With talk today of a soon-to-be-released pickup version of the Jeep JL-series Wrangler, it seems quite distant to think that Jeep had the first domestically built “compact” pickup. Initially, it was the CJ-8 Scrambler from 1981 to ’85, but the idea also continued from 1986 until 1992 with the Comanche. AMC billed that one as the first “midsize” pickup.

The Comanche is basically the 1984–99 Jeep XJ-platform Cherokee with a pickup box instead of a wagon body. However, there’s more to it than just simple sheet-metal changes, as the XJ was a unibody.

For the Comanche, Jeep engineered a rear subframe to attach to the cab unibody, calling it “Uniframe” construction. The cargo box was attached to the frame like a standard pickup. It was also offered in two wheelbases: a short box (six-foot) and long box (seven-foot), in two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Engines and trims

It was also like the XJ Cherokee as far as powertrains were concerned. When introduced, there was the choice of a 2-liter turbo diesel from AMC’s partner Renault or two gasoline engines: the AMC 2.5-liter inline four (introduced in 1984, along with the XJ) or the 2.8-liter Chevrolet V6. Powertrain salvation came a year later, when the AMC-based 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder replaced the V6.

By 1990, Jeep changed the platform designation from XJ truck to MJ. Today, MJs are what most Jeep heads will call any year of Comanche.

A variety of trim levels were also offered over the years, usually paralleling the Cherokees. Out of the gate in 1986, there was Custom, X, and XLS — from austere to reasonably well equipped. 1987 saw the levels changed to SporTruck, Pioneer, Chief (SWB only), and Laredo (LWB only). In 1988 Jeep offered a one-off Olympic edition, based on the Pioneer, to commemorate the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, that summer. 1989 saw the Chief and Laredo dropped, then a year later a high end “sporty” Eliminator was introduced. This hierarchy continued until the last Comanche was built.

Keep or kill

In the mid-1980s, AMC was still in bed with Renault — the closest they got to Chrysler was component sharing. With the J-10 and J-20 discontinued in 1987, the Comanche kept a pickup in the lineup — and building a pickup is an instant cash machine.

AMC needed cash to fund future projects, and taking the existing (and very successful) Cherokee and turning it into a pickup with minimal development needed was deemed a high priority to bring in easy profits.

With the acquisition of AMC by Chrysler in 1987, change began to occur within Jeep. It became the division that focused on off-roaders and SUVs — trucks, not so much. The Comanche’s best year was 1988, with 43,718 units built, but the ride to the end was about to begin. Chrysler’s promotion of the truck dwindled significantly, with falling sales numbers to show for it.

On June 12, 1992, Chrysler killed the Comanche, with a mere 952 built for the year. The biggest reason was the Dodge Dakota — the only other midsize pickup in the U.S. market at the time, and also sold by Chrysler.

Comanche renaissance, version 4.0

Almost as soon as the last new Comanche sold off a dealer’s lot, the trucks attracted a cult following. Despite the scores of Rangers and S-10s flowing off Ford and GM assembly lines — along with the fellow corporate Dakotas — they just weren’t Jeeps. As just about anybody within FCA can attest, that brand has a lot of pull, and if its devotees are denied a specific type of off-roader, that’s just more reason for them to want it.

The 4.0 is perhaps the best physical attribute in the eyes of enthusiasts. The first few years had their share of teething problems (exhaust manifold cracks and valvetrain noise the most prevalent), but considering the wide use of this motor in essentially all Jeep platforms during the 1990s (especially the YJ and TJ Wranglers), aftermarket support is good — from mild to wild.

There are certainly folks who like their four-banger Comanches, but they tend to be commuters, not rock hoppers. As for a 1986 with a 2.8-L V6, even if it has no miles and is still on the MSO, avoid it. That engine will be a losing battle (you’ll know the part number for head gaskets better than your Social Security number).

Rust is always thy enemy, but the unibody XJs and MJs tended to hold up pretty well. Yet if the doors start to sag and the tops of the front wheelwells are getting fuzzy, the tin worm has dined on the inner structure.

A hot market

In the past few years, good originals and tastefully tweaked examples have been doing well in the market. While most folks would expect them to be not far priced from a Ranger or S-10, they’ve been selling markedly better. Indeed, the only sub full-size pickups that’ll sell for more on a regular basis is the 1991 GMC Syclone and 1981–85 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler.

The best bet is to find one of the few 1992s. Yet from 1988 to 1991, it’s hard to go wrong with a well-cared-for original.

It’s hard to say if the new JL pickup will help or hinder the market for Comanches. I’m tempted to say that the market may stay flat or even soften a tad on the lower condition worker-bee examples. Yet for a good no-excuses example that you’d want to buy, get one now — lest today’s prices look cheap in the near future.

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