Home » We Need To Talk About The Dodge D-Series Ram Truck’s Hilariously Pathetic Dashboard Designs

We Need To Talk About The Dodge D-Series Ram Truck’s Hilariously Pathetic Dashboard Designs

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A long, long time ago, I made a decision about how I’d approach my job: nothing is too small. As far as I’m concerned, there is no detail too insignificant, too ignorable, too minuscule to look past, because it is in these tiny things that the true soul of something is often revealed. For good or bad. And I think that may be why I want to talk about this particular thing right now. It’s something insignificant, but it’s also kind of fascinating, filling me with the sort of delicious awe one gets when viewing a job done really, really crappily. The subject I want to discuss as part of my “Phoning It In” series is the dashboard and instrument panel design of the third generation of Dodge D-Series trucks, which is so gloriously crappy it makes me genuinely excited. Let’s dig in.

I feel like the biggest defining trait of this era of Dodge truck dashboard design is lots and lots of real estate to work with, but absolutely no idea what to do with it. The planning and layout of the controls seems to be roughly on par with the planning that goes into how crabgrass grows when a fistful of seeds are flung at a patch of wet dirt.

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The three main instruments are conventional enough, but the placement of everything else seems like what you would get if you separated everyone involved in this dashboard’s engineering and design and kept them isolated in sensory deprivation tanks until the project was completed, with zero communication between designers and engineers and parts supplier and everyone.

Let’s just walk through some of the juicer, more thrilling elements here. Like this one that my co-Autopian, The Bishop, showed me earlier today. It’s the cargo light switch, used to switch on the lights in the truck bed. Not a vitally important control, but handy, sure. So where to put it, and how to design the switch? Here’s what they came up with:

Cargolight1

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Oh yeah! Great job, fellas! Really nailed that one! Get the smallest button you can find, and stick it smack dab in the center of a nice, huge, empty plastic plain. And why the hell would you settle for one silver-painted plastic bezel when you can have two? Two silvery frames! That’ll give your fingers something else to feel while they make the long, flat, scrambly journey to find the tiny button in the center!

You know what I respect about these Dodge interior designers, though? They don’t just let things be. They know that when you’re committed to really crap design, there’s always a way to go further, to crap things up just another notch, because it’s worth it. And that’s exactly what they did with the next iteration of the Cargo Light switch:

Cargolight2

I can just hear the design meeting pitch for this one:

“What if – and hear me out here – we keep the cargo light button still shoved down there in that awkward spot, and we keep the button nice and tiny, and keep it on the same huge blank plastic rectangle, but we eliminate the silvery paint from the two bezels and we get rid of 50% of the letters on the button! Half the letters! It’s genius!”

I bet that person got a raise for saving the Chrysler so many letters. “Sure, maybe CGO LT is a bit tricky to process – is it a cigarette lighter or a way to select some limited traction mode? (car-go limited ?)– but they’ll figure it out!”

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I bet in that picture up there something else caught your eye: that “O/D” overdrive button:

Overdrive

Wow, look at that! It’s positively majestic! That center panel thing there, sized just delightfully too wide for that standard Mopar HVAC panel, and with all that dead real estate up top, it’s a perfect place for what looks like four possible warning lights, maybe, and a small overdrive button, placed haphazardly off-center in a confusingly vertical panel, and with that confusing overdrive on/off conceit where it’s just an off button where the light turns on when overdrive is off. Easy!

That center panel really managed to confound the Dodge truck design team, who came up with a dazzling array of varieties of that panel, all somehow equally shitty:Centerpanel Options V

 

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It’s incredible how much those 20 or so square inches of black plastic really confounded this team. Sometimes they stuck a reminder about what engine you bought, sometimes they just told you that those two to four warning lights were, in an act of wild aggrandizement, a “message center,” which I think may mean you could stick Post-It notes there, or there was the O/D button or, most excitingly, that 2WD or 4WD indicator graphic, which did replace that ribbed panel, so if you wanted to use your thumbnail to make brrrrrrrrrrrrrap sounds, you’d have to find another solution.

Oh, and the little cubbyhole that sometimes took the place of the flat plastic wall is almost useless. What are you really putting in there? I guess you can shove a wallet or small sandwich in there. Maybe sleep a gerbil. That’s not so bad, I guess.

In some ways, I think the instrument designers did the best they could. After all, this was the base dashboard panel they were given to work with:

Dashcasting

It’s like whoever designed the mold for this dash had zero idea of what might go on it, so they just cut out some arbitrarily-sized rectangles then knocked off early, to get drunk. And that’s the sort of thinking that gives you incredible instrument panel designs like this:

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Lights

Look at that shit! Come on! It’s like they were thinking we need a switch for the lights, but is there any way we can make it both look awkward as hell and attract as much dust and crumbs as possible? And then the whole IP design team bellowed, in unison, hold our beer.

This isn’t designed so much as it is a series of events that just sort of happened, and that ended up, somehow, in the truck having an instrument panel. And, for Chrysler in the 1980s, I think that was very much good enough.

Why do I love crap like this so much? There’s no way anything like this would fly today, and I suppose in some ways that confuses me. How and when did we finally get up the gumption to say no to this crap? Or did it just change forms, and now it’s all in shit interfaces and UX for touch screen displays? Maybe.

That said, I kinda miss the days where your new car could have a dash populated with huge acres of black, textured plastic, fencing in a lone, lonely button with a cryptic series of letters on it, hoping to, one day, be pressed.

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Ben Lamb
Ben Lamb
3 months ago

I love my huge dash surround for a single cargo light button, Torchinsky. You don’t own a 1991 Dodge sir, do you? If you did and you were using a 30 something year old truck to shuttle kitchen remodeling parts between two storage units and your house in the dead of winter at 5:30 pm which might as well be the middle of the night, you’d find that big huge depression incredibly helpful to find that button by pure feel when there’s hardly any illumination in the truck because the dome light has been burned out for a decade and the storage unit parking area has one of those dumb sodium street lights with a daylight sensor that mistakenly turns the light off not at sunrise but when the streetlight finally warms up enough to put out more than a candle’s worth of illumination.

That’s why it’s in that big surround dude. So you can find it and push the damn button.

Joseph Kadzban
Joseph Kadzban
4 months ago

C’MON MAN. I was only 8 years old when I designed them dashes. I thought boxes amd lines were cool. Then I thought I could be the cool dude who eliminated ltrs so ppl cld rd sht fstr

Sean Ward
Sean Ward
9 months ago

Oh dear, it would appear that in a time when trucks were just utilitarian tools, Mopar went all utilitarian on the dash. That said, I would not have been against more effort in the design department there.

The Cyclist
The Cyclist
9 months ago

That cargo light gives off a romantic glow.

Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
9 months ago
Reply to  The Cyclist

I am glad to see I am not the only one to have remembered that lyric.

Dan Bee
Dan Bee
9 months ago

Now we know where the first-gen Nissan LEAF designers got their inspiration. Seriously – two separate clocks with two separate controls and two separate fonts.

Ben
Ben
9 months ago

There’s no way anything like this would fly today

*Looks at basically every EV interior*

Are you sure about that? The whole “slap a tablet on the dash and knock off for a liquid lunch” thing is exactly the modern equivalent of this. Lazy AF and aesthetically cringey.

Brockstar
Brockstar
9 months ago

Have you thought about seeing if Stellantis wants to sponsor this series? Their family tree has plenty of fodder for the continuation of this series.

Also while I am down the shameless monetization hole, Jason, you need to get into jewelry making! Imagine a bespoke pair of CGO LT cuff links. That’s how you make an impression on ____ Paul next year in Pebble Beach.

Myk El
Myk El
9 months ago

Not truly related, but I have a cargo light story. My dad and I were heading toward Glenwood Springs, CO where we’d be staying for a weekend fishing trip. It was after dark on I-70 between Vail/Avon and Glenwood Canyon. I’m passing someone going slower than I’d like, I’m a little over the limit (75 mph zone) and someone comes flying up behind my truck (2015 Nissan Frontier). They’d been going a LOT over the limit. They slow down and basically attach themselves to my rear bumper. I don’t brake check, but I am not particularly fond of tailgaters, I hit the cargo light switch a couple of times to let them know I’m 1) aware they’re there and 2) not happy about it.

I think this driver must have thought I was police (or crazy) because they slam the brakes, pull in behind the vehicle I was passing and then after I complete my pass and pull back into the right lane, they stay there. After about 10 more miles, they come back out to the left and pass the other vehicle then move up to my corner but don’t pass right away. After a few moments, they then decide to go ahead and pass. When nothing else happens, they resumes flying down the road.

Scruffinater
Scruffinater
9 months ago

Counterpoint: that dash is so simple that if you don’t like it most of us can probably make something we prefer ourselves. Suits me just fine thanks 😉

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