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The Dodge Power Wagon and the Burma Road in World War II

Dodge Power Wagon

Origins of the Dodge Power Wagon

1942 Dodge military trucksDodge built four-wheel-drive trucks starting in 1934, modifying them to suit the Army's whims with one-ton, half-ton, and three-quarter-ton capacities, in a variety of wheelbases and open and closed body styles.

Even before the end of the war, all those marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, who were farmers, construction workers, miners, or sportsmen, sought out Dodge for its rugged, honest goodness, and nearly unbreakable build quality.

After the war, Dodge found itself swamped with requests for the rugged wartime "carryalls" or trucks that they had built — 226,776 of them. The toughness of the Carryalls, the 6x6 WC62/63s, the T214s, and the T234s, were never in question. With four-wheel-drive they were seen as a high-tech bonus, and to boot, they had a 2,000-pound payload capacity off-road.

Responding to customer demand, Dodge engineers got to work on a new civilian truck. The resulting Dodge Power Wagon was not new or original; it evolved through “parts room engineering.”  Dodge engineers seem to have spent as much time in the parts room seeing what would fit or could be adapted, as they did at the drawing board.  Each component evolved separately and from already existing parts. 

1941 dodge pickup

The earliest reference to the Power Wagon was a wartime ad in Collier’s, referring to Dodge’s "Battle Wagon;" it showed a carryall which looked similar to the Power Wagon, but had some major differences.

A much closer relative of the Power Wagon was in a Chrysler factory photo dated July 3, 1945, so it can be surmised that the truck was built in June or May 1945 for preview by Dodge management. There were no nameplates on the prototype, so the name had not yet been selected. However, it is the Power Wagon, without any doubt.

Power Wagon suspension

Dodge released information to the automotive press that the new truck was to be called the “Farm Utility Truck.” By January 2, 1946, Automotive Industries announced that Dodge had introduced a new vehicle, the WDX General Purpose Truck. A month and a half later, Dodge indicated that the new truck was to be the General Purpose, One Ton Truck. Finally, when sales began in March 1946, with the sales floors being swamped by customers seeking the rugged wartime Dodge, the name had been finalized as Power Wagon.

PowerWagon dashboard

There were no differences between the Fargo and Dodge versions of the trucks. The Power Wagon was exported overseas, sometimes as Dodge trucks, and sometimes, even up to 1978, as DeSoto and Fargo trucks.

Dodge (and, in Canada, Fargo) used the commercial cab introduced in 1939 with a 126-inch chassis. This cab was used on military half-ton and ton-and-a-half trucks until 1942, and then on 1946 and 1947 postwar Dodge trucks — all the light trucks and some larger trucks.  It was adapted to sit on the Power Wagon frame, with the floor modified to clear the transmission.

Power Wagon wood strip bed

Beginning in 1939, all Job-Rated pickups featured boxes that had wooden planks with steel skid strips.  This method continued into 1985, when the last Utilized pickup was built. The correct way to finish the wood is to paint it black regardless of body color; this may have had as much to do with durability as economics.  The running boards also saw little evolution.  

dodge truck

The "flat-piece-curved-to-fit-the-wheel" mud guards were similar to those chosen by almost all early car and truck makers.  Early V-series Dodge military trucks had the more modern teardrop style fender; but they became clogged with mud in the field, so military trucks quickly changed to the older style.  The Dodge Power Wagon kept the military fenders, in keeping with the "go anywhere four-wheel-drive" image — and the marketing staff probably wanted to remind buyers of the military heritage.

  warning plaques

The rugged front hood styling was adapted from a 2 ton, 4x2 truck built by Dodge for export to China at the end of the war, downsized to fit the Power Wagon chassis. Those of you familiar with Chinese army trucks may recognize the styling copied from this Dodge export. 

Power Wagon

The four wheel drive system came from the early Dodge designs; the first 4x4 military Dodges had a single speed transfer case, but the half-ton 4.89 differential gearing was weak, so they increased it to 5.83.  As with any engineering decision, they changed it until it was enough to do the job. 

offset 4x4 differential

Israel produced their own version of the Power Wagon, Weapons Carrier, and D-series trucks. The fabled "Nun-Nun," made in Nazareth until the 1980s, were developed into the Abir. External photo link

When the ¾ ton 4x4 was modified into 1½ ton 6x6, the military found it needed additional gearing so Dodge added a two-speed transfer.  The military drive line was carried over to the Power Wagon, with the 6x6 transfer case taken but the low range gearing changed from 1.5 to 1.96.  When the Dodge engineers wanted a rear axle with the differential offset for the rear power takeoff (PTO) drive shaft, they used the intermediate (front rear tandem) axle from the 6x6, with the same drive axle part number.  Again, they solved an engineering issue with a trip to the parts room.

Thanks to the two-way power take off, the front shaft could operate the winch or pumps, while the rear shaft could operate any sort of powered equipment, like a mower or a saw. This saw many applications in civilian use in industry, agriculture, public utilities, state highway, law enforcement, and fire fighting.

Dodge continued to use military non-directional tires.  There were no other high traction tires available back then.

Dodge Power Wagon (1954)

The outstanding feature of the Dodge Power Wagon was the all-steel welded box; early prototypes had one borrowed from a one ton pickup, but the low sides seemed out of place, and it was nowhere near the needed capability. In the end, the only completely original piece for the Power Wagon was the box, which Dodge Engineering built expressly for the truck — 4.5 feet wide (over four feet between the wheel wells), 20 inches deep, and 8 feet long — larger and deeper than any other available (though a 1939 Dodge TD-21 had used a 9 foot box, it was not as deep or wide). The bed allowed the truck to haul monster loads, far beyond the conservative rating listed. Pickup box side panels and fenders were made to appear similar to the one ton pickup box, with a center support for the tailgate when it was lowered to help carry any load there.  The truck was intended to haul a lot.  After the War, the conventional one-ton 4x2 truck was built only on the 120-inch wheelbase chassis with a 7 1/2-foot cargo box.

prototype Dodge military truck 1939

Dodge Power Wagon engines

The 94 hp, 230-cu.in. flathead-6 powered truck was never going to win any speed contests, but for the towns, fire companies, ranchers, farmers, and others who ordered them, speed was never the issue. They were tough as rocks, cheap to fix, and lasted forever.

Power Wagon fire engine

For those that seek to restore their Power Wagons or even pickup trucks, be careful! The Dodge truck engine is not the same as the car engine, even if the displacement is the same! There may be some exceptions, but none have been noted, where a car and truck engine from Dodge were the same. The engines for the truck were always upgraded to make them suitable for severe usage or conditions. The extent of those upgrades depended upon the intended application of the truck. A half ton pick up would be mildly upgraded with items such as chrome piston rings in place of steel rings. However, if it were intended for severe service, then more rugged components would be built in, changing from valve driven gears to chains, with installation of stelite sodium valves, a shot peened crankshaft, and valve rotators. Truck engines were built on totally separate lines, exclusive for trucks.

truck engine

Do not be afraid to look around for upgrades to your stock engine; those old flatheads benefited greatly from modifications! The first area is the carburetion. Take that old single throat, and toss it on the bench. Either that or add another single throat for two carbs, or add a two barrel from one of the V-8 engines. Horsepower jumps quite a bit, but torque is surprising. There is a dual carb set up for twin two barrels, giving you a four barrel effect. They really snort!

Dodge 4x4 military truck

You can also increase power and go with exhaust mods. Tuned steel headers add up to 50 horsepower in the 250 cubic inch six. Opening up the valve passages is an age-old secret to making your flathead a terror on the street. Some of them were awesome. There are also all kinds of camshaft grinds, even available today from the major grinders that will lift the horsepower and torque of your engine. And old school acquaintance of mine, back in the day, used to race his Plymouth flathead. Horsepower from 217 cubic inches was measured at 180! And solid as a rock. Last I knew, even with his sort of abuse, the little engine that could, could, and did, still.

Power Wagon fire truck

There are also head upgrades available from many of the performance manufacturers. You can also fabricate your head from one on an engine by following a racers performance guide book, available at Books A Million. The only danger in flatheads is that you would mill it down too much, ruining the combustion chamber.

Evolution of the Dodge Power Wagon

According to Dodge’s own history, published in 1951 (four years after its introduction), the Power Wagon’s the basic goal was to fulfill needs for a small, fast, powerful, and rugged vehicle — capable of traveling well on the road, and equally as well off the road. “We styled its appearance to be pleasing, but with rugged design points to showcase the driving units, such as the engine, clutch, transmission, transfer case, front and rear driving axles, which all remain the same as were introduced on the military versions.”

Technical upgrades came slowly to the Power Wagon. The truck was evolutionary, not revolutionary, and why change that which is already the best? Changes were carefully added, such as in 1949, when the transmission was changed to a heavy duty spur gear four speed. It may sound small, but in 1950, a four blade radiator fan replaced the six blade.

Power Wagon fire truck

Model year 1951 saw probably more changes than in any year:

  • A new pickup bed graced the rear
  • Axle capacities increased
  • Optional, stiffer springs were available
  • New rubber engine, cab and box mountings were added in the front and rear
  • The mounting angle of the transfer case was adjusted to improve the prop-shaft angle
  • 1,600 pound capacity front springs and 3,000 pound rear springs were available as an option; the rear axle capacity was increased from 5,500 pounds to 6,500 pounds and the front axle went from 3,500 to 3,750.
  • Instruments changed from the military style to the civilian type
  • Spark plug covers were changed to give better protection
  • A new fuel pump was added for higher flow
  • A more powerful starter was put on the 217 ci flathead six cylinder engine (a Plymouth-sized six cylinder.)
  • Brakes were changed to the Cyclebond molded tapered linings with anodized brake cylinders.

A new carburetor with a sandwich governor came in 1952; compression was bumped in 1953 (from 6.7 to 7.0:1) and 1954 (7.25:1 with a new 230 cid flathead six and a redesigned manifold and longer-duration cam) For 1954, the new 230 six was rated for 99 horsepower at 3,600 rpm — very similar to the forthcoming 225 slant six. The transmission was a selective sliding gear manual with three forward gears and one reverse; and the gross vehicle weight was 8,700 lb. Just 5,601 were made in 1954; the base price was $2,307.

Model year 1955 saw the introduction of 12-volt electrics and synchromesh transmission, along with a bump in the compression ratio from 7.25 to 7.6:1. Then, in 1956, power steering was optional; in 1957, power brakes joined the power steering, and key-actuated starting was implemented. In 1958, buyers could specify a 10,000 pound winch or a Leece-Neville alternator (many municipalities ordered them for police and fire vehicles). Despite the low sales of the truck, Dodge was keeping it current, but the pace would soon slow.

1954 dodge power wagon

The 1960s didn't see major changes to the wartime design: a 251-cube Six arrived in 1961, and even though the brand new slant six of 225 cubic inches was sold across the lower priced brands, it was never used in the Power Wagon. Chrysler-built alternators, of a superior new design, replaced the standard generator and optional Leece-Neville alternator. Lock-out front hubs came a year later, and a dual master cylinder came in 1967.

Safety and emissions rules finally killed the Power Wagon in the States in 1968 (though not before the Forest Service pleaded their case for its continuance); it was deemed too expensive to reverse-engineer the Slant 6 into the engine bay. Just 95,145 of the WDX-WM300 Power Wagons were sold in the United States between 1945-1968.

Production and sale of exports continued for at least another decade, well into 1978. There were more changes, but none were revolutionary, and they came from Chrysler parts bins.

Power Wagons were engineered for tough military duty (the story goes that development engineers would find a way to make components fail every time the bean counters wanted to save a couple of cents here and there); so other than general rot issues, and perhaps mixing and matching of parts if you're going to keep things correct for a given year, there shouldn't be anything unusual to watch out for. http://www.vintagepowerwagons.com/ sells just about any part you could possibly need to restore a Power Wagon to its former glory.

The Power Wagon name did return, to various Dodge 4x4 pickups.

Engine Specifications, Dodge Power Wagon (1946 model — 230 cubic inches)

  • Bore x stroke: 3.25 x 4.625
  • Compression ratio: 6.7:1
  • Horsepower @ rpm: 94 @ 3,200
  • Torque @ rpm: 185-lbs.ft. @ 1,200
  • Fuel delivery: Single Stromberg down-draft carburetor, with governor

Dodge Power Wagon Production and Pricing

From 1946-48, a total of 5,450 Power Wagons were built.

  • 1946 Base Price: $1,627
  • 1956 Base Price: $2,499
  • 1968 Base Price: $4,634
  • 1978 Export Model Price: $4,714

(Go back and read the first part of this series: Dodge military trucks and the Burma Road in World War II)

Also see: Power Wagon: The Movies; Contemporary Dodge Power Wagon; the Burma Road trucks

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