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Throughout the pages of Diesel World, you’ll see anything and everything, from innovative swaps, to 1,000-horsepower street trucks, to all-out competition vehicles. While the glamorous stuff can be fun, almost everyone still needs a reliable daily driver, a truck that can tow thousands of miles, doesn’t smoke and attract the smog police, and is just a good all-around vehicle. We know that people need this type of truck, because those are our most common letters; people wanting “just a little bit more oomph” out of their diesel, without sacrificing reliability or driving manners.

 

Enter Project Hot Rod RV Ram

While new trucks are pretty awesome, with their seat heaters, built-in exhaust brakes, and 350-400 horsepower, not everyone can afford their $50,000-plus price tag. Our goal would be to take an older truck and modernize it as far as creature comforts, horsepower and torque levels, and ride quality. Oh yeah, and it still would have to be able to do anything a new truck could do, like blast up grades with a camper and trailer. The truck we chose for this project was a 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 with a 5.9L 12-valve Cummins diesel.

 

Dodge 12-Valve Basics

The 1994-1998 Dodge Rams have perhaps the most potential of any older truck, and built correctly, can be very efficient as far as mileage goes, and also very low on smoke. They’re also the trucks you might see most commonly “rolling coal,” so whether our truck will have lots of smoke or almost zero smoke will inevitably come down to tuning.

The 5.9L Cummins engines in these Dodges (affectionately known as “12-valves”) have one of the best reputations for reliability out there. When maintained, we know of many of these engines that have lasted 300,000 to 500,000 miles without a need for a rebuild, and some that have went even further. One fellow we talked to had 640,000 miles on his, and had only done gaskets, rings and bearings when he rebuilt it. Last time we talked to him, he had more than 800,000 on it.

So the Cummins engines are tough, but what about power? Well, the good ol’ 12-valve does pretty well there too. In stock form, they were rated at 160-215 hp in Dodge trucks (depending on the year and model), but there was a catch. In Marine form, you could get a Cummins with up to 370 hp, which means that the engines were built for that type of power in mind. What’s more, doubling the factory output of the truck engine would be just a few simple changes away once we started modifying.

 

Inside Our Truck: A 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 Diesel

When looking for one of these older Dodges, the prices can fluctuate wildly, from about $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the condition of the vehicle. Although ours was a two-wheel drive (which meant it would be worth less), it only had 153,000 original miles, which is hard to find these days. The transmission had also supposedly been rebuilt, and some firm shifting led us to believe that the owner was probably telling the truth. The engine had also been modified with a different fuel plate, allowing for some more top-end fueling and power, and this too seemed to be true, as bone-stock 12-valves are painfully slow. Still, we won’t know anything until we get to a dyno and put some power to the ground.

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So Where To Start?

Well, our first step will be to tackle reliability, since power won’t do you much good if your truck is broken in the driveway. These generation engines have a dowel-pin fix we’ll have to perform, and we also have a leak from our fuel return line (another common problem). We’ll also show you how to re-torque the factory head bolts, which is important as the years and mileage increase. After the basics, we’ll move on to increasing power, by adding timing, sliding the fuel plate, and a host of other simple modifications. Our goal is to keep up with the “Joneses,” with the Joneses being new trucks in this case.

Since all of them put down 350 hp to the wheels, that too will be our goal. We also plan to increase the rev limit of our truck to try to save the transmission, as often burning up a Dodge transmission is a result of too much low-end torque rather than too much horsepower. After power and reliability, we’ll move on to the interior, lighting, gauges and anything else we need to modernize our ride. Stay tuned in the next few months, where we’ll start fixing problems that are common to the 1994-1998 Dodges, which are of course issues that our truck already has. DW

 

The engine in our 1997 Ram was rated at 180 hp from the factory, along with 420 lb-ft of torque.

The engine in our 1997 Ram was rated at 180 hp from the factory, along with 420 lb-ft of torque. It was actually de-rated to save the automatic transmission, as manual transmission models were 215 horsepower and the marine versions even more than that.

We spotted a rare EGR system on our truck.

We spotted a rare EGR system on our truck. We say rare because they only came on California trucks, and only for a couple years. It’s very important that this system functions correctly, as an EGR valve that’s stuck open can send excess particulate matter through the motor, and prematurely wear it out.

the Bosch P7100 injection pump

A big part of these older trucks successes in the aftermarket has to do with the Bosch P7100 injection pump, which was installed on Ram diesels starting in 1994. These “P-pumps” have much greater power potential than the previous VE model, and can make 600-700 rear-wheel horsepower with a few simple internal modifications.

retain the factory turbocharger

Another interesting part about the power level we were aiming for, is that we could retain the factory turbocharger. While nearly everyone wants to upgrade the stock turbo right away, the factory version spools very quickly, and is good for clearing up low-end smoke.

legendary 727 transmissions

If there’s a weak link on these trucks, it’s the transmission. Dubbed a 47RE, our automatic is a descendent of the legendary 727 transmissions, only with an electronically controlled Overdrive gear, and lock-up converter. Our plan to keep the factory transmission alive involves limiting torque, and instead increasing horsepower and engine speed.

interior of our 1997 truck

The interior of our 1997 was very clean, but also was severely lacking when it came to instrumentation as compared to newer trucks. Some sort of gauges would definitely be on the list as one of our first steps.

The rear axle is a limited-slip Dana 70 with 3.55 gears

The rear axle is a limited-slip Dana 70 with 3.55 gears, and they’re very strong. In two-wheel-drive applications they’re nearly impossible to break, except in cases of lack of maintenance.

aftermarket exhaust system

Our Dodge already had an aftermarket exhaust system, and we liked the fact that the turndown would keep any smoke the truck did produce off of the camper and any trailer we would be pulling.

Michelins mounted

If you plan on keeping your truck for the long haul (ha!), a good set of tires is always a welcome sight. These Michelins mounted on the factory wheels gave a great ride, and were something that we will be hard pressed to change out for a different set of tires.

Lance 1010 camper installed on the truck

We actually bought this Dodge as a package deal with a Lance 1010 camper installed on the truck. The camper has electric jacks, a heat and A/C unit, refrigerator, sink, bathroom and queen bed. We decided we’re keeping it, and keeping it on for the bulk of our project.

grille guard

The already installed grille guard looks to have housed multiple accessories at one time.

1997 Dodge Ram Cummins

1997 Dodge Ram Cummins