Backward Glances: Survivor, The Earliest Known Remaining Dodge Power Wagon
The first plowshare—the earliest known Dodge Power Wagon
The Dodge WC series military 4x4s were everywhere in World War II. Like the GI jeep, those relentlessly reliable military Dodges were cemented in the memories of returning servicemen as true-blue war buddies. That reputation offered Dodge a built-in marketing edge if they could utilize them in the civilian landscape. As early as 1943, Dodge began shaping its post-war marketing strategy and adapting the wartime 4x4 trucks from a sword of war into a plowshare for peace.
Before WWII, the light-truck 4x4 market was almost nonexistent. That was more lack of demand than it was a lack of technology. Returning veterans who had seen four-wheel drive in action created a new demand and made factory-built civilian four-wheel-drive light trucks a viable idea. Yes, the four-wheel-drive market still existed primarily in the commercial or agricultural worlds, but it was also growing beyond them into a new recreational market. At war’s end, the only 4x4 light trucks on the market in the U.S. were the very low-production Marmon-Herrington Ford conversions. It’s likely Dodge knew about Willys-Overland’s plans for the light 4x4 pickup that eventually debuted in 1947. Overall, the biggest worry was a market being flooded with cheap, war-surplus trucks.
Dodge had a good place to start—the final evolution of the 3/4-ton WC series T-214 military trucks. They formed the mechanical backbone of the new civvy rig and most components carried over. The new truck used a similar 230ci engine and the same New Process, non-synchronized four-speed transmission, and stout axle assemblies. The suspension, steering, and brakes were nearly the same. The major mechanical update was the replacement of the WC single-speed divorced transfer case with a two-speed New Process unit, later to be known as the NP200 (an early ancestor of the legendary NP205). It wasn’t a new product, having been developed for the ’42-’45 WC-63 1 1/2-ton 6x6.
The most common WC truck, the WC-51/52 Weapons Carrier, sat on a 98-inch wheelbase, with long-wheelbase variants, such as ambulances, being at 121 inches. The new civvy truck sat on 126 inches so it could carry a good-sized 8-foot bed. While most WCs were open cab, the civvy truck used a closed cab designed in 1943, and most Power Wagon historians agree that was where and when the Power Wagon development started. The front wrap was based on the WC trucks with a few alterations and the new body item was an 8-foot-long, 58 cubic-foot express bed. Overall, the new truck was a fairly minor engineering challenge and came to market quickly.
While it’s clear the cab was designed in 1943, it isn’t clear when development of the whole truck began in earnest. From surviving blueprints, we know the design was finalized July 13, 1945. The first “Pilot Job,” Power Wagon #1, was built on September 25, 1945. The first published information and photos came in December of 1945. Power Wagon #1 was shipped on November 27, 1945, and retail sales began in March of 1946.
Say “Power Wagon” and everyone in the 4x4 community knows what you are talking about. It’s surprising, then, to learn how casually that name was chosen. The original working name was “General Purpose Truck.” It was also referred to as the “Farm Utility.” “Power Wagon” was chosen relatively late in the process and first appeared in documentation published in December of 1945 and later as “The New Dodge General Purpose Power-Wagon” on the first brochure of February of 1946. The model designation was WDX, with WD an extension of the prewar convention. “W” indicated a ’41-’47 truck and the “D” a 3/4- to 1-ton truck. The “X” indicated a special variation. Only the ’46 and ’47 trucks would use WDX.
The WDX engineering code was T-137, which also signified its particular variant of the 230ci L-head six (also known as the “23-inch” engine), referring to the length of the cylinder head. It produced a little more power and torque than the wartime T-214 engine—94 versus 92 gross horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque versus 180, but had the same 6.7:1 compression ratio. Internally they were virtually the same engine. Externally, the engine lost the wartime ignition, induction, and charging systems, but it retained a PCV.
The WDX was offered in two GVWs: 7,600 and 8,700 pounds. The difference? The lower GVW used 7.50-16 8-ply tires (31.2-inch diameter, 2,400-pound capacity) and the 8,700 GVW used 9.00-16 8-ply tires (34.6-inch diameter, 3,000-pound capacity), both sizes having military non-directional tread. The lower GVW truck also used 4.89:1 axle ratios versus the normal 5.83:1 to maintain the desired overall ratio. Rear shocks were optional on both GVWs. Early in the ’50s, a 9,500-pound GVW option (10-ply tires and heavier springs) would be offered and the 7,600-pound option dropped.
The first Power Wagons had many options, but few were related to human comfort. The “Deluxe” cab of that era had a driver armrest and sunvisor, dual vacuum windshield wipers, a dome light, and a little extra padding on the seat. The heater was extra! The functional options made a longer list and included a 7,500-pound PTO winch (with a dual-output PTO that could be ordered separately), rear drawbar, rear PTO drive, engine speed governor, rear pintle hook, and front towhooks. It could be ordered with a rear-mounted hydraulic lift, suitable for use with a lot of farming implements. The truck could be ordered as a pickup, chassis cab, windshield cowl, cowl, flatbed, or stake bed. In the first year of sales, there were four color choices: Seawolf Submarine Green (the standard color), red, dark blue, and dark green. The fenders were always black. Later, other colors and color combos were added.
The truck you see here is the earliest known surviving Dodge Power Wagon, the 12th built in January of 1946. Its first owner was the Agricultural Engineering Department of Michigan State University. Its duties during nearly 30 years at MSU are unknown, but the truck was sold in the 1970s to an MSU employee who used it for a couple of decades, and then parked it for a couple more.
It ended up in the hands of Michael Mandzak, a product engineering manager for a Big Three automaker, in 2017. Michael has agonized over how to approach owning this truck. Though rough, it’s still a time capsule of originality. At press time, Michael had more or less decided to get it running and driving well, fix the worst of the bodywork, redo the original MSU markings on the door, redo the upholstery, and let the old truck proudly show off its well-earned patina. It generated a great deal of excitement at the 2018 Vintage Power Wagon Rally (vintagepowerwagons.com).
The DetailsVehicle: ’46 Dodge WDX Power Wagon
Owner: Michael Mandzak
Estimated value: $70,000
Engine: 230ci, 6-cyl L-head, Dodge T-137
Power (hp): 94 @ 3,200 rpm (gross)
Torque (lb-ft): 185 @ 1,200 rpm
Bore & stroke (in): 3.25 x 4.63
Comp. ratio: 6.7:1
Transmission: New Process 4-spd (non-synchro, spur-gear)
Transfer case: New Process 2-spd
Front axle: Dodge 9.63-in
Rear axle: Dodge 9.63-in
Axle ratio: 5.83:1
Tires: 9.00-16, 8-ply
Wheelbase (in): 126
GVW (lb): 8,700
Curb weight (lb): 5,780 (incl. winch)
Fuel capacity (gal): 18
Min. grd. clearance (in): 10.38
Approach angle (deg): 40 (w/winch)
Departure angle (deg): 28