Truckstop Classic: 1967 Dodge D-200 Camper Special – We’re Number Three So We Try Harder, Dude!

(first posted 7/22/2011)    Dodge has been the perennial distant number three in the pickup market seemingly forever. Nothing like being the underdog to stimulate some fresh thinking. Especially when you can’t quite afford to actually design and tool new trucks as often as the Big Boys. A GM or Ford truck generation might go six, seven, maybe eight years, but Chrysler couldn’t pony up for that, at least not anymore after 1961. This D-Series style was built for eleven years, and its successor racked up what has to be a record, twenty-two years. The Ram lost its desire to butt heads, so it tried to outflank the competition with some creative ideas. Even I forgot one or two: diesel engines in 1962? The Dude?

The new D Series arrived in 1961, looking pretty modern for the times. A wee bit odd, in certain respects and angles, especially that distinctive drop in the side window line. But then compared to a lot of the Exneruberance emitting from Chrysler at the time, it was fairly mild-mannered. Good thing; if it had looked like a Valiant or ’62 Dodge, it would never have made it until 1972.

The ’61s were wider, longer and bigger in every way, and offered a wider choice of engines. The smallest engine in the half-ton D-100 was the little 170 cubic inch slant six making 101 gross hp. Yes, things have changed in the pickup world. But a basic little truck back then didn’t weigh that much over 3000 lbs.

The standard engine across the truck line was the bigger 225 cubic inch slant six, which made a terrific truck engine, with its exceptional torque curve thanks to a long stroke and better breathing than the bigger sixes from the competition. Heavy duty versions of the slant six powered pretty substantially sized “medium” trucks, all the way to the D-500.

And if you wanted a diesel, you could get one too, in 1962. Not commonly known, English-built Perkins diesels had been installed in numerous Chrysler vehicles exported to Europe in the fifties, and even a few in North America. In 1962, it was a standard option for the first time in the domestic Dodge pickups, but only some 1000 were sold.

It was a 354 CID six, not too different in basic configuration to the Cummins six that Dodge pioneered in the eighties. They were just ahead of times, once again! But it just didn’t make sense for Americans to spend extra for a noisy diesel when gas was 29 cents. But Dodge’s other pioneering ways had a bigger and more lasting impact.

Dodge’s big and bold moment came in 1963, when it offered the first standard-production crew cab of the Big Three. International already offered one, but that was still a significant thing indeed, and very forward looking. One could get crew cabs from GM and Ford, but they were cobbled together off the main assembly line, or farmed out. Dodge made it a regular line model, and it carved out a nice little niche for itself. And how many decades did it take for Chevy to finally offer a crew cab? Before we forget, Dodge also pioneered the extended cab (Club Cab) in 1973. When you’re number three, you just have to try harder. And carve out niches.

We had neighbors in Iowa City that bought a big crew cab Dodge Camper special in about ’63 or ’64, with a giant camper on the back. What would look totally common-place now looked positively enormous then, and I was mighty jealous of their growing bumper sticker collection from all of their vacation destinations. “Must have a Dodge Camper someday…”

Dodge pulled off another major coup in 1964, with the Dodge Custom Sports Special. It heralded a whole new concept: the high performance muscle truck. Nobody had thought of that before. Even the 426 wedge with 365 horsepower was available; truck motors back then usually petered out with a mid-size V8 in mild tune, with about 200 horses tops. Now if they had offered the hemi…

Well, in 1964, that question was valid, given the universality of truck bench seats. Kind of stupid of course, to not be able to seat three (or four, in a pinch), given that conventional cabs were still the name of the game. Dodge’s crew cabs were not all that common, bought mainly for; well, crews. Trucks weren’t bought by suburban families much then either, unless they could swing a camper. The Custom Sport Truck was a (rare) glimpse into the future.

This ’67 Camper Special reflects the growing popularity of the slide-in camper in the sixties, the precursor to the whole RV boom. I’m not exactly sure what year each of the Big Three started offering Camper Specials, probably in the mid sixties or so. Before that, one hopefully bought the 3/4 ton version. Way too many folks didn’t, at their peril. Slide-in campers on half-ton trucks were an all-too common sight, and they were a dangerous one. A growing number of nasty incidents involving crushed families from rollovers made the industry realize they were at risk, legally and image wise. Thus the Camper Special.

Camper Specials were 3/4 ton trucks with even beefier springs and shocks; the huge rear overhangs from campers and big families easily created dangerous sway and overloading. Add a boat out back; a recipe for disaster. In fact, Dodge specifically lengthened the wheelbase of its 8 foot bed trucks in 1965 for that reason too. In the seventies GM and Ford also offered even longer wheelbase Camper Specials.

Even with the extra load carrying capacity, these trucks were still none too ample in the power and (drum) braking department. Maybe just as well (about the power), to help keep speeds down. Not like today’s hot-rod jacked up diesel mega-cabs barreling down the freeway at eighty with a camper and trailer full of ATVs.

This one also sports big fat tires on the rear. I’m not sure when they first showed up; they didn’t come from the factory. It was a big fad with the camper crowd in the late sixties and seventies; kind of like getting a dually in one wheel and tire. They did help with flotation, and load capacity. But once duals become common, these kind of disappeared, or crumbled away.

Wonder if you can still get replacements? Google…of course; but I see that it’s now also a common size for skid-steer loaders.

This Camper Special packs a 318, de-rated for truck duty to 210 (gross) hp; about 170 or so in today’s net ratings. It feeds the indestructible A-727 Torque-Flite. This is the new-for-1967 LA 318, not the old poly 318, although they shared essentially the same block. Both 318s were by far the most common truck V8 engines of the era, along with the six, but in 1967, the 383 was also available to feed the ever-growing appetite for more power in trucks. Note that this one doesn’t have power steering; that was pretty common still at the time.

Let’s take a look inside, past that distinctive side window. Dodge made a number of small changes to these trucks over its long lifespan, to make them look more contemporary, but that unique detail would have cost too much to change. A decidedly Exnerian touch. And the other thing that never changed was the solid beam axle and leaf-spring front suspension, other than some tweaks along the way. Old school indeed.

Also note Dodge’s odd dash-mounted control for the automatic. Chrysler’s fixation with things like that and the push-button shifter soon gave way to realizing that it made sense to standardize controls. And an odd protruding soft “crash bar” appeared on the passenger side of the dash, which was otherwise a crude steel affair.

Here’s the business end, and the end of our visit with this old rig. But Dodge still had some more tricks up its sleeves, in order to keep us all guessing.

The Dodge Dude, featuring no less than Don Knotts as the Dude of the times. I’d say it’s long overdue to bring back an updated Dude with his Dudeness as the spokesperson. Maybe not…but why didn’t they have him drive one in the movie?