Dakota History (First Gen) 87 - 96
First-Generation Dakota: 1987-1996
Except for the fact that the Dakota is sized between the smaller compact and larger full-size pickups, it's a thoroughly conventional truck. That means it has always been built atop a stout ladder frame with a double A-arm front suspension and a solid rear axle in the back on leaf springs. That lack of innovation makes sense in light of the fundamentally conservative nature of the pickup truck market and the inherently rugged result of such construction. Sure, it was the first truck with rack-and-pinion steering, but there's never been anything truly innovative about the Dakota.
At its introduction, the 1987 Dakota was available in two wheelbases (111.9 and 123.9 inches) with either a 6.5- or 8.0-foot bed, and in three different trim levels (base, SE and LE). A conventional two-door cab was the only one offered. Power came from either a 2.2-liter, SOHC carbureted four rated for 96 hp or a 3.9-liter, OHV carbureted V6 good for 125 ponies. Both could be had with either a standard five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic. Four-wheel drive was offered, but buyers were required to step up to the V6 engine.
Scavenged from the front-drive K-Car, the 2.2-liter four was inadequate for lugging even the lightest, nearly 3,000-pound Dakota around with much confidence. The V6 was essentially Chrysler's 5.2-liter (318-cubic-inch) V8 with two cylinders lopped off, and at the beginning of its development, was neither particularly smooth nor particularly powerful. "With the fewest horses available," wrote Popular Science when comparing the '87 Dakota to six-cylinder versions of the full-size Ford and Chevy pickups and Jeep's Comanche, "it was no surprise that the Dakota finished dead last in the acceleration trials. And frankly, we had to wonder about the 5,500-pound tow claim for the 3.9-equipped Dakota." How slow was the Dakota? Pop Sci's 13.1-second, 0-60-mph clocking was downright turtlelike.
Still, Popular Science found that the Dakota's three-speed automatic shifted well and that the truck's other virtues more than compensated for the power deficit. "The Dodge Dakota nailed down top honors by a significant margin in two of the most important tests: braking and high-speed handling. Without question, Chrysler has put the accent on automotive-style performance…. The Dakota's interior and ride not only set high standards for trucks, but passenger-sedan designers should take note as well. Night or day, the bright, sharp instrumentation was a snap to read. The A/C, ventilation and heater controls were simple to use and did an outstanding job of quietly and precisely controlling the cabin temperature. And finally, though [we] usually dislike plastic wood on instrument panels, [we] found the subdued test-tube timber in the Dakota's cab tolerable — if not quite attractive." Ultimately, the magazine concluded that the Dakota was the best in the test. "The best light-duty pickup was obviously the Dakota LE. It was top dog in all the important performance areas, except acceleration. And considering the civilized ride and interior in the Dodge, it makes a strong case for itself."
With sales of 104,865 Dakotas during the '87 model year, Dodge had a hit on its hands. In fact, the Dakota even outsold both the full-size Ram (Dodge sold 98,563 of those) and the smaller Ram 50 (Dodge still sold a respectable 76,913 of those during '87). So the company left well enough alone for 1988 with the only significant change being the fitment of single-point throttle-body fuel injection to the 3.9-liter V6, an upgrade that unfortunately didn't alter its 125-hp output. But sales declined during '88 to 91,850, as other trucks were attracting buyers with such tricks as extended cabs and fresh sheet metal. Dodge would need to do something different for '89.
Change came in the form of two unusual variations on the basic 1989 Dakota. The weirdest of the pair was the first convertible truck offered by a manufacturer since the early days of Ford's Model T pickup. "On the surface, a pickup truck with a flop top makes as much sense as a steel baseball mitt," Car and Driver wrote upon its first exposure to the Dakota Convertible. "But everyone knows that most pickups actually live a life of leisure. So if people are buying pickups for the fun of owning a car alternative, why not go full-frivolous and build a sun-worshipping, let's-go-to-the-beach party animal?"
With its separate frame, the Dakota Convertible needed little in the way of extra bracing to support its structure, but it was awkward-looking with a roll bar fitted where the rear bulkhead had once been and a top that stacked inelegantly over the leading edge of the pickup bed. The manual top also wasn't the easiest to operate, was downright ugly when up and had a plastic rear window that seemed to fog up and distort the moment someone actually tried to look through it. The convertible sold in small numbers (2,482 examples during '89) and its life would be short.
The more significant variation came from the California shop of Carroll Shelby, who was at that point applying his famed mix of performance and hucksterism to Chrysler products. The Shelby Dakota was a product of high-performance 101 engineering, in that it was basically a Dakota fitted with the 5.2-liter fuel-injected V8 from the larger Ram pickup and the new four-speed automatic transmission that was offered across the Ram and Dakota ranges for '89. In the Shelby Dakota, the 5.2-liter V8 delivered five more horsepower than in the Ram (for a total of 175) thanks to the use of electric cooling fans necessitated by the tight confines of the engine bay.
Car and Driver found the Shelby Dakota clearly superior to previous iterations of the vehicle in the acceleration department. "Fitted with the V8, this pickup suddenly has pickup," they wrote. "The Shelby Dakota hustled from zero to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, half a second quicker than the 4.3-liter V6-equipped Chevy S-10 pickup. And if you really want to blow the grass clippings out of the load bed, the Shelby can punch a 113-mph hole in the air. That's only 4 mph slower than the nearly four-inch-narrower Chevy S-10 with the optional Cameo aero bodywork."
For $15,813, a Shelby Dakota buyer got a white or red two-wheel-drive truck festooned with Shelby logos and the same suspension as the Dakota Sport with Goodyear P225/70HR15 Eagle GT tires on five-spoke wheels. That's about $3,000 more than a Dakota Sport with the V6. Despite a convoluted production process that had Dakotas shipped to Shelby's California shop for conversion, the planned 1,500 Shelby Dakotas were all shipped to customers.
Other than the Shelby, the regular-production '89 Dakota appeared to be little changed from the '88 model. But beyond the adoption of the previously mentioned four-speed automatic and fitment of ABS to the rear wheels, the base truck got a new fuel-injected 2.5-liter, OHV four-cylinder engine rated at 99 hp. Still, sales for 1989 slid to 89,294.
Extended cabs finally came to the Dakota line with the introduction of the 1990 Club Cab. Riding on a stretched frame containing a 130.9-inch wheelbase, the Club Cab truck's cab was a full 19 inches longer than that of the regular cab Dakota and contained a full-width rear bench seat. However, as with every other extended cab pickup of the time, there wasn't a second set of doors available to access that extra space. Club Cabs were available only as two-wheel-drive models this first year. Otherwise, the Dakota line was only slightly changed with another 1,089 convertibles making their way to customers and a single additional horsepower being added to the base four's rating rounding it out to 100. A total of 72,224 Dakotas were sold during the '90 model year.
What Shelby did in '89, Dodge did itself during 1991 with the addition of the 5.2-liter V8 to the Dakota's list of regular production options. Delivering 170 hp, the V8 was exactly the sort of power plant the Dakota had been crying out for since its introduction, but it was really only a hint of what was to soon come. In order to accommodate the slightly longer engine, the Dakota's nose was redesigned with more space directly behind the grille. The new engine and revised styling helped swell Dakota sales to 82,336 for '91, including the last eight convertibles.
As welcome as the V8 was in '91, the thoroughly revised series of "Magnum" V6s and V8s were even bigger news during 1992. Basically, Chrysler took both the 3.9-liter V6 and the 5.2-liter V8, and reengineered them around improved cylinder heads and much more advanced multiport fuel-injection systems. The result was a startling rise in output with the 3.9-liter V6 now making a healthy 180 hp (up from 125) and the 5.2-liter V8 now carrying a stout 230-hp rating (versus 170). A '92 Dakota V6 now had more power than the Shelby of three years before and the Dakota V8, particularly when equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, could challenge Mustang GTs in straight-line performance.