1994: The Ram Revolution

The “miniature big rig” shape of Ram pickups is familiar today, but in 1993 it was genuinely radical. At that year’s Detroit Auto Show, Dodge’s first totally new big pickup in 21 years dropped slowly to the stage from the rafters of Cobo Hall. It landed in the public consciousness like a thunderclap.

Despite a recurrence of financial woes after the AMC acquisition, that event brought a constellation of talents – Bob Lutz, Francois Castiang, Tom Gale, and many more – together just as Chrysler switched to modern “platform team” setups for design.

Like the Dodge Viper and ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee before it, this wildly different truck was one more symbol of Chrysler’s early-90s renaissance, a time which some ex-staffers call “The Camelot years” (roughly 1988-1995).

The story of this long-awaited truck, however, starts just before the AMC buyout.

Putting Off Tomorrow

Originally, the 1972-93 D-series/Ram was to have been redesigned in the early 1980s, but the huge fiscal crisis that engulfed the corporation in those days put that idea off. Instead, money was allocated to Hal Sperlich’s Minivan project, which was probably a better use of resources. As a result, Chrysler dominated Minivans for years, but historically had just a tiny share of the big pickup market.

In the mid eighties Chrysler’s truck studio proposed a “modular” truck that would replace both the D-series/Ram and the just-as-old Ram Van.

This dowdy proposal, which looked like a giant minivan with a pickup bed, was a bridge too far. Even Chrysler’s own truck engineers, then busy working on the Dodge Dakota, didn’t really like it, so  scrapped in favor of a more conventional truck.

Too conventional. When the revised project was transferred to the former AMC studio for finishing in 1988, longtime AMC designer Phillip E. Payne derided its Ford-like, copy-cat lines.

Lutz, who joined Chrysler after repeated clashes with Red Poling at Ford, gave Payne and his team permission to find something better – but quickly. The existing Ram pickup had just 6% of the market and a very far distant third to Ford and GM, so taking a chance on something new was not so risky. But every new vehicle – with their huge design and tooling costs, is a risk, particularly if you’re going to push the envelope on style.

Phil Payne

An Indiana native, Payne studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and originally worked for Ford starting in 1959 before moving to AMC’s interiors in 1981.

He’d been involved with many design programs (including the original Ford Mustang, several 1960s Lincolns and Mercuries, and the Pinto) but had mostly done interior work in the 1980s – on the Renault Alliance and Premier (later the Eagle Premier/Dodge Monaco).

A full-size truck was something fairly new for him and his team – nobody at AMC or Jeep had designed a full-size pickup in decades. Veterans of the 1972 D-series/Ram program were also mostly gone – it had been 20 years.

The truck was famously inspired by Kenworths and the WW2-era power wagon, but also the mid-1950s Studebaker E-series/Transtar. It had bold fenders that suggested the separate fender look and big grilles of highway trucking, and it was big and bold in every respect.

Though the visual action was most obvious on the outside, the inside of the truck cab was also totally re-thought. Loads of storage spaces were added inside to a larger, more ergonomic overall setup .

It was physically larger inside than the Ford or GM alternatives and designed with a specific nod to work trucks. The design team observed construction contractors at work with their vehicles and figured out how they could give them things that they’d improvised in older trucks.

A new V10 was designed for those who wanted hauling power but not a diesel, but most of the powertrains were carried over from the old Ram.

The Ram Conquest

The truck was instantly popular and made more than a few conquest sales even among fiercely-brand-loyal full-size pickup buyers. Dealers paid other dealers premiums to get stock as the trucks flew off the lot. Suddenly the Ram was relevant for the first time in a long time.

Sales leapt from just 88K of the old 1993 Rams to 232K in 1994 and 410K in 1995. The “Big Rig” Ram never approached the sales levels of the Ford F-150 in that era, but it brought Chrysler into the modern world of pickups. It also helped establish a design language that’s still with us under the now-separate Ram brand.

Short-bed trucks like this one were already a minority of pickups produced even in the 1990s. Their share has continued to decline over the years, as have standard cab pickups. They’re mostly reserved for fleet-order work trucks or sport trucks now.

The “Camelot” years were ushered in by the original Dodge Viper and the ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokee. A year before the Ram pickup dropped at Cobo, Lutz had driven an early Grand Cherokee to the Detroit show and smashed through a pane of glass to announce its arrival.

1993 brought the LH platform cars, with their ancestral ties to the Renault 25 and the Ram pickup (as a ‘94 model). 1994 brough the Neon (a Chrysler, Dodge, or Plymouth depending on the market) and the JA-series “Cloud cars” (Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, Plymouth Breeze). 1995 brought the “Cloud cars'” Mitsubishi-based coupe companions (Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Avenger).

In just a few short years the Corporation’s products had been totally remade.

Camelot’s Conclusion

But two pivotal events happened that ultimately brought this era to a close. The first was Lee Iacocca’s appointment of Bob Eaton, instead of Lutz, as his successor in 1992. This was mostly down to personal conflicts between Iacocca and Lutz.

Eaton was an excellent businessman but had a more conservative vision for the future of the company than Lutz did. Still, in the first few years Chrysler’s products were newly creative and compelling. The company had as strong a design culture as ever, rivaling previous eras like that of Virgil Exner in the 1950s.

Ill winds began in 1995, activist investor Kirk Kerkorian attempted to take over Chrysler (with the implicit backing of Iacocca). This spooked Eaton into ultimately merging the company into DaimlerChrysler, which had a very deleterious effect on Chrysler’s internal culture.

Months before the DaimlerChrysler merger, you could find Bob Lutz on the stand at Cobo introducing the quad-cab Ram, a 1998 model. Famous for dramatic intros, he did so at a mock restaurant called “Bob’s Dodge Truck Diner,” complete with a chef’s costume. He left for Exide Technologies in 1998 and moved to GM in 2001. Phillip Payne retired in 2000 but later went to China to work on projects for Beijing Jeep.

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