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2002 Dodge Dakota With 40s, Coilovers, and 1-ton Axles

Tom Major’s Dodge is well equipped for dominating off-road trails outside the King of the Hammers race.

Tom Major chopped the frame of the 2002 Dodge Dakota from the firewall forward and rebuilt it using 4x3-inch, 3/16-inch-thick box tube. This allowed him to get rid of the Dakota's wide frame horns and also gave him space to mount the steering box he gleaned from a Ford Bronco, replacing the factory rack-and-pinion setup. Out back, Tom rebuilt the frame from the cab to the rear bumper, in the name of strength and corrosion removal. Other notable parts of Tom's Dakota include 1-ton axles and coilover suspension front and rear, a stealthily relocated fuel tank, artful aluminum work in the bed and fenderwells, and an internal rollcage cleanly tied into the truck's frame.

While we found Tom and his crew testing their rigs on the desert trails of Johnson Valley, California, they told us the local private off-road parks of western Pennsylvania are where they spend their time on the trails, even though, as they described while glancing at the sheetmetal on their respective rigs, there sure are a lot of trees in the way. Tom told us he plans on swapping his welded rear diff for another source of traction in the future as well as replacing the powerplant for something with a couple more cylinders. Continue on to see how Tom made his 2002 Dodge Dakota into the trail dominator it is today.

Until he opts for a V-8 swap, Tom has elected to keep the Dakota's Magnum 3.9L V-6, to which he added JBA headers, a K&N cold air intake, and a cut and ported Kegger intake manifold. An aluminum four-core Summit Racing radiator and aftermarket electric fan keep the block cool while his custom 2.5-inch exhaust directs spent gases to the rear of the truck where it exits forward of the rear wheelwell through the bed panel.

To eliminate the rusty factory C-channel frame under the 2002 Dodge Dakota, Tom started cutting directly behind the cab and built his own fully boxed support structure from 2x4-inch, 3/16-inch-thick rectangular steel tube. The truck's rollcage is welded into the custom frame as are the rock sliders and Tom's rear bumper. Also visible are the homemade 1/4-inch plastic spacer pucks between the body and the frame.

The 2002 Dodge Dakota's shock hoops are tied into the frame and rollcage and built to interface cleanly with Tom's aluminum work in the fenderwells, making sure the coilovers have all the space they need to articulate the axle.

Holding the 2002 Dodge Dakota's rear axle in place is a set of triangulated arms from Barnes 4WD with Enduro Joints at each end. Tom's 2.5-inch King coilovers afford him 16 inches of travel in the rear with Fox bumpstops to cushion the last bit of upward movement and Elrod's Prostrap limit straps to control droop.

Power moves through the AX15 five-speed manual where it's divided at the NP231D transfer case. Tom keeps the truck's underside thoroughly protected with custom-built 1/8-inch-thick steel skidplates.

The Dana 60 King Pin front axle was originally sourced from a '79 Ford and has since been treated to plated knuckles, bronze kingpin bushings, chromoly stub shafts, and Yukon Hardcore Locking Hubs. Behind the RuffStuff differential cover you'll find 5.38 gears and a Lock Right locker.

Tasked with locating the front axle is a three-link suspension made of links and Enduro Joints from Barnes 4WD along with Artec brackets and various custom-fabbed tidbits from Tom himself. King 2.5 coilovers give the front axle 16 inches of travel, and Fox 2.5-inch bumpstops prevent harsh bottom-outs.

Goodyear MT/R rubbers measuring 40x13.5 inches encircle the Pro Comp 17-inch aluminum wheels.

Power travels to the rear of the 2002 Dodge Dakota via a driveshaft from High Angle Driveline while a RuffStuff pinion skid keeps the Dakota's differential from hanging up on obstacles. Tom gained 2 inches of ground clearance out back with the shaved '80 GM 14-bolt. He also boosted the axle's strength with a truss from Barnes 4WD. The RuffStuff diff cover protects the 5.38 gears while a set of Lincoln Electric's finest welded spiders keeps the rear tires spinning at the same rate.

Though not in its original location, the Dakota maintains the factory fuel tank and fuel pump, only concealed within a bed-mounted toolbox. Bed real estate is otherwise occupied by the fullsize 40-inch spare tire. More custom work went into the bed with 20-gauge aluminum panels bent, bead-rolled, and dimple-died to encase the rear suspension hoops and fenderwells.

The driver's quarters are largely left alone save for the intricate interior rollcage work and the Auto Meter oil pressure gauge.

Baja seats from Corbeau keep Tom and any co-driver safe inside the 'caged rig while the truck's Optima battery lives in the space behind the passenger seat.

Tom used 1.75-inch, 0.120-inch-wall tubing for his rollcage. Tubing is tied from the front bumper, through the firewall, into the A-pillars, and out to the rear where it comprises the rear shock mounts. He spared no expense and plated the 'cage to the frame to ensure rigidity.

Out front, the bumper was custom-built to not only follow the body lines and keep the grille from kissing obstacles but to hide the Smittybilt 9,500-pound winch and its synthetic cable. A pair of Rigid SR-M LED lights are mounted to the bumper and keep trails well lit. Tom's fabricated rear bumper is adequately equipped for keeping overhanging sheetmetal from contacting obstacles.

Tom's rock sliders are welded straight to the frame and serve as protection for the sides of the Dakota.