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1972 Dodge Van Monster Truck - Rollin Thunder

The Legendary Rollin' Thunder

Photography by Dennis Taft

It's hard to believe, but the craze of monster trucks is nearing 30 years in existence. What began as an exercise in one-upsmanship amongst four-wheel-drive junkies in the Midwest has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry that spans the globe.

Looking back at the humble beginnings of monster trucks, you may be surprised to learn that one of the earliest and brightest stars on the national scene was a diesel-powered early '70s Dodge van named "Rollin' Thunder." We started scouring the Internet and industry Rolodexes to hunt down Jim Oldaker, the guy who can claim responsibility for this beast. Jim now leads a relatively quiet existence in Oklahoma, where he does great work making prosthetics and orthodontics for medical patients. His story is pretty cool.

"The whole thing really got started because we had this shop in California named Streetable Customs," Jim said. "We built a lot of custom vans and did a lot of feature trucks for Truckin' magazine. It was a good business. At the time I was driving a VW Bug, and I had an old van that I had used to haul my motocross bikes. I originally got the idea to make the van into a four-wheel-drive."

As so often happens in these circumstances, fate intervened. Jim explains, "I happened to get a magazine that had some pictures of Bob Chandler's Bigfoot. That kind of got me to thinking. I was then told about a big industrial water truck that had been abandoned at a local construction site. There was a union dispute, and the thing had been torched. It was a mess, but the chassis was good and the motor was OK, despite the fire."

The burned-out hulk of a truck was transported back to the shop and the car-b-qued vehicle was torn down to the bare chassis and running gear. Now, we've all seen monster trucks flying through the air and jumping small buildings in a single bound on television, but in the early 1980s that kind of performance had not even been dreamt up yet. "The truck was a leaf-spring truck, so we just stuck with that suspension setup. I believe there were 16 leaves on each corner. Remember, we were not jumping stuff like they do now. We were just creeping up and over a couple of cars," Jim said.

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