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1994 Dodge Ram 1500 - Long-Range Clunker

Posted in Project Vehicles on May 1, 2010
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Sometimes the simplest queries lead us down long and interesting roads. Such is the case with our newest project vehicle: The Long Range Clunker, a '94 Dodge Ram 1500.

It all started innocently enough; our buddy, Cody, asked us to go look at a couple of trucks that might make for decent parts for other projects. After driving 31 miles across the desert (the fastest and shortest route), we arrived at a ranch. The two trucks in question were a '71 Ford with a bunch of oddball parts and this '94 Dodge. The Dodge had last been driven into a guardrail about seven months prior to our seeing it, and had sat ever since.

With a 5.9L V-8, 46RH transmission, and NP231HD transfer case coupled to a front Dana 44 and rear 9.25 axle, it sure was a decent drivetrain. Once we found the key and unlocked the truck, it was clear that some work was needed, but this was at the height of the "Cash for Clunkers" lunacy, so we wanted to see if this old beast would fire.

Even though the old battery did (barely) manage to start the truck after sitting for seven months, it was just plain nasty, and the date stamp read "2002." We decided to replace it with a 34M-PC1500 Odyssey battery from West Coast Batteries. The "M" designation gets us additional top-mounted terminals for accessories, along with the no-worries 880 cold cranking amps and 135-minute reserve capacity; West Coast always has the battery we want in stock.

After some slow cranking, it caught, ran, and idled, so Cody asked our expert advice. We checked fluid levels, and took it for a spin. The tranny seemed to hit all gears, four-wheel drive worked, the power steering and power brakes seemed fine, and the asking price was $500. Even with 170,000 miles on the clock, this wasn't a truck to part out to other projects-it drove with no weird noises; this was a truck to drive.

So we told Cody it was a driver and worth the $500 buy-in. Without another word, he pulled out his checkbook, bought the truck, and asked us to drive it back to his place 31 miles across the desert. After checking the fluids closer (power steering and transmission smelled burnt, coolant low, oil smelled off) we topped off the coolant with water from the horse trough, topped off the power steering with ATF, and drove it back.

Once the truck was cranking strong, we turned our attention to the burnt-smelling fluids. We replaced everything with Royal Purple. Again, for minimizing wear and maximizing mileage and performance, we've had good results with Royal Purple. The company is now also making oil filters, so we used that as well. All told, we replaced the engine oil, transmission fluid, transfer-case fluid, front and rear axle gear oil, and power steering fluid. Some people ask us about the seals leaking after switching to synthetic, and sure it is a possibility, but we'll take the improved wear resistance and protection against viscosity breakdown over potential seal leaks any day. Basically, we look at it as good insurance as well as possibly extending the life of our higher-mileage truck.

Along the way we found out the Infinity radio mostly worked, the A/C blew cold, we couldn't get the transmission to slip like the previous owner said it did, all power windows and mirrors worked, and all the lights in the dash worked. This really was a good truck for the price. But Cody already had eight projects going, and the Ram did need some work, so why did he buy it?

We got it back to Cody's place and asked him just that. His response? "Well, you need a truck to tow with, and this one was priced right." Who can argue with a free truck? So, the Long-Range Clunker was born.

While we were concerned about costs, one of the things we didn't want to do was cheap out on was the radiator. We've had problems with leaking crimped tanks in our Jeeps, especially in rough desert roads, and we wanted to increase the cooling system capacity and efficiency. We found just what we needed in the form of direct-replacement, fully-welded, all-aluminum Griffin two-core radiator from Summit Racing (p/n GRI-5-594GG-BAX), and about six gallons of 300,000-mile Be-Cool coolant. We also added some Purple Ice by Royal Purple for increased cooling efficiency. Whether towing or desert bashing, the combination of fluids and big Griffin radiator should keep the engine cool, no matter what.

The idea is pretty simple: We want this truck to do two things-tow our lighter projects around, and get us out into the desert. Now when we say "tow," we don't mean a couple of hundred miles-we'd rather drive our street-legal projects that far. No, we are going to use this truck to tow our junk to Moab, Utah; Vancouver, British Columbia; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and even further. It will likely stay hooked to the trailer until we absolutely have to be in Florida three days from now. So we want it to be comfortable enough and powerful enough to tow that far in comfort.

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Sure, a diesel truck would be nice. But it wouldn't be free, and towing with a gas engine makes fuel stops simple and means that whatever spare fuel we carry will work for the tow rig and for the project on the trailer. We are going to figure out a comfortable way to sleep in this truck for those long hauls, modify the drivetrain so it pulls as well as it can, and make the cabin quieter and more comfortable so we can pull 20-hour days with less fatigue. We want to make sure it can service itself on the side of the highway (and thus, service the towed vehicle), because there is nothing worse than being broken down with a dead rig on the trailer on the side of the road in the middle of Kansas with a hailstorm coming (ask us how we know).

Once we get it to that point, we figure it will also make a decent long-haul desert truck for runs like El Camino Del Diablo and the Mojave Road. A week in the bush should be no problem with this truck, whether we are towing our Jeep to Easter Jeep Safari, or camping in the middle of Death Valley.

So follow along with our multi-part build as we take our solid-axle, fuel-injected, late-model truck, snatch it from the jaws of the Clunker program, and give it a new lease on life.

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PhotosView Slideshow
PhotosView Slideshow


Be Cool
Essexville, MI 48732
Rancho Suspension
Monroe, MI 48161
Summit Racing
Akron, OH
Royal Purple
Porter, TX 77365
Hawk Performance
Solon, OH 44139
Hughes Engines
Washington, IL 61571
West Coast Batteries
Corona, CA 92879

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