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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Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
10 months ago

It could be worse! Can’t find how to get the sound system screen to stay on in my gal’s Highlander. It’ll come on..give you maybe enough time to set what you want and then blanks out. Pretty obvious The Mopar Boys we’re on a budget! What does Mopar stand for? My Old Pig Ain’t Running! Or Money or Parts Are Ready!

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
10 months ago
Reply to  Rich Hobbs

My dad’s a huge MOPAR fan. After owning several myself, I started thinking Maybe Old People Ain’t Right

Chris D
Chris D
10 months ago

“Mostly Old Parts, Ain’t Running”?

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
10 months ago

Nice review, but I don’t think things have changed that much. Just swap out the black plastic for piano black plastic.

Also, any Rolls Royce of that era had a pretty random placement of stuff all over the dash too. It didn’t really matter becasue it should never be you that actually has to drive it. The help took care of that. The wood was presumably real though, so there was that justification for the price.

Paul B
Paul B
10 months ago

I bet that cubby hole fit a soft pack of cigarettes perfectly.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
10 months ago

What’s amazing is how the dash panel and switchgear were apparently designed by different teams not allowed, under any circumstances, to communicate or collaborate in any way, to ensure none of this stuff worked together in a coherent fashion.

LarsVargas
LarsVargas
10 months ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

A lot like some of Toyota’s current design language and the all time champ: the Pontiac Aztec.

Dan Bee
Dan Bee
10 months ago
Reply to  LarsVargas

This.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
10 months ago

As a previous owner of an 88 D-series (RIP) I’m not just gonna sit here and let you badmouth that pinnacle of dashboard design. I’m gonna join you 🙂

I thought the funniest thing with my 2WD truck was they kept that 4WD axle graphic on the dash that had no purpose but to taunt me whenever I got it stuck.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
10 months ago

Everything you said was true and very funny. Now, how many of us thought, “I need that truck, giant dashboard included.”?

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
10 months ago

Gerbil hole? Are we still talking about a dash here?

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
10 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

Richard Gere got excited for a minute.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
10 months ago

Poor gerbil.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
10 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

There was talk of gerbils.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
10 months ago

This is the funniest thing I have read in weeks. You really couldn’t make these designs worse.

JumboG
JumboG
10 months ago

I had an even earlier D-series (1976) and the big problem for me was when I put a cassette adapter in the 8-track player the shifter for the 3-on-the-tree manual transmission hit the adapter. So I had to spend double the money and get a sparkomatic cassette radio.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
10 months ago

This hurts my OCD.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
10 months ago

This makes me think of the pathetic-looking base screens installed with huge bezels to compensate for the hole designed for larger screens in higher end models you see nowadays.

Idiotking
Idiotking
10 months ago
Reply to  Boxing Pistons

You have described the dash in my ’09 Accord perfectly, sir. It’s like a giant black hole admonishing me for not having spent the extra money for the infotainment system; just an LCD clock set waayyy back in there.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
10 months ago

At least you didn’t have to dig through touchscreen menus to find basic stuff! Even the crappiest layout of physical buttons/knobs/switches is better than a convoluted infotainment screen.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
10 months ago

Incredible! These dashboards have as much user-centered design as a moth does a flight plan.

Last edited 10 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
10 months ago

I’m picturing a roomful of designers, a keg, a felt outline of a dash on the wall, Velcro-backed cutouts of various instruments, indicators, and controls, and a blindfold.

Last edited 10 months ago by Canopysaurus
Nlpnt
Nlpnt
10 months ago

OK, so, here’s the thing;

The previous (1972-80, like the ’79 or ’80 truck in your lede pic) dashboard was, if not objectively good, at least better finished than GM and especially Ford’s ’70s offerings which still featured large amounts of painted metal in the main cab/body color. Shoutout here to GM whose designers seem to have worked on the assumption the cab interior sheetmetal would be painted a neutral color harmonized with the upholstery as GM had done with their truck cabs since the late ’30s and the production team who nixed that due to new manufacturing processes. Anyway, the ’70s Dodge dash had *style*. And serviceability – the fuse box was under the glove compartment lid, facing up.

The dash in question here was meant to fit the existing hard points, use as many common components as possible and was done on the cheap in the final stretch before Iacocca when Chryco didn’t have a pot left to piss in.

Mr. Frick
Mr. Frick
10 months ago
Reply to  Nlpnt

Just more Mopar bashing from JT. I think it’s a grudge or fetish.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

It balances out his cofounder’s jeep fetish.

Barry Allen
Barry Allen
10 months ago
Reply to  Nlpnt

“Ford’s ’70s offerings which still featured large amounts of painted metal in the main cab/body color”
I prefer that to wood grain plastic any day.

David Lorengo
David Lorengo
10 months ago

Is this really any different than the Toyotas and Mercedes that just gave you blank knock outs to remind you of all the features you didn’t buy?

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
10 months ago
Reply to  David Lorengo

One of the little things I enjoy about my Focus is that b/c “world car”, it has some of those, dead buttons, etc. I get a kick out of them.

DOHCtor
DOHCtor
10 months ago
Reply to  David Lorengo

My fully optioned out 2012 Civic Si have 3 of them right by the steering wheel..

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
10 months ago

Great article!

Alexk98
Alexk98
10 months ago

To think these only exited production barely 5 years prior to the Daimler-Chrysler “merger of equals” makes that fiasco all the more hilarious. Heck, the W140 with its Billion Dollar development was in production the same time as these D-Series trucks. Man where the 80’s 90’s ever a weird time for the car industry

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
10 months ago

I’m not really sure ‘design team’ is the correct term here. This all seems like the work of one person who I will most assuredly not call a designer.

Perhaps someone better trained in VisiCalc than design.

Drew
Drew
10 months ago

“Could we put the cargo light over here with the headlights?”
“No room; we’re going to need another plastic insert of similar size, placed farther from the door. The cargo light is most useful while in the driver’s seat, right?”

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
10 months ago
Reply to  Drew

You had a cargo light? Luxury!

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago

Perhaps Dodge hired all the out-of-work British Leyland engineers.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Chronometric

As the current owner of a 1982 and a 1983 Austin, I’m not convinced BL had any engineers around to put out of work.

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

We know from racing that there were/are incredible British engineers. I think it was more a case of

“Go design a new car. You have been assigned a budget of £10,000. Spend it wisely.”

Last edited 10 months ago by Chronometric
Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Chronometric

In truth, I agree. After all, I myself have raced many fine British cars, where by “many” I mean five and by “raced” I mean this:

https://live.staticflickr.com/5474/9992977564_a05866fe69_c.jpg

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

Between that and flat-towing your Saab with another to the track, you, sir, are my hero.

What year & track was that? I’d like to see if there’s video of you flogging it

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

That was Chuckwalla Valley Raceway on 8-9 December 2012, which I believe is the only time Lemons ever raced there. I’ve never seen any video footage but there were five of us driving the Super Snipe that weekend and most of us had white helmets, so of the available still photos this is pretty much the only one I’m sure is of me.

Sadly this was the race at which one of the other drivers rolled the car. The driver was uninjured but the car was permanently done. Fortunately the owner, Alan Frisbie, had a spare Super Snipe station wagon which he next caged and raced, as one does.

By the way, for anyone wondering about the oversized rubber larvae attacking the car, we were Team Tinworm.

Last edited 10 months ago by Mike Harrell
Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
10 months ago

The modern version of this is the Hyundai Elantra Circle

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
10 months ago

This is the first I’m hearing about it and my life is worse off knowing it exists.

Daniel Williams
Daniel Williams
10 months ago

My grandfather had a pair of Dodge D Series, one in blue, one in cream/yellow, from the first years of the RAM models, complete with ram hood ornament. The yellow one was a manual and was the “farm and field” truck used for rough stuff and was beat all to hell. The blue one was an automatic and the “go to town” truck, and was the first vehicle I drove. Blue also had a gooseneck ball in the middle of the bed that I clipped my ankle and shin on as a kid many many times. The 4×4 picture of the axles with ENGAGED below it was always fun to see. Thanks for bringing back some memories.

Root
Root
10 months ago

Oh man, this cracked me up. Thanks for the laugh, Torch.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
10 months ago

I would take this over almost any abomination that these new cars have for a dash.

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