A very special 1958 Dodge Power Wagon for a very special Mo’fan.
By Cliff Gromer Photos by Paul Stenquist
When a diving accident caused a spinal cord injury at age 17 resulted in Bruce Chargo becoming a quadriplegic (no use of his legs, some use of his arms but not his hands), Bruce had two choices: stay home and feel sorry for himself or overcome his condition and live life to the fullest of his ability. He chose the latter.
Bruce always liked musclecars and he bought a ’71 ‘Cuda in 1993 and had it restored. Since it wasn’t fitted with handicap controls Bruce couldn’t drive it, so his buddies would throw him in the passenger seat and they’d all go out and tear up the road. But Bruce does drive specially equipped vans—250,000 miles on a Ford van that he had re-done in 1984. He sold that for a ’93 Dodge minivan that has 190,000 miles, and also a 2003 Ford full-size van and that he’s driven about 20,000 miles.
A buddy of Bruce’s happened to come across a ’49 Dodge delivery sedan and he said that it was something that he might be able to get into. The ’49 would have been a huge project, so Bruce passed, but it did spark his interest in older Dodge trucks and he did some research. Bruce bought a book on 4×4 Dodges and discovered that 1958 was the first year for what they called “3-up” seating. That means 3 adults could sit together up front. It also meant that the cab was wide enough to fit his wheelchair and another passenger seat.
Checking the trucks’ dimensions for all the years, Bruce found that the ’58 through ’66 Power Wagon or Panel really fit the bill size-wise, and he really wanted a four-by. It was time to hit the Internet. Bruce spent only a week punching in “Power Wagon sales” and this truck popped up. That was back in 2000. The ’58 Power Wagon was located in CA, and Bruce bought it solely on the basis of photos and the seller’s word. He hired a trucking company bring the Wagon home and, surprise! It was in better shape than he expected—solid body and it ran great. The truck came from the factory with a 315 Poly, but someone had swapped in a smallblock. No matter, Bruce would eventually install a 1958 392 Hemi.
The first thing Bruce did with the truck was to have his buds strap his wheelchair in the back with the front of it jammed between the front seats. Then they went boonie bashing. A blast.
Some more research on Bruce’s part showed that a Dodge Ramcharger had the same wheelbase as the Power Wagon. The plan was to modify the Ramcharger’s frame to lower the floor so Bruce could roll into it. He lined up Randy Church Restorations to handle the project. Bruce picked up an ’86 Ramcharger with no engine cheap from a buddy who just wanted the radiator. Bruce just wanted the 4×4 driveline. It was easier to get parts for the Ramcharger than for an old Power Wagon.
The plan was to drop the Wagon body onto the Ramcharger frame. Sounded simple enough, but the resto shop said bad idea because of all the modifications required. Better off to buy the steel and build a custom frame—low and wide. From the beginning, Bruce counted on an old-style Hemi with a mid-80s driveline. So the Power Wagon puts it to the ground with a 727, a Dana 44 up front and a Dana 60 driving the rear wheels. All that plus the transfer case is stock Ramcharger.
Bruce rolls into the Wagon on a folding ramp at the rear. He picked up a folding ramp out of a van when he was halfway through the build. He had a lift that came out of a van, but the truck sat so high that the lift wouldn’t reach down to the ground. He was stuck until he received a call from Mobility Works, the guys that do handicap conversions. They said they had a wrecked commercial bus, like one of those airport shuttles, and it had a large folding ramp. That did the trick although at almost 400 lbs. it’s a bit of overkill. The ramp operates electrically via Bruce’s oversize toggle switches that he operates with his arm.
Driving with handicap controls takes some doing. Bruce has been at it long enough so it’s second nature. But not everyone get it. The “steering wheel” is a horizontal wheel with a low turning effort that was designed by a quadriplegic back in 1984. The low effort steering is accomplished by gearing the steering wheel 2 to 1 to the steering box and then modifying the power steering pump.Bruce found out about one guy who had a brand new converted minivan in the mid-‘90s. He scared himself and wanted to have the handicap controls taken out. Bruce was able to pick up the hand controls- the horizontal steering and the electric gas and brake system just for the cost of the labor. Apparently, the guy didn’t realize how hard it was going to be driving with the steering, gas and brake controls. It takes a lot of commitment to learn how to do that.
The horizontal wheel is about 10 inches in diameter. It has a quad pin on top. That’s what messes everybody up–the 4 pins that stick up. Bruce slides his hands into them because he doesn’t have any grip. A second quad pin for Bruce’s other hand controls the gas and brake. The controls activate electric servos that turn the wheels, pushes the brake or pulls the throttle cable.
Bruce’s Wagon is a “nice day” truck that he drives 3 or 4 days a week in Michigan. Obviously, he stows it for the winter. He’s rolled up about 1000 miles since the truck was completed in Aug. 2011. The only thing Bruce has to be careful with in this truck, as opposed to all the other vehicles, is not getting on it because of the torque (estimated at about 500 lb.-ft.) of the Hemi. A little too much and his wheelchair will wheelie and his hand can slide out of the controls—which almost happened the first and only time he goosed it. He had his buddy with him at the time and he grabbed the back of the wheelchair and said “We can’t be doing that stuff.” Bruce has since learned to sense when the secondaries start to kick in, and he can feel the wheelchair start to wheelie a little bit.
Bruce takes passengers for rides whenever they want. Usually, if he’s going to a cruise, his wife takes her 18,000-mile ’69 Belvedere, so he’s most often by himself. If others want to hit the show they all climb in and throw some beanbags in the back because there’s only one seat. Most of the people that have ridden with Bruce have been with him in his other vehicles, so they know his skill level. A new rider expresses some nervousness, there’s some hanging on and that kind of stuff. Bruce doesn’t do anything real crazy. When he rolls on the power and gets up to about 3 grand those secondaries kick in, and it sets you right back and everybody’s a little stunned.
“You get a lot of thumbs up from pretty much everybody when you’re driving the truck,” says Bruce. “The windows are darkened so you really can’t see that I’m handicapped, they’re just giving the thumbs up for the truck, they don’t realize the real significance of it. The fun comes when you pull into a show or a cruise and I open the back doors and it’s like ‘Whoa, waitta minute…’”
Our hats go off to Bruce—a Mo’fan who has truly overcome adversity, and has done so in style.