Curbside Classic: 1988 Dodge Dakota – Not Too Big, Not Too Small

It is getting harder and harder to find vehicles we have not yet written up, but I believe I have found one – the early Dodge Dakota.  When it was introduced, the Dakota did not fit neatly into the then-common world of regular trucks and compact trucks.  But its unusual size would eventually become common as the traditional compact truck eventually disappeared.  Now these early Dakotas have all but disappeared too – which is a shame because they have not received the credit they deserve as a significant contributor to Chrysler’s comeback of the 1980’s.

I took these pictures back in July of 2011.  At the time, I was kind of holding out for one of the really rare Dakota convertibles – now there was an interesting truck.  But I didn’t have much to say about these.  However, in the ensuing years, these seem to have all snuck off into a dark corner and gone away.  At least I got off a few shots to prove that these were once out and around.

In the early 1980’s Dodge was the perennial also-ran in trucks.  Ford vs. Chevy, Chevy vs. Ford – that was all that “truck guys” talked about then.  Yes, there was the occasional Dodge fanatic, but they were mostly into the Cummins diesel more than the truck it came wrapped in.

For 1981 Dodge had managed an update on the aging D series pickup, which soldiered away in obscurity by catering to that small group of Mopar loyalists who would not be dissuaded by the company’s perilous health.

The Dakota was one of the ideas that were blossoming at Chrysler as it worked its way back from near death.  It seemed that Chrysler’s specialty in those days was finding niches.  Hal Sperlich had championed the idea of a compact truck that was slightly larger and more capable than those offered by the Japanese.  However, it would have to be done on the cheap with as much parts sharing as possible due to the company’s still-scarce resources.  According to Allpar, much of the engineering was contracted out to local engineering firm Aero-Detroit, with some supervision by in-house truck engineers.

There was one big problem: what to do for an engine?  None of Chrysler’s existing truck engines would fit in the smaller package, which was not originally designed to accept a V8. For starters, Chrysler repurposed the transverse 2.2L four cylinder from K-Car duty into a longitudinal setup for this truck.  The 2.2’s 121 ft lbs of torque was a fairly reasonable number, and more satisfying than the measly 96 horsepower that the engine put out.  Although that figure looks a lot less measly when we look back over our shoulder at the slant six with only 95 horsepower at this late point in its life.

There would also be a new V6.  An excellent article at Allpar (thank you, Daniel Stern) shared interviews with some former engine guys at Chrysler.  Head engine designer Willem Weertman remembered that the 3.9 was seen as necessary to provide a step up from a four cylinder powerplant.  The 3.9L V6 was a stopgap engine that was created in the tradition of the old Buick 3.8 and the more recent Chevrolet 4.3 – Chrysler began by lopping two cylinders from the venerable 318 (5.2L) LA V8.  As expected, designers went on to make several deep internal changes to somewhat smooth the uneven firing pulses that naturally plague any 90 degree V6.

Although not smooth enough, according to then-head of engine tuning, Pete Hegenbuch.  “It was another one of those boom-boom, boom-boom type engines. I had two of them, both automatics, and it didn’t bother me a bit; but the manuals were awful, especially if you lugged them down in speed. It set off all kinds of sympathetic vibrations, just an awful way to build an engine.”

1988 Dodge Dakota LE side

Awful or not, the 3.9 was certainly more powerful than the old slant six, which (as noted above) was down to 95 hp in its final 1980’s truck versions.  With a 2 bbl carburetor, the new engine was good for 125 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, and 195 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm, with a 9.2:1 compression ratio.  It was also up twenty foot-pounds of torque compared with the old slanty.  So for any Dodge Ram guys who lament the passing of the ancient, undersized and underpowered slant six in the truck line, we have the Dakota to either thank or blame for it.

1988 Dodge Dakota LE interior

Both a 5 speed manual and a 3 speed Torqueflite automatic were offered to go along with either engine choice.  In addition to the two engines and two transmissions, the Dakota was offered in 112 and 124 inch wheelbases, 6 1/2 and 8 foot beds, and either rear wheel or 4 wheel drive (the latter only available in six cylinder form).  All of this coming in three trim levels (base, ST and high end LT as our featured truck) gave the Dakota buyer plenty of choice.

The chassis itself was modern, if not really innovative, with coil springs up front and leaves in the rear.  It was, at least, the first American pickup line that came with standard rack and pinion steering. It also offered a decent payload range of 1,250 – 2,550 lbs and a towing capacity of 5,500 lbs.

Unlike the regular Ram line, the Dakota got frequent updates.  The V6 got throttle body fuel injection for 1988 (although without a change in power) and an upgrade to the larger 2.5L I4 as the base engine in 1989.  A Club Cab came along for 1990 and, finally, Dodge offered V8 availability the following year.

It all worked out – In its first year, the Dakota (with sales of 104,865 units) outsold every other Dodge truck model, including the also-new 1987 compact Ram 50.  It even outsold the combined total of the entire regular Ram line (in all of its versions).  Which should be no surprise, given the lackluster state of  Dodge truck sales in 1987.  The Dakota did what Chrysler had done so successfully in its cars – it made the outside package smaller but retained a reasonable amount of room where it counted.  For example, Dakota could ace the famous 4 x 8 sheet of plywood test with the tailgate closed, something that neither Ranger nor S-10 could do.

1988 Dodge Dakota LE

This original generation of the Dakota ran for ten model years.  Though changes slowed as time passed, this did not seem to matter in terms of sales.  The combination of an improving economy and Magnum versions of the larger engines pushed the Dakota to new levels of popularity for 1992. How often does a vehicle in its tenth year of production pretty much equal the successful introductory year?  That the Dakota managed this feat underscores the basic soundness of the design.

I recall reading that before deciding on the radical 1994 redesign, Dodge had been working on a more conventional idea for its first new large pickup in twenty years.  I have always suspected that without the intervention of Bob Lutz, the 1994 Ram might have looked a lot like a plus-size version of this Dakota.  A brief search online confirms that I was right.  A Dakota XXL might have been a solid truck design in the late 80’s, but it would probably not have catapulted Dodge into the big time the way the actual 1994 Ram did.

What is undeniable is that Dodge picked a really good niche with these.  We all remember the K car and the minivan as the vehicles that saved Chrysler.  At least that time.  But we never remember the Dakota, a pickup that was good for 80-130,000 annual units over a decade-long run.  While the Dakota may have sold at about 1/3 the rate of the Ford Ranger, this was a strong showing during an era when Dodge trucks were not terribly competitive, and it is likely that these were new sales, not just numbers siphoned from the regular line.

If we move forward a few years, it becomes plain that the compact pickup that was so popular in the 80’s has gone virtually extinct, while this Dakota-size set the pattern for a lot of successful smaller pickups of the past twenty years.

1988 Dodge Dakota LE rear

Most “car people” attribute the Chrysler comeback of the 80’s to a three-vehicle lineup: the Ominrizon, the K car and the minivan.  The Dodge Dakota should be remembered as another member of the successful series of products from that creative era at “The New Chrysler Corporation”.


Further Reading:

1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota – Vintage Review (GN)

1990 Dodge Dakota Lil’ Red Express (Dave Saunders)