Monday, January 17, 2011

History: Military Ruggedness for the Average Man

Last year, when Dodge invited me to Moab, Utah, for the Jeep Safari, they also let have a go in the current iteration of the Power Wagon. The Ram based 2500 was a particularly stout off-roader despite it’s size, featuring solid lockable axles at both ends, disconnecting sway-bars, full underbody protection and a winch as standard. The good folks at Dodge took us on a run up into the mountains surrounding Moab, on washed out old mining roads that were most likely built, maintained and used by Power Wagons back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when Moab was a uranium boom town.

Many a Power Wagon there were up in those mountains, when the apatite for weapons grade uranium was at its peak. In fact, the two began life around the same time. Around the time the American’s were testing their newfound mass-destructive powers, Dodge were working on the latest version of their quarter, half and three quarter ton military 4x4. Dodge had been building 4x4’s for the military since 1934, so they had a pretty good sense of what worked and what didn’t. In 1945, initial photo’s of a prototype vehicle based on the extremely effective military platform with a civilian cab were first released. Initially called the Battle Wagon, the Power Wagon’s basic goal was to fulfill the military needs for a small, fast, powerful, and rugged vehicle, capable of traveling well on road, and equally as well off road, and supply a vehicle of equal quality to the civilian population.

Like the venerable Jeep, veterans who were now returning home to their farms, or construction and mining jobs began to swamp Dodge with requests for the extremely capable machinery they were privy too while in the service. With the market crying out, Dodge would have been foolish not to make use of designs, tooling and a massive collection of spares, and build a civilian version of their military vehicles. Especially when the government financed all those resources.

In 1946, Dodge introduced the Power Wagon to showrooms for the first time, giving the public access to rugged wartime machinery. Based on the 126-inch wheelbase, three-quarter ton military chassis, the civilian Power Wagon featured a purpose built 8-foot all-steel welded box with high 20-inch tall sides for maximum cargo carrying ability. It featured a 230 cubic-inch flat head six cylinder engine rated at a massive 78 hp, however, for those who owned them, the flathead was tough, cheap to fix and lasted forever. Mated to the 230 was a 4-speed gearbox and 2-speed transfer case with an interior shift lever. The military driveline was carried over to the Power Wagon, using the transfer case from the WC 63 6x6, however the low range gearing was changed from 1.5 to 1.96. Like many military based vehicles, the Power Wagon had a Power Take Off (PTO) feature that directed engine power to the front and rear bumpers, capable of powering auxiliary equipment. A big plus with farmers, miners and forestry men. The one-ton rated Power Wagon's maximum GVW rating was 8,700 pounds. Its maximum payload was 3,000-pounds, but more important to owners was its 2,000-pound limit for off-road conditions. The truck also featured military non-directional tires, as there were no other high traction tires available at that time.

The fenders were flat one-piece military style fenders, instead of the usual teardrop styled fenders used on most trucks of that time. The teardrops would get clogged up with mud in the field, so most military trucks used flat fenders that would not catch mud as easily. As Dodge new the majority of Power Wagon owners would be buying the vehicle for its off-road prowess, they kept the military style fenders.

Most manufacturers would do a complete redesign once the current model was starting to get old in the tooth. The Power Wagon was so good at what it did, that Dodge engineers merely evolved the vehicle through the application of bigger and more robust parts, raiding the Chrysler parts bin to see what could be made to work better. Changes would be as small as replacing a 4-blade radiator fan with 6-blade unites. However, in ’49, the transmission was changed to a heavy-duty spur gear four speed. Then in ’51, 1,600-pound capacity front springs and 3,000-pound rear springs were available as an option increasing rear axle capacity from 5,500-pounds to 6,500-pounds and the front axle from 3,500 to 3,750. Then in 1961 the 230 was replaced with the 251 cubic-inch flat head six, which was joined with the optional 383 big block V-8 in ’67.

Safety and emissions rules finally killed the Power Wagon in the States in 1968 as it was deemed too expensive to reverse-engineer the Slant 6 into the engine bay. A total of 95,145 WDX-WM300 Power Wagons were sold between 1945-1968. Domestic production would shut down, although exports continued to roll out until 1978. However, that would not be the end of the Power Wagon story. The truck was so popular and such a success that the name would live on in several versions of Dodges 4x4 pickups.

The first of which came in 1957, and really didn’t share much in common with the original military styled vehicle. They were merely 4x4 versions of the W100 and W200 pickups. These trucks featured conventional cabs, front sheet metal and the cargo boxes used on the 2WD models. The next year, a one-ton W300 would also join the lineup. Later in 1966, a W200 Crew Cab was added, followed by the two-ton W500 Power Wagon in ’77. However, these were merely glorified 4WD versions of regular Dodge pickups, and lacked the charisma of the old school, take no prisoners, military based originals.

However, in 1981, the Power Wagon name came to an end all together, when Dodge redesigned the entire pickup fleet. Although, they did use the “Power Ram” name on 4WD models, the name would not resurface until 2005, when a special off-road version of the Ram received the historic designation. Today the Power Wagon lives on in the current generation Ram, which as I described above, is a very resourceful vehicle. However, as good of a truck the modern Power Wagon is, there is no replacing the kick ass cool factor of the original old warhorse.

No comments:

Post a Comment