let's talk about the Dodge.
It’s a Dodge Dakota 5.9 R/T, born at the turn of a new millenium.
It’s a sports pickup truck. Simple way of putting it. The whole thing is pretty simple - big V8 in the front, room for two people in the middle (maybe three if you’re skinny), rear-wheel-drive at the back, goes like hell. It’s the classic American way: stick a big engine in a small vehicle and kick ass down the I-95 if cops aren’t looking. An important piece of motoring culture if you ask me.
I’ve been into cars since, well, before I had my first music lesson. I don’t really remember all that well, but my Dad tells me we used to go for walks on Mulberry Lane by the West Hempstead LIRR line and I would approach each car and not leave until I’ve learned its make and model. If I could have known their stories, I would have. And I kept doing that, all through my childhood. Eventually I was tall enough to read the New York State registration stickers on the windshields, and I’d learn the years they were made as well. I guess it’s my own personal Rolodex of something outside of the very small classical music bubble.
I would have liked to know what the Dodge’s life was like. Perhaps it was sitting in a parking lot somewhere waiting to be driven, or scrapped, or whatever. The worn paint on the roof and around the pillars seems to give it that impression. The Dakota has always been a workman’s truck. It’s been used by fire departments, police forces, farmers, landscapers, people who really use their vehicles for utility. But this isn’t that. The drivetrain is different. It’s lower to the ground. It turns quicker and sprints faster off the line and shifts harder and that engine, that engine. It’s bassy. It’s low-revving. It’s an open and full kind of sound but a little bit of anger underneath. A little anger, but also years and years of heritage. And heart. And humor. Dodge has a history of pulling crazy shit, you know. When the Viper first came out in ‘92, it was pretty undriveable. Stick a big block motor in a tiny sports car and see what happens. You might die, but hey, put it on sale anyway.
The Dakota R/T, though, was quite forgotten. It lived and was sold from ‘98-’03 to some nutcases who wanted to buy a bunch of stuff from Home Depot and embarrass you in your Porsche at a set of lights on the way home. But there were other options as well. GMC Syclone. Ford Lightning. Chevy 454 SS. The S-10 - people go crazy with that one. It had competition. It could have also been lack of advertisement. And yet still, if you wanted to go fast, why wouldn't you buy a sports car, right? Or a sports sedan, at least? There are all sorts of vehicles you can buy and/or modify without breaking the bank. I guess there was little room for it in the market.
But we had room in New York. The Dodge came at a time when pouring rain and treacherous winds battered the East Coast. Before Hurricane Sandy, we had a Saab 9-5. It was a great car. It had a quirky Swedish charm, two tone interior, and serious gonads for a four-pot. A click of the Sport Mode button and a kick of throttle would send and deliver. T’was a time. But then weather happened and it succumbed to heavy water damage and its death was untimely. Things don't last forever. Just like the company itself.
The Dodge hailed from Allentown, PA. A black outfit on white 17s and a little wear and tear, but the engine was in decent shape and Dad needed to get back to NY for work and well, it was cheap. He knew what to do. He has quite a history of wrenching in a garage in Hewlett somewhere and I knew that he would return to the V8 burble at some point - you miss it after a while. And of course, with East Coast car culture, especially Long Island, you buy a used product for cheap, find a driveway or similar workspace, get your tools, wrench away, and once it’s in good shape, soup it up. So its heart was taken out for a little bit. The 360 Magnum V8 underwent an extensive rebuild with many, many parts cleaned and many others replaced with higher-performance variants. The 46RE transmission also had some work done as well. I would have loved for that truck to have a manual transmission swap. Too bad the auto was the only one offered.
Now, it wears tinted headlights and a big decal in the back, not to mention a truck cap, so I guess it doesn’t really look like a pick-up anymore, but I suppose things are much more secure that way. The inside of the back windshield is covered in racing stickers - Summit Racing, Edelbrock, Mopar, you name it, and bass and more bass emanates from the subwoofer installed in the truck bed. Gives it a little character, you know? It sits on some chunky Pirellis with fire engine red calipers peering through the rims like a little tease. It’s got some toys as well, like a bluetooth stereo and a rear-view camera monitor embedded in the rear-view mirror. How about that? And a CB radio with a big-ass antenna that I’ve always found useful for parking in absurdly large parking lots.
It has its quirks. A mezzo-soprano whine will creep up once you’re in 4th gear and going about 45 mph. The aftermarket alarm system is a little finicky and doesn’t like to be told what to do - just let the truck lock itself automatically. And the cabin isn’t exactly the most sealed-off space from the outside air, so it tends to fog up quite quickly when it rains. But I always believe the engine makes up for it. Just starting it up is a treat. I’ve gotten a laugh out of nearly everyone sitting in the passenger seat. Because it just taps in to the inner kid in a candy store, the feeling of am I supposed to be making this much noise and is it even legal but also do I even care??? Because it’s okay to get to know your wild side a little bit better. It’s okay to break the societal law of not speaking unless spoken to so go ahead, make all the noise your heart desires. We’re here for it.
I think it has a character that’s rooted in American motoring. There’s almost a lack of seriousness, well, except for the new Camaros and whatever Cadillac is making and sending around and around the Nurburgring. But other than that, Americans have always shoved it with circuit lap times and cornering on a track. We’ve always gone for brute force, for the quarter mile, for the salt flats in Bonneville, for the early morning drag races on probably your usual expressway, for the size of your engine and how fast you can send it down a straight. Often, big American cars are like shaggy dogs - you can somehow imagine a goofy creature diving face first into a bucket of neon orange paint while chasing after a squirrel. That’s what they look like doing donuts at car shows. Bright colors. Big personalities. Put on a spectacle.
Quite different from the Germans and the Brits. And the Japanese. They’re much more concentrated, more purposeful. They engineer and engineer down to the last little piece of trim in your interior for the purpose of saving weight. And they extract as much power as they can out of the smallest engines they can for maximum power to weight ratio. They replace paneling with carbon fiber because it’s scientifically better and lighter and stronger. And you’ll be lucky if you have a glass windshield, because in super-performance models, it’s just a plastic sheet. Everything is under intense deliberation and even scrutiny, even the air that you fill the tires with, because that could take milliseconds off your lap time, nevermind if you were having a bad day.
But more and more I find that generally with greater attention to creating and engineering the “better” car, there is a loss of personality, of feeling, of the organicness and essence of driving. It’s less human, less relatable. Don’t get me wrong, I went through a period of seriously disliking American cars, especially those from the 2000s and 2010s. The interiors are cheap. They’re unreliable. Fuel economy is poor and there isn’t enough power. Safety isn’t on par with their competitors. But then you have to remember that there were also jewels in American car history. Icons.
The Mustang, all types, obviously.
The Corvette, of course.
The ‘69 Charger specifically. Dukes of Hazzard vibes.
No one can do big, noisy V8s like we do. And yeah, they’re not the most powerful. I’m sure a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG can put out more horses, but can it put on as big of a show? Does it make you feel a certain type of way other than it’s gray exterior? Other than overcast weather 364 days of the year? Other than the monotony of a dead-end job? Or is it just an executive saloon with “bucket seats” designed to get you to work a little bit faster without looking any different?
That’s boring. We don’t do that. We do purple. Or lime green. Or neon orange. And superchargers. Superchargers so big you have to make a cutout of the hood to make it fit. And exhausts that resonate from the true sound of an engine, not fake stuff coming out of your speakers. And a little over-fueling for the burble and crackle and pop on the lift-off. And angry blue flames when you rev the nuts off your engine. And fat tires. And stance. If you want a performer, it has to look the part as well.
I see some of that thoroughbred in the Dodge. Don’t let the black fool you. It will happily spin its tires and scare you with its sonority, especially if you’re going too slowly. In some ways, it’s a misfit, but I happen to think it can only be a misfit if it’s taken seriously. And for the company, I think this was a laugh. It was for the enjoyment, exclusively for feeling. It was a giant fuck you to proper professional performance. A slap in the face to German precision, to British presentation, to Japanese refinement. This was for the hard worker, getting their hands dirty to earn their coin. This was for American culture. This was for those who scraped and scraped away for that dollar. And for that, the Dakota deserves a place in Dodge’s all-time best.
Welcome to what we call “soul.” Start your engines.