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Dodge Dakota Convertible: The First Modern Convertible Pickup

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The concept of a convertible pickup truck seems to contradict itself. On one hand, people associate pickups with power, grit, and muscle. On the other hand, convertibles are known for their speed and luxury features.

The Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible was an attempt to incorporate the best features of these two body types into one vehicle, but could a combination of both actually work?

A Brief History of Convertible Pickups

A pickup truck with a removable roof may raise some eyebrows among the uninitiated, but it’s definitely been around long enough for a few truck enthusiasts to tell you that it played a role in automotive history.

When Ford released its Model T from 1908 to 1927, it allowed middle-class Americans access to car travel. The Model T was such a success that it’s been named the most influential car of the 20th century.

1989 Dodge Dakota convertible
The Dodge Dakota Convertible was one of the first, American-made, modern convertible pickup trucks that came after Ford’s Model A and the pioneer model in the mid-size truck segment.

The automaker then released the Model A roadster pickup truck as part of its Model A series from 1927 to 1931. The Model A featured retractable passenger cabin roofing and was relatively popular—in fact, it enjoyed almost the same popularity and success as the Model T.

It took more than half a century for automakers to design another convertible pickup after Ford’s Model A roadster pickup. One example is the Chevrolet Super Sport Convertible Roadster (SSR), which General Motors released back in 2003. This model was influenced by Chevy’s Advance Design pickups from the late 40s to early 50s.

One of the first, American-made, modern convertible pickup trucks that came after Ford’s Model A is the Dodge Dakota Convertible. Dodge produced this model from 1989 to 1991 in partnership with the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC).

While this model did not prevail in the market for long, it certainly made a lasting impression that would influence convertible pickup truck models that came after it.

The Birth of the Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible

First introduced in 1986, the Dodge Dakota was the pioneer model in the mid-size truck segment, as it was a larger and beefier alternative to the Ford Ranger and the Chevy S-10 and GMC S-15 models.

The first generation featured inline-four and V-6 engines, and either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. At one point, Dodge even installed a powerful V-8 engine in its 1989 special, the Shelby Dakota.

The Dodge Dakota also offered more truck bed space than its competitors from Ford and Chevy.

Unfortunately, the Dakota didn’t do as well on the market as the automaker had hoped. In order to boost sales, former Chrysler CFO Jerry York pushed the idea of a convertible pickup truck⁠—the Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible.

York’s vision for the Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible was to replace the roof of a normal Dodge Dakota with a retractable one. With this design goal in mind, he sent several Dodge Dakota trucks to the ASC to have their roofs cut off and replaced with a soft top.

Design and Build: Flops and Passes

When the Dodge Dakota Convertible first appeared in 1989, the truck came in three colors—black, white, and red. It had a standard 3.9 liter, 125-horsepower, V-6 engine. Transmission options included a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.

Four-wheel-drive was also an option for the truck. Other features included velour seats, door locks, cruise control, power windows, fog lights, and anti-lock brakes on the rear axle.

Despite the vehicle’s unique design, the Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible was met with criticism. Many vehicle enthusiasts and critics argued that Dodge should have taken the opportunity to improve the performance of the Dakota instead of just replacing its roof with an awkwardly-placed, flimsy vinyl tarp.

According to some of the truck’s users, the vinyl roof and the plastic rear window provided little protection from the elements. For others, the bunched-up vinyl at the back of the passenger cabin of the truck wasn’t visually appealing at all.

In addition, the competition in the off-road market at that time was fierce. After all, Dodge’s creation was going up against the Jeep Wrangler, which was the off-road vehicle of choice at that time. The Wrangler had a more robust profile that appealed to off-road enthusiasts.

In its first year, only 2,842 units of the Dakota Convertible were sold. Even with an additional color option in 1990, sales dropped even further to 909 units.

Because the Dakota Convertible saw such a steep decline in sales, 1991 became its last model year.

Dakota Sport Convertible and the Future of Convertible Trucks

The Dodge Dakota Sports Convertible isn’t exactly what anyone hoped for. A lot of factors made it difficult for this unusual model to dominate the market. Right now, the Dakota Convertible is considered a novelty—an odd truck with a great engine, large truck bed space, and a roof that crumples at the back of the passenger cabin.

For others, it’s a safety hazard on wheels.

No matter what side of the fence you’re on, there are a few good things that came from the release of this model. Vehicle manufacturers learned a lot from the Dakota Sport Convertible story⁠—in fact, Chevy looked to the Dakota Convertible for inspiration when it released the SSR.

Today, there are a few automakers that are still trying to introduce even better versions of convertible trucks. In April of 2020, Jeep announced the release of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator. While most vehicle enthusiasts argue that the Jeep Gladiator suffers the same “aesthetic affliction” as the Dodge Dakota Sport convertible, it’s worth noting that it has a sturdier design that could definitely outlast its predecessors.

Prospects also look promising for the Gladiator as it continues to receive consistently good reviews. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator may be the only convertible pickup truck available on the market for now, but the future of convertible trucks appears favorable.

You can get a second-hand Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible for maybe even less than $10,000. It’s a great investment if you’re looking to drive an interesting truck with a very colorful history. Alternatively, if you’re looking for newer models with the same appeal but even better performance, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator is a great option.

But if you want to push the limits of convertible muscle vehicles even further, Ford announced its plans of reintroducing the Bronco as a mid-size SUV in 2021. While Ford has not yet announced the specifications of this model, based on the official images, it should have detachable doors and roofing, which can be stored inside the vehicle.

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