It’s been a couple months since my last COAL submissions, which details my origins as a gearhead in childhood. By the time my sixteenth birthday rolled around, as a resident of Tennessee, I could get my driver’s license, yet I held off. While I’d gotten my learner’s permit the moment I turned fifteen, my family had come down to just one vehicle, in adition to the company car my dad used for daily duties. However, he was itching for another truck, having owned two Ford pickups before, and I’d have the privilege of using whatever he ended up purchasing.
Had we just stuck with the Bronco my mom owned, being the only rig we actually owned at that point, I wouldn’t have much seat time and I’d be paying for insurance. There was no way my mom was going to do without wheels just so I could drive to school and work and in those days–about 1990–a sport utility was also significantly more expensive to insure than a pickup.
My father’s not much for popping for brand new vehicles, especially for one which would only serve as a part timer, so it was decided to buy older and pay cash. The criteria was that the truck be American made, reasonably priced, well maintained and not a compact. Four-wheel drive was strongly preferred, though a two-wheel drive with something special might be a contender–think a stepside or a classic truck. I had never driven a stick and badly wanted to learn, so naturally I was lobbying pretty hard for a manual. Trouble is, in small town western Tennessee, a used but not abused 4×4 pickup that isn’t criminally overpriced is as rare as hen’s teeth.
We went to go check out a lot of trucks and many were absolute crap. One, a mid ’80s GMC was lifted about four inches using lift blocks and extended U-bolts front and rear. Using lift blocks in the rear is already sketchy; adding them in front is a total deathwish. Of course, my dad and I butted heads regularly in those days, my being a bullheaded teen with a case of Jeepitis.
As far as Jeeps were concerned, a “normal” CJ was out, but my dad had let it slip that a J-Truck, Comanche or even a Scrambler could still be used as a pickup, which is what he needed, so they were not out of the question. Trouble is, any of those are rare anywhere and in non-destroyed status in Tennessee, they were nearly impossible to find, even then. Think wheelie-on-a-unicycle impossible.
That following summer, a few leads started to solidify. My dad is a Ford guy, and I came dangerously close to being stuck driving a longbed F-150 in that godforsaken two-tone dark blue and tan paint scheme that was so popular then. I don’t remember how that fell through, but luckily it did.
In scanning the paper (remember shopping for cars like that?), my dad found a Dodge for sale just outside of town. His friend had one he purchased new–a late ’70s Power Wagon with the Macho package, identical to the one in this ad. I’m a sucker for bright gaudy color schemes. I hoped this truck was so outfitted, or perhaps that it was a stepside–I can’t say no to those.
Well, it was an ’84 and by the mid ’80s, many cars and trucks were becoming more muter and conservative in their appearance, even stodgy. Mid to late ‘7-s trucks and sport utilities tended to wear brighter colors, with stripes and tape packages that may get ridiculed for “sticker performance,” but which reminded me of the Stompers, Hotwheels and slotcars that I’d loved as a child.
My tastes are a little on the “look at me” side anyway, but in rural Tennessee, tastes are especially conservative. Two-tone paint jobs in beige/fecal brown, maroon/white, dark grey/silver tended to be the norm, and mid ’80s Dodges often had that wonky hood ornament. The big-rig inspired second-gen Ram and the whole Mopar renaissance were still a few years away, so my hopes weren’t too high at the time, but I digress.
We went to check out the ’84, and boy was I surprised. No, it wasn’t a Power Wagon, it’s wasn’t a stepside; hell, it wasn’t even orange. What we found was a pristine, bone stock Power Ram 150 with the a single cab, a short bed and the 318 V8. It had 60,000 miles on it, was solid black and came with a manual transmission. It wasn’t some wussy five-speed, either, but a four-speed with a granny gear. The was the old-school goodness I’d read about in 4Wheel & Off Road and Four Wheeler magazines, soaking up all I could about 4x4s.
It ended up looking very similar to these rigs, right down to the factory turbine wheels on the Ramcharger you see here. It was a local two-owner truck that had led a pampered life, but it was not like the fancy, posh luxury trucks of today. A/C was about the only creature comfort and it had a rubber floor, a vinyl covered bench seat, crank up windows, and a tinny two-speaker AM/FM radio. It didn’t–and still doesn’t–have a headliner, just painted steel! This was truly a “real truck” in every sense of the word: everything you need, nothing you don’t.
But rather than a cheap El Strippo, it came off more as a blank canvas with loads of potential to be whatever one might want it to be. The owner lived outside of town and had a small farm. He really wanted a farm truck and while the Dodge was plenty capable, he’d decided it was just too nice and clean to beat up. So Dad haggled it out and for the princely sum of $5500, this became his truck but my ride.
Over the next few weeks, my dad and I got familiar with the truck. We changed all the fluids, tuned it up, tore down the front hubs/bearings, ditching the auto-locking front hubs for manual units, and generally giving it a good going thru. It was all basic maintenance on a used 4×4 and it was a great experience for me.
Soon the vinyl bench got recovered in cloth, the running boards were scrapped, and it got a nice set of loud glasspacks: perfect! Dad taught me how to drive a stick over the next few days. I really had the hang of it by the second or third lesson, and I was clutching, shifting, coasting, downshifting like a champ, but just to make sure I had it, he gave me a fourth on-the-road lesson before turning me loose on my own.
I remember it being a perfect storm: I was sitting at a stoplight on an incline, with wet pavement and a cop right across the intersection. Dad didn’t say anything but I could see he was giving me “the look” to see what would happen. I gave it a bit too much gas, and not enough clutch, spinning the rear wheels the whole way across the intersection, opposite the cop! My dad is a good sized dude too, and he tried to shrink down to the size of a gnome as the cop gave us the evil eye, but luckily Depute Dawg had a date with the donut shop or something and kept right on motoring.
I drove that Dodge for over a year, but almost immediately began shopping for my first Jeep while slowly saving money. While I really liked that truck and even considered buying it off my dad, I still wanted a Jeep so badly, I could almost taste it. Still, I had a lot of fun in that rig. I started driving it to work a month into that summer, and it was immediately a hit with my running crew. All my grocery bagger co-workers were smitten with it. Most of them either had lowered minitrucks or were pinching their moms’ cars.
On the weekends, it was cruising “the strip.” Many a ride was given to a cute girl, with some bench seat debauchery enjoyed on occasion. When school started back up, I was a junior and it was again the envy of all my friends. We had our share of spoiled kids whose parents bought them new 5.0 Mustangs, or GM F-bodies, or who dumped tons of cash into lowered minitrucks that were all the rage at the crack of the ’90s.
There were a few others who had older muscle cars or classic trucks, some of which were nicely restored, but the clean, simple Dodge definitely made me a few friends among the kids who liked to go muddin’. It saw a bit of that action, too, and shrugged off all my abuse until later that year, when I got my Jeep.
Over the years, I’ve had several Jeeps along with other Mopars. I’ve always liked the Pentastar, but have steadily become an even more solid enthusiast and this ’84–along with the many adventures I’ve had with it–is where it all started. Those with a sharp memory also will remember that in addition to starting out in this single cab shortbed Ram, I have another one now (although very different from the subject of this article). That’s yet another COAL…