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Dodge Ramcharger Spotter's Guide - SUV Bio

Posted in Features on March 30, 2015
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The Ramcharger was a fullsize SUV introduced by Dodge as a ’74 model and was based largely on a short-wheelbase Dodge pickup truck chassis. It would see its U.S. existence span two decades until the final ’93 Ramchargers rolled off the assembly line. Ramcharger’s cousin, the Plymouth Trailduster, was also offered but production stopped with the ’81 model.

By the mid ’70s, the Chevy Blazer, Ford Bronco, and International Harvester SUVs all had a foothold in the market for those looking for a backcountry camping vehicle or a large 4x4 that was different than a pickup truck. With seating for five or six adults and healthy V-8 power, the Ramcharger offered Mopar fans their own fullsize SUV.

1st Generation (1974-1980)
The first Ramchargers were quite similar to the Dodge pickups of the day but sat on a shorter 106-inch wheelbase. When the ’74s were introduced, they were full-time 4WD only, but Dodge quickly added a 2WD version a year later. We’re concerned here primarily with the 4WD models.

The original Ramchargers had a bolt-on removable hardtop but could be optionally equipped with a soft-top like this that offered roll-up windows. On the first-year ’74 models, the door window frame came off with the top. After that, the door window frame stayed with the door when the top was removed.

First-generation models had a removable hardtop and a soft canvas top with roll-up side windows was also available through dealers. The suspension was traditional leaf springs front and rear, with recirculating-ball power steering as an option. Brakes were power-assisted front disc and rear drum.

Five different engines were offered in various years in the early generation: a 225ci I-6, 318ci V-8, 360ci V-8, 400ci V-8, and 440ci V-8. The V-8 engines were the Chrysler LA series engines with standard electronic ignition, and the two largest V-8 engines were phased out with the ’78 model.

The Ramcharger was introduced back in the day when domestic manufacturers offered buyers a variety of V-8 engines, including big-blocks. Dodge was no exception. By the end of its 20-year production life, the Ramcharger would finish out with multi-port fuel-injected V-8 engines under the hood.

Common transmissions included the A230 three-speed synchronized manual (mostly behind I-6 engines), NP435 four-speed manual (6.68:1 First gear), or the NP445 close-ratio four-speed manual (4.56:1 synchronized First gear). For an automatic, it was the three-speed Torqueflite 727.

Dodge varied the axle gearing over the years to accommodate the various engines, transmissions, and tire sizes. Commonly available axle ratios were 3.21:1, 3.55:1 and 3.90:1. The front straight axles were Dana 44 units, while the majority of rear axles were Chrysler 9 1⁄4-inch units. Some Chrysler 83⁄4-inch rear axles made their way under ’70s Ramchargers, and we’ve heard tall tales of semi-float Dana 60 rears, but we’ve never actually come across one.

Like many of the older fullsize domestics, the Ramcharger can easily shed its 1⁄2-ton axles for the beefier Dana 60s from a 3⁄4 or 1-ton truck of the era. Much of the swap is a bolt-on project (driveshafts will need to be shorted 1-inch), so it’s a fairly common upgrade for owners wanting heavy-duty axle hardware to turn big tires.

The ’74-’79s used full-time 4WD with a cast-iron, chain-drive NP203 transfer case (2.0:1 low range). The NP203 used an internal differential to allow for varying speeds between the front and rear axles on harder surfaces. The transfer case had five settings: High, High Loc, Low, Low Loc, and Neutral. When placed in one of the Loc modes, the center differential was locked, delivering equal power to both axles. Neutral could be used for a power takeoff option.

While the purported convenience of full-time 4WD with the NP203 transfer case seemed attractive, there were some downsides. Overall gas mileage suffered due to the transfer case differential, and the front axle unitbearings (wheel bearings) would wear prematurely if not kept greased on a regular basis. Mile Marker offered a kit to convert the transfer case to part-time operation, and freewheeling hubs could be swapped onto the front axles. A “Sure Grip” limited slip was often an option in the rear axle.

With front and rear leaf suspension, lifting a Ramcharger is an easy prospect. Suspension systems are common and affordable. Donna Kousonsavath’s ’75 Ramcharger sits on a 6-inch lift to clear 37-inch tires bolted to a pair of Dana 60s. Frame weak points where cracks can develop are near the front shock mounts. It’s always a good idea to watch for frame cracks near the steering box.

Starting with the ’80 Ramcharger, a part-time, aluminum case, chain-drive NP208 transfer case (2.61:1 planetary low range) was used to replace the full-time NP203, and the wheel pattern changed from the previous generation’s 5-on-4.5 pattern to a 5-on-5.5 pattern. The front axle also ditched the weaker semi-float unitbearing design for the more durable closed-hub and spindle arrangement that Chevy and Ford vehicles had enjoyed. This was combined with the use of automatic locking hubs on the front Dana 44 axle, but for the ’85 Ramcharger the hubs were replaced with simple drive flanges and a two-piece, vacuum-actuated center axle disconnect was employed to help reduce parasitic losses. When in 2WD, a shift collar disconnected the passenger-side axleshaft and the spider gears inside the open front diff would spin instead of the whole front driveshaft and T-case front output shaft. The vacuum actuator mechanism on these would eventually prove to be troublesome and somewhat unreliable in operation.

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2nd Generation (1981-1993)
For the ’81 models, there was a revised Ramcharger when the Ram pickup redesign was introduced. With this version, the welded-steel top was no longer removable. Also, the foot area for the rear seat was dropped down to offer better rear seating legroom.

The second-generation Ramchargers got new sheetmetal starting with the ’81s. The rear side windows also had larger glass panels that wrapped onto the roof. Wheelbase on the new models did not change and stayed at 106 inches. The Plymouth Trailduster would only survive one year with the new body style, as only ’81 models were available.

The 5.2L and 5.9L V-8 engines continued to power the Ramcharger, and the ’88 models with the 5.2L got throttle-body fuel injection (TBI). The larger 360ci, 5.9L V-8 got TBI a year later. Multi-port fuel injection was introduced in the ’92 Ramcharger with the advent of Chrysler’s redesigned Magnum 5.2L V-8 and then on the Magnum 5.9L for the ’93s. The Slant 225 I-6 was phased out way back in the ’82 model.

The NP435 four-speed manual transmission was installed in a lot of second-generation Ramchargers. The Torqueflite 727 three-speed auto served through the ’91 Ramcharger and then gave way to the A518 four-speed auto (0.69:1 overdrive).

The NP208 continued to be the transfer case of choice through the ’87 trucks. Also, the ’83s saw automatic locking hubs and shift-on-the fly engagement to allow shifting in and out of 4WD at speed. Starting with the ’88s, the aluminum-cased chain-drive NP241 transfer case (2.72:1 low range) was used until the last year of the Ramcharger. The ’89s got rear antilock brakes.

The ’93 Ramcharger was the final year of domestic production for Dodge’s fullsize SUV. Public interest was growing in four-door SUV models. While there was a longer third-generation Ramcharger produced in Mexico, it was never imported to the United States.

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