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1997 Dodge Ram 3500

Diesel Power's New Addition

Photography by ,

I'm treading on dangerous ground. My daily driver that I use for commuting to work every morning is becoming a "project" vehicle. Not only that, it will be a project in full view of the magazine staff and readers, so every pitfall and screw up will be potential ammo every day at work. Like I said, it's dangerous ground. But if I have some kind of catastrophic engine or transmission failure, I might have to get a rental car, take a bus, or even (gulp) rely on my co-workers to get me to the office. That being said, what the heck, what's life worth without some excitement? It wasn't always looking this way though. My truck started life like many other diesels do-intended to be a work horse and a work truck.

After working at a number of dead-end jobs, I was ready for a big change and decided to go into business for myself hauling cars from auctions to dealers as well as for private parties. My run was to be from the car-cramped Los Angeles up to Northern California, where cars that people will throw away down here can still fetch a few grand. When doing a business plan, I figured I could save $1,000 a month or more by purchasing an older used vehicle rather than buying a new one and financing. For someone just starting out, that would be a huge help to get on the right side of profits. I knew I needed a dualie for the weight, and I wanted a turbo for the towing power, so I set out on the hunt.

The vehicle I found was a '97 Dodge Ram 3500 2WD dualie with the 12-valve Cummins and 250,000 miles. I saw it on eBay, and, oddly enough, it was only 10 miles away from where I lived in San Diego, so I drove to take a look. The mileage was a little high, but I had talked to numerous Cummins owners who had 350K or more on their trucks, along with one fellow who had a little under 800,000 on his, so I figured I had a little time left before a tranny or engine rebuild. The truck also had a salvage title, but since I never planned on getting rid of it, I didn't care about that either. It was surprisingly clean, which I tallied as a bonus because appearance when hauling expensive cars was something I needed to look for. At some point during the truck's life, an alarm had been poorly installed, and because the truck was a police auction vehicle, they had just jury-rigged a wire to start it. So the starting procedure was that you would turn the key, pop the hood, get out, open the hood, and then touch the wire to the positive terminal to start it. While this might scare some, I had driven my fair share of clunkers, so I decided it was OK and decided that it was probably just an isolated problem rather than something like a bad wiring harness. The truck drove smooth, seemed to have enough power, and shifted well during the test drive, so I risked making an offer. Although the truck had some mechanical and cosmetic problems, it was a few grand cheaper than anything else I saw, and I figured that money could go into a transmission rebuild. In the end, I drove home my first diesel pickup to the tune of $5,000.

Since then, life with the truck has been pretty trouble free. I have put about 8,000 miles on it since then, and the only problem is that the check-engine light has come on, which seems to be something to do with the EGR that came on '97 California trucks. Gas mileage is great, and it averages about 21 mpg on the highway at 70 mph. All this with a tow package and 3.54 gears! My only complaint so far has been that it pounds mercilessly over the big expansion joints on big-city freeways. It rides fine out in the middle of nowhere, but in the city it feels like you are driving sitting on the end of a diving board while someone is jumping on it. Since being hired at Diesel Power, the shipping company idea is no longer, which means I still have a 3-4 car hauler to sell, despite the guys at off-road magazines trying to convince me to haul all their crap out to Moab. I couldn't bring myself to part with the truck though because it's one of the only diesels that runs around here. Since I no longer needed it for towing, the plan has changed.

Now I see my truck as the older musclecar of diesels. No stinkin' electronics or fancy-shmancy injection, just 12 valves, a turbo, and a pump that can put out a bunch of fuel. As these trucks get older and older, I wouldn't be surprised to see a younger crowd owning these less-expensive older trucks. There seems to also be a big 12-valve following on the Internet, and a lot of the modifications are relatively the same. The great thing about these early trucks is that with a few cheap mechanical modifications, they can equal or surpass the horsepower and especially torque of newer trucks. The plan is to create a common recipe for 12-valve performance that works and people can use in years to come. I still have to finalize the list, but first will be a fuel plate, pump timing bumped to 15 degrees, 3K Governor Spring Kit (GSK), and gauges. I am shooting for 250- 300 rear-wheel horsepower at this level. Next will be 370 injectors, 191 or laser- cut Delivery Valves, exhaust and intake, and probably nitrous. I am shooting for 350-400 rear-wheel horsepower at this level and at least 500 rear-wheel horsepower on the jug. I know a lot of people don't like nitrous, but coming from a drag racing background, it's hard to argue with something that will drop 1-2 seconds off your elapsed time.

I'll also dyno the truck to see how much power it makes at each stage and also run it down the track a few times to see how fast it is. Since it is a daily driver, reliability will also be a main goal, which means the transmission will need help at any horsepower level above stock. The truck was also made in one of the years that has the "killer dowel pin," so that will need to be fixed. I'll probably tow with it a time or two for those with the same mods that need to tow and see if the EGTs get out of hand. Eventually, the engine and transmission will be headed into a 3,000-pound drag truck project to see just how fast a street strip diesel can be. But that is probably a year or two from now.

For now, that's the story on how I bought it, how it went from work truck to a "project" truck, and what kind of future awaits it. While nowhere near nice enough to be a feature truck, it will be popping into the magazine from time to time in articles about anything from biodiesel to drag racing. I hope to make some good power with it and have some fun-all the while keeping it reliable and driving it every day.

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