By G.R. Whale
Editor's note: My Pickup is an occasional PUTC feature in which we invite readers, industry associates, friends and colleagues to write about their own pickups, either currently owned or from their past. We introduced the column in October and will be adding it to our editorial mix every few weeks. This is Part 3 of a four-part series detailing Four Wheeler magazine's Operation Tugboat, about a 1992 Dodge W250 Club Cab 4x4.
A buzz from Four Wheeler's reception let me know that UPS had just delivered parts for Tugboat. They were big, ugly, smelled bad and needed to be moved right away. Some office staffers didn't appreciate the pungent odor of new mud terrains tires or leaky 90-weight synthetic grease containers; it didn't help that their offices were closer to my stored parts than my office was.
So in the name of keeping the peace, we started installing parts. If you've done your own project truck, you know problems usually arise almost immediately, and that was no different with Operation Tugboat. The Weld wheels fit our Dodge but their large-diameter straight lug holes required some adapters and special lug nuts, turning the first "simple" swap we had planned into a weeklong ordeal. With 33s mounted to the new wheels, the odometer and speedometer were closer to correct. Thankfully, that meant we had better flotation and ride (with almost 2 more inches of sidewall flex), and fender trimming was minor.
All the electronics we ordered went in pretty easily, despite the mutterings of our editor about previous bad experiences. We worked with the pros at The Turbo Shop to improve the breathing — the Dodge's standard exhaust was severely constrained at and near the transfer case. A larger intercooler and fuel pump adjustment brought power up substantially (to 195 horsepower and 500-plus pounds-feet of torque at the rear wheels, according to TTS' dyno) and brought exhaust gas temperature down without any penalty in fuel economy. TTS also installed one of BD Diesel Performance's first inline, electric-valve exhaust brakes, activated by a pull switch on the transmission stick. That huge solenoid and the thunk it made was typically at ear-level to the drivers of most cars on the road, and it usually scared the bejeebers out of them when I activated it.
We later returned to TTS to have a 38-gallon TransferFlow fuel tank installed where the spare had been, which more than doubled our range. We then took Tugboat on the annual multiday Four Wheeler of the Year test, which involved frequent fueling of the test-fleet vehicles. The Dodge did the entire weeklong event without a single fuel stop. We had created a max-trailer towing package with a range of more than 500 miles without any bed space sacrifice (no fuel tank in the bed) or performance compromise.
National Spring built six-leaf packs for Tugboat, the extra two overloads for the rear with removable stops. It gave us a good ride empty and fifth-wheel-hitch weight capacity when we needed it. We aimed for a 1.5-inch lift in front and stock rear springs to level the truck, which we got. However, the front pack was too thick, so compression travel was stiffer than we wanted. Thankfully, a revised set of front leafs fixed that, and a set of adjustable Rancho 9000s kept it running smoothly. The biggest surprise came from fitting Superlift's drag link and dropped Pitman arm to help our steering setup. The combo corrected the fact that we had a differently sized turning circle going left than we did when turning right; the fix made it an even better daily driver.
We had a limited-slip differential easily installed in the front; unfortunately, the Detroit differential we wanted to put in the back was not so easy to install. It turned out our truck had a Dana 70 rear axle with slightly longer 32-spline axle shafts when every other truck maker and locking differential company, including Detroit's Tractech, used 35-spline axles. We took our problem to axle experts Summers Brothers, which produced a pair of 35-spline shafts exactly the right length that were so nice to look at — a Ferrari engine compartment had nothing on this machine work — they would have made a fine table base or work of art.
I also made a few changes to Tugboat that some thought were just weird, like adding rear fog lights. Rear fog lights work well near the ocean, but they are also good for seeing a truck when running in desert dust. Nowadays you see fog lights on just about every competitive desert racer. I also installed a cylinder-head temperature gauge, originally designed for monitoring air-cooled engines in Beetles and Porsches; this gauge came in handy when monitoring front brake caliper temperature on fast, steep descents or during flat towing.
At one point we investigated a rear disc conversion with axle builder Dynatrac, but silly rules about parking brakes and having the front differential on the wrong side derailed those plans. It also didn't help that midway into the plan Tugboat was sent to the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas, so we had to rearrange our priorities to get the truck in tiptop shape for this mother of all car shows.
From Four Wheeler's third installment of Operation Tugboat onward, we photographed each outing. The heavy load behind the truck kept getting bigger, culminating in a 6-ton, 35-foot fifth-wheel that put us right at our calculated gross combined weight rating. Our only scary moment towing with Tugboat came after a spirited right turn during which my co-pilot and I wondered what was making all the squealing noises we heard. A quick check in the side-view mirror confirmed that the Jeep CJ SUV we were towing on a flatbed was hanging over the trailer. But we don't blame Tugboat for that.
Tugboat is still around and frequently recognized. Every so often someone asks me, "Isn't that the truck from Four Wheeler?" If I don't have time to chat, I sometimes play dumb and say they've got it confused with something else. From what we've heard, at least one person uses TUGBOAT for the license plate on their own Dodge diesel, but not this one — so don't be fooled.
Stay tuned for Part 4, our final installment of Operation Tugboat.
To read Part 2, click here.