TOAL: 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 – The Blue Truck

Up until now, Ive written about some of the cool, fun, old cars that I own; the Charger, the Grand National, the 9C1 Malibu and the one that started it all, my 455 Grand Prix, and there’s more coming.  But I wanted to introduce you all to the backbone of my garage, the big tow, my rock solid and waterproof Ram pickup, or just simply The Blue Truck (TBT) as we call it in my house.  (By the way, the new Rams will always be Dodges to me.)  In fact, except for the Malibu, which I had delivered, all of my old cars came home on a trailer behind TBT.  Now that I think about it, my trailer probably deserves its own COAL.

Hey what’s that on the trailer?  Looks like another COAL.

So let me set the scene for how TBT came into our lives.  Just after Labor Day, 2003, I had relocated to the Tidewater area of Virginia from Texas.  My 1st wife was 6 months pregnant with our second child, and it was a higher risk pregnancy as she had preeclampsia with our first.   She was a teacher and was about to start a new job with the schools here.  I was in the reserves and had went on an extended deployment earlier in the year, and then when I got home, I had surgery on a hernia, and we wound up moving while I was still recovering.  Then, as we got to Virginia, my new reserve unit was on the hook to deploy as well (remember, 2003 was early in the war and every reservist everywhere was on the hook to go somewhere.)  I had bought a house in VA but it wouldn’t be ready for us to move in until November, so we stayed in temporary quarters until then, using only the necessities and living out of boxes while everything else was in storage.  Then there was the new job and getting used to a new environment, so to say it was a stressful time in my life was an understatement.  Oh, and by the way, now I was about to add a new car payment on top of all that…

At the time, our vehicle complement consisted of my wife’s 2002 Durango (still have it, COAL coming) my primary mode of transportation was my 1996 Ram single cab pickup (also still have it, TOAL coming,) a 1968 Coronet R/T that I trailered up from Texas, and a 1972 Fury police car that was my basket case resto project that I had truck shipped up.  I was working shiftwork at the time so I would take my 3 year old to day care in the morning and my wife would pick her up at the end of the day, and since my days off were during the week, I would need to drop them off and pick them up on those days after #2 was scheduled to be born in a couple of months.  Therefore, I would need something other than a single cab pickup truck or a 35 year old musclecar with no air conditioning and questionable reliability as a primary mode of transportation that could fit 2 babies, their car seats and all of their stuff.

Grafton Dodge, not long before whatever iteration of Chrysler Corporation was at the time, dropped them as a franchise.  TBT was sitting about where the red Avenger is parked when I first laid eyes on her.

Everyday, I passed the now defunct Grafton Dodge in Yorktown (RIP; it was a nice little mom and pop dealer that fell victim to the 2009 C-D-J “restructuring”) when dropping my daughter off at day care before work.  At the time, I was all about being “Mopar Or No Car,” although I would have also considered a Chevy, but not a Ford and definitely not a Toyota.  The new pickup trucks were lined up in front of the building and as it was the fall, the new ’04s were there front and center and the new Dodge trucks were a hot seller with the then-new Gen3 Hemi engines.  On that line of trucks was a Hemi-powered, SLT package, Patriot Blue over silver, 1500 Quad Cab, short bed, 4X4 that caught my eye.  I didn’t care for the 2002 restyle as much as I liked the 1994-01 T300 Dodge trucks but the design eventually grew on me and each time I passed it, for about 2 weeks, I did a double take to get a better look at it.  Finally, on one of my days off, I just had to stop in to take a look at it.  A $36,000 sticker price coupled with my cop’s salary, a pregnant wife, and a new mortgage to take on was about enough to make me get back in my 100K mile, 8 year old truck and forget about it, but thanks to a military discount, dealer incentives and my charming personality, they offered me the truck for $28,000.  They got me.  This would now require a talk to my wife.

There’s a story around her giving me permission to buy the truck involving her Durango but I’m not telling it until I write the Durango COAL.  I gotta give you all a reason to come back and read the rest of my stories, right?  But short of that, obviously I got permission to get the truck, because, 15 years later, its still in my driveway.  Bonus was that I didn’t have t0 trade in my trusty black ’96 Ram.  I cant wait to tell that story.

So what have me and TBT been doing for 15 years?  Just normal truck owner stuff, I guess, and every homeowner needs a pickup truck.  My house is on a couple of acres on a creek in a rural area so I keep it pretty busy.  Every spring, it picks up a load of mulch.  Every summer, it hauls my boat to the river.  Every fall it hauls a load of firewood.  Every winter, it’s our primary mode of transportation when it snows.   Its done everything I’ve asked it to do and never complained.  Road trips to Texas and its been all up and down the east coast from Florida to Rhode Island.  Parking in New York City and Washington prove to be challenge as not many garages can fit a 4X4 full-size pickup and truck-sized parking spots on the street are few and far between.  I don’t recommend a pickup for city dwellers.

In 2000, a good friend of mine was killed in the line of duty in Texas.  He was shot in the head on a traffic stop at point blank range with a shotgun; he never had a chance.  Now that I was living in Virginia, I was close enough to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. that I would be able to go visit his memorial and make a rubbing of his name.  I drove TBT up in May, 2004 for Police Memorial Week, and as I was driving home alone, I remember I was deep in thought, thinking of my buddy; thinking about how his son and my daughter were the same age but now his boy was going to grow up without his Dad, and did I want my daughter to be in the same situation?  Was my name going to end up on the Wall?  Then I started reflecting on my own career in law enforcement and some of the oh sh*t situations I had been in up until that point.  Then, ironically, I see the blue lights in my rearview mirror.  I looked down and saw that I was doing 80 in a 55 and in Virginia, that’s reckless driving.  It was a state trooper and Virginia troopers aren’t known for being forgiving.  He approached the truck and when he saw my uniforms and gear in the truck (I was on my agency’s honor guard at the time,) he asked if I was coming home from the ceremony and wanted to know how it was.  We got to talking and I told him about my buddy and showed him his name rubbing that I made, and we wound up talking about our jobs and families and stuff probably for a good half hour.  He was a field training officer and had a rookie with him and used my friend’s story as a training lesson.  I didn’t get a ticket.

More times than I care to remember, its been called upon to rescue one of my (or someone else’s) old cars that has been left stranded on the side of the road somewhere.  I made up a quick recovery strap and threw it in my tool box.  I took a ratchet strap and cut off the ends, then I tied a steel hook onto one end to hook to the recovery car and tied a bowline knot in the other end so I could slip the knot’s eye over the trailer ball on the hitch; it works like a charm while lessening the danger of using a chain or a rope.  Not long after my 1st wife became my ex-wife, she called me frantically when she got run off the road and ended up in a ditch; my kids were in the car with her so instead of having her call a tow truck, it was TBT and the recovery strap to the rescue.  Just this past weekend, TBT pulled my neighbor’s truck out of the mud behind her house.

It’s amazing how many friends you have when you have a truck and a trailer, and sometimes they ask you to pick up something cool and interesting.

2009 was the height of the recession, and people all over were dumping boats, RVs, Harleys and other big boy toys for pennies on the dollar.  I was stationed at Camp Lejeune at the time and one day when coming back from lunch with the guys off base, I spotted a beautiful, barely used Angler sport/fishing boat at a boat dealer and marina just outside the gate.   I went back after work and checked it out; it looked like a brand new boat as it was owned by a meticulous owner that just didn’t use it very often and it came with all of its service records, and he was asking a fraction of what the book value was at the time.  I called the bank, they cut a check immediately and I towed it home to Virginia with the TBT the next day.  I still have the truck and the boat.

There’s a story here.  Two summers ago, while towing with TBT, I was headed to a boat ramp in another county and I noticed the wheel was wobbling on my boat trailer about 10 minutes into the drive; the bearing had gone bad (even though it was only about a year old and recently serviced.)  I called for a flatbed to come pick up the boat and trailer and had it towed to a local shop to have them replace the bearing.  I specifically told them to check the bearing on the other side as I replaced and serviced them at the same time.  The following week, I tried the same trip again and wouldn’t you know it, the trailer wheel bearing on the other side went bad in the same exact spot on the road and the exact same wrecker and the exact same driver came to get the boat, but this time I had it trailered to my house and fixed it myself.

In November 2004, I bought a compact tractor and attachments from a dealer just east of Nashville, roughly 600 miles from home.  I drove out and back in TBT in one day to go pick it up, a 1200 mile round trip and a personal one day mileage record for me.  I didn’t plan to do it that way, I was going to stop somewhere to sleep after getting it, but I decided just to keep chugging along as I didn’t really feel tired until just before I got home.  I sold the tractor for a bigger Ford 1910 a couple of years later but I still have the truck.

My wife is a horse owner (X3) and her trailer gets towed with TBT.  Anybody want any horses?  (I kid, of course) (But not really)

Both kids from my first marriage have spent their entire lives in the truck, and I asked them when I was writing this to tell me their favorite memories of TBT.  Oldest told me that when she was around 5 or 6, I took her on a fire call with me to set up a landing zone in a remote area just about a mile from my house for a helicopter that was flying a critical patient out.  To get to the LZ, I drove TBT there and met up with the fire truck and established the area.  While doing so, my daughter stayed in the truck and one of my female medic friends that was also on the call stayed with her while I did my fireman stuff.  My daughter got so excited when the helicopter landed.  My entire career has been in the military and in emergency response and I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it, everyone loves helicopters.

Youngest told me that she didn’t have any single specific memory about the truck other than she loves riding in the back of it (never on the road, just around the house) and she reminded me that when I was working down at Lejeune, she gave me 2 little heart stickers when she was also about 5 or 6 to make sure I remembered her during the week while I was gone.  I put each sticker on the rearview mirror of a car; 1 in my Charger and 1 in TBT since those were 2 that I drove pretty often.  The stickers are both still there and she likes that.

This is actually a hard COAL to write.  You see, I’ve had the truck for just over 15 years now, and it just turned 152K miles this morning on the way to work.  Its just been a great truck, and I love it.  And that’s just it; its a good truck-unlike all of my old cars that require constant care and feeding, TBT lives in the background, just doing all the truck things I need it to do and doesn’t argue with me like the cars do.  Have to pick up a load of hay for the wife’s horses?  Yee-hah, lets go.  Have to run down to Georgia to pickup another damn old car?  No problem, lets go.  Taking the boat out today?  Don’t leave the fishing poles on the pier again, dummy.

Unlike most of the local good ol’ boys, I’ve left the truck completely stock.  No big tires, no lift kit and no obnoxiously loud exhaust.  I did spray in a Line-X bed liner, installed a truck box and a trailer brake controller just after I bought it.  Just normal truck stuff.

In 150K miles, its on its third set of tires, I’ve done maybe 4 or 5 brake jobs, I’ve replaced the ball joints and wheel hub/bearing assemblies once, a set of U-joints, the radiator, and right now I need to replace an O2 sensor.  I change the oil every 5000 miles and the transmission fluid every 30K, and at every oil change it gets a complete detailing. The only repairs that I can think of were back in 2008, I had to replace the HVAC door in the dash, which really wasn’t all that bad considering the whole dash had to just about come out.  Then in 2012, I had an oh sh*t moment when I lost almost all brake pressure when one of the brake lines rusted and broke while I was visiting my Mom and picking a car up in New York State, requiring an emergency visit to a local garage. The notorious Dodge quarter panel rust that appears over the rear wheels on this generation of trucks finally decided to show up this year so I will be getting that repaired soon, and quite frankly, I’m surprised it took this long to show up given how close I am to the ocean.  The exhaust broke in a funny way 2 winters ago; it just split just behind the muffler where it looks like someone cut it with a sawzall.  I bought some header wrap and then secured it together with an old radiator hose and a couple of hose clamps and its still holding 2 years later.  So its been a pretty good truck.  If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have kept it this long.

It still has the original battery.  Sometime in 2009 or ’10, the local Dodge dealer was having a sale on OE batteries so I proactively bought one as a replacement.  It wound up going bad from sitting on a shelf but the original is still in the truck.

Its a good engine.  I like that it has an air conditioner condenser with it’s own fan next to the radiator instead of in front of it, plus it has factory transmission and power steering coolers.  Everybody keep cool!

So what do I love about it that I decided to keep it for 15 years? The Hemi gas engine along with the 545RFE transmission is a bulletproof combination that, with more than 150K on it, shows little, if any signs of wear. Its a dependable, proven powerplant that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, is easy to service, has a great power curve for a truck and I cant complain about the gas mileage either. In my truck, 13 mpg around town and 17 mpg on the highway (empty and on a flat road) at a steady 70 is the norm (happily, mine is a pre-MDS model, as the early ones were problem-prone with faulty plastic timing chain guides.) I understand the new ones are getting over 20 mpg on the highway and an extra 3 mpg isn’t enough for me to justify a new car note. Its a pretty truck and the paint is holding up well, it still shines nicely and there is no clearcoat peeling or fading like the earlier Dodges, despite it being parked outside. Im a bit of an audiophile and it has the Infinity stereo. It is one of the best-sounding OE car stereos I’ve ever heard. The HVAC is meat locker cold in the summer and gets toasty warm in the winter after about 3 miles of driving, and I’ve only had to top it off with R134 once in 15 years. I’m very critical of vehicle’s headlights and the ones on TBT are some of the best I’ve seen on a pickup.

Its too cold to go outside and take a picture of my actual truck interior but that’s what it looks like.  I even have the same parts store floormats.

Things I don’t like about it:  Its the first vehicle I’ve ever driven with drive-by-wire and I hate it, along with every other DBW vehicle I’ve ever driven.  I want a gas pedal that’s connected to a cable that connects to the engine.  I know, I’m a dinosaur.  In the Ram, I often have to dig deep into the pedal travel before it downshifts, and I’ve caught myself yelling at it while pulling a trailer on a hill to f’ing downshift already.  It has the factory tow package but it doesn’t include front tow hooks or a limited slip differential; both of which I assumed would be part of the package.  After all, who would want tow hooks to actually be part of a tow package?  I would have liked a nicer interior like the new ones today but its typical of a 2000s Mopar and the trucks from Ford and Chevy in those years weren’t much better.  They were all pretty much hard plastic hell but the Dodge looks the cheapest.  I do like the dash layout though.  The turn signals are annoyingly loud.  The seats aren’t the most comfy either, and compared to the previous generation T300 Dodges and the later 2009+ models, the seats in this generation Ram are the cheapest and flattest.  Thanks again, Daimler.Sometimes it happens.

Thoughts of a new replacement truck have never seriously crossed my mind.  I’ve wandered dealer lots, daydreaming about a new decked out Cummins Ram 3500, but the prices of modern trucks are ridiculous.  The 2019 counterpart to TBT from any of the Big 3 is over $50K.  I cant justify spending that kind of scratch when TBT is still such a good, competent truck.  I also decided that I really don’t ever want another car payment again; I’ve become a bit of an economist and a new car with a payment rivaling my mortgage is one of the dumbest financial decisions one can make (although I will own a Hellcat Challenger sometime before I die.)  I don’t want the heated seats, backup camera, and the general electronic obtrusiveness that comes with the modern mid-level pickups.  So I plan on just keeping it feeling new; if TBT needs a new engine, I’ll replace the engine.  If it needs paint, I’ll get it painted.

So now I’ll get back to the other COALs in my driveway.  Anybody here like big block, 4 speed Mopar musclecars with lots of carburetors and a racing history?  Maybe a more CC-friendly 1980’s GM B-Body coupe?  They’re coming, and I only have them (and can write about them) because they came home on a trailer behind The Blue Truck.