I attended off-road camper show Overland Expo West last week and it was chock-full of awesome overlanding rigs, some innovative technology, and inspiring programs. Among the overlanding madness were a bunch of custom-built campers and expedition vehicles, some of them even cooler than many of the factory-built rigs out there. One of them is this, a 1954 Dodge M152. This truck served in the Korean War for the Canadian Army over a half century ago. After a five-year nut-and-bolt restoration and modification, it now travels the country as an epic expedition vehicle. Don’t let the looks fool you, either, there’s some modern hardware under the vintage metal.
I’m finished with what has been the biggest press trips I’ve ever been on. Last week, Toyota flew me out to Kona, Hawai’i to review the Grand Highlander and to peek at the new Tacoma. Then, I was shipped out to Flagstaff, Arizona to take part in my very first Overland Expo West, which included a drive of a beautiful custom Lexus LX 600 overlanding build and an overlanding trailer. You’ll get to read all about my adventures over the next several days. And if you have enough money, you’ll even be able to buy that Lexus. Anyway, I have a ton to write about and I want to start with an expedition build that remains one of my highlights of Overland Expo West.
One of the many things that make Overland Expo West fantastic is that it’s not just a place for manufacturers to sell you products. I quickly learned that DIYers are a huge part of Overland Expo and without them, the event just wouldn’t be the same. Campsites were filled with all kinds of custom rigs that I wish I had enough time to check out. I saw no fewer than seven retired ambulances turned into campers. And while I didn’t see it in the campground, I also spotted a Smart Fortwo driving around Flagstaff with chunky all-terrain tires, a lift kit, and a tent on its roof.
Outside of the camping areas, DIYers also had a place immediately within the gates of Overland Expo. A right turn after the main entrance led me into the DIY area, where I saw some glorious ideas, including a Porsche Cayenne towing half of a Porsche Boxster-turned overland trailer.
Next to it was this Dodge M152 and like every vehicle in the DIY area, it has a story to tell.
The Army’s Post-WWII Workhorse
This truck has been around for an incredible 69 years. Introduced in 1951, the Dodge G-741 family of three-quarter-ton trucks succeeded the WC Series used in World War II. As a brochure for a Dodge M37 indicates, these newer trucks share some ancestry with the WWII trucks, with improvements from lessons learned during the war. These trucks originally sported 24-volt sealed electrical systems, a waterproof ignition, deep water fording abilities, a synchronized transmission, a two-speed transfer case, and respectable off-roading numbers. For example, the M37 had an approach angle of up to 44 degrees and a departure angle of 32 degrees.
There were a number of G-741 variants from the M37 pickup to the M42 command truck, M43 ambulance, V126 radar truck, and even the XM142 bomb service truck. These trucks were built until 1968 when the military began replacing them with Kaiser Jeep M715 trucks. Over 100,000 of these were made, and one rare variant is the M152.
I spoke with Glenn Saber, the owner of this grand truck, and he told me that the M152 is a utility truck derived from the M43 ambulance variant. The Dodge M152 found use in the Canadian Army as a communications and radio truck in the Korean War. That’s the origin of Saber’s 1954 M152. This truck is serial 3458 and was built at Windsor Assembly for the Canadian Army. It’s believed that there were somewhere around 1,000 of these built and enthusiasts know of about eight or so survivors.
Those numbers make the Dodge M152 worthy of a Holy Grail nomination. Less impressive is what the M152 and its brethren had under their hoods. Sure, these trucks had a 60 percent gradeability and could tow up to 6,000 pounds, but top speed was a leisurely 50 mph. Under the hood sat a 230 cubic inch Dodge T-245 L-head six making 78 HP. Later models saw a power bump to 94 HP and 188 lb-ft torque, while Canadian versions got a 250.6 cubic inch six making 95 HP. No matter the version, these trucks weren’t built for speed, but off-roading prowess and utility. And remember, I said that was the top speed, not cruising speed.
This 1954 Dodge M152
Saber told me that engine swaps for these mil-spec trucks are common. A popular engine of choice is the Cummins 4BT. Going with a 4BT offers, at minimum, a modest performance upgrade. The 4BT is an inline-four diesel making 105 HP and 265 lb-ft torque, but can be found in higher power variants. A common 4BT configuration is 170 HP and 420 lb-ft torque, more than enough grunt to make a 70-year-old military truck capable for today’s roads.
Despite the popularity, when Saber restored this M152, he didn’t go with a 4BT. In fact, he didn’t go with Cummins, Power Stroke, or Duramax power. Under the hood of his M152 resides a 3.9-liter Isuzu 4BD2-T diesel engine. I didn’t get a chance to see this powerplant, but here’s what it looks like:
Saber says he got it from a 1996 Isuzu NPR and in this configuration, it’s making 150 HP and 325 lb-ft torque. From the factory, the Dodge G-741 trucks got single-digit fuel economy while loaded. This refreshed truck? It gets between 17 mpg and 23 mpg while cruising 65 mph all day long. Saber tells me its new top speed is about 80 mph, a notable upgrade from stock. It could cruise higher, but Saber keeps it around 65 mph to keep exhaust gas temperatures down.
But why did he go with an Isuzu engine? Saber gave me two reasons. He told me that wrecked Isuzu NPRs show up on auctions all of the time. Since everyone wants to drop a Cummins into their build and old wrecked trucks aren’t worth much to begin with, those NPRs sell for peanuts, cheaper than a Cummins 4BT. Price alone would be a good enough deciding factor, but Saber tells me that in his experience, the Isuzu engines are smoother, quieter, and not nearly as harsh as the baby Cummins. I dig it; Saber could have just dropped a Cummins or LS in there but he went with a different route.
Different is how I’d describe much about this build. Saber worked with another man, Larry Messing, to perform a nut-and-bolt restoration and modification to this truck. It took them five years of work to get to what you see here. There’s a lot of detail that you might not see immediately. The truck has a four-inch diameter exhaust stack, but it’s mounted with rubber to reduce noise and vibration. That roof rack is also a custom piece, and Saber went through the work to make sure the pattern of the mesh on the roof rack matches the original window covers.
Not As Rough As It Looks
Going back to the mention of the rubber-mounted exhaust stack for a moment, comfort is a recurring theme with this M152. The cab sports an aftermarket air-conditioner and heating system while the seats come from a Chevy HHR. The power seat functions have apparently been retained.
The comfort goals are perhaps better illustrated with the camper portion of the M152. The box where the communications equipment once was is now a cozy camper. Inside, there’s a memory foam sofa that turns into a full-size bed or folds up entirely to fit a motorcycle.
Beside that is a full kitchen, featuring a stove, oven, refrigerator, sink, and a surface that can be used a dining table or desk. In terms of tanks, the truck can hold 24.5 gallons of fresh water, 3.5 gallons in its gray tank, and 1.5 gallons in its cassette toilet.
Saber didn’t just toss a bed in the back of a truck, either. The box is lined with R6 polystyrene insulation and there’s a 5,000 BTU air-conditioner that can run from shore power or from the inverter. The camper can feed from 30 Amp shore power, from three 76 Ah deep-cycle batteries, or from the solar panels mounted to the roof.
For entertainment, a flat-screen television folds down from the walls, or Saber could just pull out his HO-scale train set. Have you ever heard of an RV with its own train set? Saber likes trains enough that he sourced K3LA train horns.
Of course, this is an overlanding event, and Saber’s truck seemed prepared enough. The front axle is a Dana 60 with 4.10 gearing and a locker. The dual rear axle is from AAM and also has 4.10 gearing, but an open differential. Saber says that a neat feature about his truck is that he can divert all power to the front wheels, all power to the rears, or put it into four-wheel-drive. Each mode also has a high and low range. Shifting is accomplished through a five-speed manual.
Honestly, this is just the beginning of the incredible list of modifications. The truck uses its original leaf springs, but they’ve been restored and they’re helped out with air bags. And that sweet rear deck? A part of it disconnects to become a bunk bed inside. Here, just take a look at the mod list:
Saber’s mission with the M152 was to take it from coast to coast, stopping at national parks, historic monuments, and small businesses along the way. This isn’t a highway bomber, but a machine to cruise those backroads connecting rural American towns to each other. I’d say mission accomplished, and Saber’s certainly happy with it. This is a rig that turns heads and can be driven across the country without making you hate road trips. I love that you can’t even tell that there’s some modernization going on here. I hope America gets to see this Dodge cruising the streets for years to come.
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