Life Sucks, Then You Die


Two-door SUVs are a fickle group. Europeans seem to like them, but we red-blooded, down-home country folk of the good old US of A could never quite wrap our noggins around the concept. They’re the Marmite of the car world in that way. SUVs with less than four doors have enjoyed a long and diverse history in America, but never a particularly successful one. Yet, much like the makers of Marmite, manufacturers from both at home and abroad keep trying to sell them to us, in spite of overwhelming evidence to suggest we’d be more interested in paying for a mud bath with Newt Gingrich. This is a 1988 Dodge Ramcharger. 


The Ramcharger was conceived in earnest as a competitor to the likes of the Chevy K5 Blazer and the Ford Bronco, though the International Scout stopped by to hang out every once in awhile as well. Dodge was late to this particular party, as the Blazer and the Bronco had been around since the late sixties. It was also wearing it’s older sibling’s clothes: unlike the Bronco and the Scout, the Ramcharger shared its underpinnings with it’s stablemate, the Dodge D-Series pickup truck. I believe the name “Ramcharger” came from a focus group meeting at Dodge in which a bunch of businessmen ripped off their shirts, stuffed their faces with red meat, used power tools, and howled at the moon in a testosterone-fueled attempt to mash as many comically manly words together as they could manage. I have no factual backing for this claim.


The only engine you could have in your Ramcharger was a V8, because this is America, goddammit. It came in two flavors: the entry-level, 318-cubic-inch unit developing 230 horsepower, or the slightly spicier 360-cubic-inch version putting out 250 horsepower. This actually highlights a pretty sad trend in the car industry during the later years of the 20th century. The car in these pictures is a second generation model that only came with those two engine options we just mentioned. But the first generation came with a whole slew of different engines to choose from, most notably the infamous 440-cubic-inch V8 (better known as the “cop motor” from The Blues Brothers). Even the 360 in the first generation made more power than the 360 in the second generation. As the 70s and 80s wore on, government emissions regulations forced manufacturers to more efficiently manage their engines, and (maybe because it was the 70s and 80s) technology hadn’t quite caught up with the regulations. Ipso facto: criminally underpowered engines.


The Ramcharger never lit showrooms on fire with its sales figures, and its not difficult to see why. The whole point of buying an SUV (beyond a misguided sense of ruggedness) is practicality. But the Ramcharger made you fold the front seats forward to access the back. That’s because, in case you skipped the first paragraph, the Ramcharger only had two doors. First generations didn’t even come with a backseat, which turned them off to anyone who had those, ah, whaddaya call them- friends? Second generations didn’t have a removable rear top, which turned it off to anyone who wanted to use it like a pickup truck. And the third generation, while interesting, was only available for two years- in Mexico. The Ramcharger was the forgotten member of forgotten band from a forgotten genre, and that was because it never checked all the boxes it needed to at the same time. It’s the automotive equivalent of those “Life Sucks, Then You Die” t-shirts.


I have to admit, there is something about a two-door SUV that I find appealing. It most likely has to do with the fact that my exposure to the car world started in the late nineties- just after the sun had set on the two-door’s heyday. That segment of the market was basically a wasteland. Sure, there have been a couple of modern interpretations of the concept here and there, but those never achieved the same level of cultural fundamentalism of, say, a Ford Bronco. So seeing a two-door SUV in the wild today gives it a sort of exotic quality. But that’s not to say they’re good vehicles by any means. I admire them in the same way I admire those crazy fast-food creations, like that sandwich where the bun is two pieces of fried chicken. They’re different and kind of funny looking, but I’d never spend the money on one.


Additional Thoughts:

  • Cards on the table, I thought the Ramcharger was a Mexican-market only vehicle, so you can imagine my shock and awe when I stumbled upon this example while walking around the Bronx. Turns out that thinking only applied to the third generation. You learn something new everyday.
  • Ah, I forgot to mention the transmission options. Apologies all around. You could get a four speed manual or a three speed automatic.
  • Later Ramchargers came with a fancy hood ornament that was spring-loaded. If someone tried to steal it, the mechanism would set the car’s alarm off.

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