2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner - Desert Dragger

The Return Of The Beast

Lance Martz
Aug 1, 2004
Photographers: Wes Allison
Photo 2/15   |   OWNER: Nissan Motor Corporation/Mini Truckin' Magazine PROJECT MANAGER: Lance MartzRIDE: '03 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner supercharged V-6 King CabLOCATION: Placentia, CaliforniaMODEL: Angel Cassidy
A couple of years ago, Sport Truck magazine approached Mini Truckin' magazine with a truck it was done with, offering it to us to use as a custom project buildup. The truck was a yellow '03 Nissan Desert Runner with a supercharged V-6 powerplant. It was, without a doubt, a very cool mini-truck and had all the bells and whistles you could possibly want - as well as plenty that most custom mini-truckers would rather do without - from the factory. Unfortunately, you can't just 'bag one of these trucks since they come equipped with a 4x4 suspension profile. The suspension is both too wide and hangs down way too far to even think about trying to lay stock frame.
Photo 3/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger grille
Once we realized the truck couldn't be 'bagged or laid out using conventional means, we turned to more drastic measures. The Mini Truckin' staffers are known around Primedia as the guys who aren't afraid to take a plasma cutter to anything with wheels and tires. The truck was delivered to Suspension Dimension in Grand Terrace, California, where its suspension was stripped down and a long look was taken at all that was in the way. Up onto the lift the truck went, where it lived for a couple of months, and out came the plasma cutter, which was used to hack the front framerails off just in front of the doors. With the engine hanging precariously over the engine bay, we dropped the stock front frame clip away and loaded a junkyard front clip we got in trade from California Mini-Truck Dismantlers for the stock front clip and suspension we'd just removed. The '89 Hardbody front clip and regular 2WD suspension soon became part of the Desert Runner, and we were faced with even more exciting challenges.
Photo 7/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger tailgate
New engine mounts had to be fabricated because of the huge difference between the '87 Hardbody and '03 Frontier chassis. Once the mounts were made, the oil pan was addressed. Since the Frontier had a supercharged engine, it also carried a huge oil pan with an extra 2-quart capacity; that wasn't going to fly with a truck laying frame, and we started wondering how to fix it. Someone in the shop happened to compare the '03 V-6 oil pan to an '89 V-6 oil pan and realized that the mounting holes were exactly the same. After modifying the '89 oil pickup tube and internal oil baffling to fit, we bolted them up. Somehow, the truck ran like the supercharged beast it had always been.
Next, the frontend was 'bagged as easily as you'd 'bag any regular 2WD Nissan Hardbody. Moving to the rear, things got a bit iffy once again. Huge spring perches on the rear framerails cause Desert Runners to sit higher than typical 2WD trucks. These were axed from the framerails, along with every crossmember the truck came with, in preparation for the new reversed four-link suspension we were adding to allow the rear to completely drop to the ground. Suspension Dimension came up with a trick flame-cut, flame-pattern steel crossmember, which holds a hoop in the center. When the truck is laid out, an optical plasma-cut SD affixed to the rearend rises and fills the hoop, creating the shop's logo.
Photo 8/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger tonneau Cover
Once it was finished to the point of needing paint, we loaded the truck up and took it to Prescott, Arizona, where Charles Armstrong and his wicked troops were ready to shave, paint, and sling custom graphics on what we'd dubbed Project Desert Dragger. In a month's time, Auto Art managed to shave it, add custom graphics, and pull out all the stops in order to get the truck to the 2002 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. There, the truck was proudly displayed in Primedia's main-hall booth. More than one Nissan executive came over to see what we'd done to the company's once sky-high mini-truck. They were amazed, as were we, with all that had been accomplished in the few months before the show.
Since the SEMA Show, the truck has mostly sat untouched (except for several burnouts by the guys at Suspension Dimension). We recently dusted off the cobwebs, tubbed the bed, and added a permanent bedliner to get the truck ready for a cover shoot. Without the help of such Suspension Dimension alumni as Sean Thurman, Semone Shabke, and new Suspension Dimension owner Sean Canela, we never would've been able to make Project Desert Dragger a reality.
Photo 9/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger truck Bed
The Lowdown
Wheels/Tires Front: 18x8-inch chrome Giovanna G-Racing Mito wheels with 225/35R18 Toyo Proxes T1-S radial tires; Rear: 20x8-inch chrome Giovanna G-Racing Mito wheels with 245/35R20 Toyo Proxes T1-S radial tires
Suspension Front: Firestone 255C airbags / Chassis Tech dropped spindles; Rear: freshly rebuilt '87 Nissan Hardbody 2WD rearend with new gearing / Firestone 224C airbags / custom upper and lower 'bag mounts; Miscellaneous: two VIAIR 450C compressors / two 5-gallon VIAIR air tanks / 3/8-inch air delivery lines / four-wheel independently controlled 3/8-inch Sirai electric valves / electric switches installed in-cab in center console
Photo 10/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger rear Axle
Chassis Front: chassis from front-door edge forward replaced with '87 Nissan Hardbody V-6 front chassis clip by Suspension Dimension with parts from California Mini-Truck Dismantlers in Montclair, California / sectioned '87 Hardbody V-6 oil pan and oil pickup from California Mini-Truck Dismantlers / Motorsport Technologies six-to-five-lug conversion with billet hubs and new front brake rotors; Rear: custom-triangulated and reversed four-link rear suspension / fuel tank sectioned 3 inches with modified-stock fuel sending unit / custom tubular fuel-tank mounts / Suspension Dimension custom flame-cut "flame" crossmember / modified driveline (shortened by 1 inch) by Inland Driveline in Ontario, California / Hardbody rear driveline yoke added to Frontier driveshaft / all suspension and chassis modifications performed by Suspension Dimension in Grand Terrace, California
Body Modifications Shaved door handles / key lock added to driver door for mechanical access / sectioned, plastic-welded front bumper cover radiused to fit contour of front fender opening / molded Grant Kustoms roll pan / Grant Kustoms tailgate skin / Trenz billet grille insert / Trenz billet bumper insert / removed Desert Runner fender flares / shaved body moldings / shaved holes in body for Desert Runner body panels / all bodywork performed by Brad Houk at Auto Art in Chino Valley, Arizona / tubbed rear bed fenders by Suspension Dimension in Grand Terrace, California, with trailer fenders from Mac's Spring Shop in Highland, California
Photo 14/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger left Taillight
Engine Factory-supercharged V-6 engine with modified air intake and AEM conical air filter / custom true dual exhaust hand-fabricated by Bill Keeling at Arizona Exhaust
Paint Project Desert Dragger was yellow from the factory, so part of the truck was repainted yellow with body modifications performed. Charles Armstrong at Auto Art by the Kid took care of all painting duties in Prescott, Arizona, using X-otic Custom Colour's Yellow, Copper, and Magenta Pearl, with X-otic Teal used for pinstriping the fresh flames. Charles also added shaded splatter graphics behind the flames for a more three-dimensional effect.
Stereo Factory-installed SE V6 premium stereo system with subwoofer in King Cab area of the cab
Interior Cab: Leather Trim Limited custom seat covers and door-panel accents installed using black-leather and yellow-suede inserts; Bed: tubbed inner fenderwells by Suspension Dimension / Herculiner bedliner / dual VIAIR 450C compressors / dual 5-gallon air tanks
Photo 15/15   |   2003 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner Desert Dragger engine
Miscellaneous Checker Products' Checkmate tonneau cover painted yellow with Auto Art flames in Copper from the cab to the tailgate on the passenger side of the truck.
Special Thanks AIM Industries (drop spindles) / Auto Art by the Kid (paint and graphics) / Big-O Tires in San Bernardino, California (tire mounting, balancing, and front wheel alignment) / Brad Houk (bodywork) / California Mini Truck Dismantlers (Hardbody front frame clip, 2WD Nissan rear end, and so on) / Car Care and Justin Burns (tuning and braking system) / Herculiner (bedliner by Lance Martz) / Josh Handman at Leather Trim Limited / Mac's Springs (air suspension components) / Motorsport Technologies (six-to-five-lug conversion) / Power Clean Express Mobile Detailing / Suspension Dimension (fabrication) / Toyo Tires / VIAIR Corporation (compressors, air supply tanks, and pressure switches) / X-otic Custom Colours Inc.

2015 Nissan Frontier Specifications

Fair Market Price $17,075
MSRP $17,990
Editors' Overall Rating
Mileage 19 City / 23 Highway
Engine 2.5L I4
Horse Power 152 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 171 ft lb of torque @ 4,400 rpm
See all Specifications


Grant Kustoms
Oroville, CA 95966
Toyo Tire Corporation
Nashville, TN
Suspension Dimension
Grand Terrace, CA 92313
Checker Products
Benton, KY 42025
Giovanna Wheels
Arizona Exhaust Systems
Prescott, AZ 86301
Auto Art
Chino Valley, AZ 86323
Car Care
Prescott, AZ 86303
Inland Driveline
Ontario, CA 91761
Mac's Spring Shop
Highland, CA 92346
Motorsport Technology
Grand Terrace, CA 92313
Trenz Mfg.
Bakersfield, CA 93308
Viair Corp
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
X-otic Colours Inc
Minneapolis, MN 55423


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Nissan Frontier

Fair Market Price
Editors' Overall Rating
Basic Specifications
MSRP: $17,990
Mileage: 19 / 23
Engine: 2.5L I4
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