By on September 6, 2011

Welcome to Bob Lutz week at TTAC! I spent several hours recently with the auto industry’s most notorious executive, and elements of that interview will be the basis for much of my writing this week. We’ll also be capping the whole thing off by voting on the 2010-2011 Lutzie award for most unfortunate quote by an auto exec. And rather than jumping right into the meat of the interview, I want to kick off Lutz week by looking at a few cars that came up in our meandering conversation. After all, these are not just vehicles… when Lutz brings them up in an interview, they become stories, little encapsulations of his philosophy or the state of the company that made them. Let’s start with a car that I literally had never heard of before he mentioned it almost in passing: the Dodge Dakota Convertible. Eat your heart out, Murano CrossCabriolet… the Dakota was the original “WTF-vertible.”

Given his reputation for over-the-top vehicles like the Viper and Volt, and his general fondness for drop-tops, you might think that the Dakota ‘vert was one of Bob Lutz’s “babies,” but if that were the case his enthusiasm for the truckvertible has waned considerably. And, the way he tells the story, the Dakota’s topless conversion was not a gut-call for a strong niche product, but the outgrowth of Chrysler’s brief infatuation with “brand management.” But let’s let Lutz tell the story himself, which opens sometime around 1988, when Hal Sperlich was forced out of the company and Lutz began taking over more responsibility:

Like many other companies at the time, Iacocca got himself talked into ‘brand management’ by a board member, a guy by the name of Paul Sticht who was with RJR Nabisco. And so we had the famous Jerry York running Dodge brand and they were going to dictate product priorities to us. Jeep was intelligent enough to just say ‘hey, we’re on the right track. We’ll do the V8 Grand Cherokee and all the other stuff that followed on.’ But Jerry York wanted to make a mark, so he wanted a a Dodge Shadow convertible, for which we didn’t have the money, and he wanted a Dakota pickup convertible. *laughs* There’s a few around. I think we sold like a thousand. Maybe.

I saw one the other day at an airport out in California. Slammed. I think the Dakota convertible had to be the leakiest convertible top of all time… we had it done by ASC down in Mexico. It would be fun to have one just because they’re so rare… but once Iacocca saw that brand management wasn’t working, I became the real President.

My initial curiosity about the story was based wholly in the fact that I hadn’t been aware of the existence of a convertible pickup other than the SSR. But, having reflected on the story, I realized that this anecdote actually shows an interesting side of Lutz’s character. Though best known as the father of all kinds of outlandish machinery, Lutz is not the kind of guy to champion anything that’s out of the automotive norm simply because of its unusualness. Though Lutz clearly likes the idea of a rare convertible pickup, his dismissive attitude towards the Dakota Convertible’s genesis says a lot about his  attitude towards new product development: in short, when an idea comes from “product guys” he tends to like it, but when it comes from “brand managers” he tends to be less supportive.

The problem with that attitude? By emphasizing problems in product conception rather than the product itself, Lutz opens himself to repeating mistakes that others have made, in the belief that a more product-oriented process (rather than a brand-oriented process) will have more success. The obvious example of this is the SSR truckvertible that Lutz championed into production at GM. Though it sold considerably more than a thousand units (estimated volume: 24,150 between 2003 and 2005), the SSR was still ultimately a flop. Would Lutz have pushed the SSR into production when he arrived at GM if the Dakota Convertible hadn’t been pushed on him by Jerry York’s Dodge “brand managers”? York and company certainly provided an easy scapegoat for one of the weirdest vehicles ever produced. And with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems fairly clear that drop-top pickups are a problematic proposition whether they come from “product guys” or “brand managers.”

 

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40 Comments on “Cars Only Bob Lutz Remembers: The Dodge Dakota Convertible...”


  • avatar
    Marko

    I have only seen a Dakota Convertible once, in Norwood, MA. It was in 2009, but just after Cash for Clunkers ended.

    Does anyone know how many were sold total?

    • 0 avatar
      windswords

      From Allpar.com:

      “In 1989, Dodge sold 2,842 Dakota convertibles, but that apparently saturated the market; just 909 were made in 1990 and a mere eight in 1991, made to fulfill the contract with ASC. The convertibles came in 4×2 and 4×4 varieties. Standard equipment included a five-speed manual transmission, fog lamps, padded rollbar, velour seats, power windows and locks, rear anti-lock brakes, full gauge package, 3.9 V-6, and tilt and cruise control. Air conditioning and an automatic transmission were the only options. The convertible top itself was manually operated.”

      http://www.allpar.com/trucks/dakota-1987.html

  • avatar
    jbeale53

    A girl I went to high school with (early 90s) in NC drove one of these. I knew they were rare and strange, didn’t realize they were THIS rare, though.

  • avatar
    crm114

    This explains why I could never find a used Dakota Convertible as a teenager in the 90′s.

    I still think the idea, if not the execution, is awesome. Imagine a reliable compact 4×4 pickup with a well executed top and, if you want to really get wild, maybe some folding jump seats in the bed. It would be a 21st century Scout Terra.

    • 0 avatar
      paul_y

      ….or a first-generation Toyota 4Runner, or Jeep CJ8.

      Either way, small convertible trucks are fun. My former 4Runner was a hoot in the summer with the [fiberglass] top off (aftermarket soft tops are common on these trucks to this day).

  • avatar
    mikedt

    Always liked the SSR, just wasn’t willing to drop that kind of cash on it. They do seem to have held their value well on the used market.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    One big difference between the Dakota drop top and the SSR. The Dakota still had a real bed and could be used as a truck. No one is going to haul gravel in an SSR, the hard top would preclude that anyway. Not a defense of both failures. But as convertible pickup trucks they have about as much in common as a Geo Convertible versus an Audi A4 convertible. They both drop tops, they both can seat four in a pinch. The LS1 powered powered hard top SSR was a retro LS1 powered at least mildly entertaining to drive truck; if not rather ugly in styling. The Dakota was a leaky disaster – and now let me tell you the bad points. The biggest thing they have in common; they both answered questions no one asked and to your credit Ed — that is an interesting point on, “should Lutz have known better.”

    I remember I was a young teen when the Dakota convertible came out, reading about it in a couple of car mags and thinking to myself, “who would buy this,” but also thinking that top down, it looked pretty cool all things considered.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Jeeze Ed you call yourself a car guy and you didn’t know about the Dakota convertible? Oh wait it was actually during MY childhood. I’m 34, Ed is likely too young to remember the Dakota convertible.

    At the time (Middle School) I just got a chuckle out of the fact that they cut the top off a truck. I didn’t stop to think about profit, or market niche or any of that other stuff. It was kind of a WTF mobile.

  • avatar
    getacargetacheck

    I remember both the Shadow and Dakota verts having a cheesy look and feel to the tops even when they were new. The Dakota top looked like it wouldn’t last two Florida summers. Still, it was a good way to bring attention to the Dakota line as the Commache was being dropped. The execution was the problem not the idea.

  • avatar
    BlueEr03

    That is pretty cool looking. I mean, completely unnecessary, but cool looking nonetheless.

  • avatar

    I definitely remember these trucks, although their use in Alberta’s oil industry at the time would have been lunacy. A well-preserved model would have Barrett-Jackson Friday night cocktail hour appeal.

  • avatar
    86er

    The K5 Blazer had a factory convertible top until 1976. The original Bronco may have too, although the memory is fuzzy.

  • avatar
    texan01

    I liked the ‘verts but I would have had to yank the boat-anchor 3.9 in favor of a 318 or 360. I’d go with a 4×4 with a front end swap to the rounded gen 1 front end.

    Dad had an ’87 4×4 model and a 94 2wd model both with the 3.9. The Pre-Magnum ’87 still had a two barrel carb and made a measly 120hp, and 225 torque, the 88-91 EFI 3.9 made maybe 5 more HP and no more torque. It made for 0-60 times you could measure on a sundial, and two lane passing was an exercise in smooth driving. Top speed of the 87 was around 90mph. It was a great sized truck though, and pretty comptent puller despite the power handicap. The standard cab, much like the convertible is pretty tight for two people, and chummy for 3. It also got 15mpg no matter if you drove it at 30mph, or 90 and foot to the floor.

    the ’94 Dak that dad had, made up all the shortcomings and then some. It was a 2wd with the 185hp Magnum 3.9, extended cab and short bed. That sucker could go like the wind, was a hoot to drive and could corner! It just had a funky chassis dynamic that the 4wd didn’t have, the 4×4 while rough, was actually a better riding truck, than the bouncy/floaty 2wd model. it also could break 20mpg while driving.

    He was disappointed when they redesigned the Dak, and in 2007 bought hisself a GMC Canyon.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I had a 1995 Dak and I will agree to all that you said about it. Except I never sampled a 4×4 version to know that it handled much differently than the 4×2 version. It was a great truck. I have occasionally looked at a ‘what if’ scenario to see what would replace the 95 Dak, and really can’t find anything worthy. The new Dak is HUGE! and the Colorado/Canyon come close in size, but just not quite the same.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Search for the recent Skat Dak articles from Mopar Action magazine in which they took a stripper V-6 short bed 1996 Dakota and budget installed a 360 (junkyard parts etc) along with a bunch of other updates.

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      I was going to post a comment detailing the Dakotas, but you beat me to it! I drive a ’92, Magnum 3.9 with the 5speed and only 2WD. The truck rides like a Town Car compared to my dad’s ’89 4.3 S10, but it also handles/accelerates better than the S10 and gets 3MPG higher.

      Econobiker, my dad has all those magazines. Maybe if I ever buy a Panther car for a DD I’ll look into copying that truck, 360 to LSD to tires/wheels, it’s the only thing I can think that would make the Dakota more fun.

  • avatar

    The SSR cost a lot more money to develop and produce, as it had a unique body and interior. For the Dakota they simply cut the roof off an existing pickup. And performed minimal testing, if Lutz’s memory of leaks is accurate.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I also remember thinking WTF? when I saw this truck back in the late 80′s. I was a fan of the original Dakota, even ended up with a late-model one in the 90′s. I sometimes wonder if they had done the conversion on an extended cab, if the end result would have been better. No doubt economics dictated using the regular cab.

    Much like the Murano convert, WTF indeed.

  • avatar
    Rental Man

    “in short, when an idea comes from “product guys” he tends to like it, but when it comes from “brand managers” he tends to be less supportive”

    IMHO Somehow vehicles that were designed by a committee are not as desirable as those with a heart. Sales success? Another story.

    Oh, and the SSR had a WOW factor that any halo car needs. Halo cars create a good vibe about the brand. Profit and sales? Maybe not… A Proven Engine, GM truck platform that were already paid for adding some tweaks, how much did it cost them anyway?

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Even rarer was the 1987 Plymouth Voyager (SWB) Convertible, converted by ACT, which, of course, stands for Acetylene Cutting Torch. I only know of one that ever existed.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    I’m sure that the brand-kings stay awake at night looking for product niches, because consumers demand them.

    I was having a heck of a time shopping for a mass market sunblock that was a broad spectrum SPF 15, non-comedogenic, no-fragrance, lightly textured, no titanium dioxide, and anti-oxidants added.

    I chose those feature sets because SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, whereas SPF45+ blocks 97% at the expense of texture/feel/consistency; and titanium dioxide tends to stain.

    In the end, I found nothing and had to settle. I’m sure that there’s probably a car designer dreaming up my perfect car (a non-steel PHEV/EV AWD LWB luxury flagship sedan), just to be told by some product guru that there’s no market for it.

  • avatar
    rawtoast

    A guy a few blocks away from me had one of these growing up, it was parked on the street or in his driveway for years, we’d see it all the time driving by. I’ll always remember my dad telling me multiple times that that thing would be a collectors item some day, I guess he was right. For that reason, these things are some of the very few pick up trucks I covet, another being the Syclone.

  • avatar
    econobiker

    And what Lutz also doesn’t say is that they were considering using the 1st/2nd Generation Dakota platform for a 4dr SUV (ala Durango) BEFORE Ford began womping sales with the Explorer. Ahh, what could have been…

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      It would have been redundant with the Jeep Cherokee, most likely. Same reason why there were no Jeep pickups after the Comanche – they would have been redundant with the Dodge lineup.

      • 0 avatar
        econobiker

        That makes complete sense due to the investment required. I am surprised that Chrysler didn’t re-badge the Jeep as a Dodge given that they were selling identical twin Dodge/Plymouth Neons at the time.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    The Dakota convertible may have been a WTF, but a bigger WTF would be the person turning that one in the video into Cash-for-Clunkers to have it blown up for a Prius or whatever. If only they knew what it was actually worth (or if they did, shame on them).

    • 0 avatar
      Bryce

      Stupid sheeple are allowed to breathe

    • 0 avatar
      MoppyMop

      Are they really worth that much? I would think the Dakota pickup would fall into the same category as the Citation X-11, or 70s era Fiats – sure there aren’t many of them left, but nobody wants one, so prices stay relatively low.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Don’t get started on the Cash for Clunkers idiocy. If you have ever looked at the list of turned in cars you’d see the stupidity of people who don’t know that they could have gotten more for their semi-collectible car in parts than the $4500 max credit. And then the older trucks/suvs traded for newer trucks/suvs versus better gas mileage smaller cars.

  • avatar
    JMII

    I saw a Dak ‘Vert just the other day, or maybe it was a conversion. I knew some guys in high school (late 80s) that did similar things to their mini trucks. Mostly Mazda B2200s, slammed and covered in wild neon graphics with a bed full of subwoofers. Also seen people do this to old GMC and Ford F150s – off with the roof, add a roll bar with some big lights and call it done.

    On a 4×4 like a Jeep this makes sense a “beach buggy” kind of thing, thus for this reason I bet most of the Dakota convertibles were sold in FL (where I live) or out in CA or AZ. Doubt anyone in NY wanted such a thing.

  • avatar
    mopar4wd

    Ah the Dakota drop top. Never actually owned one but I played around with a few a friend of a friend owned two 2wd ones and my friend use to be his mechanic so we would tool around with them at the shop sometimes. The one that was his daily driver was a white with black top. I also looked at buying a couple over the years. When I was in college I test drove a black 4wd one and almost bought it but it has a leaking water pump so I passed and bought a Toyota pickup. The other time was after I got married and a local gas station had one for sale I ended up with a EXT cab dakota instead as my wife wanted somewhere in the cab for the dogs. I often think that it would be nice to have one. Clean ones commanded 4-7k on ebay a few years ago.

  • avatar

    If I can disagree with our esteemed ed Ed, the Chevy SSR was not a flop, at least that’s what ASC, who did much of the work on that truck claimed. A market research survey that ASC commissioned said that Chevy was selling 70,000 BOF trucks and SUVs a year to people who went to the dealer to look at the SSR.

    That’s a pretty good number of very profitable vehicles.

    The SSR was conceived to be almost entirely a halo vehicle. At the time Chevy had something like 4,000 stores. The total planned annual volume was < or = to ~ 13,0000 units a year. That’s barely enough for each dealer to have one on the showroom floor, a demo to drive and one for sale. As it was, they sold about 2/3 of the planned capacity, not a great hit, but not an Edsel-like debacle either. The car was built at the Lansing Craft Center, which had limited capacity.

    The SSR was never meant to be a big seller. It was meant to draw people into showrooms and introduce styling elements that have shown up on other Chevy cars (the Volt concept, the ’02 SS concept) and trucks (the horizontal bar that bisects the headlights on the Silverado).

    Was it a great success? No, but I think it did what it was intended to do.

    As a vehicle, it was somewhat hamstrung by a design that could be called unibody on frame, so it was heavy. Also, Chevy originally equipped it with the 5.3L Vortec. So the early ones weren’t fast. Later they went to an LSx with 400HP.

    BTW, along with an Enzo, F40, Reventon, Veyron, Ford GT and a bunch of other very cool cars, Ken Lingenfelter’s collection includes an SSR. Actually, that was what impressed me most about the Lingenfelter Collection – there were lots of cars that purest enthusiasts might disregard: Bitter, Cadillac Allante, Bricklin, Delorean, Pontiac Solstice, Porsche 944 Turbo (well, some Porschephiles don’t like anything with the engine up front), three custom Corvettes with retro bodies on modern chassis. To me those cars showed that it was a well thought out collection. Now like most of the modern American cars in the collection, the SSR has some Lingenfelter Performance Engineering go fast part, but it’s still a SSR. FWIW, that day Ken was driving a BMW M6 convertible, one of only three BMWs in the building, the others being a Z8 and, to bring a smile to Ed’s face, a M Coupe.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I remember the Dakota pickup convertibles quite well, also the Shadow convertibles. There was a Dodge dealership just up the street from where I used to live in Florissant, Missouri and I used to walk the dog and kids up there on weekends just to see how much junk on the parking lot and around the garage the kids could bring home. You’d be amazed at the stuff I accumulated – and promptly threw away! The sales staff loved our little dog – she was quite the celebrity up there.

    All the Dakota convertibles I ever saw were red. The Shadows were usually red. On the Shadow, I thought odd that the quarter window was attached to the top, so it could not be rolled down on its own, but went down when the top was lowered, like the 70′s Fiat Spiders.

    The last time I saw a Dakota convertible was a few years ago at our local Kroger store, and the top looked like something the driver tried to assemble himself – not a very good job, especially if it was the original top, which I doubt.

    That was a time in Chrysler history where they got convertible crazy and I loved it! Long live the 1980′s!

  • avatar
    ohiobear

    love, love, love my 89 Dakota convertable.
    drive it in rain, snow and the top does not
    leak.
    Dodge…oops RAM should build a soft top
    convertable now. it may seem like a WTF idea
    until the spring day comes when you need to haul
    mulch and can have the top down at the same time.
    FUN!

    • 0 avatar
      1987dakota

      Do you still have your Dakota? I’m wanting to cut the cab of my 1987 and I’m looking for same measurments or close-up pictures. Thanks, Rock.griffis@yahoo.com I also have the bed and complete doors looking for a home.


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