A little truck with a big heart: the Dodge Rampage

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1983 Dodge Rampage Brendan McAleer

At the BC Vintage Truck Museum, located in the heart of the Fraser Valley, every truck has a story. There’s the WWI veteran 1914 FWD Model B that hauled coal and plowed tracks for Vancouver’s streetcar rails. The wooden box of a 1928 Graham held the worldly goods of dozens of new arrivals to the area during the Great Depression. And, parked out front on most Saturday mornings, you’ll find a little red truck, one that carries a load equal to any of the big rigs inside.

It’s a 1983 Dodge Rampage, two-tone red and black with a crest up front proudly boasting of the 2.2-liter four-cylinder under its hood. The bed is slightly battered, with chipped paint, but this old warrior is clearly well-loved. Most often, it’s driven by 17-year-old Dylan Acker, a volunteer at the museum and an all-around Rampage nut.

The Dodge Rampage was a three-year experiment, sold from 1982–1984. A front-wheel-drive pickup based on the Chrysler L platform, it was modestly powered, reasonable on fuel, and small in stature. Overall, its capability compared favorably to the likes of the last of the El Caminos and the newcomer VW Caddy. The Dodge was cleared for a full 1145-pound cargo load, a proper half-ton rating, yet had a curb weight about the same as a Mazda Miata. 

That’s pretty impressive for a pickup with 84 horsepower (later 96 hp) and front-wheel drive. However, the Rampage was conceived during a time when the full-size pickup truck wasn’t a universal backdrop to modern life. People were looking for a small pickup with compact-car fuel economy, something that would work for the weekend DIYer yet still handle commuting duties.

1983 Dodge Rampage
Brendan McAleer
1983 Dodge Rampage
Brendan McAleer

1983 Dodge Rampage
Brendan McAleer

The Rampage offered the best of both worlds. Its 2.2-liter carbureted four-cylinder was modestly-powered but potent enough to haul a load of lumber home for your backyard project or be pressed into service when spring-cleaning the garage. Come Monday, the car-like ride of the Rampage was also more than up to the task for comfortable commuting.

Acker’s grandfather, Spencer, is something of an accidental Rampage collector. A retired fisherman from Prince Rupert (British Columbia), he now manages an apartment complex in North Vancouver. Years ago, he stumbled across one of these little Dodge trucks, and it slotted into daily use without a murmur.

Then, more Rampages started showing up. Collecting parts cars to keep one Rampage on the go turned into repairs that saw the fleet swell to four running trucks at one point. Acker was partially behind the push to keep acquiring these little trucks—even before he could drive. He’d end up taking his driving test in a modern Hyundai, but as soon as he got his license, Acker was out on the roads, Rampaging.

Still in high school, Acker spends his weekends pitching in at the truck museum. He waxes enthusiastic about the museum’s tow vehicle, a refurbished Air Canada airport tug, and guides me through the collection with a jubilant air. You can find him here most Saturdays, working alongside docents who are mostly retired truckers and heavy mechanics.

Acker is hard-pressed to pick his favorite machine. “I guess the Diamond T,” he says, “It’s just such an original 1940s machine. I had to learn how to double-clutch shift to drive it.”

The love of trucks might well lead to a future career. “I’m looking at BICT,” he says, referencing a local technical university. “Maybe for their heavy diesel mechanic program.”

In the meantime, the Rampage gets him where he’s going. Along with his grandfather, he currently has three of them on the go: this work truck, a show-worthy machine with collector plates, and another ’83 that’s a work in progress.

1983 Dodge Rampage
Brendan McAleer

“It’s going to be all black, and I’m hoping to eventually go turbocharged,” Acker says of the most recent Rampage. “With a Shelby Charger front fascia. I found the parts in Manitoba and had them shipped out.”

The Rampage shares so many parts with the heyday of turbocharged Dodges that a project is not terribly complicated. That four-cylinder engine can be swapped relatively easily for a turbocharged variant, and junkyards are awash with potential. Acker hopes to build a Shelby Rampage of a kind that never existed, yet there are plenty of enthusiast builds out there to show him the way.

Having said that, the automatic-transmission Rampage he currently drives to work on Saturdays is anything but a custom machine. It has a three-speed automatic, a velour-trimmed interior, and a minimum of options.

Even so, it is a workhorse of a pickup. It has ferried payloads of appliances to and from the housing complex managed by the Ackers, and hauls whatever is needed to the Vintage Truck Museum. This year, it’ll join in the annual Christmas parade of some 100+ trucks, and will cheerfully haul spare parts and whatever else is needed for as long as is required.

At 17, surrounded by grey-haired gents in coveralls, I ask if Acker is the youngest member on staff. “Oh no,” he laughs, “That’d be James. He’s 9.”

Light-duty trucks are more popular than ever, but small dual-purpose trucks like the Rampage are essentially extinct. The closest you could get in a modern showroom is something like a Honda Ridgeline. Even a new Ranger is about as big as an old F-150 used to be. Could there be space in the market for a reborn car-truck, especially if fuel prices begin to climb?

For now, love for the little Rampage seems to be guiding one young man towards a future filled with promise. Generations change. Every truck has its story. Some trucks are small. Some stories are big.

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