By on March 6, 2017

1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota, Image: Chrysler

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).

1967 Dodge Sweptline CSS, Image: Mecum

D100/200 CSS/HPP

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.

1969 Dodge Dude, Image: Chrysler

Dude

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 Jeff Bridges 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.

1958 Dodge Adventurer, Image: Chrysler

Adventurer

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.

1977 Dodge Power Wagon, Image: Chrysler

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.

1977 Dodge Lil' Red Express, Image: Chrysler

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.

1990 Dodge Ram Cummins Diesel , Image: Chrysler

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.

1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota, Image: Chrysler

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 car 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.

1990 Dodge Dakota Convertible, Image: Chrysler

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.

1996 Dodge Ram 1500 Indy 500 Special Edition, Image: Chrysler

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.

2003 Dodge Dakota 5.9 R/T, Image: Chrysler

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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62 Comments on “Ramming Speed: The Best Pre-Millenium Dodge Trucks...”


  • avatar
    efridge

    “coupled with star power from Jeff Bridges Don Knox” – His name was Don Knotts. Remember the Andy Griffith show? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Knotts

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    IMO, the 1973 Club Cab deserves a mention for being the first of its kind, including how it was actually discontinued in the 1982 company restructuring, then resurrected in 1990, when extended cabs really became popular.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Another great close-focus historical article with swell images.

    Man, I love ’60s Dodge pickups.

    Also interesting to see “murdered” wheels and bull bars appear so early on a factory vehicle.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Well, I don’t know what Dodge truck was the best before the turn of the century, but I had a new 1980 totally stripped model, and it was a wonderful driver. Too bad I only kept it for 7 months, but hated to see it go.

    If I had a favorite, it would have to be the Little Red Express Truck, hands-down. Whether it was the best? Don’t have a clue.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    In the 00’s a viper version of the 1500 was sold in limited numbers as well.

    Who wouldn’t want a V10 6 MT short box pick up?

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    What cutting edge technology?

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I’ll settle for an old Power Wagon.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Incredible how long that one body style of fullsize ram trucks (leading up to ’94 “big rig” gen) lasted. The final headlight/grille crosshair design was kind of ugly IMO, i prefer the older front clips. Sturdy utilitarian things. Can’t do much better for longevity than a 225 slant 6 or LA 318 hooked up to either a 727 auto or granny gear 4spd IMO.

    I always loved the older generations of Dakota, both the boxy 1st gen and the smoothly styled late 90s-early 2000s 2nd gen. They lost the plot on the final gen IMO. In my recent search for a basic rwd truck, 2.5+5spd Dakotas were at the top of the list but quite rare compared to ubiquitous Ranger/S10s. The Dakota is just a bit roomier/more comfortable while still perfectly manageable in exterior dimensions. The ’97 Ranger I’ve lined up to buy this weekend is a very straightforward pick but boy is that reg-cab tight!

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      I saw an early Dakota for sale on CL the other day, and I was surprised at the level of equipment and ruched leather in the interior. Lots of plood as well.

      Other note – this weekend driving through rural Indiana, I saw a RHD XJ Cherokee still doing mail duty!

      • 0 avatar

        Dakota’s tend to be well optioned not as many stripped out fleet sales as other small trucks. In my experience 4 cylinder are very rare. I had a 96 with a club cab v8 loaded slt, great truck my father has it now for home depot and dump runs.

        I keep looking for early long beds as I think they would make a cool weekend hauler.

        For mini trucks toys are my favorite I also like the mitsu and Isuzu. The 2nd gen s10 is a good option as well, come to think of it I can see the good in almost all minitrucks.

        • 0 avatar
          Corey Lewis

          In the Midwest, the salt killed those early Dakotas so fast. I haven’t seen one in ages. They were nearly gone by the time the gen 2 came around.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Dodge did refresh it around 1980. Truck designs in general had long lives in the ’70s-90s. Dodge was supposed to get a new truck body for 1991, but the original design was incredibly dull (looked like a cross between a 1st-gen Dakota and a early-90s F150) and Bob Lutz called a redo.

      Ford did make the Ranger cab longer for the 1998 update. The ’90s S10s wouldn’t be too bad if the dash wasn’t so big.

      • 0 avatar
        Corey Lewis

        Yes, the Phoenix for 88 was awful. We talked about that last week internally.

        http://www.pickuptrucks.com/trucks/IMAGES/history/13-1.gif

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        A refresh yes, but aren’t the basic underpinnings/hard points the same from ’72? Chevy did ’73-’85, but ’72-’93 has got to be some kind of record! Nothing wrong with it IMO (in fact I’m a fan), although I suppose there’s a reason Dodge truck sales were on the ropes by the time the ’94 “big rig” generation came out and brought them back into relevance.

        • 0 avatar
          bumpy ii

          Yes, but you could say the same for GM and Ford trucks as well. GM settled on front coils in 1963, and rear leafs in 1973 (though you could order those earlier on Chevys, and they were standard on GMCs). The Ford Twin I-beam front dates back to 1965.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            The ’97 Ranger I’m planning on buying has that same TIB setup in front, the end of an era! It clunked over a pothole on the test drive, we’ll see if I end up tearing into there to replace some bushings. The advantage of TIB is that even when its totally ragged out and chewing through tires, I’ve never heard of an actual critical failure where a wheel comes off or something detaches.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            The Twin I-beam is plenty tough, but they get sloppy as heck when the big bushing wears out. Down side is they’re a giant pain to remove, but there are workarounds like tying the beam to a tree and backing up slowly.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            Twin I-Beam is still in use under the 4×2 F-250/350 today. Though I don’t know if they’re still using king pins or have moved over to ball joints instead. TIB with kingpins last forever, you just have to replace the radius arm bushings every now and then.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            The “chaining it to a tree” thing works like a charm! But current F-Super Dutys use what’s basically a “motor mount” from a 4 cylinder engine, instead of huge stupid bushings.

    • 0 avatar

      They were indeed dated in 94 well past the competition. The refresh was light compared to Ford over the years and the Gmt400 came years before the 94 ram.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    ” Rated at 400 lb-ft at a scant 1,700 revs, the Cummins far outstripped any other large pickup on the market”

    The Navistar 7.3 IDI Ford was using put out 360 lb-ft. 400 is not “far outstripping” the competition.

  • avatar
    happycamper

    Any picture of a 90’s Dakota still makes me fill up with rage to this day.

    My first new vehicle, purchased when I was 19 was a ’96 Dakota 4X4, 5 speed, reg cab with the 3.9L V-6.

    Over the next eighteen months, it spend over 90 days in the shop for never-ending issues. My favorite was when it would suddenly stall and couldn’t be restarted. It probably was towed into the dealership at least a half-dozen times. I tried the lemon law three times, but there always was a technicality which got Dodge off the hook.

    I got it back from the dealership and immediately took it to the nearest Honda dealership and traded it for a Civic, which I drove for 230k miles without issues.

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      “traded it for a Civic, which I drove for 230k miles without issues”

      You just hate America.

      Deport and MAGA!

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        OMP, for what it’s worth many new Civics are now rolling off of a production line in Greensburg Indiana. Conversely Chrysler has been making lots of Ram trucks down in Mexico for quite some time. So you can have your cake and eat it too!

  • avatar
    spookiness

    I dig the late 50’s Sweptside models with tailfins. Rare and obscure.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      I was going to mention those too, but as already said, the article length forced some cuts.

      …and on the longevity thing, the exact same Utiline short narrow pickup box and fenders were used from 1953 through 1981, darn close to thirty years.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Aww man! Now I want to drag race modify a ’64 CSS HPP. Better not start with a real one though, I only see 6 on the CSS HPP registry.

  • avatar

    When was Dodge ever the top brand in America?

    Not a diss, it’s a legitimate question.

  • avatar
    NOSLucasWiringSmoke

    “Not even when Dodge was the top brand in America.”

    When was Dodge the top brand in America? At their peak they were on the shortlist, to be sure, but were never higher than about fifth place in sales after the mid-1930s (if that high). They might have been in second or third place in the early 1920s, before Chevrolet built up and Plymouth came online – back when Buick, Willys, and Hudson-Essex were among the top sellers, albeit still waaaay behind the Model T.

  • avatar
    FalcoDog

    Convertible Dakota! I forgot about those. What an insanely ridiculous idea that was. I want one!

  • avatar

    I like the ’57 Dodge and Fargo pickups. To match the new Forward Look Chrysler products, they gave the pickup fins.

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/forward-look-fargo-sweptside-dodge-trucks-fins/

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I logged in to reminisce about the Shelby Dakotas. I drove one new back in the day, it was fairly peppy, but a pickup truck just wasn’t my style.

    Until I got a house and some acreage. Then I found a need for a truck. What did I get? A Dakota, but not a Shelby, sadly. It was a great truck for the time I had it. The kids out grew the extendo cab and it was replaced by a… Pontiac Aztek…

  • avatar
    Erikstrawn

    When I was a kid, the neighbors two houses down had a Lil’ Red Express and a matching green Warlock in the driveway with identical pipes and wood trim. I’ve had a fondness for those trucks ever since.

    More recently I got my butt whipped autocrossing against a Dakota R/T that was modified to the full extent of the rules with my near-stock Mustang. It was a very respectable truck, but the owner got tired of fixing it.

    Now I’d like to find a cheap 12-valve Cummins to haul the trailer with. Unfortunately “cheap” and “Cummins” don’t often go in the same sentence unless you’re looking for a definition of “contradiction in terms”.

  • avatar
    Paragon

    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.

  • avatar
    matt3319

    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.

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