As ubiquitous as they are now, there was once a time when four-wheel drive pickup trucks were a rarity on American roads. In fact, for a ten-year stretch starting in 1945, if you wanted the convenience of an open cargo bed and the go-anywhere capabilities of a 4×4, there was really only one vehicle you could turn to: the Dodge Power Wagon.
Unlike the Ram pickup of the same name, updated for 2017 and which I recently, had the opportunity to hoon through the desert just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, the original Power Wagon grew from the demanding requirements of the battlefield. Dodge had been manufacturing trucks for the U.S. Army since the mid-30s, but it wasn’t until the end of that decade that the company began to seriously tackle the problem of a useful, rugged, and somewhat quick transport truck that would be equally effective on the road as it was off.
It took several years of trial and era before Dodge was able to hit upon the formula that would define early Power Wagon production. From 1940 to 1943 the company built 1 1/2 ton, 1/2 ton, and 3/4 ton versions of its four-wheel drive platform, with the latter two ‘WC’ family trucks ending up as the backbone of Dodge’s war effort with almost 300,000 examples (including 6×6 models) combined seeing action in Europe. After the Allied victory, returning G.I.s hounded Chrysler for a civilian version of the truck that could offer them the same outstanding utility on their farms and ranches, in their fire departments, and in the growing system of national parks.
What was it that made the Dodge Power Wagon so alluring? Surprisingly, it wasn’t just the presence of four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case that had made the WC such a powerful draw after the war. Dodge boiled its many military models down into a 126-inch package that offered a gross vehicle weight rating of 8,700 lbs and a (very) conservatively-rated cargo capacity of 3,000 lbs. Although the truck had been largely cobbled together from existing Dodge parts, including cab design lifted from its pre-war trucks (outfitted with open-style mudguard fenders instead of easily-clogged teardrops) and front-end styling cribbed from a commercial vehicle the company ended up exporting to China (that played a crucial role in building the Burma Road), the Power Wagon’s cargo bed was completely unique, measuring four feet between the wheel wells and an additional six inches in overall width. Its welded construction included a wood plank floor with metal cargo sliders evenly spaced (as with other Dodge pickups of the era), and it measured eight feet long and 20-inches deep, with a central tailgate support to assist in the transportation of whatever gear might not fit inside those copious dimensions.
Also making it a hit with task-minded buyers focused on building their futures in an America that seemed to be steaming full-ahead into an unprecedented period of economic grown were the dual power take-offs that sat at each end of the Dodge. Winches, pumps, saws, agricultural equipment, almost anything could be hauled in the Power Wagon to the most remote locations and then put into use on the spot. Motivation for the truck (and its accessories) initially came from a 230-cubic inch flathead-six good just under 100 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. Despite its similar displacement, the motor was considerably more hardcore in its construction than anything else offered in the Chrysler family, and helped propagate the Power Wagon’s reputation for reliability (if not outright speed).
After an initial surge of interest, sales for the Dodge Power Wagon slowed to a near-crawl, which in part explains why the vehicle remained true to its original specifications for almost is entire four-decade lifespan. It didn’t help the bottom line that by the 1950s Dodge had added four-wheel drive to its V8-powered half-ton pickups, or that competition from other manufacturers began to heat up in the truck segment. Over time, the Power Wagon graduated from a three-speed to a four-speed manual gearbox, higher weight ratings for its axles and leaf springs, comfort-oriented cab mounts, upgraded brakes and a revised box. A new 230-ci engine added five horses to the equation before giving way to a 251-ci motor in 1961, which joined the availability of power steering, a new 12-volt electrical system, and power brakes, all of which had become available in the 1960s.
Customer apathy was only one of the issues facing the Power Wagon by the time the 1960s rolled around, as encroaching safety standards, not to mention the specter of emissions regulations on the horizon, condemned the Dodge in the American market by the end of 1968. The truck would continue to be produced for export purposes for the next 10 years (where it was still occasionally known as a Fargo or DeSoto), when the tooling finally reached the end of its own lifespan.
The 2017 Ram Power Wagon might draw its spiritual inspiration from the original WC model, but genetically it has a lot more in common with the line of 4×4 pickups Dodge introduced in 1957 and confusingly decided to also name ‘Power Wagon.’ Mechanically there were no similarities between the trucks – even the four-wheel drive system was outsourced to one of Chrysler’s subsidiaries – but these light-duty vehicles were easier to live with, much more modern in their design, and eventually included 383-ci and 440-ci engine options. These trucks would survive past 1968 and go one to sprout a number of popular variations, (including the colorful ‘Macho’ and ‘Warlock’ editions from Chrysler’s ‘Adult Toys’ phase), full-time four-wheel drive versions (until the energy crisis forced a shift back to part-time transfer cases), and even four-door crew cab body styles. It wasn’t until 1981, when Dodge elected to rebrand its four-wheel drive models the ‘Power Ram’ that the Power Wagon would disappear from the scene entirely.
In 2005, eager to inject some heritage into its truck line-up, Chrysler shook the dust off of the Power Wagon name and affixed it to a three-quarter ton Ram loaded with heavy-duty off-road equipment. Once the hand-off from Dodge to Ram as its own brand was completed the Power Wagon soldiered on, filling a niche that no other truck manufacturer has dared to touch in the decade since the vehicle made its triumphant return.
Making a play for buyers who want to take advantage of its practical 10,030 lbs of towing, substantial cargo hauling capability, and built-in 12,000 pound winch, the Ram Power Wagon offers old-school grit (big-displacement, 410 horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi V8, locking solid axles front and rear) with modern comfort and technological wizardry (detachable front swaybar, available leather-lined cabin with heated and cooled seats, rear coil suspension). The end result is a monster of a truck with 26-inches of suspension travel, the ability to ford 30 inches of water, and 14.3 inches of ground clearance, with a curb weight of 7,000 lbs.
In short, it’s the anti-Raptor, an off-road battleship compared to Ford’s twin-turbo dune-running stealth fighter. As it turns out, beating the trail to death with massive 33-inch DuraTrac tires is just as effective as skimming across the surface of the sand, as long as you’re not in any real hurry to get to your final destination. And why would you be? As I watched the Power Wagon crush rocky outcroppings, shrug off near-vertical climbs, and power its way through three-feet of silica, I realized that Ram had built the kind of mobile command center that would have been envy any World War II general fighting for survival not only against an encroaching army, but also that most ruthless enemy of all: Mother Nature herself.
Sit back and call in an air strike via the Power Wagon’s Bluetooth-enabled touchscreen infotainment system, or shoot rattlesnakes from the relative safety of its cargo bed while storing your ammo in the deep pockets of the truck’s RamBox. Overthrowing governments, fighting the Nazi menace, or dealing with the constant threat of venomous desert dwellers – it’s all the same to the Power Wagon, and priced at under $52,000, it also happens to be significantly less expensive than its would-be Ford Raptor antagonist. With more horsepower on tap than a Panzer tank–at least the early 300hp versions, you can bet the 2017 Ram Power Wagon would have given Rommel nightmares.