The Dodge Power Wagon Proves That First Is Best
It’s a name you couldn’t make up nowadays. No company in their right mind would actually name a new model Power Wagon. It’s too over the top, too ultra-masculine, too boastful, even at a time when special edition full-size trucks have become the rolling equivalent of a UFC title fight. But when Dodge coined it 70 years ago, that’s all it was: the most powerful, no-nonsense workhorse on the market. It was developed and refined in World War II, doing heavy lifting that Jeeps couldn’t do. And for the next 30-plus years, it was the go-to truck for people who cared more about getting the job done than they did creature comforts.
Dodge began supplying trucks to the army around 1934, just as tensions were beginning to rise in Europe. The U.S. wasn’t a superpower yet (its army was the 17th most powerful in the world, a position now held by Poland), and throughout the decade, president Franklin Roosevelt began to increase funding to the armed forces. Of course, that all changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, Roosevelt declared war, and $50 billion was allocated to defense.
While the army scrambled for the general purpose vehicle that would become the Jeep, Dodge had its truck needs mostly locked down. The army was using half-ton, three-quarter ton, and one-ton variants, either 4×4 or 6×6, with both open and closed cabs. They could haul troops, equipment, serve as ambulances, or do just about anything else. By the time the war ended in 1945, Dodge had built 226,776 of them, and they had earned the nickname “Battle Wagon.”
And when troops returned home to their farms and businesses, they wanted a new work truck that was a lot like the old Battle Wagon; unfortunately, Dodge didn’t offer anything like it to civilians. After several months of being swamped with requests, it started a crash program to civilize the truck in late 1945. By March 1946, the first trucks arrived at dealer showrooms, now called the Power Wagon.
The Power Wagon may have been a close relative of the army truck, but it was more of a parts-bin special than it looked. The step-side bed and cab came from the 1939 commercial-grade Dodge pickup, though the flat fenders were repurposed from even earlier models. The front end and hood looked most like the army models, but it was specifically repurposed from the small batch of trucks built between 1944-’46 to handle the jungle roads of south China, Burma, and Malaysia.
Power came from a 94 horsepower 230 cubic inch straight-six mated to a four-speed manual transmission, and it could haul a 3,000 pound payload — though that was a conservative rating. Most importantly, it was the first factory-built civilian pickup to offer four-wheel drive. Inside, there was little more than a rubber floor mat and vinyl bench seat, though a heater was optional. Out back, there was an eight-foot bed, the largest in the industry.
The truck was initially a hit, and while changes were few, they were significant, at least for the first few years. The heater became standard in 1947, as did a dome light, sun visor, arm rest, and 10,000 pound winch. In 1951, a number of mechanical upgrades made the truck even stronger, but by then, sales had tapered off. Ford and Chevy were selling pickups as fast as they could build them, and their models were getting more civilized by the year. As tailfins and chrome captured the imagination of American buyers, Dodge was having trouble finding a wide audience for a truck with roots in the ’30s, and was built to withstand a war.
In 1956, the company introduced the W100 and W200 Power Wagons, four-wheel drive, V8-powered versions of their more modern pickup, kicking-off a trend of modern pickups wearing the Power Wagon badge, something that continues today.
But after public interest faded on the Power Wagon, Dodge had a small but important market cornered: workers who need a tough truck and nothing else. Firemen, the U.S. Forest Service, farmers, factories, municipalities, and small businesses all loved the Power Wagon, and they managed to sell around 4,200 a year in the U.S.
By the 1960s, the Power Wagon was ancient, and more modern four-wheel drive trucks were becoming commonplace. Dodge continued to offer it through the 1968 model year, but by then, the price had ballooned to over $4,600 — well more than a Hemi-powered Charger R/T. What’s more, it couldn’t keep up with the government’s first-ever safety and emissions restrictions. But like its predecessor, the Power Wagon was beloved around the world, and Dodge found a healthy market for the trucks overseas, particularly in developing countries.
Dodge continued to build the trucks with the same straight-six (a newer version was introduced in 1954) on the same tooling until 1978, though it’s been reported that new ones could still be bought as late as 1980. Today, as the market for rugged classic trucks like the Jeep CJ, Land Rover Series I, and Toyota Land Cruiser grow, the Power Wagon has become one of the most desirable classic trucks in the world. It’s simple to the point of perfection; it doesn’t have anything you don’t need. And its once-dated looks now seem timeless and brilliantly functional.
Dodge stopped using the Power Wagon name for its heavy duty trucks in 1981, but revived it in 2005 for an off-road focused Ram 2500 pickup. The name carries on today, albeit as a particularly loud trim package. But it doesn’t matter, the Power Wagon has earned its name and its stripes, or whatever Ram wants to put on it nowadays.