My Pickup: Operation Tugboat, Part 1

Tugboat 1 II

Editor's note: This story kicks off a special series we're calling My Pickup in which we give certain readers, industry associates, friends and colleagues a chance to tell us about their pickup trucks. We start the series off with longtime automotive journalist Greg Whale, who tells us about the first full-size pickup project he did for Four Wheeler magazine many years ago. He tells his story in four parts; here's the first part.

By G.R. Whale

Back when one bought music on vinyl or compact disc and most big pickup trucks came with vent windows, my first assignment at Four Wheeler magazine was to develop a library. In the late 1980s the magazine was more than 25 years old and had one room that held thousands of unorganized photos, manuscripts, press kits and old magazines; fearing idiot proof wasn't good enough, my boss (the editor) said to make it "editor proof."

I failed miserably at making the library editor proof, but I learned a lot about the magazine's project vehicles, and that not one of them had been set up to tow a fifth wheel.

A couple of years later I had completed one project that another editor started and one of my own that was more successful — driving 70,000 miles in two years, including Panama to Alaska off pavement. During that project the only parts that broke on the new-at-the-time 1990 Nissan Pathfinder I used were a rear door lock button and a front anti-roll bar bracket. So the editor had me develop another project, which he approved mid-1991.

The idea was to build a full-size pickup that could carry substantial parts and people, tow almost anything and serve as chase truck for multiday road tests. The project was called Operation Tugboat. Unashamedly it might also be handy for pulling my neighbor's Chevrolet Chevelle to the track, a buddy's boat to the lake or a Jeep to a trailhead. It would need a diesel engine for torque and mileage, and single-rear wheels because training wheels are inconvenient on the rock-strewn Western trails.

As a base, a Ford F-350 crew cab seemed to be a logical choice: four real doors, six seatbelts, easily modified, solid axles and a good selection of parts and upgrades. The 7.3-liter IDI diesel wasn't yet factory turbocharged but aftermarket diesel outfitters had long since placed a turbine atop International's V-8. We knew a 7.3-liter turbo was coming but it added just 5 horsepower and 50 pounds-feet of torque; you could gain more by fixing the quashed down pipe.

Sadly, Ford turned down the proposal I wrote for a four-wheel-drive well-optioned Ford F-350 XLT crew cab, saying the F-350 crew was "not a personal-use vehicle."

That left us with Dodge and GM. With Dodge we'd have to give up the crew cab; Dodge wasn't selling military or border patrol crew cabs to automotive journalists. At GM we'd have to forgo the solid front axle, which was out of production.

Eventually a solid front axle and Cummins diesel engine won out over independent front suspension and a backseat. So I pitched Dodge on a W250 diesel with the once-again-available Club Cab. The W350 Club was a dualie only, and the only differences we could find between a three-quarter-ton SRW and a one-ton SRW in W Series regular cabs were that the one-ton had one size larger wheel studs, a larger front spring front mounting bolt and a slightly higher load rating based on spring rates.

Dodge liked the idea, and folks there liked it even more after I told them Ford had declined. To this day I can wrinkle the brow of some former Ford staffers by merely reminding them how many places that Dodge has shown up in print, picture or post.

The only thing Dodge couldn't do was the special order yellow paint — it would take about four months to get through the system — but 10 weeks later the truck was in transit and ready for delivery to Four Wheeler. What happened next surprised even us.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tugboat Dodge PK cover II



The Big Bad DODGE! READY for Anything. LOOK at that SFA!

Nice truck! I didn't particularly like the bodystyle of those year models of Ram, but that one doesn't look bad.

god I'm old I remember that article, came out when I was a junior in high school. I had been working with dodge fleete 2500 for 2 years and the first thought that popped into my head was. Who in gods name would build a truck on that platform. Then we got the cummins diesels and I understood. Too bad the truck it was wrapped in was such garbage.

Ugly truck. Looks better with aftermarket stuff on it. Cummins was about the only thing good about it. IIRC, the local Dodge dealer in my town had gone broke and shut down around the time this story came out.

Haven't heard of that brand before.

Oh my goodness...that has been one of my all-time favorite Four Wheeler project vehicles! I followed it from beginning to end!

the only good thing about that body style ram is that it didn't have the death wobbling front ends like the current trucks!!!

wobbling front ends

You know, I have to agree that the white one is pretty ugly. On the other hand, the two-tone image in the flyer/magazine page really looks good; the colors actually help shape the headlights and grill for more flowing lines, despite wearing the exact same body.

Don't knock the Cummins B Series 5.9L turbo diesel.
My dad owned one. It made max torque at 1600 rpms, and could run on diesel, white kerosene, 20 year old sludged up home heating oil, citronella oil, gasoline mixed with used motor oil, and probably Diet Coke. I just remember that truck being like a farm tractor. Absolutely unstoppable pulling power. For those who keep knocking the hp and torque ratings of the new Eco-diesel, it's numbers are stronger than the old B-series. That said, I'd love to hook them bumber to bumber for an old fashioned tug-o-war.

From wiki....Every Cummins powered Dodge Pickup (since initial production in 1989) has come equipped with a turbocharger. It uses a gear-drive camshaft for extra reliability. Also specified is a deep-skirt engine block and extremely strong connecting rods. A Holset turbocharger is used. The original B Series was updated with 24 valves and an electronic engine management system to become the ISB in 1998.

"When the Dodge-Cummins turbodiesel pickups came on the scene the light-duty truck market was changed forever."

"With a manual transmission the Dodge's GCW rating was 16,000 pounds, or two tons greater than its closes competitor. In real life however those buyers who lined up to snap up the first Dodge Cummins pickups or chassis cabs began running the nation's freeways with heavily loaded trailers maxing out to as much as 30,000 pounds GCW! "

"Highest rated customer satisfaction rating of any pickup."1989-1990"

Some things never change. It was the class leader then and the class leader now.

The hardest working truck on the road. Ram

I remember hooking up my 1972 Blazer butt to butt with a Dodge Power Wagon just like the one in the picture. It belonged to my brother in law and I pulled him backwards for over 50 yards with his tires burning. Today he owns a 2011 Silverado LTZ. I guess I am the one to make him see the light and buy the best pickup available today.

@HEMI V8 - do you have all of the Fiat press releases ever printed stored on your hard drive?

Class Leading

@Lou BC, Some trucks with a great history are well documented. ;<)

P.S. Your local ford dealer at that time was making a killing on manufacture recalls. lol Job security.

I was just wondering what happened to this truck I remeber the articles in 4wheeler from back in the day, than last month it was in the background of some shots over at allpar from a Ram test event. Glad to see its still around doing what it was built too.

@HEMI V8 - the local Chrysler dealer kept going broke because no one wanted the crap they were selling. Their 1st bankruptcy and subsequent bailout occurred in 1979 but you already knew that since "Some trucks with a great history are well documented".


So the magic towing capacity fairy was employed by Chrysler back then as well?

Shes really amazing, she can wave her maximum towing wand and give a truck a higher towing capacity despite having the same frame strength and weeker tranny. But her most amazing feat is the ability to magically let a truck's towing capacity somehow exceed the trucks GCWR by several thousand pounds. Man the towing ferry is amazing. Great job hiring her Chrysler!

I've read it's the same fairey that is used by Ford and GM.

Apparently its a 'he' fairey, an ex UAW worker and prolific blogger on pickup websites.

I'd love o have one like that today. That warn bumper LOOKED nice, but they were only for lookin' at. The 1st and only one of my friends who bought one (for an 80s Chev) ordered up a Reunel within 6 months. Refraining from adding too much weight to the front end of ANY Cummins truck is good practice however.
It is funny to think that the only place you saw Crew Cabs back then was on farms and in road construction. Too bad that Chrysler decided not to sell civillian crews back then- I've read over several really nice Crew Cummins builds now.

Greg, I'm assuming you are not claiming a '72 Blazer could win a tug-o-war with a B-Series Cummins. That's just not possible.
I would be hesitant to hook my far more powerful Duramax-Allison combo up against a B-Series Cummins. Just in terms of raw pulling power, that engine was a beast. Slug slow, but a beast nonetheless.

Damn, even back then they were made in Mexico.

I'm a Ford guy and all, but even I'll admit this generation Dodges looked good. IMO was the last good looking Dodges.

@Frank, "In North America, Ranger and F-series trucks are built in Oakville, Ontario; Dearborn; Claycomo, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Paul., Minnesota; and Edison, New Jersey. Trucks also are built in Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, Argentina and England."

This pickup operation, sounds like a good idea, thanks for sharing with us.


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