Story and photos by David Hagberg
Pickup trucks are bought to do work, and most of them eventually die as a result of rust, wear and overwork. A fortunate few survive, and this 1948 Dodge B-1-B half-ton is among the survivors. The Dodge pickup was originally bought to do work on a blueberry farm in Connecticut, and it did everything that was asked of it from the same owner for more than 60 years. Careful operation and good maintenance played a major part in its preservation, as did dry winter storage. This truck was put away in a barn every fall where it waited until spring for another summer of work. Another factor in its remarkable survival is that it was a good truck. It still is.
What’s it like to experience a totally original ’48 Dodge truck? It’s a ride into the past. One thing that originals have over restorations is honesty. These trucks were built to do work, not attend social events or boost status. Cosmetic build quality was not a priority when this truck was manufactured, as the fit of the doors will attest. The factory installation of the fender welt on the rear fenders is laughable. A conscientious restorer would correct careless fit and finish, but this truck represents exactly how the manufacturer sent the product out the door. Operator comfort was a new concept that was explored when designing postwar pickups, and no manufacturer gets absolutely everything right on the first try. The truck is fun to drive, but it is not really relaxing. It’s ready to do work, and it has a few scrapes and dings to prove its honest work history. The paint on this truck is 100 percent original and while the green is still shiny, the black is dull.
This truck is seemingly devoid of options except for the high side bed, a heater and a grille guard. The front bumper-mounted “Cattle Killer” (or “Moose Gooser” in Maine) appears to be a dealer- installed option and is painted silver. It is made of flat steel bar stock welded together. A large capital “D” is in the middle, presumably for Dodge. It evidently works; the stainless-steel grille bars are in perfect condition. There is no back bumper. The spare tire is located under the bed at the rear and is held in place by a steel bracket that must be unbolted to remove the spare.
Chrysler Corp. had a successful run of the previous WC series trucks built from 1939 to 1947, and they sold as many WCs as they could build. Solid reliability of the many Dodges used in World War II cemented the good reputation of the company. Engineering innovations such as increased cab room in the “Pilot-House” cab and deeper cargo area on the new-for-1948 “Job-Rated” Dodge trucks made them a solid contender in the postwar marketplace.
Dodge truck engineering
The brakes would be a good place to start with a description of Dodge engineering innovations. This truck has excellent brakes, something that cannot be said for many other vehicles of the era. The front brakes have dual-bore wheel cylinders, which means the hydraulic pressure is different for the primary and secondary brake shoes. That makes for better braking, but it costs more to build and competitors did not have this feature. The rear brakes are even more interesting, with dual wheel cylinders for each wheel. One wheel cylinder is at the top of the brake assembly and the other is at the bottom. That makes both brake shoes self-energizing, something that an operator will appreciate in an emergency. It also came at a cost, as there are six wheel cylinders, and the fronts are different from side to side. The competition had four wheel cylinders, all the same. The handbrake is a band on the driveshaft, which is a good thing if the service brakes are overheated or otherwise impaired, and it will stop the truck easily in an emergency.
The engine is an inline L-head six making 95 hp out of a displacement of 217 cubic inches. Oiling is full pressure, making 42 psi at 30 mph. Full pressure oiling is a definite advantage over the splash-oiled Chevy six of the same year. The oil pump pick-up assembly is floating rather than a rigid mount in the oil pan. A floating pickup, the Chrysler Corp. engineers reasoned, would pick up cleaner oil from the top of the oil in the pan rather than at the bottom. Sludge and dirt settles to the bottom, and a floating pickup wouldn’t suck up the sludge. There are two fuel filters, one before the fuel pump and one just before the carburetor. The air filter is an oil bath type. This truck has a cartridge-type oil filter. Battery is 6 volt with the starter and generator by Autolite.
The transmission has three speeds forward, with the shift on the floor. Second and third are synchronized, at least most of the time. The drive shaft is open with two cross-and-yoke universal joints. The open drive shaft makes clutch replacement much easier than on a Chevy with a torque-tube drive shaft. The rear end ratio can be easily changed because the entire differential, including ring and pinion, can be removed from the front of the rear axle housing in one unit once the axles are withdrawn. Rear brake drums are a tapered fit on the axles, and a stout puller must be used for brake service. Springs are semi-elliptic leaf with the shackles at the rear. Shock absorbers are “airplane” type, a Dodge truck exclusive.
The Dodge advertisements of the day make a case for the ease of maintenance, claiming the butterfly-type hood makes access to the engine better. A picture from an ad shows a mechanic under the hood of a Ford, with access to the back of the engine partially blocked by the angle of the hood that is hinged at the cowl. The same ad shows a happier-looking Dodge mechanic working in the same position, unimpeded by the side- opening hood. Later, of course, Dodge went to a lower-cost front-opening hood like other truck builders, but International revived the idea more than a decade later with a side-opening hood on its Loadstar trucks.
Dodge’s “Pilot House” cab was a bit revolutionary at the time. The windshield is very tall, affording excellent forward visibility. For the first time in a pickup, the front fenders were part of the cab, rather than added on to the sides later. That made the cab wider, which gave more interior room. Dodge claimed plenty of room and comfort for three people sitting across, something advantageous for a work situation.
Dodge missed an opportunity for being the first to build a full-size truck with a wide-side or “fleetside” bed, because the cabs on the new B-series trucks were now wide enough to allow for that practical and stylish wide-truck-bed type. Alas, credit for that goes to Chevrolet and the Cameo Carrier to pioneer that feature several years later. It is interesting to speculate what could have been for Dodge in 1948 with a wide-side bed. As it is, the simple half-round rear fenders bolted to the bed sides look a little minimal and perhaps even cheap. That said, Dodge advertised the tops of those fenders as good places to stand on when loading the truck. Dodge had the tallest bed sides in the industry on the optional tall side beds. The beds on Dodge trucks in 1948 were thinly finished in a rather dull black unless the customer paid an extra $5 for a body-color bed. (That must have been some bean counter’s brainstorm.) In any case, few people opted for that extra expense.
Experiencing a B-series Dodge truck
So, what’s it like driving a “Pilot House” Dodge pickup?
I approach the driver’s door, twist the door handle down and swing the door open. My first impression is a smell that rolls out, a smell that isn’t unpleasant, but cannot be duplicated in a restoration. It must be the door panel and headliner materials, which appear similar to Masonite, but don’t smell like Masonite. I can’t describe the scent; it just smells faintly like an old truck. The door panels, headliner and seat are all in original condition, and are not ripped or damaged. A perfect original seat in a 73-year-old pickup is a rare thing. The original floor mat is ripped, as access to the battery or the brake master cylinder requires folding back this floor mat. The floor mat may be ripped, but it’s all there.
I step on the wide, dull black running board and climb in. The seat feels hard as I also notice a little tag above the windshield on the passenger side that says “Seat Control Valve.” There is an arrow to the left that says “Soft Seat” and an arrow to the right that says “Firm Seat.” Those are instructions for one to move a lever that protrudes from the bottom of the seat. If the seat cushion is removed, one can see the lever is connected to something that looks like a stove or furnace draft and makes the seat somewhat airtight (“firm”) or allows air to escape from the seat cushion (“soft”). I notice when the seat is set on firm, it’s almost as hard as an oak plank. When set on soft, it’s about as soft as a pine plank. That dubious gadget must certainly have been a Dodge exclusive.
The instrument panel is symmetrical, with a radio speaker grille on the right center resembling the speedometer on the left center. The fuel, temperature, oil pressure and ammeter are in a row between the speedometer and speaker grille. This truck has no radio, but there is a place for one. A vertical rectangle to the left of the steering wheel is the radio-delete plate. Thus, the passenger could not control the radio, if there was one.
There is a heater under the instrument panel at the right, and it is controlled by a plumbing valve on the engine. One was evidently expected to turn off the heater when springtime rolled around and turn it back on in the fall. The heater blower switch is a knob under the instrument panel at the left. Thus, the passenger can’t control the heat, either. There are little swinging doors on the MoPar heater for directing airflow, and one is for the defroster. Warm air is directed to slots in the windshield mouldings via a wire-reinforced rubber hose. There is a cowl ventilator for comfort on warm days. The switch for the vacuum-powered windshield wipers is at the top center of the instrument panel. Wiper action is marginal at best. There is no vacuum booster on the fuel pump to aid their operation.
I hoist my body up, slide onto the seat and shut the door by pulling on the inside door handle. There is no armrest. The door closes with a tinny bang. True to their “Pilot House” name, there is plenty of headroom. I grasp the window crank and roll down the window. I notice the crank turns in the opposite direction that I expect. I try the window crank on the passenger side and discover the crank turns in the opposite direction from the driver’s side crank. That must have been the bean counter’s solution to another mandate of manufacturing expediency.
I pull out the knob labeled “throttle” just a bit, and pull the choke out the whole way. I switch the key to “on” and notice that the shift lever, which was left in reverse, is in the way of reaching the ignition key. I turn the key to “on,” pump the gas pedal a few times, depress the clutch and step on the starter. The starter control is a spring-loaded, bare-steel circle just over the gas pedal. The pedal shifts in the starter drive and puts pressure on two copper contacts in the starter switch. That foolproof pair of events switches on the starter and the flathead six springs to life.
I move my foot quickly off the starter pedal and tap the gas a little to keep it from stalling. I reach for the centrally located handbrake lever, press the button at the top and shove it forward. I slide the gearshift toward my knee and then toward the rear and ease out the clutch. Engagement is smooth, and I am moving.
The route after driving out of the barn has a couple of sharp curves and to my delight, I discover this truck has an exceptionally tight turning radius. That was accomplished by very intelligent steering geometry and the position of the front axle. Dodge moved the engine forward and the axle rearward when designing the “Pilot House” trucks and claimed weight distribution and turning radius was greatly improved.
I am on a rough dirt road, but at this speed, the truck rides well. I get out to the paved road, stop, look both ways, and notice something Dodge designers didn’t consider in the cabs they labeled “Pilot-House.” The windshield is tall, but the cab roof is curved, almost domed, and the glass is all flat. The flat glass side windows don’t allow the doors to follow the dome shape of the roof, so the door tops are a little low. Therefore, the windows are too low. So when I look forward, I can see the world ahead, but when I look to the left, I see the headliner panel and the screws that hold it in place over the door. I have to crouch a little to see out the left window. The cab corner to my right is another big blind spot. The rear window is likewise small. Considering all the marketing that Dodge put toward advertising the truck’s visibility, I am not impressed.
I give it a little gas, let up the clutch and the glove compartment door falls open. There is supposed to be a small over-center spring to hold the little steel door closed, but that spring is missing. I am on the road now and am picking up speed. I go through the three gears and notice the ratios are all very far apart. I also notice the synchronizers in the transmission demand that I shift slowly. I try double clutching, which allows me to shift much faster, and the gears slide right in with a satisfying click. I will quote the owner’s manual here: “With a little practice, double clutching can be done fast and easily and the advantages will be readily recognized.” What I recognize is that the synchronizers were a little half-baked when new.
The truck is empty, and I notice the power to weight ratio is quite good. Acceleration is perfectly adequate, and I don’t detect any strain. A load in the back would probably change that.
Handling is much better than expected. Axles are straight with four semi-elliptic leaf springs, so there is nothing sophisticated about the suspension. This truck is riding on 6.00 x 16 bias-ply tube-type tires, and in spite of those factors, cornering seems excellent. Steering effort is light. Stopping distances are very short, although I must lift my leg way up to step on the brake. Clutch pedal pressure is light, and the truck seems easy to drive. The steering wheel, I notice, could be a little closer to the left. I would like to rest my arm on the window sill, but the steering wheel keeps me a little too far away from the window. Rearward visibility is abysmal; the truck was never equipped with a rear-view mirror. The only mirror on the truck is a small round one on the driver’s door and very little can be seen in that mirror.
I go up a steep hill and I don’t need to downshift. The engine seems just right for the truck. I have driven many trucks with engines that were about 50 cubic inches too small, but this one seems well matched to the truck. I use the turn signal and make a left turn. When this truck was new, drivers were expected to use hand signals. Directionals on this truck are old-time aftermarket, and there are “mouse ear” lamps installed on the tops of the front fenders. The blinking, I notice, is slow when the engine idles and generator output is low, but when I speed up the engine, I notice the blinking is very rapid, enough so that I wonder if those in back of me realize I intend to turn. The directional lever does not always self-cancel when finishing a corner, and there is no indicator light to inform the absent-minded.
I get out on a long straight road and bring the truck up to the 50 mph speed limit. The truck does this easily and without too much noise. I do think that’s about as fast as I should be going, but I am sure 60 would be possible. I decide to slow down and turn back. It has been a nice ride on back roads through the countryside on a nice fall day in New England, and I imagine that is about the best use of this old truck. I wouldn’t have the heart to load it full of firewood and pound it over dirt roads, although I am sure it would be up to the task.
I give this truck high marks for being an enjoyable and useful antique. This old Dodge could be used to go any distance, although I would strongly urge anyone to bring a soft cushion to sit on and to stay off the highways. Dodges seem to be much less common than Chevys or Fords of the same era, but they are by no means inferior to the competition. Chevy and Ford won the sales war, and Dodge must have concluded that customers just wanted low price rather than better brakes, tighter turning and higher bed sides. This ’48 was a wise buy and an excellent truck when new, and now it’s a very appealing collector vehicle. And, in a pinch, you could still take it to the lumberyard. I guarantee the yard staff will love to see it.
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