As my Japanese kei car imports make their way to the States, I’ve decided to cut out a transporter and haul them home myself. My fiancee and I are trailering my new toys home with a $600 1991 Dodge Dakota. The last time this truck was on the road was in 2010; now it’s being given a sizable challenge.
Shipping a car across the country is quite costly. In fact, I found that it’s cheaper to ship a car from Japan to the U.S. than it is to ship a car from Tacoma, Washington, to Chicago. The quote that I received, about $1,800, to ship the Honda Beat a mere 2,100 miles would pay for another Beat at auction. If I’m going to pay the cost of another car in getting it home, I might as well make it fun. I’ll bring it home myself!
There is one complication. The only vehicle I have that could easily tow the Beat home is my International 3800 school bus. Using such a large vehicle to tow a tiny kei car is some hilarious overkill, so I started shopping for a cheap tow rig. It needs to make the 4,200-mile Washington trip and a 1,700-mile trek to pick up the Suzuki Every from Maryland.
Coincidentally, my fiancee was also shopping for a vehicle to build into an off-road rig. Remember the Toyota Camry that I jumped at a HooptieX time trial last year? Well, that car belonged to her.
The rust got a little too advanced for her liking and she passed the car onto another HooptieX racer.
I wanted something hopelessly complicated like a Volkswagen Touareg, while she wanted a comparatively simple first-generation Dodge Dakota. The only good Touaregs that I found within my price range sold before I could even fire off a message. The others were already one tire into the scrapyard. I pivoted to finding a cheap Toyota Sequoia, but all of those had broken frames from excessive rust. So I went all-in on her idea for a cheap Dakota.
It didn’t take her long to find a project truck that piqued her interest. There it was, a 1991 Dakota with only 128,000 miles, an eight-foot bed and a 5.2-liter V8. Best of all, the seller wanted it gone for only $600.
We arrived at the seller’s house to learn that this truck has quite the origin story.
The Dakota was purchased new by the seller’s great-grandfather, then passed down to his grandfather, then to his father, then finally to him. His father added custom metallic paint, a lowering kit, chrome wheels and a body kit. It’s a shame that he didn’t have pictures of the truck in its prime, because it probably looked rad. Under the peeling paint is the truck’s original hue, sky blue.
While the exterior looks pretty worn, the frame is surprisingly clean. The worst rust on the frame is all on the surface. The seller explained that when the truck came into his possession about a decade ago, he intended to restore it to its former glory.
Unfortunately, time and life got in the way, and the truck sat for a full 10 years. Many of those years were spent inside a dusty garage with the truck covered by boxes. In recent times, the truck was moved outdoors so a racecar build could commence inside the garage. This drew the ire of his homeowner’s association. It appears that the bothersome HOA was the final straw for him to pass the project onto someone new.
The main selling point for my fiancee is the truck’s tow rating. This particular truck, in this configuration, has capacity close to 7,000 pounds, which will be perfect for hauling home my dinky 1,600-pound kei cars.
The Dakota’s first start in 11 years involved a lot of cranking with a fully charged battery and a whole lot of smoke. Despite decade-old fuel in the tank, the 170-horsepower V8 eventually roared into life and ran smoothly. It didn’t even have a lifter tick.
As anyone would do, we celebrated putting an old truck back on the road by taking it on a road trip. We cleaned out the fuel system, threw on some tires that I had and gave it new fluids. We then embarked on the Illinois portion of the Gambler 500 Gamblinball Run.
It was a 700-mile round trip down Route 66. We felt that the drive would be a good test run for our upcoming trips. Aside from some lingering engine smoke, the truck drove beautifully.
You’d never know that it was just yanked out of a deep slumber. It even scored a reasonable 14 mpg despite running on old plugs and wires. The most surprising discovery to me is that the air-conditioner still blows ice cold.
We have a lot of prep to do before we take it on a longer journey, let alone towing. It’s going to need some refreshing under the hood and new rubber before an extended trip. Those tires just aren’t going to cut it. I also want to fix the loose bed mounts so the truck doesn’t look all bent. Aside from a tow rig, she wants to make it into her off-road truck and finish the restoration job that the previous owner never took further than buying a replacement grille.
Our first mod to the Dakota was giving it more modern sound. This is a 1991 Dodge with Bluetooth!
With over 700 miles already covered, following more than a decade of storage, I am confident that this truck will easily haul my new toys home.