Ramming Speed: The Best Pre-Millenium Dodge Trucks
Since Dodge started producing trucks way back in 1921, it has never held the crown of the best-selling pickup truck in America. Not once. Not even when Dodge was the top brand in America.
It seems from the get-go Dodge has played third-fiddle in Ford versus General Motors pickup truck wars. But being third child meant that Dodge often struggled to be recognized in the market when compared to its more famous competitors.
For enthusiasts, that has always been a good thing.
It meant Dodge always had to be different. Dodge always had to be innovative, or more enthusiastic, or just plain shout more than anyone else. The result of all that was Dodge brought us some very trick trucks along the way that were cutting-edge, that defined a market, or were just plain cool.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at 40 years of pre-Y2K Dodge truck highlights (even when they haven’t been so successful).
The Dodge D100 and D200 formed the bulk of production for the first generation D-Series pickups starting in 1961. In 1964, Dodge introduced the Custom Sport Special (CSS) package. This was a $235 option that borrowed seats from the Dart, the center console from the Polara, and gave you carpet, chrome bumpers and racing stripes. It made the truck feel, well, custom in a sporty and special kind of way.
The package could be further enhanced with the High Performance Package (HPP). The HPP package was only available for a short period in the mid-’60s, but offered serious muscle for the D100 and D200 long-wheelbase trucks. Upgraded torque rods borrowed from the Chrysler Imperial, dual exhaust and a 6000 rpm tachometer hinted at the massive 426 Street Wedge developing 365 horsepower under the hood. Only about 50 are claimed to have been built with both the CSS and HPP package.
While the CSS carried over through a light restyle into the late 1960s, a new trim line was introduced in 1969. Based upon the Custom Sweptline 128″, Dodge introduced the new “Dude” package. The Dude, like the CSS, was primarily an appearance package that introduced bright new Lime Green and Bright Yellow exterior color options offset by a C-shaped decal set. The hope was the new appearance package, coupled with star power from [s]Jeff Bridges[/s] Don Knotts, would help sell the D-Series.
It didn’t, as estimates are that less than 2,000 of these trucks were produced in a period when Dodge sales struggled against its rivals. But saying you’re off for a ride in The Dude ranks high as an automotive enthusiast mic drop.
To capitalize on the camping craze in America, Dodge offered the Adventurer package to its lineup beginning in 1970. This was an attempt to civilize what was considered to be a utilitarian necessity. Dodge marketing promised its truck lived a “double life” — having the ability to haul, while simultaneously offering more car-like options. As with the Dude, the Adventurer featured bucket seats, center console, door-to-door carpeting, “car-type” air conditioning and even a radio! The package continued on to the revised D-Series post 1972.
But performance wise, the Adventurer also upped the power quotient from the Dude with a 400 available starting in 1972. That was further augmented in 1974 with the 440 V8 (good for 235 horsepower) available on 2-wheel drive pickups.
Macho Power Wagon and Warlock
If you thought the Adventurer’s Double Life ad campaign was on the risky side, Dodge’s campaign for the new Adult Toys lineup in the late 1970s was borderline not safe for work. It hoped to take advantage of the burgeoning custom market for trucks by releasing its own. The advertisements promised fun, scantily clad women and powerful, shouty Dodge products. The Macho Power Wagon and Warlock (short wheelbase only) were top of the heap on the pickup side for 1977, and featured special paintwork, striping, and big, raised letter tires fit over special wheels. These mostly featured the 318 V8s slotted under the hood.
Lil’ Red Express/Midnight Express
The Adventurer was mostly an appearance package, and the Adult Toys were too — at least, at first. Dodge cranked up the juice on several of the Adventurer lineup to give you superhero power at the culmination of the Adult Toys run. It then took the idea of the Warlock and kicked it up a notch with less custom wood in the bed and a lot more punch under the hood.
The Lil’ Red Express featured a EH1 360 V8 hooked to a 3.55:1 rear axle. Further, the E58 police-spec motor didn’t have any real emissions equipment (sorry, California) but did feature twin semi-truck-inspired vertical exhausts behind the cab. Looking a bit like an overgrown Tonka toy, it was one of the fastest U.S. production vehicles of the late 1970s. It total, about 7,300 were produced over a short two-year model run, with ’79s being differentiated by their quad-headlight grill.
Even more rare was the elusive blacked-out version of the Lil’ Red Express. Called the Midnight Express, a fair amount were apparently optioned with the 440. On the surface, while the increase in displacement and more limited run of the Midnight Express would seem to be the hot ticket, the 360-equipped Lil’ Red is generally viewed to be the better performance truck.
While the mandatory YA1 Adventurer package was fairly inexpensive at only $242, the YH6 added about 20 percent to the base price at $1,131. Fully optioned out, a Lil’ Red Express hit the showroom at $8,240.
Cummins Turbo Diesel
While the Power Wagon continued into the revised 1980-1993 lineup of D-Series pickups, the 1989 addition of Cummins power was arguably the highpoint for Dodge’s large pickups in the 1980s. Diesels weren’t in vogue then, and neither were large Dodge trucks. (Indeed, the Dakota outsold the D-series shortly after its introduction.) But the addition of the 5.9-liter Cummins Diesel was enough to sway buyers, and about anything else it wanted to, because of how powerful it was.
Of course, being a diesel, horsepower (at 160) wasn’t the big number. It was torque that the Cummins had in spades. Rated at 400 lb-ft at a scant 1,700 revs, the Cummins far outstripped any other large pickup on the market and granted the pickup a 17,000-pound gross combined vehicle weight. Despite this, the truck could still return over 20 miles per gallon and consequently signaled the coming age of large diesel truck proliferation. Though not technically a special edition, the Ram continued as the King of Power through the 1993 model year and into the new chassis.
Dodge Dakota Shelby
Carroll Shelby’s association with Chrysler in the 1980s was far from limited to the turbocharged 2.2/2.5 inline-4. In 1989, Shelby returned to his roots with a rear-drive, V8-powered muscle [s]car[/s] truck. The new mid-sized Dakota chassis was the basis for the appropriately named Shelby Dakota. Assembled by Shelby Automobiles, the company snuck the 175 horsepower 318 V8 into the truck and a limited-slip differential in the rear, mated through a heavier-duty four-speed automatic.
The truck also received rear anti-lock brakes, upgraded shocks, sporty five-spoke wheels, and a revised and more aggressive appearance package. Out the door, the Shelby cost just below $16,000 and performance was on par with more expensive vehicles. As it had done with the ’89 introduction of the Cummins, Dodge’s Shelby Dakota signaled the introduction of a new line of sport pickups across the industry. Over the next two years, Dodge’s crosstown rivals would introduce the more potent Chevrolet 1500SS 454 and GMC Syclone, with the Ford F-150 Lightning following in 1993. In total, Dodge and Shelby combined to produce 1,500 of the sporty Dakotas.
Dodge Dakota Convertible, Dakota Express, and Dakota Warrior
In a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too moment, Dodge decided the public wanted a convertible pickup truck for the 1989 model year. Based on the Dakota Sport, the convertible was modified by ASC in California with a manual folding roof. You could buy two- or four-wheel-drive variants, both powered initially by the 3.9-liter V6 and hooked to an automatic transmission. They were optioned up with air conditioning, velour seats and full gauge packages. In 1990, Dodge offered a lower spec SE model with the 2.5 hooked to a five-speed manual.
Not many bought into the idea in either configuration, and Dodge barely managed to fulfill its contract with ASC to produce them. In total, just shy of 4,000 were sold over the three model years they were available.
For the 1990–1992 model years, Dodge also offered a very limited run of nostalgia-inspired Dakotas. Built by LER Enterprises, the Express model was an homage to the Lil’ Red Express, while the Warrior was an updated Warlock. Both featured unique step-side beds and could be had with the 318 V8. Both were also sales flops; only a few hundred were ever claimed built.
Ram 1500 Indy 500 Special Edition and SS/T
While the new Ram series of trucks supplemented its tried-and-true Cummins lineup with a new 488 cubic inch, 300-horsepower V10, Dodge returned to its performance truck roots in 1996 with the Ram 1500 Indy 500 Special Edition. Based on the short-wheelbase model and combining the Laramie SLT and Sport packages, the $900 Indy 500 option featured a 5.9-liter V8 turned up to 245 horsepower. Viper-inspired Brilliant Blue was the only color available, coupled with 17-inch American Racing wheels and twin white racing stripes. The package cost about $20,000 and between 2,800 and 3,700 were sold, depending on the source. Dodge further offered the Magnum R/T Performance Package over the counter, which added about 50 more horsepower.
The popular Indy 500 Special Edition was revisited in 1997 and 1998 with the Ram SS/T package, which got nearly identical performance and appearance enhancements of the Indy package and was available in more colors.
Dakota 5.9 R/T
On its way into the new millennium, Dodge launched one last special edition truck. Based upon the revised Dakota chassis, the 5.9 R/T lowered, stiffened and beefed up the only midsize pickup with a V8. The 5.9 Magnum introduced new motivation to the Dakota, with 250 horsepower and a beefed up drive train to handle the power. They were only available in two-wheel drive. though you could order a short or extended cab. Revised interiors were met with mean-looking 17-inch alloys outside, along with a unique monotone look and plenty of nostalgic R/T badges.
The R/T proved a popular package, continuing into the 2000s before Dodge finally spun the R/T range off into its own line in 2003. A total of about 16,500 produced.
[Images and Sources: CSS Registry, DodgeDude.com, Allpar.com, Chrysler, 440 Magnum Network, Dakota-Durango.com]
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- Cprescott I remember when Fords were affordable.
- Cprescott As a once very LOYAL FORD buyer, I had to replace my 22 year old Ford (bought new in 1997) once it finally started to have problems at 180k miles. I would have gladly purchased something like this from Ford but they abandoned me as a car buyer. Oddly, Hyundai still builds cars in a variety of flavors so I became a customer of theirs and am very happy. Likely will consider another once this one gets up in mileage.
- SCE to AUX A friend once struck a mounted tire that was laying flat in the middle of her lane on the PA Turnpike. She was in a low late-90s Grand Prix, and the impact destroyed the facia, core support, radiators, oil pan, transmission, subframe, and suspension. They fixed it all.
- Dukeisduke Lol, it's not exactly a Chevrolet SS with Holden badging.
- Dukeisduke Years ago, I was driving southbound along North Central Expressway (south of Mockingbird Lane, for locals), and watched a tire and wheel fall out of the bed of a pickup (no tailgate), bounce along, then centerpunch the front end of a Honda Accord. It wasn't pretty.
At last year's Mopar Nationals, I saw 2 black 1964 CSS pickups with the 426 wedge. I think there was a white one, too. They are quite rare, and though I'd heard of them, those were the first I'd ever seen. About the Dodge Lil Red Express. I think I recall that Car & Driver, as well as Hot Rod, declared the 1978 the fastest American vehicle sold in the US that year. Faster than a Corvette or Firebird TransAm. In 1979, I believe it was only the second fastest vehicle. Over the years have seen far more Lil Red Express trucks than the similar Midnight Express trucks. Have actually come across (3) of the Dakota Lil Red Express trucks over the years. One was on a car lot up in New Hampshire back in the 1990s. The other two were in Ohio, though I don't recall what town.
Back in like 1997 or 1998 had a kid and his mom trade that blue Indy Dodge Ram. He bought it just a few months before used. He said he didn't know it got really bad gas mileage. I said you you want a Honda now. He didn't get my Honda. He was like $12K negative in equity. His mom did have $4K cash but it wasn't meant to be.