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Hot Rod Hemi Ram

A Sawed-Off Shotgun Stuffed in a Tuxedo

Ro McGonegal
Nov 1, 2002
Photographers: Wes Allison
The 2002 Ram is the latest and most intimidating Dodge light-duty truck yet. But we're in Southern California, where nothing (even the meat in that taco) is really as it seems to be. So why shouldn't there be a greedy refugee straight out if the '60s making noise beneath that bulbous black hood? It shouldn't be, yet here it is. Keep telling yourself this is just an exercise in kinkiness, an aberrant vision perhaps - an experiment that could snafu in the bat of an eye. On the other hand, what could be cooler than a time machine, a way to relive history every time you crank the engine and stomp the throttle? Its initial outing was the Daytona 500 last February, and that actual hands-on test time was limited to less than 24 hours and 200 miles.

If you've just joined us, let's rehash the process. The souls at So-Cal Speed Shop cut out and fit the pieces of this nasty little jigsaw puzzle in about six weeks, retrograding 528ci of carbureted Mopar Performance crate Elephant and a B&M Torqueflite in the '02 next Ram truck. The Hemi Ram rips. It snorts. It is a reincarnation, a retro rock 'n' roller, a throwback, a hunchback, and a scary creature when running lean. The best thing of all about Hemi Ram was that it emulates a Detroit-backed recipe in terms of running quality, driveability, and the overall installation.


Like the exterior of the Ram, its gut is factory plain Jane, and there's little in there to distinguish this one-of-a-kind vehicle from vast legions of stockers. Dodge interior engineers did a fine job with the basic attractions, putting all the control knobs and levers in a logical, fall-to-hand arrangement of accessibility. Though even a cursory glance eats up the aftermarket Moon gauge pack (the only visual change), it virtually glazes over the illuminated shift quadrant repositioned directly adjacent to the end of the column shifter (so the eye would naturally follow). Manual shifting is superfluous, really; the Hemi's monster torque is so massive that simply leaving the transmission in D accomplishes miracles. If you want a real thrill, just crack the throttle down to passing gear and hold your ears. That bark is the Hemi Ram's signature.

Those foot-long Hooker muffs and custom tips aimed at the gnarly tread on those tall Yokohamas sure don't cut it as an over-the-road system. The noise is pleasantly intrusive, though, and the throwback Hemi would seem quite unnatural without it. Its addictive crackle and bass are blood sounds, primal, predatory, and exclusively ours.
By nature, the cab should elicit a twinge of claustrophobia, but the Ram's is tall, roomy and has an airy, open feel to it, even when the heavily tinted glass is rolled up. There's plenty of fore-aft adjustment in the track and seatback, as well as hip and shoulder room, even with the giant armrest/console laying flat. It's obvious that the Next Ram was built to house burly humanoids in comfort. Vision from the cab and via the outside mirrors is excellent. All you need do is glance and mat the throttle; Hemi grunt takes care of the rest. Undoubtedly, the biggest jolt in the whole engine-swap routine was the lack of crucial instrumentation, a misfortune traced directly to no time left and the complication of that pesky modern technology. The engine computer was originally integrated with the OE instrumentation cluster, and all the gauges are controlled digitally. Toss out 90 percent of the factory engine wiring, and we're left literally in the dark. Our new mechanical changes, however, are spot-on and guarantee an unforgettable experience; all the more so under plumes of chilled air wafting through the dashboard.

Ride & Handling

The Ram 1500 shortbed (with two-wheel drive, 4.7L all-aluminum V-8, automatic transmission) maintains a minimum curb weight of 4,600 pounds and a front-to-rear weight bias that's already out of hand, but the Hemi transformation scales in at 4,910 pounds (full gas tank). Again, So-Cal performed a small miracle. Though the Ram will inevitably push from here to Hawaii when wheel angles get seriously askew, it'll plow benignly and evenly around a freeway off-ramp with only minimal protest from the tall Yokohamas. What with no weight on the back skins and that anaconda-like torque in an instant, in a way it's comforting to know that the steering and suspension geometry are the ultimate failsafe device - probably the front end will safely wash out before the rear end does and has you facing oncoming traffic.

As for the habits of So-Cal's custom-lowered suspension package, we'd be under a lot of pressure to find a more compliant ride quality. On the freeway and smooth surface streets, the Ram rides firm, like a stocker with big tires. Thanks to stock front springs in dropped perches, the truck maintains all the wheel travel it was born with, and the stock spring rates maintain a smooth normal ride as abetted by Doetsch Tech shocks with valving calibrated especially for this conversion. The only time the Ram even feels lowered is when it passes over pronounced humps in the road at freeway speed. A skosh more resistance in the jounce mode of the Doetschs would firm this action up and likely eliminate any interference with the bumpstops. In all, the suspension package is superb and perfectly matched to the Ram's 120.5-inch wheelbase.

Despite its mandatory power assist, the steering maintains a ratio swift enough to satisfy the quasi-road racers among us and one that is also spot-on in tactile feedback. That means the alignment geometry must be what this big-baloney Elephant wants; there's little more for the operator to do than make sure the gangplank is clear and mat the gas pedal. That big round thing in front of you is there mostly to hang on to, and maybe correct the Ram's yaw going into Second gear.

Except for that pesky brake booster, which So-Cal offset to the outboard, the Hemi practically fell into its new home. According to the analog oil- and water-temperature gauges, the fat-block runs at 185 degrees virtually all the time, a tribute to the be-cool system and abundant cleansing air corridors in the engine compartment. Oil pressure is 85 psi cold and hangs about at 50 psi as soon as the sleepy seeds have disintegrated.

Tromp the gas a few times, touch the key, and the cold Elephant fires off immediately, exhaust pulses banging into one another, camshaft long and jagged, then a big foot on the loud pedal clears its carbureted throat - that's as sweet as it gets. Though the impulse to wing the engine to clean the plugs every 3 seconds comes off as purely theatrical, you'd be surprised how many times you'd do it in the Hemi Ram. That type of music is a hymn and sounds like that have been forbidden in a brand-new vehicle for so long that you hopelessly attempt to collect and save them to savor when times are not so fortunate. The Holeshot torque converter is loose enough that you can blip the throttle with the tranny in gear, cranking those sorry civilian craniums around, beaming them to the sound.

As you might expect, throttle response of an unencumbered engine is wicked and instantaneous, enough to make heads rotate a block away. And while there were no dead spots in the acceleration curve, the engine was obviously on the rich side for the break-in mode. Passing gear comes on semi-furiously, and there's that distinct feeling of running fat - and an undeniable waft of unburned hydrocarbons as well. Once the rig has climbed over what feels like the 90-mph mark, the engine starts to breathe normally and runs cleaner and crisper as a result. Fortunately, we hadn't the stones or the right test track to feel what the Hemi would do flat out.

The transmission is no less a throwback than its longtime Hemi partner. The resilient but ancient 727 Torqueflite maintains its First-Second-High mode using stock gear ratios. Thankfully, it doesn't hit Second gear like a racebox, but rather it thumbs its way in without a tire chirp. Since the electronics had been K.O.'d, Eclipse Engineering hooked up a stand-alone LED shift pattern indicator on the dashboard for when the shifter fumbled and stayed in N or 2 when it should have been in D. An adjustment in cable length fixed that. Without instruments, we had to come close to the distance we'd traveled and extrapolate that with the amount of fuel we had used/amount still left in the tank on fill up. As close as we can figure, this fat ol' Elephant is making 8 mpg. Superior Automotive cured the stinky rich mixture problem by firmly attaching the plug wires to cylinders five and seven then drained off the excess fuel by replacing the 84 factory primary jets with 77s and reducing the secondaries to 83s from the original 86s. The revised air/fuel ratios are now 12.5:1 at WOT and 13.55:1 in cruise mode. On the wheel dyno, the Hemi produced 454 hp and 481 lb-ft of torque - plenty good enough to crank the 4,900-pounder through the quarter-mile at 12.80/110.


The Ram's all-wheel disc-brake system is so good on paper that we decided to leave it in place and see if we could grind 'em to death. So far, it hasn't worked. If you were serious about doing top-end stints, then perhaps an upgrade would be in order, but so far, the truck has not felt under-braked or strained. The 13.2x1.1-inch vented rotors and two-piston, pin-slider calipers in front work with 13.8x0.87-inch solid rear versions for a swept area of 274 square inches. They even look good underneath those flash 20s.
Though the brakes work quite well completely by themselves, that last ounce of escape will forever elude us without the electronically controlled braking system. The stock 1500 Ram wears some big fat-sidewall 245/70R17s, but slimmer 275/55R20s are also available. Though the Center Line Coronas are a half-inch wider than the factory wheels, that pinch of space goes completely unnoticed. Despite their aggressive tread design, the Yokos don't sing at freeway speed or any other speed. Even when we did the obligatory melt-'em-to-the-ground burnout shot, they remained eerily silent, only issuing huge, furious clouds of tire compound and tarmac.

What It Is

This is an awesome engine hobbled by blubber. To really crank your head around, it should lose about a 1,000 pounds. All right, 700. The Hemi Mystique lives on fiercely and will be exploited accordingly until fossil fuels dry up. That you can take to the bookie, but remember that all the R&D is going into the microchip-lashed Viper V-10 (the cylinder case was entirely redesigned for the next iteration, for example), not the ancient Kong motor, and to us that makes the 10-cylinder engine the even-if-you-were-brain-dead swap. The Mopar PVO team has already made that decision with the soon-to-be-released V-10-powered, six-speed, SRT/10 short cab. On the other hand, unless you are talented and can do the swap yourself, you might be shelling out very large bucks for that chore. And there isn't a warranty in the world that will cover it.


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