By Stacy Bronec
When you look at the before and after pictures of this 1954 Dodge Power Wagon, it’s hard to believe it’s the same vehicle. The before photo of Johnny Ames in 1978 was snapped for posterity’s sake, as the pickup wasn’t in use at the time. Some 35 years later Robert “Bob” Bronec, Johnny’s nephew, found the time to restore the Power Wagon to its original condition.
Starting in 1934 Dodge built half-ton and full-ton trucks for the Army. After the war, many former soldiers requested a similar civilian vehicle for its ruggedness and four-wheel drive. Dodge worked rapidly to create a “carry-all” type pickup to convert their military trucks to civilian use. The Power Wagon was introduced in March 1946 as the first civilian 4×4 truck. The vehicle is now considered to be somewhat rare; there aren’t enough records available to show how many of these vehicles are left. There were 5,346 built in 1954, and an unknown number remain. The Power Wagon nameplate was discontinued in 1981 with the introduction of the Dodge Ram.
Most vehicles find themselves traded from owner to owner, gaining miles, scratches, and dents along the way, but this Power Wagon stayed on the same ranch and in the same family. Bob considers the truck to be a “legend” on the ranch and “couldn’t stand to see it rot away.” Over the course of a few years Bob worked on his uncle’s truck and it was definitely worth the wait. The restoration was finished in 2015.
Johnny was one of five children born to Charlie and Lena Ames on September 26, 1916. His two brothers were drafted overseas to fight in WWII, but asthma kept Johnny home. Only one of his brothers came home from the war; his brother Jim was killed in France. His other brother, Byron, moved to Alaska after the war.
Although farming wasn’t his dream, Johnny learned to be a good farmer and eventually had a great herd of cattle on his family’s ranch north of Carter. Whether it was the time period that Johnny was raised or part of his personality, he was conservative with his money and made due with what he had. Johnny wasn’t one to borrow money, evidenced by paying cash for his brand new Power Wagon in 1954 from Fort Benton Motors. Bob has the original receipt showing the payment of $2,307.
Johnny was known to ride horseback to and from Fort Benton every Friday to get the mail. Bob estimates it’s about 22 miles as a crow flies each way, but says that Johnny was always back by lunch. Eventually Johnny did start driving the Power Wagon to and from town instead of trotting by horseback every week.
Over the years Johnny got his money’s worth from the truck using it for more than transportation. In the summer months it was used for fencing, picking rocks, and on occasion they hooked a hay rake to it during haying. In the winter it was used to haul hay to the cattle. Bob chuckled recounting the time he used the Power Wagon to pull an engine from a combine, but said that wasn’t a common occurrence.
Bob started working for his uncle in 1974. By that time the truck wasn’t in use anymore; the years of work written all over it. Due to Johnny’s declining health, Bob was running the ranch by 1982. Reflecting on who Johnny was, Bob said, “He wasn’t afraid of work.” That work ethic didn’t miss a generation. Not only has Bob expanded the ranch, he put countless hours into restoring the Power Wagon, bringing new life to a legend while paying homage to his uncle Johnny who passed in 1985. Once he began the restoration it took about two years to finish. He was able to keep all the original parts and restored them to their original condition.
I asked Bob what his uncle would say if he could see his truck today. After a moment’s pause, Bob said that Johnny would love the restoration, but he wouldn’t have been willing to pay for it himself.
Once an invaluable piece of equipment on the ranch, the Power Wagon is now enjoying retirement. You can see the truck at local car shows and parades in Central Montana.