1986 Dodge Ramcharger | Shell Rotella Truck Of The Month
Pride is built by the hands of many
This month’s Shell Rotella Truck Of The Month hails from Alberta. As you’ll read, the rig has been painstakingly reborn. Like so many automotive projects, it has taken years. In this case, there have been many hands guiding it to its current restoration. But unlike any similar project, this one was rebuilt by students at the Sexsmith Secondary School. Their Auto Tech teacher, Clinton Brundige entered the 1986 Dodge Ramcharger on his students’ behalf. They were thrilled to learn that their labour of love had won.
Clinton shares how this rig was resurrected over many years by many students. It’s an inspired story of learning, persistence, and pride.
I took over the Auto Tech program at Sexsmith Secondary School 7 years ago. When I first arrived, the biggest obstacle was rebuilding the program from scratch as the shop did not have a teacher for a couple of years. Starting out fresh was an understatement and in fact, would have been easier. Tools were scattered between torn-apart projects, a couple of welders, and a tire machine that did not work. Amongst the tool-barren chaos were 2 vehicles; a red 1999 Grand AM, and a severely weathered, but rust-free 1986 Dodge Ramcharger. My first thought was “Someday, this is going to get a Cummins”. The first goal was to generate funding over and above my yearly budget if we wanted to fulfill such goals. This is created by “Buy and Sell” projects or “Vehicle Appraisal” units; both of which give students opportunities to also earn credits. I use these modules to guide students in learning about the current vehicle market. That year we fixed up and sold the Grand Am to purchase a good toolbox and tool set.
The Ramcharger was originally donated by Chrysler to a local trades college for educational purposes. To my knowledge, the truck has never been on the highway as the odometer reads less than 200 km. Over the years, it lived a salt-free life, but still took the repeated abuse of component removal/replacement from 1986 to present. I recently learned that it may have also been donated to a prison in Grande Cache, AB for educational purposes before making its way up to Fairview, AB for restoration and education by their Auto Tech program. Unfortunately, none of this is confirmed. but anyone I have met who has taken trades courses in Fairview in the last 30 years knows the truck and I am usually met with beaming smiles when they see what we have done with it. In the first couple of years, we installed a 6” front spring lift donated to us by Sexsmith Farm Parts. The rear was finished with a shackle flip and hangers that we built in class with our stick welder. This was all we could afford at the time and the plate steel we had was leftovers from other projects. 2 years later we purchased a crossover steering kit and machined a flat top knuckle on our milling machine that I taught myself and another student how to use.
The Ramcharger was originally equipped with a 360 and a 3-speed 727. Everything leaked on it even with fresh gaskets or components. Things would not torque without many thread repairs. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we absolutely could have restored the original engine. It would be a great learning experience for my students. However, I need to look at every project I take on and ask myself “is this worth repairing?” and unfortunately for this near new 360, it was not.
The first replacement engine was a 400 ci BB Mopar I found while scouring a junkyard. A buddy and I were walking through and a blue Ramcharger caught my eye. Once I opened the hood, I knew I was going to be coming home with yet another vehicle from there. We did a quick check for compression and spark, and a couple of hours later were home with one of three vehicles I purchased in that trip. It was not a Cummins, but for around $1,000, I could run that grade 12 class for a semester.
After an oil change and a tune-up, It ran beautifully! It even had excellent compression and oil pressure. We lucked out again when we found that whoever put the engine in the RC had also added a thumpy cam.
We painted the truck in 2016 to its current colour; Tremclad’s “Gloss Fire Red” as we were left to either let the metal rust or paint it with what we could afford. So, we painted it. We built a makeshift paint booth with poly and abs piping, ran intake and exhaust fans and PPE for the students. The paint was sprayed from a Princess Auto paint gun and mixed 80/20 with acetone. We wax it twice a year to cover vehicle detailing units and keep it protected as much as possible but it is holding up surprisingly well and we get a lot of compliments on it.
The 400ci engine was short-lived with winter arriving, and having a carbureted and cammed v8 when it gets down to -40 C quickly takes its toll with high school students. In addition, we had a fuel pump failure that leaked fuel into the crankcase that was not caught in time. We chalked it up as a learning curve, and after looking at a very large Mopar rebuild bill, we parked it for the year.
The following year, a friend of mine donated his late father’s old work truck. To my surprise it was a running and driving 1996 Dodge 2500 Cummins. Other than the usual Cummins leaks, it was a solid truck! I took the students through insurance inspections on it, fixed a bad oil pan leak, and we put it up for trade on Facebook. I had a very specific trade in mind; a first gen 12v, auto, 4×4. I did not want to have to piece together 3 or 4 different vehicles to make our biggest project to date come alive and I was willing to wait for it if needed to help cut down on my student’s time.
Fortunately, we did not have to wait for long. I was quickly contacted by Dakota Carpentier of DC FAB in Lethbridge through the Alberta Coal Rollers page on Facebook and we both had exactly what the other person was looking for. We sent each other pictures and videos and agreed to meet at a halfway point in Leduc, Alberta. A couple weeks later both parties rolled into the Canadian Brewhouse parking lot, signed our papers, and went home. Dakota and I are still in contact and he is now building the engine and transmission to be put into a beautiful International truck body. The Ramcharger would not be where it is today without this trade!
In 2021-22, we quickly got to work stripping the donor truck. The Ramcharger’s body was removed, and my students quickly got to work swapping everything over, refreshing axles with a coat of paint and rewiring a ton of botched electrical. We ordered our North West Fab crossover high steer kit that we bought with money earned from selling the first-gen parts. It was probably one of the most engaging semesters I have had and I loved seeing it show through my students who were just so excited to see this monster come alive.
Once the truck was back together we got to work on fine-tuning things. One of my hardest-working students took on the electrical as her own. I guided her through how to pin the connectors and she made a booklet that I kept as our “wiring bible”. She mapped out the two sides of the bulkhead, colour-coded it, and re-labeled all of the wiring positions. Without her organization, the wiring would be a complete mess for the next students who may need to troubleshoot it.
The biggest letdown during our build was our rim/tire budget. We generated $2,500 from part sales to put toward a set of 35×12.5 Interco Boggers. My students were stoked to have the most badass tire on our truck. When we priced them out, it was at the height of Covid shortages and as we tipped into the new year, the prices skyrocketed and pushed their price beyond our budget.
After engine bay wiring was completed the Ramcharger radiator support and grill were modified to accept the intercooler and trans cooler. Our donor truck was in an accident prior and was unfortunately missing the d250/350 tin grill, bumper, and had a damaged rad support. It wasn’t until last month that we finally tracked down a good stock bumper!
I came across our current rim/tire combo on Marketplace. which is a 36×13.5 Interco Irok on Procomp 69 series rims for $800. I messaged the seller immediately without realizing my location was changed to about 10 hours away from us. Once I realized this I told him but to my surprise he was driving right through Grande Prairie for work and would bring the tires with him free of charge! Additionally, he knocked $100 off the asking price. They will not compete as well as boggers would in the local mud races but they will still get us out there to represent the school!
One of the other highlights of this project was the hood stack. Before the engine was even pulled, a bunch of students kept asking me if we could hood stack it, thinking I would say “no”. I finally told them that if they get it in and running 100%, we will definitely be doing that!
We looked into buying a stack but the students decided that it would be a waste of money and asked if they could build it. It was awesome watching them build the whole thing from cutting the hole, running the exhaust, welding the flanges, and then to building the stack from scratch. A buddy of mine cut a flange on his plasma table for us and the students welded a chunk of 5” exhaust. After some drilling and paint we had a basically free hood stack.
This year’s upgrades included a front bumper, GlowShift pillar pod and gauges, a new w250 brake booster/master cylinder and an HX35 turbo donated by No Limit Automotive and Performance. Recently we have been doing some offroad testing with it. It was rewarding to finally see the labour come to life. Road testing can be quite tricky for us as our vehicles are not typically road legal. Usually, we are bound to 10km/h around the school parking lot which does not even get us out of first gear.
Looking back, it is incredible to think how far the truck has come. It is quickly becoming a local icon especially with students. One of the biggest rewards for me has been watching students excited about learning using this. And that is what it is at the end of the day; it is all for the students and when they are that excited to work or talk about school, that is when you know you are making a difference with them.
Money is our biggest challenge by far for these special projects. Our normal annual budget covers our regular in-class removal and replacement, maintenance, detailing, and engine rebuilding. The over-and-above projects like this or our turbo Vortec Colorado are reliant on community generosity. Social media has been a huge help for us as we have found a lot of support online. Without the vehicle community and their generosity, we would be just carrying out the much less interesting maintenance-only jobs. For those who have contributed to our program, we thank you!!
The Ramcharger is far from being “done”. We would love to get more power out of the 12 valve for starters and build up the transmission and set up a proper rear leaf spring lift instead of blocks. I am always open to ideas that the students come up with such as tint, rock lights, car audio, or a tire carrier. The interior is far from complete and is currently pieced together with whatever we were able to get. Eventually we would love to have it repainted professionally.
Sponsors and Other Supporters
Dakota Carpentier @ DC FAB
Troy Dube @ No Limit Automotive
Pat’s Auto Grande Prairie
Air Liquide Grande Prairie
GP Car Club
Sexsmith Farm Parts