A Look Back at the Dodge Dakota Convertible, a Softtop Pickup

·4 min read
Photo credit: Dodge
Photo credit: Dodge

This story originally appeared in the February 1989 issue of Car and Driver.

To hear Bruce Benedict tell it, invent­ing the first modern ragtop pickup truck was not a stroke of genius but rather a reasoned response to an obvious marketing need. Benedict, product-planning chief for the Dodge Dakota pickup line, says that his people were simply "looking for a niche product that no one else had, to help bring buyers into the showrooms to see the rest of the Dakotas.

"Everyone knows that there are a lot of convertible pickups running around in California," Benedict goes on, explain­ing the inspiration matter-of-factly, "but they're all one-of-a-kinds built by chop shops. After bringing the convertible passenger car back with our K-body, we thought it would be nice to bring out the first pickup convertible."

Benedict and his posse of Dodge Boys may act as if creating the Dakota convertible was a short day's labor, but deep down they've got to be excited about their new baby. The Dakota convertible is going to thaw hearts otherwise ice-cold to these motorized pack horses. We know. It happened to us.

Photo credit: Dodge
Photo credit: Dodge

On the surface, a pickup truck with a flop top makes about as much sense as a steel baseball mitt. Pickups are designed for hard work, after all. 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-worshiping, let's-go-to-the­-beach party animal? Why not indeed.

If a Dodge Dakota convertible sounds like your kind of wheels we have good news: we've driven a prototype, and it works. Out on the road, with the top down, the Dakota ragtop is a four­-wheeled attention grabber. As for the mechanical bits, they work about as well as they do in any Dakota steel-top­—which is to say, the Dakota convertible still drives like a truck. But its ability to let the great outdoors in just about negates its pickup-truck drawbacks.

Photo credit: Dodge
Photo credit: Dodge

The Dakota convertible will go on sale sometime this spring—the exact date hasn't been set yet—and there probably won't be enough to go around. "There's never been a vehicle like it before," says Benedict, "so no one really knows how many we can sell." The production schedule has some elasticity in it, but Dodge's initial guesstimate calls for a mere 2000 examples to be produced.

To keep things simple, all Dakota ragtops will be equipped with the Dakota line's Sport package. The Sport package includes the short-wheelbase (112.0 inch) chassis; a 125-hp, 3.9-liter, 90-de­gree V-6; and a heavy helping of extras. A live-speed manual transmission, alloy wheels, driving lights, a dashful of gauges, a padded roll bar, velour upholstery, power windows and locks, and rear-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard. The few options include a four-speed automatic and air conditioning.

After riding the range in a pre-produc­tion four-wheel-drive Dakota convert­ible, we came away most impressed by its solidity. Slicing the top off of most of to­day's unit-body cars renders them as wispy as an oak leaf, but the Dakota is built on a separate frame. Sawing off the roof doesn't weaken it appreciably, so it hardly shivers more than a standard Dakota when the tires thump the bumps.

Photo credit: Dodge
Photo credit: Dodge

In most respects the convertible also drives like a standard-issue Dakota. Over railroad tracks or rough blacktop you feel like you're perched atop a galloping horse. The V-6 wheezes and strains, and it can't deliver enough thrust to keep you from yawning. The four-speed automatic acts as if it were trying to make up for the somnolent engine by slamming each shift home.

What will keep you wide awake is the wind noise. At 75 mph, even with the top up, the roar drowns out everything else. Watch the veins in your passenger's neck bulge as he attempts to shout above the gale. Watch him quit trying to talk. Watch him resort to hand signals.

Oops, there we go getting serious, judging the Dakota convertible as if it were a real car. No way. It wasn't intend­ed to make anyone's list of top-flight In­terstate yachts. The Dakota convertible is a Main Street trawler. Flip down the manual top—it folds almost effortlessly—dial up some tunes, and watch the world watch you.

Oh, and don't forget the sun block.

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