full-size Dodge Ram D-150’s base price was lower, its payload higher — and its fuel mileage lower, even with a diesel.
The SR Sport package included a soft-feel, three-spoke steering wheel, day/night mirror, courtesy lights, dashboard overlay, rocker panel moldings, front frame cover, hood decals, larger tires with large white letters, an underhood light, black, blue, or tan fabric seats, and spare lock and cover. The SL Sport added everything from SR Sport, plus tan or black Cara-grain vinyl seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and passenger assist bar, pinstriped instrument panel, console unit, indoor/outdoor carpet, stripes, trim upgrades, chromed exterior parts, clock, tachometer, and hood insulation, along with a vinyl soft half-cab or hard top half-cab with steel doors.
Scrambler’s first year was its best, with 8,355 made.
In 1982, AMC increased the tread width by 3.4 inches in front, 4.6 in rear; and moved the standard spare tire from the back of the tailgate to the roll bar, switching to a mini-spare as they did so; a full size spare on the tailgate was now optional (this cut length to 169 inches). A Warner five-speed manual transmission became optional (the four-speed was still standard, and the three-speed automatic was still optional), and cruise control was optional with the manual transmissions; the company switched to “low-drag” front disk brakes.
Following a national jeans craze, buyers could get the Scrambler with a “denim look” as part of the SR Sport package, which included blue, black, or nutmeg “denim vinyl.” The price rose to $7,563 ($8,392 with hardtop).
They made just 7,759 in this second year.
For 1983, the six cylinder engine got boosted compression and a knock sensor. Scrambler production fell to 5,407, and the price fell to $6,765. Weight was now listed at 2,733 lb. (To put production into perspective, they made 3,100 CJ-5s and over 37,000 CJ-7s. Jeep only hit 65,000 vehicles overall, with J-series trucks, Cherokee, and Wagoneer thrown in — and at that, it was a peak for Jeep under AMC, their best year since buying it from Kaiser in 1970).
AMC proudly launched a new 86-horsepower four-cylinder engine in 1984, a 2.5 liter which was an advance over the GM engines. Production dropped again, though, to 4,130 trucks, at a price of $7,563 each. The weight was now 2,679 lb, presumably mostly due to the new engine and its accessories.
With its tooling scarcely used, Scrambler continued into 1985, with the SR Sport version now called Renegade and the SL Sport replaced by Laredo; they both had new colors for the interior and tops, and standard high-back bucket seats. Despite the new names and colors, and the extra showroom traffic coming in to see the new XJ Jeep Cherokee, Scrambler production plummeted to 1,050 or 2,015 (depending on the source). The reported weight popped back up to 2,701 lb, and the price down to $7,282.
The Scrambler quietly returned, left out of Jeep brochures, for 1986; some believe 128 were made for that model year, while others believe those were “re-yeared” 1985s. In any case, 1986 was the final year for the CJ on which the Scrambler was based. After that, the new Jeep Wrangler replaced the CJ, with a suspension made safer for typical on-road drivers; and the Jeep Comanche lightweight pickup replaced Scrambler, with more success.
Fewer than 28,000 were made, probably not enough to repay the investment in creating the vehicle in the first place. Most people were likely unaware of its existence, reducing the buyer pool. Competing compact pickups were getting more car-like in their feel and interior appointments; admittedly the other compacts did not have to go off-road, or at least not into challenging off-road settings.
Overall, the market for small pickups designed to meet challenging off-road conditions seems to have been fairly small, and at the same time, companies with much greater economies of scale could make 4x4 pickups that were good enough for most people.
Jeep Scramblers remain in active use, and are well regarded by the offroad community. Nearly all parts can be replaced, thanks partly to all the shared components with CJ-7 and partly to the continued popularity of Scramblers among dedicated Jeepers.
Scrambler was 177.3 inches long in 1981, on a 103.5 inch wheelbase, with a maximum body width of 59.9 inches.
The 1981 Scrambler was 67.6 inches high; the minimum ground clearance was 6.9 inches. The tailgate width was 34.5 inches. The front axle had a gross weight rating of 2,200 pounds; the rear axle, 2,700 pounds. The gross vehicle weight (including load) was 4,150 lb.
With the hard top, there were 39.9 inches of headroom; the soft top gave 40.9 inches. Front legroom was 39.1 inches, with hip and shoulder room both at 53.8 inches. The cargo area was 30.3 cubic feet, with a length of 58.5 inches (at the beltline) and width of 55.8 inches (at the beltline); the box was 16.4 inches high.
Thanks to Julie McKay Covert for supplying photos of Scramblers in the wild — these are mainly modified versions, while the AMC/Jeep photos are stock— and to Kevin Sullivan for putting Allpar and Julie in touch with each other.
In the summer of 2014, Kevin Sullivan wrote that his Scrambler, pictured above, had “32x11.50x15 BFG ATs, 4.10 gears, T176/Dana300, ARB air locker in rear Dana 44, Detroit Trutrac LS in front Dana 30. Big Daddy tie rod/drag link, flipped up top, Poison Spider differential covers, 4x4Land rock rails, Topeka, Kansas. Our rig is half rust, half Bondo, half paint, and all fun. It performed flawlessly. The driver, not so much, on occasion.”
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