By David Hagberg
Four-wheel-drive pickups are in high demand today, but in 1961, a four-wheel-drive truck was a rare sight. These trucks were not used as commuter vehicles or for family transportation. Dodge brochures from that time show new Power Wagons at muddy construction sites with men in boots and hard hats moving heavy objects about. The subject of this article is one such rare survivor of a hard working life.
1961 was a big year for new Dodge truck styling and mechanical innovation. Its new “Sweptline” design would continue for a decade with a few changes. Also new for 1961 was the “Slant Six” engine, a valve-in-head, four-main-bearing block that leaned to the right at a 30-degree angle to allow a long-stroke engine design while also fitting beneath a car’s low hood. The amazing durability of the Slant Six, aka “The Leaning Tower of Power,” became legendary. That said, a Slant Six-powered truck is not going to win a quarter-mile race, and it certainly isn’t going to blitz down the highway. That’s especially true of our featured 1961 Dodge truck, which is one heavy, short-wheelbase half-ton 4x4.
Dodge made these new Sweptline Power Wagons concurrently with the old-style WM 300 “round nose” Power Wagons built for extreme duty. The round nose WM 300 trucks were initially built for the war effort during the 1940s, and Dodge continued to manufacture them in limited numbers up to 1978. The final batch of WM 300 Power Wagons was sold in South America since they were no longer legal for U.S. roads. The new-for-’61 Sweptline Power Wagons were made for road use as well as off-road.
Tale of a rare survivor
What little history is known about the feature truck is rather interesting. A former owner bought the tired truck and intended to restore it. He removed the cab and had a welder replace the rusted-out floor. The rest of the sheet metal was quite good, so when the cab came back from the welder, he reassembled the truck and painted it in the original Toreador Red. Then the former owner hired someone to install a new clutch and pressure plate and resurface the flywheel. A month or so later, the truck developed a serious engine noise, and the discouraged owner parked the truck in the woods behind his home where it sat for several years.
The present owner noticed a classified ad for the old Dodge. He visited the site where the truck was left to the elements, bought it, trailered it home and got it running. It tuns out the engine noise was caused by a loose flywheel. Whoever replaced the clutch apparently forgot to tighten the flywheel! As a result, transmission removal and replacement was in order. The four-wheel-drive transfer case on this Dodge is separate from the transmission and is connected via a short driveshaft. Thus, transmission removal and reinstallation is no more complicated than the same job on a two-wheel-drive pickup.
The truck is now semi-retired. It stays in the garage of the owner’s summer cottage where it is used to haul a vintage 20-foot inboard powerboat to the boat ramp and back. It’s a short trip and one perfectly suited to this antique Power Wagon. Its other duties include transporting kayaks to launching sites as well as occasional trips to the lumberyard. With jobs such as those, the truck will last indefinitely.
More mechanical innovations
Besides the revolutionary Slant Six engine, Dodge in 1961 was the first truck to be equipped with an alternator. Within a couple of years, the alternator would become standard across the industry. Besides an alternator, this truck came from the factory with a two-barrel carburetor, which boosted performance of the new 225-cid Slant Six engine. Indeed, the new “225-2,” as Dodge called it, had a higher horsepower rating than the 251-cid, L-head engine that it replaced.
The axles on this truck are full-floating, which were the same as the axles used on 3/4-ton trucks. A full-floating axle places the weight of the vehicle on an axle tube, rather than the axle shaft itself. The rear axles on this truck can be removed without even jacking up the vehicle. It is a rare case of a manufactured product being better made than it needs to be. By 1965, W-100 Dodges had the less expensive semi-floating axles. There is a semi-elliptic leaf spring on every corner, and none of them have more than five leaves. There are no overload springs.
The Sweptline Power Wagon’s optional Synchro-Shift transmission by New Process was another component that was shared with much heavier trucks. In fact, this is a dump truck-duty transmission. The transfer case was also by New Process, and even though the unit is also heavy-duty, there is a weak point. There is an internal component that has come to be called “The Clunk Gear.” Wear to that part causes excessive driveline backlash as these vehicles age. International pickups of the era had the same problem. At this writing, reproduction repair parts are available.
Brakes are the internal-expanding drum type with hydraulic function and a single-chamber master cylinder. The hydraulic clutch uses an identical master cylinder, and both master cylinders are bolted side by side to the firewall. The slave cylinder for the clutch is mounted on the outside of the bell housing and is simple to remove and repair. The handbrake is a drum on the driveshaft with an external band and is cable-actuated by a lever under the dash at the driver’s left.
The new-for-1961 body seems tinny by current standards. There is no sound-deadening material anywhere, and the doors close with a loud “Bang!” The pull-type outside door handles were a short-lived design feature, replaced by push-button handles by 1965. The hood opens all the way until it hits the roof overhang over the windshield. Thus, the engine could be removed without removing the hood. The checkerboard aluminum grille was a one-year feature and was replaced in 1962 with a steel unit with a horizontal motif. The tailgate is held shut by hooks connected to chains, and it is a five-step process to open the tailgate and reconnect the hooks and chains to hold it in the flat-open position. The floor of the 6-1/2-ft. bed is wood, secured by metal strips and carriage bolts. Rear fenders and running boards are bolted to the bed sides.
Inside the cab is a functional and pleasing dashboard with full instrumentation. Access to the ignition key switch is impeded somewhat by the bare steel gearshift lever when in first gear. Moving the hole for the ignition switch would have been an easy matter at the time of manufacture, but that detail escaped those making design decisions. There is no radio, and there does not appear to be a place for one. The ashtray is mounted at the top center of the dash and opens with a squeak. The glove compartment is at the standard right-hand position and is opened by squeezing two opposing tabs together and pulling, an action followed by another squeak from our feature truck. Both of the glove box and ashtray remain in the open position by friction devices, so it is easy to imagine they also squeaked when new.
The cab is roomy. Brochures on Dodge trucks compared the headroom, legroom and hip room in the Dodge cabs to those of Chevrolet, Ford and International trucks (the brochures noted Dodge was, of course, numerically superior to the competition). One curious design feature of the Sweptline Dodges is the extra-wide windowsills provided when the side windows are open. This provides an excellent resting place for one’s arm.
Driving a ’61 Dodge W-100
I pull on the long door handle and its tip swings out slightly, opening the door without resistance. It’s quickly apparent that there is no spring-and-roller action to hold the door open at different positions. The concealed running board that appears when the door is opened is fairly useless.
Once in the driver’s seat, the driver’s position seems oddly low for a four-wheel-drive truck. Even though the seat height seems correct for the view out the large windshield, it seems unusual for my legs to be almost straight forward, as in a car. There is one sun visor and no inside armrest, so once on the seat, the inside door handle is used to pull the door closed. That loud “Bang!” follows. There are no soft surfaces to absorb sound. There is no headliner, and in fact the only things in the cab that are not painted steel are the steering wheel, seat, knobs and pedal pads.
To get moving, I push the clutch pedal down, pump the gas pedal a few times and pull out the choke via a knob just to the left of the steering column marked with a “C.” I slide the long, double-90-degree-bend gearshift into neutral and twist the ignition to “ON” and then “START.” The engine starts immediately. The speed of the engine must be kept up so it won’t stall. After a few seconds, I slide the choke knob in a little bit. The truck is ready to go.
I grasp the black Bakelite gearshift knob and slide the shift handle to the right, pushing through a strong spring that keeps the operator from accidentally hitting reverse, then shove the lever back. Reverse engages with a click. The gearshift knob almost hits the seat. I then raise the clutch about halfway up, give it a little gas (it still might stall) and back the truck out of the garage. Reverse gear is very low. It is immediately apparent that there are many turns of the steering wheel lock to lock, and so I have to complete my turning while in motion.
I shift into second gear. First in this truck is a creeper gear, or “grandma low.” Starting off without a load is done in second. Clutch up some more, a little more gas and the clutch engages smoothly. There is no chatter. Gain speed, shift into third and the truck springs ahead. This truck wants to go. Once up to about 25 mph, I shift into fourth and the truck suddenly seems rather quiet. The gearshift has such a solid feel; it’s almost like swinging the door to a safe. It clicks into every gear.
Now that I am moving, I roll down the driver’s window, swing open the vent pane and put my arm on that wide door sill to enjoy the summer breeze blowing in. This truck is well ventilated, and there are also foot vents that can be opened by knobs on the dashboard.
Even though the hood sides are emblazoned with block letters that spell out “POWER WAGON,” there is no feeling of excess power while on the road. The engine is really too small for the truck, at least by modern standards, but it doesn’t complain, as long as there is no hurry. It picks up speed at a leisurely rate. However, every bump in the road is immediately obvious and this truck certainly would be a kidney cruncher on a rough road. Comfort was not part of design considerations.
The seat is just OK, but the controls seem to be in exactly the right place. I get used to the low driving position and I have to think it is rather comfortable, especially when compared to the ’50s trucks that it replaced. I watch the speedometer as the needle rises. I am on a wide open road now, and I try to find the optimum high speed. I am not interested in maximum speed, as that would probably feel suicidal, but I find 50 mph seems like the most reasonable cruising speed.
I turn around and head back. This truck is called a Power Wagon, and I want know why. I get back to home base and back up to the 20-ft. fiberglass boat that’s waiting on a tandem axle trailer. I connect the coupler, safety chains and electrical connections. I get back in the truck and this time, I slide the gearshift lever into granny low. Clutch up, a little gas and the truck creeps forward. It’s a heavy load — about 5000 lbs — but the low gear makes the job easy. I pull out on the road, push down the gas pedal and the “Hillside Hemi” (another nickname for the Slant Six) accelerates quickly: to about 5 mph. (That’s the end of acceleration for that gear.) With the clutch down, I try to slide the shifter into second gear and it declines with a grind. It appears the Synchro-Shift transmission isn’t quite synchronized in second. I think, “maybe the synchronizer ring is worn.” I double clutch it into second gear.
I can feel the load, but the truck doesn’t mind. This thing can pull. Shifting into third and fourth is easy with no clashing. On the way to the boat ramp, there is a valley and then a slight incline where I have to shift back down to third. Once I get to the boat ramp, I stop, shift into reverse and crawl backwards as the boat behind me goes down the ramp. The very low reverse is perfect for slow backing. There is no power steering, but steering effort is not extreme at this low speed. I do notice that the back window is a little small when I turn my head to back the trailer. A big back window was an option that would have helpful at this point. I get the boat to the water and it slides off the trailer, then I use granny gear and mosey up the boat ramp to the parking lot.
After the boat ride, I back down the ramp again, winch the boat onto the trailer and get back in the truck. It’s granny gear time, and the truck on the steep incline with the heavy boat lurches ahead with little effort. The rear wheels barely spin on the slippery surface of the boat ramp. If they did spin, pushing forward the four-wheel-drive lever that’s just to the right of the gearshift would take care of that. I wonder how slow the truck would be in low four-wheel with the granny gear, but I don’t try that extreme gear reduction. This kind of task is exactly what this truck was made for.
Summarizing the W-100 experience
This is a formidable piece of equipment, if you have a job for it. A long tour in this truck would be work. It’s not going to get you anywhere fast, but every car that passes you in the opposite direction will honk and slow down for a look. This is a piece of history that has all but disappeared from the scene. Four-wheel-drive trucks such as this were few when new and were normally worked to death, so their survival rate is very low. Today, a ride down the highway would be a tedious affair, but a ride to the ice cream stand or a blueberry patch would be more like it. And if you need to pull a house down, a ’61 Dodge W-100 would be the perfect tool for the job. With a semi-retirement job such as this, our featured truck must be the happiest truck in the world.
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