While in-your-face high performance variants of pickup trucks are nothing new today, in the late 1980s it was still a decidedly novel concept. So when legendary performance tuner Carroll Shelby turned his attention to the Dodge Dakota in 1989, Car and Driver jumped at the chance to take a look at this new breed of truck.
Following his successful racing career, in the early 1960s Carroll Shelby was focused on modifying production cars to significantly enhance their performance. The Shelby Cobra was born when he transplanted a Ford V8 into the British AC Ace roadster. Shelby went on to develop a deeper partnership with Ford, including modifying early Mustangs to create high performance icons.
Lee Iacocca was Shelby’s patron at Ford, and when Lido wound up at Chrysler, Carroll Shelby wasn’t far behind. Initially, Shelby focused on massaging L-Body Dodge Omni/Chargers and later Dodge Daytonas, Lancers and Shadows bore his name. But while FWD turbos are fine, for a guy like Shelby there was always the lasting allure of a high-powered RWD V8. However, there were no suitable RWD car platforms available—even Shelby couldn’t have done much with the ancient Dodge Diplomat at that point. But there was a newly developed RWD platform at Chrysler, it just happened to be for a truck.
The mid size Dakota pickup was a genuine Chrysler innovation, offering more room than smaller competitors like the Chevrolet S10, while being more maneuverable than larger trucks such as the Ford F150. Not a bad concept for the fuel conscious 1980s, and a good way for Dodge to get a piece of the truck market without directly challenging Chevrolet and Ford in two of their most entrenched segments. Though the workhorse Dakota was typically fitted with a utilitarian V6, there was room available for more, and that’s where Ol’ Carroll came in.
To be fair, Chrysler already had a nice history with high performance trucks. Even when the Mopar brigade could barely rub together two nickels, they managed to create some very interesting special editions. For 1978, the Dodge Ram truck was massaged into the highly potent L’il Red Express—it was actually the fastest vehicle tested by Car and Driver that year. As a truck, it wasn’t subject to CAFE requirements, so the focus could truly be on its go-fast potential. However, the second oil shock of 1979 put a kibosh on the fun, and by the time Lee Iacocca went hat in hand to Washington DC to seek a bailout, high performance was gone…
…But not forgotten. As soon as it was feasible, Shelby arrived at Chrysler and worked his magic to inject some genuine sporting credibility into the mix. While creating hot hatches was the 1980s version of high performance fun, there was more magic at Mopar to be unleashed. The Dakota was the perfect place to stuff a V8, and thus a new generation of sport trucks was born.
Even by the standards of the day, the Shelby Dakota was not that quick. At 8.7 seconds from zero-to-60, the sport truck would be left in the dust by cars like the Ford Mustang LX 5.0. But it was a truck, not a car, so for its size and purpose it was fast, and the power was delivered in a raucous old-school muscle car style.
Shades of the 1960s: seeing the flat bench seat in a muscle machine brought to mind Road Runners of another era. Like the Road Runners, the Shelby Dakota was reasonably affordable, especially for the performance on tap. The all-in price was $16,498, which would be $31,683 in today’s dollars.
Oddly, in spite of its potential, the Shelby Dakota was just a one-year wonder. Not for lack of sales or desirability: all 1,500 units built for 1989 were snapped up, and unlike regular Dakotas, many were kept for their potential as collector’s items. Likely Carroll Shelby’s health was a factor—he had a heart transplant in 1990, and so probably wasn’t too focused on high performance trucks during that time… But Chrysler’s competitors were. Both GM and Ford saw the potential and introduced highly specialized high performance variants of their trucks.
The Chevrolet 454SS was introduced for 1990 and featured special colors, upgraded suspension and a 7.4L V8. Produced for 4 years, Chevy sold 16,953.
The compact GMC Syclone raced in for 1991 featuring a turbocharged V6. Like the Shelby Dakota, it was a one-year-only model, but the GMC sold at nearly twice the volume, with 2,995 finding homes.
Ford’s Special Vehicle Team massaged the F150 to create the SVT Lightning for the 1993 model year. Race driver Jackie Stewart was involved with the performance and handling development and the truck boasted a modified Windsor V8. The SVT Lighting sold 11,563 units in its first three years on the market.
Though the super-high-performance sport trucks have come in and out of the market in fits and starts since 1989, the genre that Carroll Shelby kicked off is still hauling ass today. Nice snake bite indeed!