Words and photos by Richard Truesdell
For many truck enthusiasts, the history of Dodge trucks starts in the fall of 1993, with the introduction of the Ram pickup. In a heartbeat, Dodge went from being an also-ran in the light-duty pickup-truck market to a major competitor to established leaders Ford and Chevrolet.
Looking back, it's easy to remember Chrysler executive Bob Lutz saying, “Even though 80 percent of the focus group participants hated the proposed 1994 Ram, 20 percent were in love with it. If only half actually bought the upcoming Ram, then we'll more than double our share!" Since 1993, Dodge's share of the full-size pickup truck marketplace has exploded, with the brand typically capturing about 20 percent of the overall market every year.
But the reality is that Dodge has a heritage in hard-working trucks dating back to 1916. And of all the pickup trucks that Dodge has ever produced, one stands out: the Dodge Power Wagon, the first factory-built 4X4.
The civilian Dodge Power Wagon was designed off an existing T214 Dodge truck chassis that served the Allies during World War II. More than a quarter-million examples were built. It was offered virtually unchanged in appearance from the spring of 1946 to 1968, when the model was discontinued for domestic sales. (Production for exports continued.) The rugged Power Wagon was a no-nonsense truck, a throwback to a time when trucks were trucks and there was little effort to move upmarket with carlike features.
The civilian Power Wagon, introduced in February 1946, answered the question from many returning GIs: "Where can I get a truck like the one I used in the war?" Dodge answered by producing the no-compromise WDX, now best known as the Power Wagon. The truck cost around $1,600 — more than twice that of more conventional half-ton pickups. (When you adjust for inflation, $1,600 in 1946 translates to about $19,000 today.)
The Power Wagon shared its basic design and 126-inch wheelbase with the three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, and the front shell and grille were similar to the T234 three-quarter-ton heavy-duty truck built by Dodge for the Chinese Army, which earned its stripes along the Burma Road. It should be noted that Dodge was the first to offer factory-built 4X4s, something that was not matched by Ford and GM until well into the 1950s.
The truck’s 126-inch wheelbase was a near-halfway point between the 120- and 133-inch wheelbases on Dodge’s more conventional “Job Rated” one-ton two-wheel-drive trucks. The Power Wagon’s large fenders gave owners plenty of room to increase wheel diameter for extra-heavy-duty applications. Standard wheels were 16x5.50 inches wearing 7.50x16-inch eight-ply tires, or 16x6.50 inches wearing 9x16-inch eight-ply rubber.
The styling of the Power Wagon was a carryover from the truck's prewar 1939 design. The top of the hood and radiator surround were borrowed from one of Dodge’s three-ton cargo trucks. The interior looked Spartan, with functionality its main calling card.
In 1961, a 251-cubic-inch flat-head engine began to replace the original and somewhat underpowered 230-cubic-inch flat-head motor that dated back to the prewar era. A synchromesh transmission, alternator and a 12-volt electrical system upgrade were among the major changes over the years. Many Power Wagons were converted into fire engines, school buses and other specialized applications. (The 1949 Power Wagon firetruck shown here is equipped with a body from the American Fire Apparatus in Battle Creek, Mich.) According to “Dodge Trucks” by Don Bunn, some Power Wagons were even converted with wagon bodywork, making them the original Dodge SUVs. (These were available with both four and six doors.)
A total of 95,145 WDX-WM300 Power Wagons were sold domestically between 1946 and 1968. After that, they were built mainly for export, and owners in less-developed countries appreciated the truck’s reputation for ruggedness.
The dark blue example shown here is owned by Jim Hetrick of Lake Forest, Calif. According to the owner, this is one of the earliest surviving and running Power Wagons from the truck’s first year of production. First-year civilian production totaled 2,890 units. While Power Wagons surface regularly on eBay and other auction websites, the best way to acquire one is to get active in the online Dodge Power Wagon communities and let them know your desire to add one to your collection.
Dodge has used the Power Wagon name several times over the years, starting in 1957 with the light-duty half-ton W100 (two-wheel-drive) and W200 (four-wheel-drive) models followed by the one-ton W300 in 1958. Starting in 1956, the chassis-cab-only W500 two-ton model was offered; production ended in 1971when it was replaced with the W600 for the 1972 model year. Its production ended in 1977 with the discontinuation of all medium-duty Dodge trucks.
A concept version Power Wagon, powered by a Cummins turbo-diesel engine, debuted at the 1999 North American International Auto Show. Some of its styling cues were incorporated in the mainstream Ram pickups with the 2002-08 (DR) generation. Starting in 2005, an off-road-oriented heavy-duty Power Wagon version was added to the Ram lineup, where it continues to this day. For more photos of this classic Power Wagon, go to our Facebook page and Like us.