It may not exactly be a “big rig” but it’s got big rig styling and big rig sound. My daily driver vehicle for over 12 years has been a 1994 Dodge RAM2500, rear wheel drive, with the 5.9L Cummins turbo-diesel. Two things prompted me to write about my truck on Curbside Classic: It just turned 20 years old, and the odometer is about to roll over 400,000km (250,000mi).
I’ve owned four daily-driver vehicles, and they’ve all been diesel powered. In 2001 I was driving a 1984 GMC 3/4 ton fullsize passenger van with the 6.2L diesel. It had been a hand-me-down from my dad about three years prior, and before that it had been his DD since 1988. I had already put a lot of effort into giving it a second life, but things were breaking faster than I could keep up with them. Even if I spent the additional money and countless hours to repair everything, it would still look like a mongrel. I already had a “hobby” car (1966 Chrysler) and keeping the van roadworthy was taking a good chunk of my free time, so that autumn I decided it was time to find a new DD.
I spotted the Dodge at a Chrysler dealership while on my way home from test driving a ’97 Chevy RWD extended cab pickup with the 6.5L turbodiesel. I had not been impressed with the Chevy, and I was also concerned about the reliability of the 6.5L diesel. At the time, the Dodge had just under 200,000km on the odometer. I took it for a test drive and knew right away that I wanted it. I would have preferred an extended cab, but otherwise it was perfect. It had a couple issues, which the dealer repaired under warranty.
The Cummins 12-valve diesels have a nearly bulletproof reputation, especially the second generation (1994-98) versions with the P7100 injection pump. Compared to my van, the power of the Cummins was incredible too! The 47RH transmission is a known weak point, but this one still had quick, firm shifts so I decided it wasn’t going to be a problem anytime soon. It’s still fine, but can slip the torque converter lockup clutch if I push it too hard while going up a hill or towing.
Shortly after buying the truck, I purchased a cap for the box and had the silver section on the lower body repainted to seal over some stone chips before they started to rust (I had the blue upper body repainted later). I added mud flaps to reduce future stone chips and installed some boost and exhaust temp gauges. It didn’t have a hitch installed when I bought it, so I added one of those as well.
Later I plumbed-in an Espar (Eberspacher) Hydronic diesel-fired coolant heater with a dashboard-mounted electronic timer (Eberspacher is the same German company that manufactured gas-fired auxiliary heaters for air-cooled Volkswagens). I have occasionally gotten stuck in a situation where it’s cold enough that I ought to plug in the block heater, but with nowhere to do so, but with the Espar heater I don’t have to worry about it. I also use it on really cold days to get the engine up to temperature much faster than it otherwise would so I can get some heat in the cab.
I strive to keep my truck in good condition, both mechanically and visually. I’m a big proponent of oil spray application to keep the ravages of winter road salt at bay. I also devote a weekend every fall to paint touch-up. I pay attention to other Dodge pickups of similar vintage to see where they are rusting out, so I’ll know what areas to keep a close eye on. Here in the rustbelt, most of them are looking pretty shabby by now. I occasionally get compliments from other pickup truck owners. One in particular recognized mine as a 94-96 vintage Dodge based on the style of rear view mirrors and said he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen one so clean.
When we were expecting our second kid in the fall of 2010, I briefly toyed with the idea of replacing my truck with something more family friendly. My requirements were the same as when I bought it, except that a crew cab would be mandatory. Based on my research, all the newer diesels at the time had poor reliability compared to my Cummins 12-valve. I told my wife that I was keeping my truck and we would replace her 2001 Honda Civic with something larger instead.
Last year I finally found a used brush guard for sale in the classifieds. These trucks are relatively fragile in the front compared to trucks of similar vintage from Ford and GM, requiring more expensive repairs for comparable front-end collisions, so I’ve always wanted some extra protection. This one is stainless steel, but the first owner had it powder-coated black. I wanted one that was just the center section, so I may decide to cut off the headlight loops later.
I still like my truck almost as much as I ever did. It does get stuck very easily, lacking 4WD and with the heavy Cummins up front, so winter driving can be an adventure. It’s also getting harder to live with now that we have two kids. I can fit them both across the bench seat, though it’s pretty cramped with their backpacks and winter gear. Still, if we all go somewhere as a family, we take my wife’s CR-V.
Here are some things I’ve learned about these trucks through personal experience:
- It’s very difficult to remove the nuts attaching the plastic grille to the hood without damaging the grille.
- Chrysler OEM stereos from this era are all junk. I went through three of four different ones before finally installing a name-brand aftermarket stereo.
- The throttle position sensors (TPS) are especially failure-prone, but they only control shifting into 4th gear and locking the torque converter. If the torque converter intermittently locks and unlocks while driving on the highway, a shop will tell you that you need a transmission overhaul, but you really just need a new TPS for about $120. However, if you’re good with a multimeter and a soldering iron, you can fabricate a “noise filter” circuit on the TPS wiring for less than a dollar in parts.
- After greasing the outer tie rod ends, use a rag to wipe off any grease that oozes out around the boot. It’s close enough to the brake disc that the grease WILL get deposited onto the disc as you drive and cause the brakes to be grabby.
- Slit a piece of rubber hose and slip it over one of the two steel transmission cooler lines that run behind the oil pan. Otherwise they rub together and one or both will eventually spring a leak.
- The Kelsey-Hayes rear wheel ABS system used on these trucks is less than useless in icy conditions. Adjusting the engine idle speed lower than the factory setting helps to stop the truck from pushing forward after the ABS system disengages the rear brakes.
- If oil starts dripping out of the end of the dipstick tube onto the injection pump, the crankcase is becoming pressurized. The crankcase vent is plugged, probably the screen in the oil separator on the side of the engine block. The injection pump must be removed to access the oil separator to clean it. Instead, go to the local CASE or New Holland tractor dealer and buy a replacement valve cover with built-in breather and oil separator and plumb a new vent tube beside the old one.