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1956 Dodge Power Wagon

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 2012
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Everyone knows the story of how Willys-Overland successfully capitalized on a World War II military design in the post-war civilian world. Fewer know that Dodge did the same thing. In 1939, Dodge developed a military ½-ton 4x4 that evolved into the legendary model WC ¾-ton design that continued in production thru the war, to the tune of more than 250,000 units. The Dodge WCs, along with the jeep and Jimmy deuce-and-a-half, were the vehicular heroes of WWII and are fondly remembered by those who served.

Power Wagon had a big year in 1956. The 230ci flathead-six got a nice power boost and the electrical system was upgraded to 12-volts. Power steering became available as an option and partway into the model year the transmission was upgraded to the new synchronized NP420 with the option of an 11-inch clutch. Bizzell’s truck has the optional 9,500-pound GVW and was factory equipped with a Braden MU2-2 7,500-pound PTO winch. We shot David’s truck at the ’05 Vintage Power Wagon Rally at Fairfield, Iowa.

Like Willys, Dodge had a postwar civilian 4x4 in mind even before the war ended. When the last military truck rolled off the lines in 1945, they were immediately retooled for a new civilian 4x4 truck and production began almost immediately. What debuted for 1946 was the Dodge model WDX. It wore “Power Wagon” across the hood and became the first volume-produced post-war 4x4 pickup, beating the Jeep 4x4 pickup by a year. It was also the first non-carryover post-war pickup design, period. Like its GI forefathers, the Power Wagon would go on to become famous.

Is this a truck that shouldn’t be restored? David Bizzell proved that wasn’t true, but he worked hard at it. David’s wife Rustie says, “I just think it’s amazing he can look at something like that and see its potential. Nothing is junk to him. But maybe that means he won’t throw me out when I get old and rusty.”

Dodge took the basic military WC 4x4 underpinnings and put them into a new long-wheelbase chassis. The Power Wagon used a new two-speed transfer case, where the WWII WCs (except the 6x6) had only a single-speed unit. It was offered as an express pickup, chassis cab, or flat-faced cowl, the latter two suitable for conversion. A modified prewar civilian cab was used and the front wrap was a mix of the WC and the “Burma Road” 11⁄2-ton Dodges built for a Chinese contract. A new 8-foot bed was designed especially for the truck.

The Power Wagon was nominally rated as a 1-ton and first touted as an accompaniment to farmers. In fact, much like post-war Jeeps, a wide variety of farm implements were developed and the Power Wagon proved itself a capable plow-horse and PTO power-horse. Among the advertising slogans were “Job Rated … Goes Where Other Trucks Can’t Go … Does What Other Trucks Can’t Do.” That turned out not to be a brag, just a fact.

Bizzell’s ’56 is the 408th of 2,730 produced in Detroit that year. Power Wagons were also produced at a San Leandro, California, facility. Only a few colors were available, all in combinations with black fenders unless you paid extra. This is a close rendition of Rackham Blue, the truck’s original color. The original running boards have been replaced by diamond plate.

The Power Wagon initially came in two GVWs and with two gear ratios. If you opted for the 7,600-pound GVW, you got 4.89:1 axle gears and 7.50-16 tires. With the 8,700-pound GVW, you got 5.83:1 cogs and 9.00-16 tires. In 1951, a 9,500-pound GVW was on the options list with uprated springs and 10-ply tires replacing the 8-plys.

The Power Wagon retained the wartime rig’s 230ci flathead-six, with a few improvements. By the mid ’50s, it had evolved with better manifolds, a 7.6:1 compression ratio (versus 6.7:1), and a longer duration camshaft to make 111hp (versus 94hp). The 230 inline-six was replaced in 1961 with a 251ci flathead-six that eventually cranked out 125hp and this would be the ultimate power level for the domestic Power Wagon. Some of the very last Power Wagons produced in the ’70s had the 225ci Slant Six.

Dating back to 1933, Dodge’s flathead-sixes were legendary for their durability. Other than industrial use, the Power Wagon may have been the last civilian American truck to use a flathead (a.k.a. L-head) engine. This block is from a ’54 Dodge car. Dodge car power outputs were usually ahead of the trucks but the ’54 car output matches the ’56 truck output exactly. The main differences were internal. The trucks had more durable pistons and rings, alloy exhaust valves, and hardened valve seats, all heavy-duty items needed for hard work.

Comfort features were minimal but on par with other trucks of the early era. Heaters were optional, but a DeLuxe cab offered vent windows, dome light, armrests, sun visors, and more padding on the seat. Whoo-hoo! When pickups evolved into more comfortable workhorses, the Power Wagon began to look more and more dated but its fans were loyal and tough, so sales remained steady. The Power Wagon was produced from 1946 to 1968 for domestic sale and for export as late as 1971, with a few special contracts filled as late as 1978. Over that time the basic truck hardly changed at all, and a total of just fewer than 100,000 were built for all markets.

The optional DeLuxe Cab was not really a “whoopee” moment. Bizzell took a few liberties with the seat, adding a tasteful blue cloth to replace the hemorrhoid-cauterizing vinyl and upholstered the door panels to replace the original sheet metal.

In 1957, the Power Wagon’s status as Dodge’s only 4x4 ended, with a line of ½-, ¾-, and 1-ton Power Wagons based on the civvy trucks going on sale. Private owner sales diminished for the old style Power Wagon, but it remained a staple in commercial or government markets. Today it’s one of the most collectible vintage 4x4s, but one that’s still capable of a hard day’s work—if the operator is tough enough. This is definitely a rig from the days of iron trucks and steel men.

David Bizzell acquired this Power Wagon in 1988 as a rusted-out junkyard reject. The engine block had lain full of water and cracked by freezing. A tree with 26 rings was growing up through the engine compartment. “If there ever was a truck that shouldn’t be restored,” David is fond of saying, “this was it.” It took until 1995 to get the truck drivable. Though the truck predated her, David’s wife Rustie became an active supporter of the project. So much so that under the Christmas tree one year was a pristine Power Wagon tailgate with a “From Rustie” tag.

Considering the 3,000-pound-rated rear, this classic Power Wagon flexes well, about a 600 RTI. Lockers are still available for these trucks and should an owner want to get dirt-serious with a Power Wagon, they will find it a surprisingly capable vintage rig. Maybe the best of its era when you consider its large (for the day) tire size, high-clearance, gearing, and useful accoutrements.

The Details
Vehicle: 1956 Dodge C-4-PW Power Wagon
Owner: David Bizzell, Mount Juliet, Tennessee
Estimated value: $18,500 (NADA average retail)
Engine: 230ci Dodge T-137 L-head Six
Power (hp): 111 @ 3600 (gross); 101 @ 3600 (net)
Torque (lb-ft): 198 @ 1600 (gross); 192 @ 1300 (net)
Bore & stroke (in): 3.25 x 4.63
Comp. ratio: 7.6:1
Transmission: 4-spd (NP420)
Transfer case: 2-spd (NP200)
Front axle: Dodge, 9.63-in ring gear
Rear axle: Dodge, 9.63-in ring gear
Axle ratios: 4.89:1 or 5.83:1
Tires: 7.50-16 or 9.00-16
L x W x H (in): 209x74.75x77.75
Wheelbase (in): 126
GVW (lbs): 7,600, 8,700 or 9,500
Curb weight (lbs): 5,295 (w/winch); 4,975 (w/o winch)
Fuel capacity (gal): 18
Range (mi): 144
Top speed (mph): 55 (5.83 w/9.00-16); 57 (4.89 w/7.50-16); 64 (4.89 w/9.00-16)
Min ground clearance (in): 8.75 (7.50-16); 10.75 (9.00-16)
Approach angle (deg): 40 (9.00-16 w/winch, 45 w/o)
Departure angle (deg): 28
Fording depth (in): 28
Drawbar pull (lbs): 6,480 (Nebraska Tractor Test 454)

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