Dodge’s original Ramcharger didn’t have a plug, but it had plenty of character
Thirty years after the last American-built Ramcharger rolled off the assembly line, the automotive world received big news. This week, Dodge announced the return of the nameplate—this time, in the form of a hybrid pickup.
Though the Ramcharger name has been associated with Chrysler since the late ’50s, when a group of Chrysler engineers banded together as the Ramchargers to create innovative drag-racing cars, the truck carrying that nameplate rolled out in 1974. Built on a short-wheelbase Dodge pickup-truck chassis along with its Plymouth Trail Duster cousin, the Ramcharger was Mopar’s entry into the growing off-road vehicle segment. Known as the Rhino early in its development, the Ramcharger served as Dodge’s answer to the Ford Bronco, Chevrolet K5 Blazer, and International Scout, all of which arrived years earlier. Despite the competition’s head start, the Ramcharger lasted two generations and 20 model years—three generations and 23 model years if you count the 1999–2001 Ramcharger that was built and sold in Mexico.
First-year Ramchargers were exclusively four-wheel drive vehicles. In 1975, sensing that consumers also wanted to use their SUVs as daily drivers, Dodge began offering a rear-wheel-drive version. Three years later, Ramchargers received a game-changing transfer case, which gave the Mopar SUVs the ability to shift from four-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive and back again.
The 1974–80 (first-generation) models wore a dealer-installed fabric roof or an optional removable steel roof with a flip-up tailgate window. The ’74 versions are easily distinguishable from later years because the top would come off in one piece, including the front pillars connected to the door, leaving a convertible with half-doors. That changed midway through the first model year, when the roof was restyled to utilize regular pickup-style doors.
Oddly, only the driver’s seat was standard equipment on the early Dodge SUVs; passenger seats were optional until 1976. The Ramcharger could also be had with an insulated center console, perfect for keeping beverages cold on long jaunts off the beaten path.
Early Ramchargers were offered with five engine choices. A 225-cubic-inch (3.7-liter) slant-six mill came standard, with four optional V-8 upgrades available: a 318-cubic-inch (5.2-liter) and 360-cubic inch (5.9-liter) Chrysler small-block and the 400-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) and 440-cubic-inch (7.2-liter) big-blocks. Transmission options included a three-speed manual, a four-speed manual, and a three-speed Torqueflite automatic.
Brakes (front disc, rear drum) were power-assisted, and suspension was traditional leaf springs. Power steering was optional.
The second-generation Ramcharger arrived in 1981 and lasted through 1993. The most notable styling changes included an egg-crate-style grille (through ’86), a fixed metal roof, and—instead of a tailgate—a one-piece rear hatch that hinged at the top, allowing easy access to the cargo area. Dodge also added legroom in the rear, and buyers could choose a 5.2-liter or 5.9-liter V-8. Rear antilock brakes arrived in 1989.
Though the Ramcharger and its competitors continued to evolve with the times, the market took a major turn when Ford introduced its four-door Explorer in 1991. The upscale SUV not only offered twice as many doors as its rivals (and Ford’s own Bronco), but it was also roomy, comfortable, and easy to drive. The days of the big two-door SUV were numbered.
These days, early Ramchargers offer a more accessible entry point into the classic SUV market compared to their peers. For example, a 1979 Ramcharger (with the 360 engine) in #2 (Excellent) condition has an average value of $26,100, while a 1979 Ford Bronco Custom (with the 351) in similar condition is valued at $49,600, and a 1979 Chevrolet K10 Blazer Custom Deluxe (with the 350) at $47,800.
Later Ramchargers—durable, more refined, and more evolved versions of the earlier trucks—are generally on par with their contemporaries. A 1989 Ramcharger AD-100 (360-cubic-inch) in #2 condition is valued at $26,000, while a similar 1989 Ford Bronco XLT Lariat (351-cubic-inch) is valued at $27,500 and a 1989 Chevrolet V1500 Blazer Scottsdale (350-cubic-inch) is $26,000.
Admittedly, Dodge’s resurrection of the Ramcharger name for a hybrid truck makes sense. But, if in your mind “Ramcharger” instead conjures a rugged and utilitarian bruiser of an old SUV, there are plenty of old-school Ramchargers out there with life left in their body-on-frame bones, and they’re still comparatively affordable.