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Lil Sherpa Junior Reborn Part 1

Tony from Big Sky Welding Concepts.

Tony from Big Sky Welding Concepts.


Delving into the history of a 1949 Dodge Route Van Red Oxx purchased for use in transferring completed bags to our factory outlet store and shipping dock has been an intriguing affair. The van’s design and engineering is interesting alone, but this diveco van also has a bit of local history attached to it as well. CEO Jim Markel shares the story with us here in part 1, our Sherpa Junior Project.


Our Factory #8 expansion in now in the history books, leaving us with one small logistical problem. Just how were we going to get the bags from factory to store? Only about a block and half separates the two entities so we would not exactly need the Big Oxx to make the haul. In keeping with a 1950s theme, Perry and I decided on something novel. We went on a quest for a vintage delivery van that would be easy on fuel and allow us to up-cycle an obsolete vehicle. We really liked the International Harvester Metro Van and set about on a quest to find one here in Montana. But alas it was not to be, after searching high and low we just couldn’t come across one in this part of the world.

Our friend Beano is a hot rod enthusiast of note, so we tasked him with finding something cool. A few weeks later he called and said he had something to show us in Dog Town. We all loaded up and that is where we found a 1949 Dodge Route Van, practically in our back yard. This beauty had been a Yellowstone Park company vehicle back in the day and it still sported the original official black and yellow color scheme. Miraculously we managed to fire it up, from there we took the plunge. While our off-road expert Koombie advised against buying the "turd nugget", Perry and I were smitten.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the ’48-49 Dodge Route Van is the split rear drive axle, which allows for a low interior deck height. This makes it easier to pull up and deliver at curb height, thus keeping back-breaking lifting to a minimum. Another interesting technological feature is the fluid drive brake system which lets you leave the vehicle in gear with the brake set for quick delivery. Our version is rated to 1 ¼ ton and with the flat-head six cylinder engine, it will be frugal on petrol. Since Koombie wanted nothing to do with our new folly, we enlisted the help of Big Sky Welding Concepts. Tony the owner has been into antique cars his whole life and even participated in The Great Race on several occasions.

His encyclopedic knowledge of vintage cars was going to be crucial in getting our delivery van street legal.

As with any restoration project you need at least an idea of what you’re looking to accomplish at the end of the journey. Our vision was somewhere between a rat rod and a fully restored piece of rolling history. So with that in mind we turned the big man loose on what needed to be addressed most pressingly. My first order of business was to find someone willing to work on split rims. These rims are notoriously dangerous to work with and not many tire shops even have the equipment. After a bit of sleuthing I was able to get things sorted at B&B Tire here in Billings. Here is where the decision to clean and paint certain parts of the Sherpa Junior. was shaping up. I decided that the wheels were an easy call to be painted and it would also make the split rims easier to reassemble. Now that we had the turd nugget somewhat mobile we had another problem. The diveco van would go, but it wouldn’t stop. There was no functioning brakes or even brake pads.


An obscure vintage vehicle like our ’49 Dodge Route Van has very little new old stock (or NOS) parts available. We had to make the call to modernize the braking system. A disc brake conversion was in order so another quest was initiated to find a suitable conversion kit. As we like to say, all cool things can be found on the World Wide Web and this was no exception. Our problems were solved by a kit from TSM Disc Brakes; the new disc brake conversion is going to last this ride another half century.

After our initial firing up of the engine, we decided to work through the major systems and upgrade slightly here and there as needed. Walking a fine line between unraveling the whole ball of string and turning our project into a money pit and me into a basket case is the tricky bit. Pandora’s Box is always lurking around the corner. Sometimes the call is made to upgrade versus full restoration based on costs and parts availability.


We plan to use our DRV as a daily driver and work truck. We currently run two loads of bags a day when the factory produces optimal batch sizes. Being able to hop in and fire the rig up is going to be crucial if we are going to realize our dream of bringing Lil Sherpa back into use. Of the three main ingredients that make an engine run; spark, fuel and air, ignition is certainly the most crucial when it comes to getting something to run well in cold weather. Ditching the points and condenser set up was a quick decision when the solution was as easy as ordering a drop-in kit from Pertronix Ignition Systems. It fits right into the stock distributor and swaps out the original system for an electronic one. This alone will make our route van much more reliable than it ever was. I remember helping my dad set the points on some of his cars through the years and even fighting with one of my old Harley’s a time or two… The points had to go!

The fuel tank on the Sherpa Junior is located under the hood. I’m not sure this is an optimal location. But it does make for a short distance to the motor and may be why the tank was in such great condition. While the radiator was in decent shape, it was of such an age and obscurity that we decided to opt for a reconditioned one from Montana Radiator Works. The replacement radiator has a vintage look that passes for stock to my untrained eye. Good enough!

Now that Tony has Lil Sherpa purring like a litter of flat-headed six cylinder kittens he began sorting out the electrical systems. If there is one area in my life that I’m cursed, it has to be electricity. I once totally shut our factory down after trying to change the ballast in a light fixture. Another time I about torched myself with 220 volts in the kitchen of my house after cutting a rather large wire, the ensuing blue flash was spotted by the neighbors a block away. Since these incidents and a few other near melt-downs, I’m prohibited from touching anything remotely electrical. While there’s not much to the electrical system on a vehicle from 1949, it still needs to have some of the basics to remain street legal.

Indeed, headlights are always a nice thing to have working during one of those dark cold December days.


While paging through our dealer service manual that I scored on ebay, Tony noticed that the parts cross-over vehicle for the Route Van was the Dodge Power Wagon. These venerable brutes were the workhorse of the era; from oil fields to military spec, Dodge trucks were crude but effective. Back to the big bad Internet and in short order we found just what the doctor needed and ordered at Vintage Power Wagons. I was very impressed with their knowledge base and excellent customer service. They had some hard-to-find miscellaneous parts heading our way in short order.

While surprisingly intact, there was still missing a couple of major pieces to our old Route Van. Most obvious was the lack of rear doors. The original doors on this vehicle were an accordion style folding operation and were long gone. Also missing was the rear bumper which would be an easy fix with re-purposing our old fabric roll bar from the cut room. With the opportunity to design some new doors we debated back and forth on what would be the most serviceable for the job at hand.


For years Red Oxx has used industrial laundry carts to move our bags about the factory. These carts are quite handy and are perfect for our production batch sizes. Getting our product from production to distribution was the whole reason behind this special project. The low deck height of the Route Van was the clincher on why this vehicle would work better than our Sprinter. Our current modus operandi involves lifting those wonderful heavy carts up and into a pickup truck. Seeking to eliminate the lifting part and make use of the wheels on the carts, Tony designed a clam shell system with a twist. The new door will form its own ramp into the vehicle and upper hatch will provide a modicum of rain cover.

With mechanical things reaching a point where we’ll need to reinstall some of the interior components, it’s getting about time to send this project off to the body shop. While we are leaving the original Yellowstone Park Company colors, we plan to knock the big dents out. The roof has some issues with a few bits of daylight streaming through as well. One fender was torn completely off and from the looks of it, with a fair amount of force. The amazing thing about the body panels is just how much metal they used to make them. We could probably build a whole Hyundai out of the interior metal alone!

End of part 1 ~ Cheers, Jim

Read up in the next installment where we take Sherpa Jr., our classic 1949 Dodge Route Van, out on the road in 'Part Deux'. Also, look for the continuing saga in pictures in the photos album 'Restoration of a 1949 Dodge Route Van' on our Red Oxx Bags Facebook page.

Red Oxx would like to thank the following companies for their participation in our route van restoration project. Please show them your patronage and support.

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