By Michael Petti
Nick Bentivegna’s watercolor of a black 1958 Chrysler 300D appeared on the front cover of Old Cars Weekly in the spring of 1993. Besides being an artist, he is a collector. Bentivegna is ahead of the curve. “I have always enjoyed collecting the Kaiser built (pre-American Motors Corporation) J-Series Jeeps of the 1960s. I have several including Wagoneers and a rare Panel Delivery," he says. "For a long time, no one in the hobby was interested in them, so I would buy nice ones at reasonable prices.” One of Nick’s gems is a 1969 Jeep Gladiator J-3000 four-wheel drive pickup.
It seems that the Gladiator played second fiddle to the Wagoneer. Like the SUV, the Gladiator came out in the fall of 1962 as a 1963 model. It shared a conventional body on frame construction with the Wagoneer. The pickup also shared the front end with the sport utility.
Jim Angers and his Jeep styling assistants created a boxy, upright design that was rugged looking. Brooks Stevens contributed the “rhino grille”. There was no visual connection to previous Jeep trucks. The Gladiator was the first Jeep truck to feature a slab-sided cargo box. It looked as good as any pickup of its day.
The Ebensburg, Pa. resident saw the Gladiator on the Internet back in 2003. “It was 100% original with very low miles. The story I got on this truck was that the original owner purchased it for use on his farm. He used it for a year or so, and then passed away. His family left it in storage some 30 years unused. The Jeep was purchased by a collector who got it running, and kept it a few years. He then put it up for sale and I bought it.”
When introduced, the Gladiator offered three innovations. The biggest was an automatic transmission. It was the first four-wheel-drive to offer an automatic. Another addition was the optional independent front suspension with torsion bars. Because of poor sales, it was deleted in 1965. Another advance was the Tornado OHC six overhead-camshaft. This first mass produced U.S.-designed OHC engine beat Pontiac’s Sprint OHC six to market by two years.
The 140-hp OHC Tornado six developed a reputation for oil leaks, and was replaced in the middle of 1965 model year with AMC’s brand new overhead-valve 232-cid six at 145-hp. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Gladiator received a V-8. In this case, it was AMC’s 327-cid V-8 that pumped out 250 hp. Beginning in 1967, another optional engine was the Buick 350-cid “Dauntless V-8” that offered 230-hp. Bentivegna’s Gladiator has a “Dauntless V-8”. “It does have the V-8 engine, which gives it a lot of power. Most of these had the asthmatic Rambler six.”
The Gladiator’s wheelbases were 120 inches, 132 inches, and 165 inches for the chassis camper. Besides the pickup, the Gladiators were available as a cab and chassis, wrecker, stake bed and chassis-mounted camper. Gladiators initially came in either 2-wheel-drive or as 4WD. Dual wheels were an option on some models. In addition to the slab-sided Townside, that Bentivegna has, a step-side called the Thriftside was available.
Bentivegna’s pickup is 188 inches long. Its lower hood makes it easier to service then other 4x4s. Compared to other 4WD trucks, the lower bed is easier to load. Its lower cab makes it easier to enter than other 4x4s. Yet, Bentivegna’s Gladiator has great ground clearance to be adept on and off road.
“I like these pickups because I think they are about perfect in size. The cab seats three men across comfortably, and the bed will accommodate a 4x8 sheet of plywood with the tailgate closed. But otherwise the truck is very compact and maneuverable, and nowhere near as ponderous as a full-size Ford, Dodge or Chevy pickup of the same era, not to mention the monsters they are building today.”
Bentivegna’s Gladiator is utilitarian in nature. “This is a base truck, stick shift, no radio. It does not have the amenities of a modern truck, such as lighted vanity mirrors in the sun visors. In fact, the passenger side has no sun visor at all,” he noted.
Bentivegna says his Gladiator has “a Spruce Tip Green exterior (classic Jeep color). The interior is amber, which was the only color offered on standard cab models.” He went on to say: “There is a single but attractive instrument cluster with a half-moon speedometer, gas and temp gauges, and oil and amp lights. Nice glovebox in the center.”
The Gladiator is a true original and not restored to original. It has less than 16,000 miles. “I put less than 1,000 miles on it the whole time, so I was more of a curator than anything else," he says. "I did take it to the lumberyard and drive-in — with a couch in the back — a few times, and it always created a sensation.”