Cars Of A Lifetime: 1973 Dodge M886 – Soldiering Bravely On Until The End

It was set up exactly like this one stationed at Newark UK. Photo by Przemysław Szczepaniuk

Well dear readers the time has come to tell the tale of my beloved Dodge truck. “Beloved Dodge?!” I can hear you saying. But yes, I do so love all things Power Wagon, not so much Caravan, Aries etc.  It’s a long way to Michigan and Chrysler is a big tent, even so the Dodge brand.  So how exactly did I come about owning and breaking said truck? Read on:

I was in the market for a family car to replace the Quantum wagon. Looking in the adverts I saw a “Dodge army truck” for sale for fifteen hundred dollars. Well, I immediately called the guy! He said it was about ten miles up the road from me on another farm, but that someone was coming to look at it. I told him that I would drive over anyways on the chance that he didn’t buy it. The prospective buyer was just leaving without it when I pulled up. I was told that he decided not to buy it because it had manual steering. Funny side note; I met the guy who almost bought it by chance up in the mountains this last year. I noticed a really built ’70s Dodge quad cab Power Wagon and asked the owner about it. He told me he got it after looking at an M886. So we swapped stories for awhile about what we had done with our choices.

The truck appeared to be a standard 1973 M886 military ambulance in Air Force blue. I drove it around the field and it ran so-so. So I asked him if he would take nine hundred dollars for it. He agreed easily and the truck was mine.  Now about the truck; it had a 318 engine coupled to a four speed manual transmission, an NP205 transfer case, Dana 70 axles front and rear, a winch bumper, grill guard, pto, and manual locking hubs.

I soon learned that all these things were not the norm for an M886. The standard issue M886 had come with a 360 engine, full time four wheel drive, a slush box, a Dana 44 front and 60 rear axle, and was made from 1975 on. So what I had was something different. I looked up the NSN number stamped on the ID plate and indeed it was a different NSN than an M886 NSN.  but no amount of searching turned up the specific contract details for that NSN.

The seller had told me that it he bought it from a surplus auction for nine hundred, and that it had been used as a search and rescue vehicle for the local Civil Air Patrol.  My suspicion is that it was built specifically for SAR in recovering downed airmen. Here is a website documenting an earlier version in similar service. They seem to be more common in Europe than the US as well. And even though they are five-quarter tonners, they all have a 200 badge on the side of them.

Inside it was all standard kit. Two Naugahyde front seats, the back having long padded combination bench seat/stretcher shelves with fold down stretcher hooks on the ceiling in order to hold up to four non-ambulatory soldiers or eight ambulatory soldiers.

What I wanted to do with it was something like this:

This French family has done some cool stuff with theirs and it inspired me to do the same. But you all probably know me well enough to know that I didn’t.  But it did get lots of practical use. in fact it goes down in history as my wife’s favorite daily driver, armstrong steering and all!

What? Seat belts? We don’t need no stinking seat belts! And surprisingly it got fifteen miles-per-gallon on a regular basis. Of course the little 318 was loath to push it up hills at highway speeds especially when loaded down, but unloaded it would cruise along nicely at 65 mph.

When I got it, it was in the aforementioned blue and the clear coat was peeling badly. The tires were tiny, bald, and randomly selected. So the first thing I did was to go and spend eight hundred dollars on new tires. The next thing was to rebuild the carburetor as usual, and to give it a tune-up.  After all of that, and replacing the many gallons of gear oil it held, it ran pretty decently. Next was the paint. Since I didn’t want to spend the money to get a good paint job and I couldn’t get the true military CARC paint, I instead went to Wallmart.  There I obtained several boxes of spray desert tan camo paint. Let me tell you, my thumb was tired after that eighty dollar rattle can job!

But I was not to concerned with looks. It was off-roading that I was interested in. And of course when you off-road much, you break stuff. I broke the side hanging gas tanks several times. Once having to pour the contents of one that had been ripped off into the other.

And then there was the time I broke the steering arm mount that was cast into the axle knuckle! (see video above) It took some searching to find a closed-knuckle Dana 70 front knuckle. They were used only on Dodges and Internationals. But eventually I found one and rebuilt the whole front end knuckles on both sides. I ended up having to make king pin shims out of a soda can as no one had them. But after it was all fixed up, it drove just as good as before.

However there was a dark cloud lurking in the truck. Firstly Dodge never could make their body sheet metal and mounting well. Most of the old Dodges sound like a tool shed when you close the door. The entire front end sheet metal of my truck was cracking and beginning to rattle off. And then there was the wiring. It appeared as if someone with a huge soldering iron and some old household wiring had attempted to partly re-wire the truck with said instruments. All of this caused no end of grief.

But the one thing that kills these trucks is the rust. The sheet steel on the back is very thin and the braces under the interior paneling rust like an Austin Marina on the coast. I discovered all of this when I pulled out all of the old interior to replace the paneling and insulation.

Now is the part where you may begin to hate me (as I do myself). I decided to sell it because the prospect of fixing all of that rust was a bit overwhelming. And because it seemed a bit unseemly to have such a truck as one’s family car. At the time I was beginning to associate with, and attend conferences with national and international church leaders. It always elicited a bit of a raised eyebrow in the parking lot of a conference center, though our younger church members loved to ride in it. But my children complained that in the summer it was like an oven in the back.

But I discovered that you really can’t get much for an M886. Most people don’t know what they are and are more familiar with the Chevy M1010. It took a long time to find a buyer but eventually a man from northern California bought it for fifteen hundred dollars.  He only wanted the axles for a monster truck project. But I told myself it was no collector vehicle (it’s not really) and that it was rusty. So off it went on a flatbed trailer.

My children called it the “Soldier Truck” and today they have forgotten their dislike of the oven and it is their favorite car in memory. My wife also misses it and I do as well. I looked at two M886’s recently, but one was the usual rust bucket. And both of them had the standard set up with a slush box and full time four wheel drive; no thanks. I have been eying  M1010’s but there is still the prospect of driving such an ungainly rig around.  For now I have my 4×4 van that does all the same stuff and looks more civilized while doing it. Sigh…