Jeff Barnes’ 1978 Cummins-Powered Dodge Ramcharger

Perhaps one of the most iconic vehicle styles of the 1970s and 1980s was that of the two-door, full-size sport utility vehicle with the 104 to 106-inch wheelbase. There were three offerings from the big three American automakers that fit into this category: The Ford Bronco, the Chevrolet K5 Blazer, and the Dodge Ramcharger.

Even though I am a Chevy fan and owned a K5 for years, each vehicle appealed to me in its own way. Each had their pluses and each had their minuses. Although the Ramcharger did not seem as popular as the Bronco and K5, it accomplished something that the other two did not – the Ramcharger was a co-star with Chuck Norris in the epic ’80s action/adventure flick Lone Wolf McQuade.

A Vehicle Tough Enough For Chuck

This Cummins-powered Dodge keeps the full-size SUV spirit alive.

The first few minutes of the movie introduced us to the hauling capability of the Ramcharger. Chuck, starring as our hero, Texas Ranger J. J. McQuade, has his arsenal of guns and ammo stored in the back. In this particular segment, Ranger McQuade has to take down a desperate band of horse-rustling desperadoes. The level of difficulty is high, as the bandits have taken other cops hostage in the middle-of-nowhere West Texas desert.

A little while later in the movie, Chuck drops the line “supercharge this” as his flips a switch and leaves his new partner in a cloud of West Texas dust. These scenes were just the setup as the Ramcharger takes the lead later on in the movie. Buried alive by his nemesis, Chuck must rely on the firebreathing Ramcharger to save his life and rocket out of the tons of dirt. Any vehicle that is able to stand with Chuck in such a matter has earned its right to be on the podium of greatest American vehicles.

Ramcharger History

38-inch Toyo Open Country M/T tires keep this Ramcharger on the road.

Dodge’s entry into the full size, two-door sport utility market came in 1974. Just like the Ford and Chevy offerings at one point, the Ramcharger started life with either a removable fabric roof or steel roof. The vehicle also had a 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive version.  This “first generation” Ramcharger lasted until 1980. In 1981, the second generation came into being with 1988 being the year that EFI was bolted to the engines. Unfortunately, the Ramcharger’s life was a lot shorter than either the Bronco or Blazer. The model’s last year in the US was 1994 and it continued to be sold in Mexico and Canada until 1996. 1998 saw the replacement for the Ramcharger in the form of the Durango.

Since the Ramcharger’s lifespan was so short, seeing them in the wild these days is quite rare. I recently ran across one at a car show that piqued my interest. Even though this 1978 model was in the car show, the mild lift, huge tires, and non-flashy flat black paint job caught my eye. I checked it out even further and under the hood rested a powerplant that would make Ranger McQuade’s Ramcharger envious.

Under The Hood

The sport utility belongs to Jeff Barnes of Visalia, California. Under the hood of this particular Ramcharger is the venerable 12-valve Cummins diesel engine. The engine is a donor 1993 model and replaced the 400 big block that the Ramcharger had when Jeff bought the truck. The 1100-pound hunk of iron has been labeled by many writers, gearheads and just about everyone else as the greatest diesel engine to ever exist. Dubbed “Hank the Tank” by Jeff, this particular Ramcharger takes the point in representing what the old style sport utility is.

Although the inline six-cylinder Cummins only put out 160 horsepower, it was the 400 lb-ft of torque from the factory that made people take notice. The torque numbers were not the only thing that made people take notice. The engine has been labeled “stupid simple” due to its design and has a reputation for being very reliable. The engine has also garnered accolades due to the ability for low-cost tuning upgrades. It is very possible that the term “stump pulling power” was invented by the 12-valve Cummins engine.


In this day and age of obnoxious gas and fuel prices, the Cummins is known for having decent mileage no matter what it is powering. In Jeff’s case, he reports that 20 miles to the gallon is the norm for this particular setup. Although he has kept the engine mods simple, the VE pump has been turned up and the exhaust is a straight pipe setup. Unlike the modern-day sport utility, this Ramcharger has a 34-gallon fuel tank so Jeff can drive for half a day before pulling into a diesel pump.

The Drivetrain

Mated to the Cummins is a 47RH automatic transmission that was built by TRC Transmissions in Visalia. The stock automatic transmissions that were bolted to the Cummins have had a reputation for getting worn out. In Jeff’s case, he has had a shift kit along with a billet torque converter to help the transmission survive.

Behind the transmission rests a 205 transfer case. The transfer case sends the power out to a Dana 60 front end and a Dana 70 rearend. The front end has Selectro hubs while the rearend has a posi-traction setup. Both pumpkins house 3.73:1 gear sets.

The suspension setup is also pretty simple and straight forward. The front and rear springs are six-inch Skyjacker models with Rancho shocks handling the damping duties. At the corners rest 38×15.50R20 Toyo Open Country tires mounted to 20×14 Fuel Turbo Wheels. Overall, the Ramcharger has a very low stance for the tire size.

The Interior

Like the exterior and under the hood, the interior of Jeff’s Ramcharger made me take notice. Most of the interior looked fresh and restored. Jeff told me that thought was partially correct as the front seats are aftermarket models. The rear seat though has been recovered to match the light brown color of the front seats. The carpet is also light brown and to my surprise, Jeff informed me that the carpet is the original factory installed carpet. The carpet has definitely aged well; there’s a good chance it knows where the fountain of youth is located!

All in all, the interior is almost all original or retains the factory appearance. Jeff has some aftermarket gauges to keep an eye on engine performance. Stuffed into the dash to keep him entertained, a Kenwood unit is wired to Memphis speakers. The speakers are housed in custom-built boxes made to fit around the roll bar. In the rear rests two 10-inch subwoofers and a 1200-watt amplifier. Jeff likes to have Hank Jr, Waylon, Metallica, AC/DC and other classic country and rock artists cued up for the road trips.

What Does The Future Hold?

Jeff plans on turning this particular Ramcharger into a total show vehicle. While that may sound bad, this Ramcharger is as much go as show.  Jeff currently has some custom fenders being built for the front and will step down to a 36-inch tire. He also plans on repainting it to match the tow vehicle that will haul it to shows.

Jeff is a Dodge guy through and through. Jeff has owned and sold other Ramchargers, and has another one in his fleet. It is nice to see that someone like Jeff is doing what he can to keep this particular vehicle alive.

Article Sources

About the author

Stanley Harper

An Oklahoma native, Stanley started in off-roading with a Chevy K5 Blazer. He now lives in California, where races and trail rides let him have fun and hone his photography.
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