“Hey, why are the guys from Jp magazine writing about an old Dodge pickup? Don’t they only cover Jeeps?” Well, for starters we sometimes do cover non-Jeep vehicles. Especially tow rigs. It makes sense since more than one-third of Jp’s readers use a pickup or SUV to tow their Jeep to the trail. And even if all we wrote about was fishing lures, you can be sure we wouldn’t miss an opportunity to share what it’s like to drive the first ever 5.9L Cummins-powered Dodge pickup.
The new ’14 Ram Heavy Duty pickups can be had with three versions of the 6.7L Cummins intercooled turbodiesel engine. In the Ram 2500 or 3500 with the six-speed manual transmission the 6.7L is tuned for 350hp and 660 lb-ft. If you select a Ram 2500 with the 68RFE six-speed auto you get 370hp and 800 lb-ft. And finally, the Ram 3500 with the Aisin AS69RC six-speed auto features a High-Output 6.7L good for 385hp and 850 lb-ft. And that’s only the powertrains. We won’t get into the new Ram 2500 rear coil spring (standard) or air (optional) suspension. Or the Ram 3500’s smooth-riding supplemental air suspension (think monoleaf plus air bag). In short, heavy-duty Ram pickups have come a long way since the mid-‘80s. But to fully understand the impact of that first ’89 Dodge you could option with a 5.9L Cummins engine, you have to understand what else was available.
In the early to mid 1980s if you wanted a diesel pickup you got a GMC or Chevy with a normally aspirated indirect-injected 6.2L V-8 wheezing out 130-143hp and 240-257 lb-ft of torque or a Ford with an International Harvester-sourced indirect-injected 6.9L V-8 that made 170hp and 315-338 lb-ft. Either way, if really heavy hauling was what you were after, you ticked the box for the GM 454 or Ford 460 and dealt with low single-digit mileage numbers. But there sat Dodge all alone in the proverbial corn field with no real diesel option of note for its full-size pickups and no big-block V-8 to entice those needing to tow heavier than Dodge’s (at the time) largest 360ci V-8 engine offering could handle. Enter Cummins.
From water pumps to generators to bulldozers and machinery to heavy over-the-road haulers, if you needed an industrial-grade diesel engine that could run thousands of hours or a half-million miles without drama, the direct-injected 12-valve Cummins turbodiesel was your animal. With an internal reciprocating assembly the stuff of legend, it’s connecting rods more closely resembled a cow’s thigh bone than the (by comparison) popsicle stick-like rods of the other brands’ offerings. It wasn’t a logical leap to think, “let’s take our 3/4- and 1-ton Ram trucks and stick this bulldozer engine in it.” But, that’s just what Dodge did when it delivered the paint code R7 Canyon Red Metallilc ’85 Ram D350 you see here to Cummins and said, “put that fargin’ 5.9L diesel in that fargin’ truck.” Well, perhaps we’re paraphrasing. But the rest, as they say, is history.
So there we were at a Ram media ride and drive event featuring the company’s new ’14 lineup when we spotted this completely restored ’85 Dodge D350 parked next to a barn. The Cummins plate on the chrome front bumper told the story. Known as D001, this is the first-ever Dodge Ram to be fitted with the 5.9L Cummins diesel back in 1985 and had just undergone a full restoration to bring it up to show-quality trim. The front grille and bumper are off a later-model truck. Perhaps an ’86 or ’87. And the hood and possibly fenders are thinner-gauge aftermarket panels that shake and ripple with road or engine vi-bration. But otherwise, it’s mostly factory-spec parts just the same as it would’ve been back when it was a test-mule for what would become the obscenely successful partnering of Dodge Ram and Cummins.
When all the other media (folk) had sauntered back to the hotel we snatched the keys from Ram Brand Communications guy, Nick Cappa, and slid behind the familiar wood-grained dash and three-spoke wheel. Out of diesel-driving habit, we put the key in the “Run” position to wait for the grid heater and electric fuel pump to prime (even though these parts probably don’t even exist on this truck) and then engaged the starter. Immediately, nearly all of your senses are brought to bear as that huge Cummins comes to life. The whole cab of the truck shakes side-to-side violently at first as those big pistons start swinging and then settles down into a hard buzz that permeates throughout the vehicle and your body. It’s what we imagine the cockpit of a P47 Thunderbolt to be like. Then there’s the smell of partially burned diesel and the absolute immolation of your eardrums. This particular 12-valve Cummins is loud. It’s borderline obnoxious, but it sure tells the whole world that aint no gas engine under the hood.
The interior was redone to factory-fresh levels and, despite the wheezy A/C barely keeping the cabin cool and what we’re guessing was some additional foam cushioning stuffed inside the factory bench seat, all the tumblers clicked into place as we slid off the E-brake and dropped the TF727 from Park to Drive. Idling slowly down the dirt road on the way to the blacktop you’re struck by how marshmallowy the front suspension is as it porpoises and pogoes over bumps.
We made it to pavement and made sure there was no traffic and then stood moderately hard on the accelerator. With a plume of black smoke from the tailpipe the D350’s rumbling and shaking built in fervor and frequency as the little standard cab pickup channeled its vibration into forward momentum. First gear was done in literally a second, then Second gear came and went almost as quickly and there we were in Third gear with the torque of a freight train pushing us linearly up to and then through our self-imposed 60 mph top speed. It’s not a rocket ship. And with only 160hp and 400 lb-ft to work with, it’s more about the torque anyway. You can haul a Sherman tank up a Colorado mountain at full throttle all day long with this engine and hear nary a whimper out of it. That’s the point of the Cummins inline-six.
Out of the throttle and slowly cruising the back roads the vehicle came into its own. The paint shaker suddenly transformed into a vehicle and we loped along at a leisurely pace. The steering was suggestive to be polite. And the front suspension…well, compliant is being too kind. It drives like a pig. A big, noisy, belching, diesel-guzzling pig. God, we loved it. All too soon we were back at the barn, reversing into its parking spot and killing the ignition. As the fuel supply cut off, the engine stopped its rotation at its own damn pace. Your body literally gets thrown from side-to-side as those big ends of the connecting rods are flung to-and-fro on the forged crankshaft. And then silence permeates the cabin as you ponder the fact you just got to drive a true genesis machine. The first ever Dodge Cummins pickup. It’s not as powerful or refined or smooth as a modern-day Cummins Ram, but damn it’s got character.