Plymouth Prowler, Dodge Dakota and Dodge Ram SS/T. Modern Mopar Muscle
The Prowler is a factory hot rod that truly looks the part. Following in the wide tire treads of the Viper, it started out as a radical concept car that created such an emotional response among car lovers that Chrysler put it into production with as few changes as possible. Definitely more show than go, the Prowler still earns its place in the modern American muscle group through the sheer boldness and audacity it represents on Chrysler’s part to actually sell a car so far out of the mainstream of production vehicles.
The Prowler first appeared in January 1993 as a concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The purple metallic nouveau hot rod struck a nerve with the public. Over the next year, Chrysler was besieged with around 130,000 inquiries regarding the availability of the Prowler. The company did not need that much of a shove to get moving. Shortly after the Detroit Auto Show, feasibility studies began to determine how much of the show car could be transferred into a production model. Just as Team Viper recruited employees who were sports car and performance enthusiasts to produce the Viper, Team Prowler put together workers who loved hot rods.
Three years later, in January 1996, the Detroit Auto Show was the site of another Prowler preview. This time, it was a not-so-sneak preview at the Prowler that would be available at Plymouth dealers. Unfortunately, this long-lead preview allowed for a buyers’ frenzy and market speculators’ price-gouging to ramp up (increase) well ahead of the car’s actual production, which did not begin until July 1997. Besides following the path oi the Viper in transitioning from concept car to road car, the Prowler is built at the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit alongside the Viper production line. Limited production and high demand made the early cars ripe picking for speculators who charged anywhere from 50 to 100 percent above the car’s base price of $40,280.
Just as the original hot rod has its roots in Southern California, so does the Prowler. In 1990, a sketch from a brainstorming session at the Chrysler Pacifica West Coast design operation near San Diego caught the eye of Bob Lutz, then Chrysler president. Former Design Vice President Tom Gale, who was building his own hot rod at the time, enthusiastically supported the project of a Chrysler retro hot rod. It was Gale who nixed plans for a retractable hard top, insisting that real hot rods were roadsters. It was also Gale who, in searching for paint for his own rod, came across the metallic hue that evolved into Prowler Purple.
The Prowler’s other distinctive features are its cycle fenders, front bumpers, and headlights. The bumpers could have been left off the concept car, but the plan was to design a car that could be produced some day. The bumpers consist of hollow aluminum extrusions welded together and are covered with injection-molded urethane. The’bumpers are a bit larger and protrude forward on the street version to meet safety standards. Safety and practicality issues led to the redesigned headlight system. Projection lights, which do not require large reflectors, met lighting standards while retaining the streamlined placement on the cowling. The movement of the fenders with the front wheels affected where the side marker lights were positioned for complete visibility.
Other problems encountered in the Prowler’s transformation to the real world included widening the body 3 inches to accommodate side-impact protection, and increasing the wheelbase to 113 inches from 111.3 inches to improve the visual impact. The need for a wider radiator affected the length and shape of the hood. The windshield needed to be altered so that windshield wipers could be added. Run-flat tires were specified because there wasn’t room to carry a spare tire. Real hot rods are assembled from a combination of donor parts. Following this tradition, Team Prowler raided the Chrysler parts bins for its factory hot rod. A minivan steering gear was modified for use on the Prowler. Other cannibalized components include Cirrus/Breeze suspension parts for the rear, and Viper front and rear springs and shocks.
2001 PLYMOUTH PROWLER SPECIFICATIONS (1997 SPECS IN PARENTHESES)
Body/Chassis – Two-passenger, two-door aluminum and composite.
Engine – 3.5-liter SOHC 24-valve aluminum V-6, fuel injection with stainlesssteel exhaust headers; 10.0:1 compression ratio.
Transmission – Four-speed, fully adaptive, electronically controlled automatic with AutoStick manual control; 3.89:1 final ratio.
Power Ratings – 253 horsepower @ 6,400 rpm (214 horsepower @ 5,850 rpm), 255 lb/ ft torque @ 3,950 rpm (221 ft- lb torque @ 3,100 rpm).
Brakes – Power assisted four-wheel vented discs, 11.1-inch, front; 13.0-inch, rear.
Wheels/Tires – Front: 17-inch; P225/45 HR17 run-flat, Rear: 20-inch; P295/40 VR20 run-flat.
Suspension – Front: Upper and lower control arms with pushrod, coil-over shocks, sway bar. Rear: Independent multilink, short/long arm, coil-over shocks, sway bar.
Wheelbase – 113 inches.
Length – 165 inches.
Height – 51 inches (top up).
Curb Weight – 2,850 pounds.
The 1996 Grand Cherokee was the source for the steering column shroud and steering wheel. The steering wheel received a unique air bag covering and horn pad. Various switches and interior bits were borrowed from the LH, Neon, and Cirrus/Breeze. The largest and most controversial borrowed component used in the Prowler was the 3.5-liter 24-valve SOHC V-6 engine that came out of the LH Series sedans. Mating this engine to a four-speed automatic AutoStick transmission added insult to the injury of foregoing V-8 power. For some old-school hot rodders, trying to coax the 20-inch-tall rear tires into a smoky burnout with only 214 horsepower was not the way to impress the kids down at the local drive-in. Tom Gale defended the choice and said a V-8 would have intruded too far into the passenger compartment. Correcting this would mean altering the wheelbase beyond what was acceptable. Gale said that a V-6 with a transaxle in the rear fit the Prowlers 1990s attitude of being innovative yet retro. The Prowler’s capability of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a tick over 7 seconds backed Gale’s argument. This was certainly quick enough for what was essentially intended to be a Sunday cruiser and not a dragster.
Everyone applauds the innovative use of materials to manufacture the Prowler. Chrysler claims that almost 900 pounds of the Prowler’s 2,850-pound curb weight is aluminum, which makes it North America’s most aluminum-intensive vehicle. Aluminum is used for the tub, frame, body sheet metal, and wheels. Other advanced materials consist of a single magnesium casting for the instrument panel; sheet molding compound for the cycle fenders, rear valance, and quarter panels; and polymer for the grille bars.
Pop open the rear-hinged deck lid of a Prowler and anything that is thicker than the Sunday paper will have to go into one of the few options offered. Originally priced at $4,600 ($5,075 in 2001), a “pup” trailer that mimics the Prowler’s rear styling down to the taillights and rides on unique 15-inch wheels is perfect for long-distance cruising. Through November 2000, over 6,500 Prowlers have been produced. Other colors began appearing with the 1999 model year. The most popular color as of September 2000 is black (1,839), followed by red (1,385), purple (1,354), yellow (959), silver 50 (688), and limited-edition black/ red two-tone vehicles (100). For 2001, a black/silver “Black Tie edition” will be offered along with Prowler Orange.
Red, yellow, black, and purple exterior colors have been discontinued. The MSRP for the 200 L Prowler is an even $45,000 ($44,225 plus $775 shipping). The days of Prowler Purple may be gone, but so is the anemic horsepower rating. The latest version of the 3.5-liter V-6 belts out 253 horsepower to get 0-to-60 times down to 6.3 seconds with a quartermile turned in 14.9 seconds. The Plymouth division joins Prowler Purple in the history books as well. For 2001, can you say Chrysler Prowler?
Dodge Dakota R/T
Those who scoff at a pickup truck, especially a compact one such as the Dodge Dakota R/T, being considered a performance vehicle need to take a refresher course in muscle car history. Muscle cars derived from the compact cars that followed the first wave of import-car hysteria that struck the U.S. auto industry in the late 1950s. The Dodge Dakota R/T debuted in 1986 to fill the niche between fullsized domestic pickup trucks and the mini pickups that were an offshoot of the second import assault on Detroit that began in the early 1970s. The Dakota was the first compact pickup. It was easier to drive and park than a full-sized truck, yet it was built like a “real truck” to out haul or out-tow the smaller trucks.
Competent but conservatively styled, the Dakota received a major restyle in 1997 when it took on the machcT“semi tractor” look of its bigger brother, the Dodge Ram. Light-truck sales had taken over half of the new-car market. Some of this market surge came from young people who had grown up driving mini trucks and were looking for something larger, more powerful, and sporty. Something like a muscle car with a cargo bed. Enter the Dodge Dakota R/T in the spring of 1998. The name (R/T stands for Road and Track) evoked memories of the powerful Dodge cars of the muscle car era such as the Charger R/T and Challenger R/T. The V-8 could send the rear tires squirming sideways with a good shove on the gas.
The Dakota’s 250-horsepower 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 may come up a bit short in both cubic inches and horsepower compared to its ancestors, but a cargo bed full of air does not do much for rear-wheel traction, so the thrill factor is definitely worthy of the R/T model designation. The V-8 had a performance-tuned dual inlet stainless-steel exhaust system to give it a bit more character than the more mundane versions found in the Durango and Grand Cherokee, and a heavy-duty electronic four-speed automatic transmission (46RE) to handle the 345 foot-pounds of torque. The Dakota R/T also featured 17-inch aluminum wheels, P255/55 R17 tires, a 1-inch-lower sport suspension, front and rear anti-sway bars, and a limited-slip differential. Actually, the engine ($1,585) and transmission ($950) were considered “mandatory options” for the R/T Sport Group package ($2,320), which consisted of the wheels, tires, suspension, an interior/exterior light group, high-back bucket seats, heavy-duty sound insulation, body-color front and rear bumpers, various interior upgrades, and special Dakota R/T badging.
1997 DODGE RAM SS/T SPECIFICATIONS
Body/Chassis of Dodge Ram SS/T – Steel cab/ladder-type frame.
Engine of Dodge Ram SS/T – 5.9-liter OHV V-8 with sequential, multiport fuel injection.
Power Ratings of Dodge Ram SS/T – 245 horsepower @ 4,000 rpm, 335 ft-lbs torque @ 3,200 rpm.
Transmission of Dodge Ram SS/T – Four-speed heavy-duty automatic.
Brakes of Dodge Ram SS/T – Front disc/rear drum with ABS.
Wheels/Tires of Dodge Ram SS/T – 17-inch aluminum alloy; 275/60 R17.
Rear End of Dodge Ram SS/T – Rear drive, limited-slip differential, 3.90.
Suspension of Dodge Ram SS/T – Front: Double wishbone independent, coil springs, gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar. Rear: Live axle, longitudinal leaf springs, gas-charged shocks.
Wheelbase of Dodge Ram SS/T – 118.7 inches.
Length of Dodge Ram SS/T – 204.1 inches.
Curb Weight of Dodge Ram SS/T – 4,216 pounds.
EPA Fuel Economy, City/Highway of Dodge Ram SS/T – 13/17 miles per gallon.
The R/T could only be ordered on two-wheel drive models in either Regular or Club Cab versions. The colors were limited to Intense Blue, Deep Amethyst, Flame Red, and Black. A base model for $13,260 could not be ordered and have the big engine stuffed inside. Once you added in air conditioning, a killer stereo, power windows, power locks, and other optional necessities, the Dakota R/T sticker would total around $23,000 to $24,000. This was not a bad deal considering what it buys in terms of muscular performance, looks, and utility. Dodge says about 2,000 Dakota R/Ts were produced in 1998 with 1999 production around 5,000 units. Club Cab models were more popular, especially in 1998 when they outsold Regular Cabs about four to one. Solar Yellow was added to the color choices in 1999. It was also available in limited quantities on early-2000 production models. Bright White and Amber Fire were added in 2000, as Deep Amethyst was deep-sixed. Bright Silver was added as an exterior color for 2001.
The Dakota R/T has built up a popular cult following supported by an aftermarket offering superchargers and other ways of increasing the truck’s performance. Right out of the box, it has a 0-to-60-mile-per-hour acceleration of 7 seconds flat with quarter-mile runs of 15.4 seconds at 89.0 miles per hour, according to Motor Trends testers. The NHRA has started a Pro Stock Truck class where the Dakota is a top runner. The Dakota R/T may be a compact truck, but it can handle the weight of the Mopar performance tradition.
Dodge Ram SS/T
The 1997 Dodge Ram SS/T was a follow-up to the surprising success of the limited-production run of Indy Ram trucks Dodge had offered the preceding year. In 1996, Dodge built 5,000 special-edition, metallic blue and white striped, Ram 1500 pickups that emulated the support trucks that were supplied along with the Viper GTS pace car for the Indy 500. At first, Chrysler officials thought the racy Viper paint scheme or the tie-in to the Indy 500 had created the unexpected rush for these trucks, but further analysis showed that the performance aspects of the 245-horsepower 5.9-liter V-8 and the sporty 17-inch aluminum wheels and tires played a big part in the trucks appeal.
The 1997 Ram SS/T was essentially the same package with a slightly broader exterior color chart. Dodge had been down the muscle truck route before. In 1978 the company was way ahead of the sport-truck curve when it offered the Li’l Red Express truck. This was a limited run of D150 step side bed, full-size pickups powered by the venerable 360-ci V-8 with a modified automatic transmission. The carbureted police special engine put out 225 horsepower. Hot Rod magazine tested one of these trucks in November 1977 and recorded a quarter-mile run of 14.7 seconds at 93 miles per hour. It was one of the fastest domestic vehicles for sale thanks to the lax
emissions requirements of the period regarding trucks. The bright red trucks had no catalytic converters or smog pumps. Two tall, chrome “big-rig” exhaust stacks sprouted up on each side of the rear of the cab. Varnished wood trim gave the bed and tailgate a “woody” look. Dodge sold a little over 7,000of these beauties in 1978 and 1979.
The big-rig look of the 1970s was still a hit with pickup buyers as evidenced by their positive response to the brawny fenders and hulking grille of the Ram models that first appeared in 1994. The 1997 SS/T captured high-performance visual appeal with a body-color-matched grille and bumpers, Viper-style racing stripes, fog lights, chrome exhaust tip, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. The exterior colors consisted of Black, Emerald Green, and Flame Red, all with wide silver stripes, or Bright White with blue stripes. Inside, a tachometer and a premium cloth 40/20/40 bench seat with a wide center compartment/armrest large enough to stow a laptop computer were also included.
The heart of the SS/T was under the hood. The engine measured 360 cubic inches (5.9 liters). A specially tuned version of the electronic fuel-injected 5.9-liter V-8 developed 245 horsepower as it let out a mellow roar while breathing through a high-flow exhaust system. A four-speed, heavy-duty automatic transft-lb of torque through a limited-slip differential with a 3.90 rear end and 273/60 R17 tires. Despite their wide tread and modern construction, the tires still let out a scream when you shoved on the gas. Motor Trend clocked a 0-to-60-mile-per-hour time of 7.9 seconds in a 1997 Ram SS/T. At the drag strip, the truck checked in with a 15.8-second run at 84.6 miles per hour. For anyone not impressed with those numbers, an option was the dealer-installed Mopar Performance Magnum R/T performance package, which consisted of matched engine computer, camshaft, intake, and exhaust headers said to deliver another 46 horses.
Although stiffer shocks and springs were part of the SS/T package, the suspension was not lowered from the stock ride height. The SS/T may have been faster than a standard Ram pickup, but its handling was not much improved beyond the extra capabilities provided by wide wheels and performance tires. The SS/T package cost $ 1 ,360 and required the additional special 5.9-liter V-8 ($860) and heavy duty automatic transmission ($960) at an extra cost. The Ram 1500 Laramie SIT to which all this was added had an MSRP of $20,025 including destination fees. The Laramie was a well-equipped vehicle, and air conditioning, tilt wheel, cruise, and full power accessories were included so a nicely equipped SS/T could be purchased for under $25,000.
The SS/T was an option package instead of a limited-production run. It disappeared from the Dodge catalog in 1999. A similar truck could be ordered, but it took a careful study of the options list. A key ingredient, besides the obvious engine choice, was the Sport Appearance Group (which included 1 6-inch wheels) that was offered only with Flame Red, Black, Bright White, or Intense Blue exterior colors. Hopefully, muscle truck fans will not have to wait another 20 years for Dodge to follow up on the Ram SS/T. A choice of cloth bucket seats or a bench seat, tilt wheel, cruise control, and deluxe lighting are part of the R/T package.
DODGE DAKOTA R/T SPECIFICATIONS – REGULAR CAB (CLUB CAB)
Body/Chassis of Dodge Dakota R/T – All-steel body on ladder-type steel frame.
Engine of Dodge Dakota R/T – 5.9-liter (360 ci) OHV, cast-iron-block V-8 with sequential, multiport electronic fuel injection; 8.9:1 compression ratio; regular unleaded fuel.
Power Ratings of Dodge Dakota R/T – 250 horsepower @ 4,400 rpm, 345 ft-lb torque @ 3,200 rpm.
Transrpjssion of Dodge Dakota R/T – Automatic, four-speed overdrive.
Brakes of Dodge Dakota R/T – Front disc/rear drum with ABS.
Wheels/Tires of Dodge Dakota R/T – 17×9-inch cast-aluminum; P255/55 R17.
Rear End of Dodge Dakota R/T – Limited-slip differential; 3.92 final drive ratio; two-wheel drive only.
Suspension of Dodge Dakota R/T – Front: Double wishbone independent, coil springs, gas-charged shocks, 15-millimeter stabilizer bar Rear: Live axle, four-leaf longitudinal springs, gas-charged shocks, 19-millimeter stabilizer bar.
Wheelbase of Dodge Dakota R/T – 112 inches (131 inches).
Length of Dodge Dakota R/T – 196 inches (215.1 inches).
Curb Weight of Dodge Dakota R/T – 3,924 pounds (4,110 pounds).
Bed Length/Payload Rating – 6.5 feet/1,275 pounds.
EPA Fuel Economy, City/Highway – 12/16 miles per gallon.
Patrick Paternie and Dan Lyons