Collectible Automobile Magazine, December 1996

1996 Dodge Ram Indy 500 Special Edition:  

On the Right Track

It's probably the oldest ongoing joke in the world: A man stops a passerby and asks, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice," he is told.

The same can be said about the Indianapolis 500, for which a snarling Dodge Viper GTS coupe was selected to pace the 80th running of the Memorial Day classic on May 26, 1996. Dodge already had some practice for that role. Its products previously had been Indy 500 pace cars in 1954, 1971, and 1991.

And speaking of practice, it's been a longstanding one among American automakers to issue a showroom-ready commemorative edition whenever one of their models gets the pace-car call. Once again, Dodge was no beginner here, either. It was one of the pioneers in the field when it built 701 specially equipped and badged Royal 500 convertibles in 1954. That the division would want to cash in on its participation in the '96 race was predictable. But Dodge gave the practices of the past a tweak when it based the latest 500 replica not on the pace car, but on the official service truck for the race.

Considering its abundance of power, newness, and sexy lines, there was little that could be done to make the Viper GTS more desirable than it already was. Meanwhile, a sticker near $70,000 and limited (to say nothing of mostly spokenfor) production worked against the idea of turning out additional copies of the new two-seat coupe. But a Dodge Ram pickup that imparted a hustle and muscle aura couldn't hurt. Thus was born the Indy 500 Special Edition.

The Ram 1500 1/2-ton truck on which the commemorative was based was already part of a huge success story before it showed up for work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The current generation of Dodge trucks made its debut for 1994 with the make's first total redesign in 22 years. Groundbreaking "big rig" styling and the availability of a cast-iron version of the Viper's V-10 engine in 3/4- and 1-ton models made the new Dodge the talk of the truck world.

That's an achievement that can't be underestimated. In those 22 years, interest in light trucks increased, then exploded into the Nineties to the point that Ford F-series and Chevrolet C/K full-size trucks were running first and second, respectively as the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. Meanwhile, somnambulent Dodge was taking just seven percent of the big-pickup class. Chrysler's truck division had a lot of ground to make up.

Dodge began casting about in the Eighties for a fresh truck design for release by 1992. One design path would have created a common platform to be used for both a pickup and a van. It gave way to a very up-to-date style that would have pulled the Dodge truck even with the competition-but done nothing to make it stand out. However, Chrysler's 1987 purchase of American Motors concentrated efforts on coming up with a redesign of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and plans for the new Dodge truck were pushed back for a couple of years.

The extra time gave designers a chance to consider new themes. One route sought to emulate the look of the tractors that pulled 18-wheelers down the nation's interstate highways. Another took its cues from the tall hood and separate fender styling of vintage pickups. The end result was a high hood sloping down toward a jutting rectangular grille with the horizontal cross motif that was finding its way onto Dodge cars. Fenders sat below the hood line, and flared out and into the doors. A deep, trapezoidal front bumper helped further the "baby Kenworth" look. The design ran against the grain of the conventional modular style worn by its rivals from Ford, Chevrolet, and GMC.

"The most controversial part of the new Ram is its bold, big-rig-influenced styling," said Motor Trend when naming it Truck of the Year for '94. "It's a love-it-or-hate-it look that generates passion and sets the truck boldly apart from its more conventional competition.... And that's exactly what Chrysler intended."

The '94 Ram arrived only in three-passenger regular cab form in two wheelbases. The short -bed version (which would serve as the basis for the Indy 500 Special Edition) rode on a 118.7-inch wheelbase and sported a 6.5-foot cargo bed. The big hauler was mounted on a 134.7-inch stretch, which allowed for an eight-foot long bed. Compared to the previous generation of Dodge trucks, these models were 3.7 inches longer in wheelbase and four inches longer overall. Weights increased by 226 pounds on the short truck and 290 pounds on the long-bed version.

The size increases were passed on to the interior, where they could do drivers and passengers the most good. The cab was lengthened by four inches, opening up numerous possibilities. "[T]he big bonus was in space behind the seat. There is enough room to recline the seatbacks, a luxury in itself in a big pickup," observed Consumer Guide . "And Dodge has cleverly fitted a series of sturdy plastic bins, shelves, and a net that maximizes the space by allowing efficient stowage of tools, briefcases, and other gear." Motor Trend said the new Ram possessed the most head, shoulder, and hip room in its class.

Standard equipment included a driver-side air bag and a padded knee bolster on the bottom edge of the dashboard. The dash was home to easy-to-read analog gauges, easy-to-reach radio and climate controls, and a large pop-out dual cupholder. A bench seat was standard, but among the options was a 40/20/40 seat in which the seat back of the center section folded down into a huge armrest. The armrest was also a compartmentalized storage console large enough to hold business items like a cellular telephone and a laptop computer. "What all this adds up to is the most comfortable, inviting, and useful interior of any standard-cab pickup, bar none," said MT.

Part of what fueled the truck boom was a search for what some buyers essentially saw as a larger, more imposing passenger car. But plenty of buyers still needed trucks as work tools and Dodge didn't forget their needs when developing the new Ram. Special stampings in the pick-up bed allowed the cargo area to be segmented several ways to accommodate specific load needs. Tie-downs at the front of the cargo floor were recessed under the bed and covered by pull-out rubber covers.

Except for the new V-10 with its 300 bhp and 450 pound-feet of torque, engine choices were carried over, beginning with a 3.9-liter V-6. Also available were V-8s of 5.2 and 5.9 liters, and a turbocharged Cummins diesel inline six displacing 5.9 liters.

The chassis featured a new fully independent coil spring front suspension. A solid rear axle suspended with leaf springs was retained from previous Dodge trucks, but new and improved components were installed. Vented disc brakes of 11.6 inches in diameter were employed up front, with 11-inch drums in the back. All Rams came standard with anti-lock braking on the rear wheels, but a four-wheel system was optional. MT found the new Ram couldn't get over an unladen pickup's tendency to bounce over hard bumps, but liked the way it handled smaller bumps and minimized the initial impact of larger ones. The magazine was impressed with its test short-bed model's handling on twistier roads and its light, variable-ratio steering, which gave good feedback to drivers despite being set up for easy operation in tight quarters. Wind noise around the front roof pillars and large truck mirrors was a complaint that turned up on road testers' lists of gripes.

The results were overwhelming. According to Automotive News annual market summaries, calendar-year production of the '94s in U.S. plants leapt to 216,239 from 81,447 the year before. For 1995, when club cab models and a "bad dog" Sport package were added, annual U.S. output was still 201,378, and another 126,796 of the '96s had been turned out through July 20 this year, despite changes that were confined to upgraded suspension packages for heavy-duty hauling and added torque and horsepower for the turbodiesel engine. That contrasts sharply with an average of just 70,328 U.S.-built units per calendar year in 1991-93.

The Dodge truck that came to Indianapolis in '96 was prefigured by a show vehicle-the Ram VTS-that first appeared at the 1994 Chicago Auto Show as a tow vehicle for a Viper coupe predictive of the production '96 GTS. The concept truck, a 1500 two-wheel-drive shortbed, was clothed in blue paint and broad twin white "skunk stripes" running from the spoiler under the body-colored front bumper, over the top, and ending at the bottom of the smooth rear valance panel that took the place of a back bumper. Wide tires and l7x9-inch wheels offered grip for the power of a 400-bhp aluminum Viper V-10 shifted through a Borg-Warner T-56 six-speed transmission. If ever there was a super truck, this was it.

But while the VTS was a tantalizing concept, it was not exactly a literal blueprint for the official trucks and Indy 500 Special Edition commemoratives that would come along two years later. The production trucks would be based on the top-line Ram Laramie SLT package with the 5.9-liter (360 cid) V-8 and four-speed automatic transmission, the latter of which came with new electronic shift controls.

In normal tune the 5.9-equipped with sequential multipoint fuel injection and an aluminum intake manifold-was designed to generate 230 bhp at 4000 rpm and make 330 pound-feet of torque at 3200 revs. But with modifications for better breathing, the Indy 500 Special Edition was rated at 245 bhp at 4000 rpm. Torque stayed at 330 pound-feet, but peaked at about 2600 rpm. (Cost issues precluded a V-10 under the hood. Considering that the engine wasn't designed for use in the 1500, engine mounts had to be repositioned in the show truck. Likewise, modifications were required to accept the six-speed gearbox, and the air conditioning compressor had to be relocated. Even if a big-torque truck V-10 had been designated, buyers probably wouldn't have been able to enjoy it long: Consumer Guide" reported getting just 10 miles per gallon from its test of a V-10-equipped 3/4 ton model.)

SLT package features included an AM/FM cassette radio, cloth 40/20/40 seat, the modular cab storage system, air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, and a tachometer.

To that $19,085 package was added the $1148 Indy option group, which borrowed a little from the Sport appearance group and added a few surprises of its own. Fog lamps and a body-color grille, front bumper, and rear valance panel were shared with the Sport. Unique to the Indy 500 models were a chrome tipped sport-tuned exhaust, a Dodge graphic across the top of the windshield, and wide Goodyear Eagle GTII 275/60RI7 tires mounted on five-spoke17 x 7 machined cast aluminum wheels.

Only one color choice, Brilliant Blue, was offered, and quartz was the lone interior color that could be had. The dual racing stripes first seen on the VTS were reprised on the Indy Special, although the production version's stripes didn't extend over the bumper and valance panel like on the showmobile. Finally, an Indy official truck decal set was shipped with each Indy Ram to be installed by dealers at buyers' request. If that wasn't enough to satisfy customers, major options included the Sure Grip anti-slip axle, a 3.92:1 rear gear alternative to the standard 3.55:1 cogs, dual power mirrors, a six-way power driver's seat, a trailer towing group, a compact disc player, and a sliding rear window.

The Ram Indy 500 Special Edition's collectibility prospects are good. For many Mopar muscle fans, trucks are the last, best refuge, considering that they can still be had with V-8s. That the Indy Special's powerplant is a little huskier than others in the line can't hurt it any (although it will be available for an upcoming Ram SST sport truck due for the '97 model year). In fact, when announcing the Indy truck at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, Dodge wasn't shy about promoting an over-the-partscounter Magnum R/T Performance Package said to generate an additional 46 bhp and an additional 51 pound-feet of torque.

According to Mike Rosenau, Chrysler's truck public relations manager, approximately 6000 of the special editions rolled off the line in Warren, Michigan, meaning that while they're not exactly the hen's teeth of the auto world, you certainly won't be running into one on every corner, either. And then there's the Indy connection. Some may find the decal kit hokey-unless it's on one of the 35 or so trucks that were actually used at the speedway in May. Others may be drawn to the replica look. But unlike other vehicles that have gotten the Indy 500 treatment, this Dodge truck has more to commend it than graphics alone.

Practice, it seems, may have made perfect at last.

From the Back Seat

When the Dodge Ram was named the "Official Truck" of the 80th Indianapolis 500, it was only fitting that it took on the "skunk stripes" of the "Official Pace Car," the Viper GTS. It may look like a skunk on the outside but it is a living, breathing Ram on the inside. With a boosted 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 engine, enhanced exhaust, and special wheels (all for $900 above the cost of a Ram SLT Sport), you're truckin' in style. The only additional piece of equipment needed to complete this picture is a pair of "Viper" sunglasses from Walgreens.

--Paula DeSmet

Believe the hype. Dodge did rewrite the book on this one. Thanks to chance-taking big-rig styling, the Ram is no longer an invisible player in the full-size pickup market. The boldness of the whole idea reaches full expression with the V-10 engine, but that’s not part of the track ensemble. Too bad. Chevy landed a surefire collectible by stuffing its 7.4 liter V-8 in a half-ton C/K pickup in 1990 and ’91 to create the 454SS. Dodge’s cost/benefit mavens likely nixed any notion of fitting production Ram 1500s with the 8.0 liter ten. Still, the speedway Ram packs plenty of presence, has a touch of Viper GTS about it, and justifies collector interest as the first true special edition of this special pickup.

--Chuck Giametta

Behold the Viper pickup! Or so Dodge would have you think of this shorty Ram with GTS cosmetics and "limited edition" cachet. (just watch 'em build as many as we'll buy.) But where's the V10? The one direct link between the Grandly Topped Snake and Dodge's phenomenally successful new big-truck line is nowhere to be found here. Worse, the Indy Special looks way too easily counterfeited. I'll bet more than a few mercenary dodgers will apply the same blue-and-white makeup to ordinary Rams and try to pass them off as the genuine article. I know Dodge is only trying to make a buck, but surely there are more honorable ways. Oh, sorry. This is a creature of marketing, isn't it?

--Chris Poole
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