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The 1956 M601 Dodge Power Wagon were configured to meet military needs. (Auctions America)
The 1956 M601 Dodge Power Wagon were configured to meet military needs. (Auctions America)

Classic Cars: Dodge Power Wagon

Dodge’s Power Wagon was off-road motorized machismo Add to ...

The most macho Ram pickup on Chrysler’s auto show stands earlier this year was perched way up high on gnarly, 37-inch-tall Mickey Thompson knobbies, painted flat black, with bright-red grille accents, and had dazzling silver-and-orange side graphics spelling out Power Wagon.

Power Wagon? Doesn’t that sound so, like, decades ago? Particularly, as parked over on Ford’s show turf, was another top-of-the-food-chain predator in the battle for off-road-buyer prey, the less flamboyantly caparisoned perhaps, but as rapacious in performance terms and marketing intent, SVT Raptor.

Power Wagon does have a decidedly dated sound to it, and for a couple of good reasons.

The name has been around for more than six decades, first appearing on a “civilian-ized” version of one of Chrysler’s war-machines, for the 1946 model year.

Its military predecessor’s record for ruggedness and reliability on battlegrounds around the world played a major role in marketing this all-wheel-driver to postwar farmers, loggers and construction company operators. And, as production continued in the decades leading up to its eventual demise in 1980, the Power Wagon name became renowned, not only among those looking for a work truck, but among the burgeoning breed of off-roaders employing this type of vehicle to access remote wilderness areas for hunting, fishing and camping. Or for digging deep ruts in back-country terrain – when, in those simpler days, many didn’t realize the damage they were doing – just for the sheer fun of it.

The name Power Wagon became synonymous with the ultimate in off-road capability and motorized machismo. And still does – despite sounding evocative of a 1940s American decade of fedoras, jitterbug, Rosie the riveter and Rita Hayworth.

Chrysler ditched the name when it switched from its D-Series pickups to the newly named Dodge Ram lineup for 1981 (it became simply the Ram brand in 2009). The new generation’s four-wheel-drive pickup carried on only part of the name, with its “Power Ram” badging.

The Power Wagon name itself was reinstated in 2005 for a new model based on the Hemi-powered 2500 pickup, intended to be the heavy-duty, boss Billy-goat in the Ram off-road flock.

Four Wheeler magazine raved about the new 2005 Power Wagon’s capabilities. “It raises the bar when it comes to four-wheeling functionality. And might cause true full-size four-wheel-drive fans to totally lose their composure and exhibit schoolboy giddiness.”

The revised-for-2014 versions of the Power Wagon, boasting some serious updates, including a new 410-hp/429-lb-ft, 6.4-litre Hemi V-8. A fully-spec’d-out, $50,000-plus price-tag might indeed generate some fiscally-disorienting giddiness for buyers.

Dodge dealers were asking only $1,627 for the originals in 1946, which were touted in corporate ads as being “designed for off-the-road use” and also “as a self-propelled power plant.”

“It needs no roads,” said the copywriter, as four-wheel-drive “gives it great traction.” It was envisioned as a do-it-all vehicle, capable of hauling a plow, toting a hefty load in its oversized pickup bed, or powering equipment. Its “power-take-off” could divert engine output to a front-mounted winch, which could be used with an A-frame crane, or to the rear, to drive a variety of machinery.

The wartime Jeep was also being transformed for similar civilian usage at this time, but the Power Wagon was the heavyweight of the two.

The founding Dodge brothers (Chrysler bought the company in 1928) had offered trucks from the start in 1914. First World War “doughboys” drove them in Europe, and the company continued to produce military models in the 1920s and 1930s.

Dodge’s contribution to the Second World War began with the production of light-duty four-wheel-drive trucks, but in 1942 the three-quarter-ton WC Series was put into production. By war’s end in 1945, 225,000 had been built in a variety of specialized styles, from ambulances to weapons carriers.

The “civvy” version that emerged for 1946 was based on a 126-inch wheelbase chassis, and powered by a 230-cubic-inch, flathead, inline-six rated at 94 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. This got to the wheels through a four-speed gearbox, and a two-speed transfer case that split drive to the front and rear axles.

Its styling was still based on the closed-cab design it began the war with (a cab chassis was also available); although some minor rounding of fender and hood lines lent it a slightly less martial air. It also came in a choice of four colours.

The original was built – with surprisingly few changes – through 1968 for sale in the United States (and another decade for export), then followed by new designs.

The original Power Wagon found itself back in uniform again in the 1950s when civilian models were “drafted” and modified into M601 models, to meet the needs of the U.S. military assistance program. They were provided to friendly forces in places such as Israel, Argentina, Mexico, and as far away as Thailand.

The M601 pictured here is a 1956 open personnel carrier that likely spent time in a Spanish-speaking land before being repatriated, fully restored and finished in dark blue, with gold-plated “bling.” It is part of a collection that will go under the gavel at Auctions America’s sale, held as part of the Auburn fall old car event in Indiana, on Labour Day weekend.


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