Throttle First Drive: 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10
Cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny afternoon, behind the wheel of a 500-horsepower Dodge Ram SRT-10, memories of my ’78 LRT Express are vivid and engaging. The SRT and LRT are two of kind but in different generations: the fastest factory hot rod pickups of their era. Both came from the minds of engineers, not MBAs. Car guys, not focus-group leaders, developed these vehicles. The customers are the same: those who want to be noticed and those who want to go fast.
My 700-mile, 2-day whirlwind trip from Los Angeles to Monterey was needed to attend a business meeting. I was looking for real-world seat time in the SRT-10. I know it’s the world’s fastest production truck, having been certified at over 154 mph by the Guinness record keepers. But who’s going to take their SRT-10 to Bonneville or Chrysler’s 4.7-mile high-speed test near Chelsea, Michigan? I wanted to drive the SRT in much the same manner as a typical enthusiast. And a road trip to Monterey seemed like the ideal scenario.
Leaving LA at 5:00 a.m., I headed north in Interstate 5, stopping only once near Castaic Lake for sunrise photography. I intended to follow much the same route as James Dean planned almost 50 years ago when he was going to Salinas for a race but was killed in a head-on crash. After exiting the I-5 at Lost Hills, I drove west on Hwy 46. Dean had picked up the old Hwy 466 north of Bakersfield near Famoso, having driven north from LA on Hwy 99 (There was no Interstate system in his day).
As it came down from Temblor Mountains, which were shaped by the San Andreas Fault running underneath, Dean’s Porsche collided with Ford coupe driven by a college student eastbound on 466. The student was attempting to turn left, or north, on to Hwy 41 toward Fresno when he apparently didn’t see Dean’s silver racecar.
Highway 466 has been renamed Hwy 46 and rerouted slightly as it rolls into Cholame, a small town made up of a café, gas station and post office. The 46/41 intersection, which is about 900 yards east of Cholame, has also been redesigned, no doubt partly due to Dean’s death. A wealthy fan of Dean from Japan built a memorial around a tree in Cholame, but there is no marker at the actual crash site. No doubt the small town will be overrun with James Dean faithful next year on the 50th anniversary of his death.
So far I haven’t stretched the SRT’s legs much. A couple of quick 0-100-mph bursts were made on the lonely Hwy 41, but the I-5 and Hwy. 46 were jammed with motorists and truckers. Rowing through the gears with the Hurst shifter comes with no drama, and the clutch is easy on the left leg, even in heavy traffic. Putting the Viper 6-speed into a fullsize truck was a daring move on the part of the Chrysler Group’s Performance Vehicle Operations division. The unavailability of an automatic transmission narrows the customer base considerably but improves the chances that the owner’s driving skills are beyond those of a mainstream pickup owner.
The LRT came only with a 3-speed LoadFlite transmission, a very capable piece of hardware in its day. But then I wondered about the drivetrain possibilities had the LRT been born 10 years earlier in the peak of the musclecar era. So I called Tom Hoover, one of the original engineers on the LRT project along with Dave Koffel and the late Dick Maxwell. The three had been key players in the Super Stock wars of the ‘60s, working with the big 440 MaxWedge and 426 Hemi engines. I asked Hoover if he was ever approached about building a Hemi-powered D-100 pickup with a 4-speed transmission. While the idea sounded interesting, Hoover said his schedule was full with the ‘Cuda and Dart programs meant for the NHRA dragstrips. He did mention, however, that Bill “Maverick” Golden had a Hemi in his legendary Dodge A-100 wheelstander, the Little Red Wagon.
Hoover & Co. developed the Li’l Red Truck prototype when product planner Gordon Cherry said he wanted a cool pickup for the popular Adult Toys promotion that Dodge was pushing. Some of their ideas didn’t make it, like using the race-inspired W2 cylinder heads and a ‘36 Ford style taillight, but the massive upright chromed exhaust, dual snorkel air intake, real wood bed trim and bigger tires for the rear did go into production. The 1978 LRT was one of the quickest and fastest American-made vehicles that year, beating a Corvette in acceleration tests conducted by Car & Driver magazine.