The Dodge Big Horn only had a three-year production run. But it still left its mark on the American trucking industry.  -  Photo: Jim Park

The Dodge Big Horn only had a three-year production run. But it still left its mark on the American trucking industry.

Photo: Jim Park

Big trucks are big business. And building a tough, rugged, Class 8 tractor is a great reputation-builder. So, it’s not surprising that the allure of big rigs has captured automakers at various times over the years spanning trucking's long history.

And Dodge is no exception. Back in 1973, the classic American carmaker decided to try its hand at building big rigs. The result was the brawny, and quintessentially “American” looking Big Horn – which hit the market at the height of North American’s Golden Age of Trucking.

Dodge certainly had the pedigree to make its mark with Class 8 trucks. The company’s roots date back to the earliest days of the American auto industry. Founded in the early 1900s by brothers Horace and John Dodge, by 1914 the “Dodge Brothers Motor Company” were building motor cars and establishing a reputation for tough reliable light-duty trucks. The marque remained popular with the American public and was eventually acquired by the Chrysler Corporationin 1928 following the death of both Dodge brothers.

A Reputation Won in War

By that time, Dodge had established a sterling reputation as a builder of capable and reliable trucks. Much of that reputation was due to the company’s military trucks, which gained acclaim as tough and durable from the earliest days of mechanized warfare.

The Big Horn's extremely small cab pulls a viewer's eyes upward making the truck look more massive than it actually is.  -  Photo: Jim Park

The Big Horn's extremely small cab pulls a viewer's eyes upward making the truck look more massive than it actually is.

Photo: Jim Park

Dodge military trucks first made a name for themselves on convoy duties and patrols across the rugged Southwestern desert during the 1916 quasi-border war with Mexico. Then-Lieutenant George Patton, an up-and-coming junior army officer with a knack for mobile warfare, even led raiding parties in Dodge Model 30 touring cars against Mexican revolutionaries during the campaign.

Almost 13,000 Dodge trucks – including 2,500 heavy commercial vehicles – found their way to France with the U.S. Army during World War I. They performed admirably during the conflict, winning an unmatched reputation for toughness and durability.

And that reputation was only enhanced during the Second World War, when more than 400,00 Dodge trucks – notably famous WC-Series trucks – went all over the globe, serving with Allied armies including Russia, China, Great Britain and Canada

Birth of the Big Horn

Following World War II, Dodge built on its reputation as a premier builder of rugged trucks with the introduction of the now-classic Power Wagon model. Much like the venerable Jeep, the Power Wagon was essentially a civilian version of the military trucks American servicemen had come to know and love during the war.

Over time, Dodge was the first American automaker to begin introducing passenger car comforts and features into its light trucks. It was a inspired move that would one day help pickup trucks become one of the leading sales segments of all cars sold in the U.S.

The massive front grill on the Big Horn also helped give the truck a broad-shouldered, beefer appearance.   -  Photo: Jim Park

The massive front grill on the Big Horn also helped give the truck a broad-shouldered, beefer appearance. 

Photo: Jim Park

By the 1970s, long-haul trucking was a hot market both financially and even culturally. Coast-to-coast truckers were moving goods more and more efficiently to remote communities across the country. And the (mostly) men behind the wheel of those massive rigs were gaining a national reputation as modern-day, freewheeling, American cowboys.

It was too tempting a market to pass up. And Dodge decided to literally go into it big-time.

The result was the Dodge Big Horn, which debuted in 1973. The truck had was a broad-shouldered conventional design. It featured a bold, confident, rectangular grill sitting out in front of a long, powerful hood. Rectangular headlamps, gracefully swooping front fenders all rose upward toward a suspiciously narrow cab. It was a tall, wide, powerful looking rig, with Dodge nameplate riding proudly above its massive, stainless-steel grille.

But despite its bold, modern look, there were some fundamental problems lying just below the Big Horn’s skin. The cab itself dated back to the mid-1950s, which was an updated version of a cab first introduced in 1948. The small cab gave the truck its deceptively massive appearance.

But it was very much a cobbled-together design.

Although Dodge continued its trend of offering passenger-car-like comforts for drivers and passengers, the truck was cramped by standards of the day and extremely noisy both at low speeds and when cruising on the highway. On interesting design point is that the small, narrow cab served to draw the eyes upward, giving the Big Horn a much beefier and broad appearance than was actually the case.

The Big Horn’s standard engine was the Cummins 250 diesel. But you could opt for other Cummins powerplants, or a Detroit Diesel DD8-71, in either naturally aspirated or turbocharged versions.

The Big Horn featured aluminum crossmembers, front bumpers, battery boxes, cab supports (on the 1973 models), fuel tanks and other components to keep weight down. But, hilariously, according to a highly detailed OldDodges.com  story on the Big Horn, the impressive ram hood ornament that dominated the truck’s hood weighed in at a whopping 14 lbs.!

A Tough Truck for Rookie Drivers

HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park drive a 1973 C900 Big Horn for a few weeks when he first started his career as a professional driver. And he doesn’t have fond memories of the truck.

“The enormous big horn hood was impressive looking, but it did little to improve the visibility from the driver's seat,” Park notes. “The hood on the C-models, 600 thru 900, was slimmer and the headlight assemblies we integrated into the fenders. But really, the hood was the only impressive feature of '70's vintage Dodge trucks.

"The cab was small and noisy, and very dated, even for that era. It looked like a hold-over from a '60's vintage pickup truck.”

The Big Horn was only produced from 1973 to 1975. Amazingly, over 100 survivors maintained by a devoted fan base still exist today.   -  Photo: Jim Park

The Big Horn was only produced from 1973 to 1975. Amazingly, over 100 survivors maintained by a devoted fan base still exist today. 

Photo: Jim Park

The Big Horn also proved to be a challenge for rookie drivers, according to Park.

“Those first Dodge trucks were nearly my last,” he says. “That fleet spec usually had a naturally aspirated, in-line 6, two-stroke Detroit Diesel Series 71. It produced a whopping 238 hp. Barely enough power to get out of its own way.”

The Big Horn assigned to young Jim Park had an N-Series Cummins diesel under the hood, he recalls.

“Drivers called that engine the ’shiny-290’ because it made a whopping 290 hp. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. But it was still a Dodge. On several occasions, when coupling to a heavy trailer, the tractor got pushed back out and the engine started running backwards, with exhaust billowing out of the air cleaner.

"The tiny cab, the huge hood, no firewall to speak of to keep the engine heat at bay, and no power steering rendered the Big Horn, in my mind, only slightly more fun to drive than an ox cart.”

But the Long Horn had its fair share of fans, too.

Dodge built a mere 261 of the trucks between 1973 and 1975, when the company walked away from the Class 8 truck market forever. And yet, somewhere around 105 of the trucks still survive to this day. It’s amazing to think that almost half of the total production run is still out there at truck shows and in collectors’ hands today — a number that Park finds astonishing.

Despite the mixed reviews, the Dodge Big Horn, built in tiny numbers and disdained by many drivers, has somehow managed to claw out a place of respect and nostalgia when looking back at trucking’s Golden Age. The truck has become something of an icon in terms of conventional styling. And it serves as a lasting reminder of the great respect the Dodge badge commanded in the trucking industry in the post-war years.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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