Phoenix Stealthy Mini Truck Camper and CJ8 Scrambler: A Match Made in Heaven

Remember this inspirational Jeep TJ Brute-Four Wheel Camper Sparrow Rig built over 10 years ago? We never forgot about it and vowed that one day we would build something similar. Well, that day has finally arrived here at Truck Camper Adventure. However, we won’t be modifying a Jeep Wrangler TJ with an aftermarket American Explorer Vehicles (AEV) TJ Brute truck bed shown in this photo. Instead, we’ll be using a real pickup truck for our build using a 1981 AMC Jeep CJ8 Scrambler—the Jeep that inspired AEV to create the TJ Brute and MOPAR to relaunch the Jeep Gladiator in the first place.

The Truck: AMC Jeep CJ8 Scrambler SL Sport

The AMC CJ8 Scrambler is Jeep’s first convertible pickup truck. With a wheelbase of 103.4 inches, the Scrambler is a long wheelbase version of the CJ7. The CJ8 Scrambler features everything that makes the CJ7 great but with a 5-foot bed for hauling. The Scrambler’s bed measures 61.5 inches long, 58.8 inches wide, and 16.4 inches high. The distance between the wheel wells is only 36 inches with the width of the tailgate slightly smaller at 34.5 inches. With a suspension consisting solely of leaf springs, the Scrambler offers a GVWR of 4,150 pounds, according to the VIN code E. With a curb weight of approximately 3,200 pounds, this nets a payload of approximately 950 pounds, a decent figure for what AMC called, “America’s first small 4×4 pickup.”

With only 27,000 Jeep CJ8 Scrambler’s built by AMC between 1981 and 1986, the two-door convertible pickup is exceedingly rare. Due to it’s robust frame, long wheelbase, and 5-foot bed, the CJ8 was perfect for those who wanted a vehicle that could not only tackle the trails, but haul heavy loads. As Jeep’s first convertible pickup, it should have been a hot-seller, but for some reason it wasn’t. The timing simply wasn’t right and wouldn’t be until the Jeep Gladiator’s official relaunch in 2018. While the Scrambler failed to catch on in the 1980s, it’s notoriety skyrocketed in the 1990s due to its rarity, long wheelbase, and unique design. Today, it remains a favorite among Jeep enthusiasts and collectors alike.

Truck Camper Adventure’s 1981 Jeep CJ8 Scrambler before the restoration

Three Scrambler trim-lines were produced by AMC initially: the basic Scrambler, the Scrambler Renegade (SR) Sport, and the Scrambler Laredo (SL) Sport. These were replaced in 1985 with Renegade and Laredo trims only. According to the 1981 Scrambler sales brochure, the basic Scrambler came with a “part time” 4WD with a 2-speed transfer case and free-wheeling front hubs; a 151 (2.5L) I4-cylinder engine team with a 4-speed manual transmission. Additional standards included: front disc/rear drum brakes, a solid state ignition, a fuel tank skid plate, folding windshield, steering damper and front stabilizer bar, and a swing-out rear-mounted spare.

According to the 1981 Scrambler sales brochure, the Scrambler SR Sport trim came with “Convenience Group” courtesy lights; an 8-inch daylight mirror, an underhood light; white 15×7-inch wheels; L78x15 Goodyear Tracker P/G OWL tires; wheellip extensions; spare wheel lock; the Decor Group: rocker panel protection molding; padded instrument panel with panel overlay; soft feel sports steering wheel; front frame cover, and exterior graphics in graduations of yellow, blue or red, depending on exterior color; high back driver and passenger buckets seats trimmed in black, blue, or nutmeg denim look vinyl depending on exterior color.

In 1981, the Scrambler SL Sport trim included all of the base equipment plus the Convenience Group courtesy lights; 8-inch day/night mirror; under-hood light, chrome 15×7-inch wheels, a chrome front bumper, rear bumperettes, swing-away spare tire carrier latch and stop, a chrome grille panel with pinsripe, chrome mirror heads and arms, footman loops, rear step bump, black rocker moldings, heavy duty shocks, hood insulation, tachometer and clock, padded instrument panel, special exterior striping and “Scrambler” letting in silver and gray, or nutmeg and bronze, depending on base exterior color.

The SL Sport trim also offered a choice in a half cab with soft top and soft doors, or a half cab hard top with steel doors. Special interior trim: black or dark nutmeg indoor/outdoor carpeting; special high back bucket seats in black with dray vinyl accent straps or nutmeg with honey accents; a leather-wrapped steering wheel and passenger assist bar, specially trimmed console, special door trim panels, and special pinstriping on the instrument panel. The SL Sport package was available with 10 regular production exterior colors.

Our 1981 Jeep appears to be a Renegade SR Sport, with several Laredo SL Sport upgrades.

The Scrambler powertrains were mated to either a 4- or a 5-speed transmission (the four-speed T-5 being the more desirable of the two). The three-speed Borg-Warner automatic was also available as an option. All Scramblers were equipped with a Dana 300 transfer case, a Dana 30 front axle with a GAWR of 2,200 pounds, an AMC 20 rear axle with 4:10 gears and a GAWR of 2,700 pounds, and front locking hubs.

Aside from the change in Scrambler trims, minor changes were made by AMC over the years. In 1981, AMC offered narrow-track axles that turn tighter versus wide-track axles that provide better stability overall with an additional 4 inches in width. Lap belts were offered in 1981 and 1982. Beginning in 1983, AMC offered a three-point shoulder belt. In 1983, AMC offered an optional roll-bar mounted tire carrier. Earlier years offered a rear swing tire carrier mount. Owners could also order an AMC AM or AM/FM radio as an option.

So how did we score on such an exceedingly rare Jeep? It was quite by accident. A friend invited us over to look at an old truck camper she was interested in selling. Sitting right next to that camper was the Scrambler SR Sport we own today.

Our 1981 Scrambler Renegade is in remarkably good shape for a 42-year-old Jeep. This is due primarily to living most of its life in Arizona. The Jeep is painted in a copper-brown-metallic (E1), a common color used in the late ’70s and early ’80s. At some point, the engine was upgraded from GM’s 2.5L I4 (VIN code B) to Chrysler’s excellent 4.0L I6, while the transmission was upgraded from the Borg-Warner four-speed manual (VIN code M) to Chrysler’s 32RH “Torqueflite” three-speed automatic. Both the engine and transmission reportedly came from a 1995 YJ. Finally, the “boxy” OEM rear bumper was replaced with what appears to be a homemade bumper.

Yes, we would’ve preferred having an entirely stock Scrambler, but it’s hard to argue with the engine and transmission upgrades. The bulletproof reputation of the 4.0L I6 is well-deserved, especially from 1991 to 1995. Having owned nothing but TJ Wranglers with the I6 before, finding this particular Scrambler was fortuitous. The good thing about the transmission upgrade is that we’ll be able to flat tow the Jeep. As a matter of fact, the front bumper is already equipped with the brackets needed for towing, though we will probably use a car trailer to haul it to reduce rock damage.

Another view of the Scrambler before the restoration.
Front view of our Scrambler’s narrow-track front axle.

Not surprising, our Scrambler SR Sport will require some much needed repairs and suspension upgrades. The body is in pretty good shape, though a fresh coat of paint and some light body work in places will be needed. As you can see, we’ve already replaced the wheels with a set of Rough Country 15-inch steel rims and replaced the 20-year old tread with a set of BF Goodrich KO2 31X10.50R15s (LR-C). We also replaced the worn-out shocks with a set of Rancho 5000s. While the leaf springs are in surprisingly good shape for a Jeep of this age, we will be upgrading them with a set of springs that will provide a 6,000-pound rating on the rear axle. The frame is in surprisingly good shape and solid as well. The only section underneath that needs repair are the floors and toe boards underneath, which are usually a weak spot in Jeeps of this age anyhow.

The Camper: Phoenix Stealthy Mini

Unfortunately, Four Wheel Campers no longer makes the Sparrow. As a matter of fact, only three Sparrows were ever built and one of those was shipped to Europe, making it highly unlikely we’d ever find a used one. This meant one thing—a new Jeep camper would need to be built. But who would be willing to build a slide-in truck camper for a 42-year-old Scrambler with a 34.5 inch wide tailgate? With years of experience building such campers, Phoenix Campers was the obvious choice. Overseeing the job would be truck camper designer extraordinaire, Rob Rowe, Phoenix Camper CEO.

Founded in 1988, Phoenix Campers is a force in the industry. As a matter of fact, Rob Rowe’s father, Dave, founded Four Wheel Campers in 1972. Rob learned the intricacies of the trade from his father and helped make Phoenix Campers into the force it is today. In the past, Phoenix Campers was known as a custom manufacturer, but last year the company decided to change things up by offering standardized models to reduce lead times.

Of these new Phoenix camper models, the Stealthy Mini was and is the obvious choice to pair with our beloved Scrambler. As a matter of fact, a few Stealthy Minis have already been built for the Jeep Gladiator. Furthermore, the floor plan of the Stealthy Mini is nearly identical to the old Four Wheel Camper Sparrow. It has a bench seat on the passenger side, and east-west cab over bed, and a small kitchen on the driver side. Happily, the cubby underneath the step up to the bed is large enough to store a porta pottie.

But the Stealthy Mini offers much more than just the basics—a lot more. It all starts with a double-welded aluminum frame, fiberglass siding, and R5 rated extruded polystryrene wall and ceiling insulation. Inside, the diminutive camper you’ll find an electric roof lift, a 12 volt Fan-Tastic Vent, lift jacks, a 100 amp hour lithium battery, a 175 watt solar power system, and a DC-DC charger. The Stealthy Mini also comes with 20-pound propane tank, an 11 gallon fresh water holding tank (located underneath the kitchen sink), a 10,000 BTU furnace, a 30 amp converter-charger, privacy curtains, 12 volt and 110 volt AC outlets, a recessed platform to store a cooler or DC refrigerator, a sink and stove combo unit, and a 5-inch thick mattress. Of course, the camper also features Phoenix’s trademark nose cap and aerodyamic cabover. The total cost out the door for the Stealthy Mini is only $29,740.

Stealthy Mini interior
View of the Stealthy Mini kitchen

One concern we had going with a slide-in camper on the Jeep was the lack of roll-over protection after removal of the OEM roll-bar. After all, this is a Jeep and we plan on taking it off-road both with and without the camper. According to Rob Rowe, however, the Stealthy Mini solves this problem with the way the camper is built.

“The frame looks a lot like a shark cage,” Rowe said. “It’s aluminum framed all the way down to the floor base throughout. The front wall and the upper section that supports the cab over is reinforced with even more framing. That’s why it comes out stronger than any roll-bar. Plus, it’s kind of a squarish shape. We have seen people tip these guys over or fall off trails, and typically they slide more than roll over onto the roof. Our frame doesn’t have a round shape like a roll bar. Because of this, people can sometimes come out a lot better with the camper on than with a roll-bar.”

So how much does the Stealthy Mini weigh? That’s an important question for a “mini” pickup truck like the Scrambler. According to Rob Rowe, the Stealthy Mini weighs about 900 pounds. With very little storage and fresh water capacity, we can comfortably say that this camper will never weigh more than 1,100 pounds fully loaded. As you can see, the Phoenix Stealthy Mini is the perfect slide-in camper for our 1981 Jeep CJ8 Scrambler, even without the leaf spring upgrades.

We are thrilled about this collaboration with Rob Rowe and Phoenix Campers and can’t wait for our Stealthy Mini to be built. When will the camper be complete? Delivery is currently scheduled in October 2024.

What are Rob’s thoughts on this particular build?

“We’re really excited about this project and look forward to making a Stealthy Mini that will fit the Scrambler really nice. That’s what we do, all day, every day. We’ll make it fit it tight enough to look good, but also can be loaded and unloaded easily. So if you want to, you can pull it off and go play with the Jeep with the camper off,” he said.

As a life-long Jeep and truck camper enthusiast, this Scrambler-Stealthy Mini combo combines the best of both worlds. The Jeep is an American icon and a terrific 4×4 vehicle. Combine it with a unique camper built by legendary truck camper designer, Rob Rowe, and you have a combination that is truly made in heaven.

About Mello Mike 901 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a certified RVIA Level 1 RV Technician, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. A communications expert and licensed ham radio operator (KK7TCA), he retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, holds a BS degree, and now runs Truck Camper Adventure full-time. He also does some RV consulting, repairs, and inspections on the side. He currently rolls in a 4WD Ram 3500 outfitted with a SherpTek truck bed with a Bundutec Roadrunner mounted on top.

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