Racing a 1950 Dodge Truck Was the Easy Part

Photo: Murilee Martin
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When people build a race car, they usually start off with a car. Not a rusty, wrecked heap of bolts that’s roughly in the shape of a 1950 Dodge Pickup. Putting it together in a couple weeks after the rest of your original team abandons the idea is pure lunacy. Continuing to race it after that? Congratulations! You’re our kind of maniac.

One of the oldest vehicles to ever attempt a 24 Hours of Lemons race is Kevin Temmer’s 1950 Dodge, which he was given for free by the Mopar shop he was working for. Temmer acquired this truck in addition to a BMW E30 his more competition-minded friends had fixed up. They had six people on their team, so Temmer thought they needed a second car to get everyone enough seat time.

Yet it’s the ongoing story of this truck that’s one of the best examples of the crapcan racing community coming together to welcome the new guy and making something cool happen at the same time. Who doesn’t want to see a classic truck on a race track?

“Because I was working at a Mopar restoration shop,” Temmer explained in a phone conversation with Jalopnik. “It was mostly, ‘What was broken on it, and what’s here at the yard that’s going to the scrapyard that I can adapt things to make work?’” (Sounds familiar!)

Lemons racing doesn’t let “parts (or cars) found around the shop” count as free. The series has a rule that your entire build—sans racing safety items like harnesses, tires or gauges—has to be worth under $500. However, there’s good reason as to why they let this thing slide. Jalopnik alum Murilee Martin (who now goes by “Judge Phil” for series officiating purposes) explained how this is meant to work on the Lemons forums:

I usually want teams to assign a “real-world” value to stuff they get for free, but you can count a ‘49 Dodge pickup as a legit free truck. In fact, you’ll get a lot of budget leeway when it comes to prepping this truck for Lemons. Basically, the harder it is to imagine a vehicle on a race track, the more we like it.

The truck had no door installed when he got it, so Temmer actually asked Lemons about making one out of much lighter plywood. Sorry—racing series usually want doors made of less flammable materials! While other Lemons forum members offered to help him find a door, he actually had one in the bed to install.

Temmer knew he wanted to keep the old flathead six-cylinder engine that came with the truck for now. The engine actually ran—kind of poorly, but it ran! Once he started digging into it, he discovered that it wasn’t the pickup’s original engine, either. It was actually from a 1937 Dodge Pickup. Aside from that, Temmer wasn’t really sure how his new acquisition worked.

“I was out fiddling with the truck for a couple hours today, and realizing I have no idea how anything works on a truck of this vintage, so naturally it’s full steam ahead,” Temmer wrote on the Lemons forums.

Pretty soon, Temmer started figuring things out enough to upgrade the electrical whole system to 12 volts. The truck originally came with a 6-volt electrical system, but Kevin added in the 12-volt ignition coil made for a Dart along with a new in-line resistor, spark plugs and newly made spark plug wires to make his new high-performance ignition system work. The rubber bits on the Dodge’s existing spark plug wires (and everywhere else on the truck, for that matter) were pretty rotten, anyway. Temmer also installed a power cutoff switch that is required by Lemons to shut off all power to the truck in case of an emergency.

The original salvaged Dart coil was bad, but a replacement worked fine. Temmer wired the new coil to a toggle switch inside the cab to make turning the truck on and off easier than having to deal with the key. He replaced the battery cables as well.

After replacing these key electrical components, the truck started right up fairly easily. It didn’t even smoke! There were a couple teeth missing from the flywheel that made it hard for the starter to engage, but if it happened to be in the position with the missing teeth, Temmer could manually turn the engine first to get it into a good spot.

It didn’t stay running for long, though, thanks to a stuck-open float in the truck’s one-barrel carburetor that flooded the engine with fuel. The engine died after about 35 seconds. A thorough carb cleaning and fresh gaskets cleared up that problem. A new click-clack-style fuel pump Temmer installed also made sure that carb was well fed.

Soon, Kevin installed a new alternator and voltage regulator (also taken from a junked Dart at work), new radiator hoses and new Moon gauges (added after Temmer’s dad didn’t trust the $15 set from Harbor Freight that Temmer originally wanted to use). Temmer made a custom wiring harness for the truck next, which involved removing the radio and mono speaker, plus any cable that wasn’t frozen at the time.

“I am realizing more and more that the average person sucks at wiring looking at all the crap the previous owner had done twenty-plus years ago,” Temmer wrote on the forums.

The radiator leaked, so he tried to refurbish one from a 1947 Plymouth from the shop to get it running again.

Temmer’s project was starting to look like way too much work, as he wrote something that read like a subtle cry for help on the Lemons forums (emphasis mine):

Also took another look around the yard and realized that I probably should convert the pedals to a more normal style than big-ass holes through the firewall, so on to stealing parts off a 3rd-gen Camaro, hopefully including the power brake cylinder. May also steal the parking brake system and install that instead of the frozen cable. Last thing, I was underneath the truck and discovered somebody at some point decided that the right front leaf spring could safely be held in place with baling wire. Nope, no bolts, just baling wire.

So the right side of the truck was bad news. The left side of the truck wasn’t much better. It was held on with just one piece of 3/16-inch steel and only one side of the shackle holding the leaf spring on had a couple loose bolts in it. The bushing was also missing.

“[It] definitely looks like it would bend in half if actually driven on, so I am planning on getting some 1/4-inch steel and drilling holes in them to make new spring perches,” Temmer wrote on the forums.

Later, he figured out that the pickup had to have been in a major front end crash. The front axle was bent backwards about two inches. “It looked like someone had jumped it and landed on a post,” Temmer told Jalopnik via phone. Two leaf spring hangers were missing entirely, plus there was all of the damage to the front end.

Temmer actually drove this truck around like this briefly to test the driveline out, which was extremely sketchy. There was no power steering, and three of the old tires were flat. He also discovered a major brake fluid leak in the right rear drum brake. The left kingpin (the major pivot point in the truck’s steering system) had about four to five degrees of slop in it, too.

Progress was slow. “Just a tad over two months away and the truck has barely driven 20 feet, and effectively has no brakes,” said Temmer.

A third-gen Camaro from the shop supplied a new brake master cylinder plus a new cable-operated throttle and pedal, along with enough cable to reroute the speedometer cable so it wouldn’t go through the floorboard of the truck. (Oddly, he’s never had time to set up the speedometer. It’s not a frequently looked-at part in racing anyway, and Temmer eventually took the speedo out completely.) The truck’s floorpan made Swiss cheese look solid, so Temmer cut the rusty panels out and replaced them with new ones.

Only problem was that his teammates eventually lost interest in running the Lemons race altogether. They’d made their BMW way too nice to ever work for low-buck Lemons racing in the process. This left Temmer with a race entry already paid for the truck and no teammates helping him wrench on it only about three weeks before the race.

“The hardest part is trying to find a reliable team,” Temmer said of his Lemons experience to Jalopnik. “That is the hardest part of racing. Not the building. Not the racing. Once you’re on a race track, it’s not a big deal. Finding people who you can actually count on to show up is a pain in the ass.”

Worse yet, this 20-something Lemons novice was building it all outside without the use of a lift in Colorado, and the month of May still brought rain and snow. Temmer still had the entire suspension, fuel cell, roll cage, driver seat, pedal assembly, brake lights and steering column left to go. He put a call out for help on the Lemons forums for anyone to drop in and help wrench, and even offered to let whoever wanted to drive it for free at its upcoming race at Miller Motorsports Park, now called Utah Motorsports Campus.

Fortunately, Temmer was able to wrench on it full-time after his finals wrapped up, which helped immensely, in addition to the extra help from nearby Lemons racers who dropped in as they had time. Even a couple Mormon missionaries got roped into helping Temmer pull the rear axle from a donor car. From there, it was a mad thrash until the end.

First, Temmer installed a third-gen Pontiac Firebird rear axle to replace some of the bent parts and patched up the firewall and other structurally rusty parts. The racing seats got installed on some creative mounts to get them to the right height to see out the Dodge’s front window: steel wheels. (Don’t laugh, they’re solid.)

The truck’s front suspension was completely toast, so Temmer discovered that the front suspension from a Jaguar XJ6 would work and replaced the thoroughly crunched Dodge parts with that. It was an almost direct fit, save for some modifications that had to be made to the upper shock mounts.

Then Temmer welded together a new driveshaft and installed it. He also installed a new steering column from a 1963 Plymouth Valiant, as Lemons requires a newer collapsible-style one or one like the Plymouth’s that has multiple u-joints going to the steering rack for safety reasons. (Read: getting impaled by your own steering column is bad.)

Then came new driving and brake lights, then mirrors, and a functional brake system. Temmer used a brake master cylinder from a third-gen Camaro to convert the system to power brakes. He had to fabricate some parts to mate the Jaguar disc brakes in the front to the Firebird disc brakes in the rear, but the end result was four-wheel discs on a 1950 Dodge pickup. And it even had the same bolt pattern front and back. Pretty incredible.

Another Lemons racer helped install the roll cage. The 10-gallon fuel cell went in next, solving the problem of the fuel filler neck running right through the cab, under the driver’s butt. Temmer also moved the battery to a more secure location against the bed frame, behind the driver.

Finally, after a few weeks of total build hell and one drive around the block of “testing,” Temmer had his race-truck ready for the Miller Lemons race. It even passed tech on the first try, thanks in part to his willingness to ask the Lemons staff for clarification on how the series rules applied to trickier old-truck builds before the race.

The truck was ultimately extremely slow out on track, though, as Temmer noted in his ecstatic first race day wrap-up to the forums:

The brakes are hardly ever used on this track, and the transmission is hardly used either. Stick it in fourth gear, floor it and turn has been our strategy. We finished the day with 149 laps done in 42nd place out of the field of around 65-70. It is however, HELLA SLOW like, I think we hit 60 a couple times kind of slow, and we are passed by EVERYONE but the truck just keeps on rollin’ albeit with low oil pressure, like 0-20 ish reading on our mechanical gauge.

The truck was so slow that misbehaving competitors were told to follow it as part of a “Highway 17" penalty (named for the Bay Area not-quite thruway where you get stuck behind slower cars with nowhere to pass), but it did go on to win Index of Effluency—Lemons’ highest prize for doing the best with the vehicle that least belongs on a race track.

However, the low oil pressure Kevin mentioned ended up being fatal to the truck after its first race. Temmer actually ended up daily driving his race truck after its first race, and he discovered that the low oil pressure was due to a nasty blow-by issue (wherein a mixture of fuel and oil goes past the piston rings and into the engine’s crankcase where it shouldn’t go) that just kept getting worse and worse.

“It had effectively zero oil pressure after about 20 minutes,” Temmer told Jalopnik via phone. “I still drove it around and it seemed fine!”

He picked up a less-worn flathead-six engine just in case. It came out of an airport tug that was used at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Because the tug started up on the first crank, his team loaded up the airport tug the day before the truck’s next race and took it to the track with the race truck—just in case.

“I brought the airport tug because I kind of had the suspicion the engine was going to die because of the oil pressure and all that,” Temmer told Jalopnik.

Sure enough, Temmer’s truck was black-flagged for going too slow with a newer driver behind the wheel, and then again for smoke as Temmer himself was driving, which was actually blow-by vapor but still a bad sign that the engine was toast. He tried to use an old radiator to condense the blow-by vapor back into oil and let it drain back into the crankcase, but that fix didn’t work after the blow-by issue got too bad.

So, Temmer’s team swapped over the airport tug’s engine mid-race, only to discover that the attachment points for the engine mounts and transmission weren’t exactly the same. Temmer fabricated a front engine mount out of a jack handle, among other small mods to the mounting points, to make it work anyway. A new General Motors one-wire alternator went in with the new engine. It ran hot—likely due to a small head gasket leak—but made a ton more power and got them to finish the race.

Before its last race, Temmer swapped in the ignition system for a GM-style high energy ignition (usually abbreviated as HEI) system. This lets you run a larger spark plug gap to produce one to two extra horsepower, simplifies the whole system somewhat, and importantly, makes the truck significantly easier to start. He also installed a new distributor meant for an Chevy S10 to go with the new ignition system, plus several other key upgrades, including a Holley fuel pump, a high-performance aluminum radiator, 22-gallon fuel cell, digital gauges, oil pressure fuel cutoff, and all new wiring (for a second time, to match the new engine). He also deleted the oil filter.

In its last race, that head gasket failed and once again, Temmer’s team made a mid-race repair and kept truckin’ right along. He discovered that it would run a long time after having to black flag his own driver to come back in after three and a half hours out on track, which is a plus.

“I’m probably going to run just one more race with the flathead because it’s so slow,” Temmer told Jalopnik. “Otherwise, I’m handling and stopping just as well as everyone else on track.”

Just remember: when your impossible build seems hopeless, there’s still probably a community of car nuts out there somewhere who’d love to see it finish. Post on forums. Get involved in groups. Hell, go post on OppositeLock or Jalopnik’s Facebook group right now. This pickup is The Truck That Lemons Built, because the owner put it out there that he was building something fun. It’s still going strong in part because it’s a source of joy for anyone who sees it, because the owner reached out, because so many wanted to be a part of something so unusual.

You can go through the whole story of the truck here on the Lemons Forums, where Temmer posts as wizard0ne0. His meme-centric Grumpy Cat Racing team’s “Doge” truck also has its own sporadically updated Facebook page here.

We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week (weekly again when I’m not extremely ill, and thus, my apologies for the recent break)! What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Seen any good build threads we should know about? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.

Corrections: The owner found out after his main build thread that his truck is actually a 1950 model, not a 1949 as originally stated. Some items were also noted out of order in the build thread, and these have since been moved to the correct part of the truck’s story after the owner got in touch. He also didn’t have time to balance the driveshaft after all and still hasn’t gotten around to it.