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Dodge Power Wagon

Dodge Power Wagon

By Jack Nerad

Dodge Power Wagon Do you long for those happy, carefree days you spent in the United States Army? Not too many of us do, but one of the legacies of the American military is a current billion-dollar-a-year craze. No, it's not the color khaki. It's not the camouflage fad. It's the sport utility vehicle.

There was a time when the people who drove four-wheel-drive vehicles didn't drink cappuccino every morning on their way to shuttle their kids to soccer practice. There was a time when the people who drove four-wheel-drive vehicles weren't welcomed at country clubs and the opera. There was a time when the people who drove four-wheel-drive vehicles were mainly men on missions, be it for the military, the Forest Service or utility companies. And the vehicle of choice for those manly men who got the job done was the Dodge Power Wagon.

It is a bit ironic today that DaimlerChrysler, the company that owns the Dodge brand, also owns Jeep, because the ubiquitous Jeep and the Dodge-built M-37 truck virtually monopolized the military four-by-four scene in World War II. Of course, several companies built the Jeep, including Willys-Overland, Ford and Dodge, and there was a wrestling match for the Jeep trademark at war's end. Willys won that battle, and the Jeep went on to become the icon of the civilian off-roader thanks largely to its rugged construction, low price and constant appearance on Roy Rogers TV show. With its success based largely on legend, Jeep has managed to outlive three companies that have owned the brand - Willys, American Motors and Chrysler Corporation.

While Willys was taking the Jeep to the people, Dodge, a company that has a legitimate claim to off-road heritage, took its civilianized version of the M-37 in a different direction. It considered the model it first dubbed the WDX unsuitable for personal use for folks like you and me, so instead the company's marketing mavens decided to sell it as a commercial vehicle. And it was as a commercial vehicle that the Dodge Power Wagon, as it quickly came to be known, developed its special cachet. Produced between 1946 and 1968, the Power Wagon developed a cult following that is small in relative numbers but absolutely fanatic in its devotion to the tough, cantankerous oddball of a vehicle that is so ugly it's beautiful.

Since it was destined for life as a commercial vehicle, the folks at Dodge did very little to domesticate the military truck for civilian use. The overall design was very similar to the Dodge-built 3/4-ton weapons carrier riding on a 126-inch wheelbase. The closed cab version had a family resemblance to the Dodge VC series trucks, and the front hood, engine enclosure and grille were similar to the T234 3/4-ton vehicle built by Dodge for the Chinese Army, which was famous for its treks over the Burma Road.

In military use the M-37s were configured various ways, including as ambulances, fire trucks and the aforementioned weapons carriers. Civilian Power Wagons also came in several types, and many did see service as fire trucks, especially in forestry work, but the most common Power Wagon was fitted with a pickup box that measured eight feet long by four and a half feet wide with sides the sides of the pickup box about two feet above the bed.

Perhaps because the vehicle was designed strictly with functionality in mind it has a homely beauty about it. The rudimentary fenders give it a rugged look that is accentuated by the upright grille, separate headlights and split windshield. The side-mounted spare adds to the jaunty appearance as do the tall, heavily lugged tires on 16-inch steel wheels. Peering inside, one could grasp why Dodge executives decided the Power Wagon wasn't going to be a personal-use vehicle. Oh, they did add an amenity or two to the military version, but the 1946 WDX was none too plush even in the context of its times. Driver and passenger sat on a fairly narrow bench seat, and the driver was confronted by a paucity of gauges and a thin-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel of impressive diameter - the Forties replacement for power-assisted steering. Three big levers jutted from the floorboards of the car, one the gearshift lever for the four-speed, non-synchromesh gearbox (can you say "double-clutch?") and the other two the selectors for the New Process two-speed transfer case that directed some of the engine power to the front wheels when the driver deemed that necessary. Just to demonstrate how rudimentary the base Power Wagon was, things like the driver's-side sun visor, armrest, overhead dome light and heater were optional. Air conditioning? Power windows? Be serious.

A glance under the hood suggests the name of the vehicle was a misnomer. Some say the truck was named "Power Wagon" after a contemporary trucking magazine with that title. Whatever the reason for the name, the tried-and-true Dodge flathead six that resided under the front bonnet had a hard time living up to its billing. It produced just 94 horsepower from its 230 cubic inches of displacement, and some said that if dew formed around the sparkplugs it wouldn't run at all. But the Power Wagon quickly built a go-anywhere reputation based on its stout four-wheel-drive system and the beauties of torque multiplication. Clearly, with a compression ratio of about 6.7:1, the Power Wagon's engine wasn't going to produce a lot of, well, power, but the vehicle's designers helped compensate for this with extremely low (high numerically) final-drive ratios, ratios that might have seemed more suited to farm tractors. Buyers had their choice of the highway-friendly 4.89 rear end or (good night!) the super-stump-pulling 5.83. If the buyer picked the former, he might be able to cruise the Forties fast-lane at 50 miles per hour. The latter limited top end to not much higher than 45 mph.

While these numbers are far from exhilarating even for the Forties, one must remember that this vehicle was designed for work and dirty, difficult off-road work at that. It was this type of work in which the Power Wagon showed its greatness. It lacked the power for high-speed off-roading, but it had the torque and power multiplication to slog through just about anything. And if the engine couldn't pull its drivers out of the muck, the Power Wagon's optional 10,000-pound winch could be hooked up to a sturdy rock or tree to help extricate it from the predicament.

Like the contemporary Land Rover, the Power Wagon also could be purchased with a power takeoff system. This allowed the vehicle to be used as a stationary power source to run implements like saws or pumps. A governor kept engine power at a constant level in spite of changes in load. The only difficulty was the rear wheels had to be removed first.

Other manufacturers, including Mack, had built four-wheel-drive commercial trucks dating back to the pre-Word War I era, but Dodge factories in Michigan and California started turning out Power Wagons considerably before Willys introduced its post-World War II 4T. Despite this, Dodge's heritage as a four-wheel-drive vehicle manufacturer is largely unsung, though the division has been showing a concept vehicle it calls the Dodge Power Wagon at recent auto shows.

As you might expect, over the years, Dodge made changes to the original truck, the most conspicuous being the shift to a 251-cubic inch version of the flathead six. But that change, which added another 20 horsepower or so, didn't come until 1961. Even before that in 1955 the Power Wagon was somewhat modernized with a synchromesh transmission, higher compression ratio and aluminum alloy pistons. Power steering became available in 1956.

Power Wagons continued to be equipped with custom bodies, including tow truck rigs, fire engines, school buses and stake bodies. In 1957 Dodge introduced a second line of four-wheel-drive trucks and created decades of confusion by also calling them Power Wagons. These have the model designations W100, W200, W300 and W500. These trucks offered more modern, conventional styling, and many are quite handsome in their own right, though they lack the bulldog look of the original.

In all nearly 100,000 Power Wagons in one form or another were sold from the beginning of production in 1946 until it closed out domestically in 1968. Even after that Dodge continued to produce export-only models as late as ten years later, when the vehicle was finally discontinued. Little did Dodge executives know then the size of the sport-utility vehicle market, a market they had helped to create with the under-appreciated Dodge Power Wagon.
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