They call me Mr. Bighorn. I guess you could say I’ve earned it though. I’ve owned more Bighorns than any individual that I know of. I’ve probably had the chance to sit in and drive more of these trucks than anyone else out there. I’ve also reproduced rare, new parts for the precious few Bighorns that are left. Chrysler has come to me for new doors and a cab for the short nose Bighorn that they are in the process of restoring.
I have ten Bighorn rams heads and all the literature, posters, watch fobs, belt buckles that can possibly be found. Four photo albums hold nearly 800 pictures out of the 261 produced, I have pictures of at least 130 of the original trucks.
I’ve been fortunate over the years, of that I have no doubt. With only an estimated 90 Bighorns left in existence, most of which rest in the hands of collectors, I have personally bought and sold a total of 17. My luck began in 1989 when I bought my first Bighorn, a 1975 Custom Cab. After seven years of restoration that started from the ground up, it made its first show debut in 1997 at the annual American Truck Historical Society show, held that year in Greensboro, NC.
I chose to keep the next Bighorn that came my way in 2002. It appeared that it was to be another expensive restoration, but one that I saw as being worth it: this was one of the most rare trucks ever built in the history of automobiles. To own one Bighorn is a privilege, but to own two would be very special indeed. This second Bighorn that I choose to keep was also a Custom Cab with a factory 235 wheelbase. Parked in the early 80’s by its original owner, the truck was very intact: it possessed only 186,000 actual miles.
I held onto the truck for a little while, but after considering the cost of restoration and time that would be lost with my family, I decided to sell it. Today it resides in North Dakota with Matt Swenson where it is also being rebuilt from the ground up. When I sold this Bighorn to Matt Swenson in 2003 I knew that the chances of ending up with another one for my collection were not particularly favorable. With so few left in existence, their prices have grown and very few are reasonable nowadays. When I finished my own 1975 Bighorn in 1997, it had to be appraised for insurance reasons. The estimated value came to $95,000—not bad for a truck that cost $31,000 in 1975 and came with a $5,000 rebate. The original owner of my first Bighorn ended up with a loaded truck for only $26,000. Some may wonder why I sold the other Bighorns that fell into my possession since they are so rare, but any collector who restores and plays with big trucks can understand: it takes money and time, and it is most certainly not a cheap hobby. My wife has said many times that she wishes I could find a less expensive one, such as the kind that comes in a box and is assembled with glue. Sorry dear, no such luck.
Now, go back to the year 2000. I am at the ATHS show in Valley Forge, PA where I run into a good friend, David Thompson, also known as Truckin’ Little for the miniature truck models that he builds. David has owned two Bighorns himself, but has since sold them off.
The first thing that came out of David’s mouth when we met that day was a declaration: he had heard of a rumor that stated the number one Bighorn was still in existence and was sitting in a barn somewhere in Minnesota. I told him to let me know if he found anything out.
Years passed without any new information. February of 2004 rolled around. I was standing in my yard, staring at one of my trucks when my cell phone began to ring. On the phone was a man that claimed to have “Number One” in his possession. Like most muscle car experts, I thankfully knew enough about my subject of interest and “Number One” in general to quiz him about it. Every question that I asked brought back a correct answer. The man said he and his father had been rebuilding the truck when, during the process, his father passed away. The truck had been parked since that sad day in 1984, but in actuality, this was probably a blessing in disguise that somehow saved the truck from an unknown fate. The man told me he had to finish putting some items on the truck and then it would be ready for shipping. The price was settled on that same month. He was to call me when it was ready—because he trucked for a living, free time was short.
The rest of 2004 went by and I pretty much forgot about the truck until March of 2005 when again I received a phone call. The price had changed, but I felt that this truck was worth every penny.
There was more history behind this Bighorn than any other Mopar car or truck to have left the factory. It had been a big gamble for Chrysler to slip their feet into a big truck market previously dominated by Kenworths and Peterbilts back in 1973. There had been one problem, however. Some big Dodge dealers, such as Ivy Truck Sales in Athens, GA—the largest Dodge dealer in the US at that time—knew that the heavy truck division was coming to an end for this particular breed. From the very beginning, Mr. Ivy, who sat on the board of directors at Chrysler, stated that he would not sell a truck that he could not provide parts and service for. I knew Mr. Ivy personally and he always stood 110% behind his customers.
In April of 2005 I met a transporter at a local truck stop. On the back of his rig rested “Number One.” Just as every Bighorn is prone to do, it drew attention from its starting point, Minnesota, to its destination, Georgia. The trucker told me that the C.B. never shut up. If you ever find yourself in the position to transport a Bighorn, you will discover how true this is: the Bighorn draws more attention than any other truck out there, past or present. There have been times when I have stopped at rest stops and come out to find a swarm of curious onlookers surrounding my rig. Half an hour of answering questions is not an unusual thing. Upon meeting, the trucker and I arranged for him to follow me to my job, where the truck would be unloaded and then reloaded onto my rig, after which it would be taken home and placed in my butler building. Here it would familiarize itself with all of its Dodge brothers that reside in my collection.
The first thing I noticed as the trucker backed up to unload, however, was that the rear ends were air ride. I began to worry that someone had butchered the “Number One” and that the value would be way off. To understand my concern, one must know a few details about the truck.
Stated simply, “Number One” is indeed, number one. It is the prototype of the Bighorns and it is completely different from any of its brothers and sisters. This truck is a 9500 Bighorn according to its emblem, all others are 950. It seems Chrysler couldn’t make up their mind as to what to call it, so they started a system: tandem axles were DNT1000; single axles were DN1000. Another mind change later labeled the tandem axle as CNT950 and the single axle as CN950, for which only nine were produced. And then there are the frame rails. The prototype was the only Bighorn to receive aluminum frame rails. While the option was to be available in late fall of 1975, it never made it to that point: the Dodge Heavy-Duty line was dropped in the spring of that same year.
Research revealed that the frame rails came from the supplier that Kenworth and Peterbilt used. I learned from one ex-CEO of Kenworth, John Bodden, that the CEO before him left due to an argument and later became the head of the Bighorn program. John and I came to the conclusion that the former CEO must have "borrowed" a set of rails from the Kenworth and Peterbilt supplier—to put it nicely. Since that conversation, I have purchased a new set for the "Number One" from Cherokee Kenworth in Columbia, SC. It took 20 weeks of waiting for them to be specially built, but they're here now. The frame rails that originally came with the truck were salt damaged and sported excess holes from useless drilling. As Bighorns were hand-built, I know that no holes were usually drilled unless they were going to be used.
My original shock from the air ride stemmed from knowledge imported from the original spec sheets that listed all of the options. I knew that an air ride suspension was offered by the name of Western Stabilaire, but research in this area turned up no such company; none of the Bighorns that I had ever seen had possessed this suspension. Closer inspection of "Number One" revealed a large brass tag on the rear bar between the bags. It read Western Stabilaire and listed the specs. I teamed up with a good friend from the ATHS headquarters, Bill Johnson, and learned that Western Stabilaire had been bought out by Peterbilt and sold to Freightliner to become their four bad air ride. A little personal research in a Euclid book on truck suspensions that I own turned up the missing link. There it was, in the section devoted to Freightliner air ride. So far, I've been fortunate enough to get all of the other parts that I need new, all the way down to the springs.
The vast amount of differences between the prototype and all other Bighorns are astounding. Thus far I've identified these contrasting characteristics: 9500 emblems, aluminum frame rails, altered ram's head, variations of the hood latches, grab handles, exhaust shields, sill plates, fuel tanks, and mounting brackets; a unique steering shaft, rear suspension, and fan shroud; and a one-of-a-kind rear cab support and wiring job. Due to the fact that this truck toured for the first year of its life, it has chrome plated seat frames, air tanks, luberfiner, and exhaust elbows. Its batter box covers, bumper, exhaust shields, and grab handles were all polished; the front wheels are polished lock rim Alcoa's. And that's just what I've found so far! I still have to finish getting the truck torn down! Just like the factory, I'll start with bare frame rails and build from the ground up. Everything all the way down to the grease fittings will be new or rebuilt, and when everything is said and done, it will look just as it did on day one in the infamous, introductory Dodge Bighorn literature. A list of the available options for the Custom Cab can be seen in the accompanying chart. (see Bighorn page for information)
I already knew that the original owner of "Number One" had been Jim Roop, but I learned a few more things from the man I bought it from, Marlin Martin. Apparently, after delivery of the truck, the Spicer had a vibration. The Dodge dealer that it was bought from offered to put either a new one on it or whatever else Mr. Roop so desired. He elected to get a Fuller in the long run. Also, the prototype originally possessed a Mercury sleeper and a full set of fenders over the tandems, but Jim Roop pulled for Bekins Van Lines and they had to be replaced by quarter-fenders for clearance of the van trailers. At one point in time, it as even painted solid white for company policy.
"Number One" was used for pictures in all of the Dodge Bighorn literature, both US and Canadian, and in magazines such as Overdrive, Open Road, and Go West. It was utilized in all of the tests and truck shows.
These days it sits in my building, waiting for the day when it will once more meet the crowds and represent a truck whose beauty and superior quality have allowed it to run not only with the trucks of its time, but of today's generation as well. I've driven other brands, such as Macks, Petes, and even the W900 Kenworth that I currently use for work. They all claim to be the best in the world; but to me, the difference is like night and day. The Bighorn handles with ease; its quiet cab is like no other, and though it may be 30 years old, it is still a truck that was ahead of its time. Built with all the quality of a Kenworth or Peterbilt, using the same options, it was a truck that could have gone a long way had it not been for company complications. Finally, collectors of other truck brands are realizing the collectable nature and value of the Dodge Bighorn. However, with only 90 or so left in existence and a steady increase in their prices, fewer collectors are finding themselves lucky enough to own one of these beauties.
"Number One" will someday ride proud again; only time will tell what the value of these trucks will rise to be.
Never in my life would I have dreamed that I would end up owning "Number One," especially at the naive age of 13 when my local Dodge dealer sent literature on this gold beauty and I first laid eyes on it. I have been lucky, I have been fortunate, and I have felt the Good Man Upstairs smiling down on me. I have done a lot for this rare breed of truck, and I've enjoyed every minute. Maybe one day, with a little more help, it will finally get the extensive recognition that it truly deserves.
To see restoration on this truck and others in my collection, please continue to follow this magazine. You can also go my son's website at www.OldDodges.com to see more. Hopefully, the pictures provided with this article have given you a little more history and insight on "Number One," the most famous Bighorn of all.