Ramcharger and Trail DusterMopar's Big Sport Utes
IN MARCH OF 1974, Dodge entered the growing fullsize SUV market with the truck-based Ramcharger. Almost concurrently, Plymouth debuted a rebadged version of the same truck called the Trail Duster. For Dodge, the Ramcharger was the first SUV type rig offered since the Town Wagon had been retired in ’66. For Plymouth, it was the first “truck” offered since 1942.
Both the Ramcharger and Trail Duster were based on the W100 half-ton 4x4s. The wheelbase was shortened from 115 to 106 inches and the body was integrated into one compartment with no bulkhead. A conscious effort was made to use as much existing truck hardware as possible. Two tops were optional; a removable steel hardtop and a dealer installed soft top. Initially, there were two basic trim levels, the Base and the SE, to which individual options could be added.
Engine and drivetrain choices largely transferred over from the truck. Engine choices for ’74 ranged from the base smallblock 318ci 2-barrel, to the optional 360 2-barrel smallblock and the 400 and 440ci bigblocks. Trannies were the A-230 3- speed manual, the NP-435 manual wide ratio 4-speed, NP-445 close ratio 4-speed or the Loadflite TF-727A or B automatic. The NP-203 fulltime four-wheel drive Tcase was standard. The front axle was a unit-hub style Dana 44 and the rear a Chrysler 9 1/4 integral housing unit. Standard GVW was 4,900 pounds with 6,100 pounds optional.
Changes started just the next year with the addition of a two-wheel drive model. The model designations were then AW-100 for the 4x4 Ramcharger (PW for the Trail Duster) and AD-100 for the 4x2 Dodge (PD-100 for the Plymouth 4x2). The half doors were also eliminated due to leakage problems and replaced with standard doors. The venerable 225ci six was added to the engine lineup in two versions, the 100hp 1-barrel light duty emissions unit (mainly for California) and the 105 hp HD 2-barrel engine for the units with a 6,100 GVW.
The Ramcharger and Trail Duster were virtually identical. No wonder, since they were built on the same assembly lines. The trim levels and equipment packages were also very similar, though with a few colors and accoutrements exclusive to each. Legend has it that Plymouths were seen with the odd Dodge badge and vice versa... and nobody noticed until they reached the dealer!
The Ramcharger had only minor changes through 1980. During that time, the available models expanded to include a Luxury Equipment Package and a few sporty packages, such as the Four by Four and the Macho, which were SE models with special equipment like spoke wheels, white letter tires and lurid graphics. After 1978, the two bigblocks were dropped in the name of fuel economy. In their place came a 360ci with a four-barrel carb.
In 1981, the Ramcharger underwent the same sheet metal revision that had transformed the Power Wagon into the Power Ram. The Plymouth Trail Duster model disappeared completely. The body revisions included a non-removable steel hardtop and a one-piece fiberglass liftgate that replaced the clamshell tailgates of the old unit. New curved sideglass extended up into the roofline. The base and SE décor packages remained, but along the way the base became the Custom and the popular Prospector package emerged, as well as a Royal SE and Canyon Sport, among a few others.
In ’88, the 318ci (now called the 5.2- Liter) was given throttle body fuel injection, upping the power from 145 to 170hp and torque from 260 to 280 lbs-ft. The 5.9-Liter (360ci) followed suit for ’89, going from 185 to 190 hp and 283 to 295 lbs-ft. In ’93, the Ramcharger buyers had the 5.9L Magnum engine available that cranked out 230hp and 325 lbs-ft.
Gone in the second generation Ramcharger was the full-time fourwheel drive, cast-iron NP-203. It was replaced by the new aluminum NP-208 part-time transfer case which lasted until 1988, when it was replaced by the NP-241. The front axle reverted from the troublesome live spindle D44 to a Dana 44 with a CAD (Center Axle Disconnect) device and standard Tapered bearing hubs. The proven 9 1/4 rear axle remained in place, still with an optional limited slip. The threespeed manual was gone and the tranny lineup was limited to the NP- 435 and the 727 auto. In ’91, the A-500/A-518 4-speed automatic overdrives replaced the old 3-speed slush box. Just the next year, a Chrysler A- 535 5-speed manual trans replaced the NP435 as the manual option but in the final year, the 4-speed auto is listed as the only option.
While Ramcharger sales never came close to the Chevy Blazer or the fullsize (’78-up) Ford Bronco of the same era, it was nonetheless a contender in the market and had a loyal following until it’s ’93 demise. It didn’t make the cut when the new body style Dodges debuted in ’94. Big, two-door SUVs had become passé. Dodge noted the falling sales of their competitor’s Tahoe and Bronco two door models and decided to bet on a new idea that eventually evolved into the Durango. Interestingly, the Ramcharger lived on in Mexico, both in it’s original form and wearing the new Ram sheetmetal, until 2004.
While the Ramcharger and Trail Duster models did not break any new ground in SUV history, they were nonetheless well executed examples of the state of the art in their time and served their owners well. Among Mopar collectors today, the early fiberglass top units, especially the Trail Duster, and double-especially the bigblock equipped units, are garnering a fair bit of attention. The ’93s are also popular, having the hot SMPI 5.9L Magnum engine. With nearly half a million Ramchargers and Trail Dusters produced from ’74-93, there are still plenty of them around for Dodge fans to build or restore.
The Dodge Rhino! The Ramcharger wore this codename during development but it’s not clear how seriously that name was considered for the production truck. This preproduction unit is shown without the normal badges and wearing a ’73 grille. Note how the window channels and upper frames are missing from the doors. This was a ’74 only feature. These doors are now very difficult to find.
Either light or highly built, the Ramcharger is a solid basis for a buildup... if you don’t mind having fewer bolt-on accessories available. Mechanical stuff is not difficult to locate because these rigs share so much with the Dodge pickups, but appearance items are a bit more difficult to find. About the “Big Horn” emblem: While the Big Horn was a Dodge heavy duty truck of the ’70s, I don’t think it was a package by that name available for the Ramcharger. At least I haven’t been able to prove it. For now, this goes down as a custom deal.
The production Ramcharger debuted in March of ’74. The removable hardtops came in white or black initially. Later they were color coded to the body. The metal top cost you $337. A single tube roll bar was a dealer installed option. The SE package (shown) cost an extra $418 bucks. For just $214 more bucks, you could get the 440!
By the time this ’77 SE rolled off the line, the doors had acquired frames. The white sport wheels and 10-15 Goodyear Tracker tires were optional. This rig also has the Luxury Equipment Package, as evidenced by the twotone paint and color coordinated hardtop. This package also included cloth insert bucket seats, a rear seat, AM/FM radio, automatic, power steering, tinted glass, air conditioning and the 35 gallon fuel tank. Quite snazzy in the light blue two-tone, eh?
In 1981 a new body style emerged for the whole Dodge truck lineup and a new name, Power Ram. The big news for the Ramcharger was the integrated, non-removable top and larger rear windows. Market research had shown that most Ramchargers were ordered with hardtops and only about two percent of owners were removing them at any time. The solid hardtop made for drier and quieter vehicles.
The ’91 Canyon Sport Package was one of the more attractive renditions of the Ramcharger. Shown are the four color schemes, Colorado Red, Black, Dark Forest Green and Bright White, all with a Sand colored lower panel, the alloy wheels and a Tundra colored interior. In the bottom row are the 4x4s. The package also included a four-speaker AM/FM radio, AC, electric rear window defroster, cruise control, power windows/locks and premium cloth bucket seats. The package cost $6183 including the 5.2L V8 and 4-speed automatic on a 4x4. With the 5.9L, it was $6561 extra over the $14,490 base price of the Sportsman LE.