Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Harvey Retzack figures that sooner or later the rest of the world might realize that Chrysler Corp. was on to something good back in 1982.
That was the year the company went against the grain and launched its funky Rampage pickup — a little front-wheel-drive hauler that was just a blip on the automotive landscape and fuzzy memory to many car folks. Retzack has one of the few that you’ll see on the road these days, and the longer he owns it, the more he is convinced the featherweight Rampage was a rock star that just never got discovered.
“People say, ‘Did you cut that down from a station wagon?’” laughs Retzack. “Most people have never heard of it or seen it. Dodge did not do a good job of impressing it on the market or impressing it on the world. People didn’t know these were [available], unfortunately. That’s the sad thing — in 1982, ’83, ’84, a vehicle for under $4,000 that would haul a half-ton of stuff and still get 30 mpg. I don’t know why they didn’t sell like hot cakes. I’m sure Chrysler was scratching their heads, too. They just didn’t sell.”
Indeed, the sales figures were paltry: 17,636 in their debut 1982 model year; 8,033 in 1983 and 11,732 in ’84. After that Chrysler gave up on the idea of winning over the buying public with its mini truck line — and nobody seemed to really notice.
But a cheap, gas-sipping pickup was just what Retzack, a Wausau, Wis., resident, was after when he went shopping for a used truck last February. “I was looking for a Volkswagen Rabbit [pickup], primarily because of the 50-pus miles per gallon [they got]. I commute back and forth to Florida. I spend my summers in Wisconsin and my winters in Florida and I was looking for something that would get me decent mileage on both ends,” he says. “I’ve always been a MoPar person. From the rear window forward, this is a Dodge Omni and I’ve had several of those. I wanted a Volkswagen, but they are not available. This I found on eBay down in Arkansas, in Rivers Bend, Ark. It was in the backwoods [laughs].
“Once I found it and starting doing some research on it and discovered how rare they were, we decided to look at it.”
According to the story Retzack got, the truck was purchased in the Midwest but spent most of its life in California. The original owner’s grandson eventually wound up with it and moved it to Arkansas. He apparently did some work on the Rampage and drove it a bit, but the truck had been parked and in storage for a while when Retzack came across it.
“I don’t know how long ago he [worked on] the body, but it’s held up pretty well. My impression from talking with he and his wife that it was just a repaint,” Retzack noted.
The Rampage was based on the Dodge Omni 024 coupe and was Chrysler’s answer to the popular El Camino and Ranchero — the long-running car/pickups from Chevrolet and Ford. It wasn’t the first front-wheel-drive hybrid pickup on U.S. roadways; the VW Rabbit Sportruck and Subaru BRAT both beat it to market here. But it was first Amercan-built truck with front-wheel-drive, along with the Plymouth Scamp, a rebadged offering that appeared only in 1983. For 1982, the Rampage came in both base and Sport versions. For 1983 and ‘84, the choices were the base and “2.2” versions.
The Rampage used the Omni’s unibody construction and front grille/fascia from the Dodge Charger. It carried either a 1.6-liter/65-hp or 2.2-liter/94-hp east-west four-cylinder. The original Rampage could be ordered with either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic, but a five-speed manual became available for 1983. Dry weight was about 2,400 lbs. The cargo capacity was touted at 1,000 lbs. with a towing load rated at 750 lbs. The double-wall steel rear box was 62 inches long and 52 inches wide and was integrated into the cab. It wasn’t big enough to haul hay bales or large land mammals, but it was plenty big enough for grocery and hardware store runs. In front were bucket seats and a small package shelf behind the occupants.
One feature that Chrysler advertising execs probably should have shouted more about was the unique-for-its-time load-sensing braking system. A valve between the cargo box a rear axle sensed the load based on how hard the suspension was compressed, sending more or less fluid pressure to the drum brakes.
With its light weight, smallish dimensions and front propulsion, the Rampage drove more like a car than a truck, and its 21 city/29 highway fuel economy numbers were definitely not truck-like. Handling and traction were almost certainly better in snowy climates without the rear wheels spinning behind a lightweight box in back, and the protruding Chevy Monza-like nose gave the Rampage a definite sporty-compact car look from the front.
Perhaps it was the fact that the buying public wasn’t ready for a half-ton pickup with unusual looks. Maybe it was the fact that the Rampage wound up competing against both the mini trucks (VW and BRAT) and established half-tons (El Camino and Ranchero). Or maybe it was just that Chrysler marketers did a lousy job of extolling the trucks’ virtues. Whatever the reason, few buyers warmed up to them and very few owners have held onto them after more than three decades.
Retzack always keeps his eyes peeled, and he hasn’t seen another truck like his since he bought it. He had it only display this past July at the Iola Car Show in Iola, Wis., where it drew a lot of puzzled looks.
“This was the fourth show I’ve had it at, and each time this is the sole Rampage,” he chuckles. “It avoided the snow, the salt and the crusher. That’s where a lot of them went, unfortunately, in the ‘90s.”
Retzack’s cream-colored survivor recently rolled past 80,000 miles on the odometer. He figures the truck was painted once, but the interior is original. Ditto the engine and drive train. “Mechanically, I’ve gone from bumper to bumper on it: brakes, shocks, struts, ball joints, A-frame bushings, shifter linkage, clutch, pressure plate, throw-out bearing, brake cables, rear wheel bearings …”
He says finding replacement parts for the truck “was impossible” in some cases. He gave up looking for a suitable radiator and decided to send his deteriorating original out to be re-cored.
“I’ve always been a fan of the 2.2 four-speed. They don’t get as good of mileage as the Volkswagen diesel, but they do pretty good compared to what’s out there right now,” he says. “Some of the options are the split rear window, which is kind of a rarity, this original cover, which is kind of a rarity… You could get it with A/C. You could get it with power steering. You could get it with an AM/FM 8-track. I don’t have the 8-track or the power steering, unfortunately.
“One of the things that makes this one very unique, it is to my knowledge the only front-wheel drive pickup made in the United States, and they only made it for three years. You’d think by now one of the major players would have gotten it together and made a front-wheel-drive truck, but this is the only one I know of. “
Retzack jokingly added an “R/T” badge to the B pillar and a faux scoop on the hood. Dodge didn’t make such a version, but maybe it should have. A hot version of the Rampage may have caught on and been what the public was looking for. We’ll never know, but Retzack likes the truck the way it is, regardless of what the rest the world thought then, or thinks now.
“It drives great. It snaps,” he says. “Because of the front-wheel-drive it’s nice and tight in the corners. It keeps right up on the highway. It loves to cruise at about 70 [mph]. It rides very comfortably because of the strut suspension. And I haul a lot of stuff in it.”
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