Cohort Classic: 1984 Dodge Rampage – Iacocca Swings…and Misses

Between Lee Iacocca showing up on television backing up his confidence on their products, reminding congress that they had given bailout money to any number of businesses before the auto industry with nothing to show for it but more outstanding debt, and delivering punch after punch with the K-Car, the S-Chassis minivans, and the later E- and AA-bodies, it’s not a stretch to call him one of the most positively-influential and successful businessmen of the decade when greed was good. A sort of anti-Carl Icahn, if you will.

Still, even for him, not all projects can be winners.

If my last article I highlighted the US’s complicated relationship with the wagon, in these one we can once again reacquaint ourselves with the wonderful world of the small pickup truck. This one is actually a lot easier, the US has perfected the full-size pickup truck. You can literally go out and buy one at any price level or equipped with anything to suit your needs.  Whatever the full-size sedan was for America until 1973, the full-size now fills that duty. And like Nash Metropolitans and Studebaker Larks, small pickup trucks tend to be less popular overall, although its fans are more prone to extol their virtues than the owners of full-sizers.

Now, I know that it’s tempting to go “But Gerardo, what about the recent crop of small trucks from GM? Ford is also bringing the Ranger back! What do you mean that small trucks are generally unwelcome!?” Well, it is perhaps at this point that I should point out that all of those small pickups are within a couple of inches in all dimensions of a 1977 Chevrolet Caprice, and the only reason that we consider them compact is that the Full-size ones make the 1959 Electra 225 feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable about its size. Perhaps a better way to describe them is as small-er pickup trucks. The A-Bodies to compliment the (very)big-boys, if you will.

No, when I think of small pickup trucks I’m thinking more the 80s Universal Japanese pickup trucks and chicken-tax skirting compacts. Great if you lived in a big city and didn’t buy vehicles like you do fast food (I can get how much more for a dollar?). And, for the purposes of this article, things like the jumpseat-saddled Subaru Brat, the VW Caddy pickup and, to a lesser extent, the El Camino/Ranchero local offerings. That’s because it’s among those last two that Lido decided to add yet another vehicle to the rapidly growing ChryCo portfolio with the Rampage.

Now, one of the many elements which made the Chrysler revival a success was their seemingly endless ability to take what few platforms they had and make as much from them as they could manage. If auto makers were people, Chrysler would’ve been that guy in college who only had a rotisserie chicken and some dried ramen noodles to survive until payday. Granted, after a couple of years the regime of chicken and noodles would become somewhat stale, but it was still exactly the strategy that they needed to resurrect the company (not to mention the only one they could afford with a budget of about a day’s wages for all employees).

The specific recipe for the Rampage was: take the front half of an Omni/O24/Charger, design a new greenhouse, and then mate it to a whole new rear half, with a longer 109″ wheelbase, a number of additional structural supports, and a new rear suspension consisting of a solid beam axle and leaf springs to manage its 1500lbs payload. In other words, pretty much exactly what VW had done with their Rabbit-based pickup, except Chrysler had to create new frameless window glass too. Not quite as easy as it might look at first glance (no, it’s not just a Charger with a Swzalled off rear upper body).


The result was quite adorable, surprisingly practical with a 1,500lb payload (about enough to carry all but the heaviest of motorcycles or a cow) and had an unsurprisingly small footprint. Sure, the 84 horsepower that you would then use to haul those 1,500lbs would not give you that much confidence when doing a hill start or merging on the freeway, but apart from that it was everything that a discerning customer looking for a small pickup truck wanted. Problem is, of course, the market could only come up with about 15,000 of those every year.

The reason I’m labeling these as 1984 models is because they have the four headlight front end used that year. 1982 was the year when the bulk of them (17,636) were sold. Presumably when the news that only 8,000 or so had been sold in 1983 hit Lido’s desk, he decided that he didn’t have the time or resources to pour into something that wasn’t pulling its own and the rest of the company against it. The Rampage (and its one-year sister the Plymouth Scamp) were quietly discontinued in 1984, presumably making more space for Caravans and Voyagers on showrooms. Having read his books, I’m guessing Lido also did readily admit it was a bad idea.

With that said, he tried and failed with an usual pickup one more time. Maybe trucks are his blind spot. Strange when you remember that’s where he started at Ford.

Special thanks to William Rubano for uploading these Rampages to the Cohort, and congratulations on finding two of them on such good nick.