Mid-size Mopar hauls more than cargo

Sadly, the market for performance trucks is relatively thin. The first two models that come to mind are the Ford Lightning, Dodge Ram SRT-10 and GMC Syclone. Although no longer in production, these trucks command well north of $15,000 in good condition in the used car market. Since most believe them to be the only models in their class, interested parties have to pony up if they want to get behind the wheel of these low-production trucks.

Every once in awhile, there is a vehicle that slips through the cracks and often goes unnoticed by the performance-minded crowed. One such model is the 1998-2003 Dodge Dakota R/T, which, along with the Shelby Dakota, is the only mid-size truck ever powered by a V8 engine. The 360 cubic-inch V8’s 250-horsepower and 345 lb.-ft of torque is channeled through a heavy duty 46RE automatic transmisssion and limited slip differential with a 3.92 gear ratio.

With a zero to sixty time under seven seconds and a quarter mile sprint in 15 flat, the R/T is quite the spirited performer right out of the box. Well-kept, low-mileage examples can still be found for $5,500 to $8,000, and you’ll be more than satisfied with the savings over a Lightning, SRT-10 or Syclone.

Jacob Mahin of Thayer, Missouri, sold his 2001 Lightning last spring for $8,000, an astounding price for an average condition model with nearly 200,000 miles. While it’s hard to fathom why one would pay such a steep price, he was only asking for the truck’s Blue Book value. After selling the Lightning, he wanted something a little smaller, and started looking through the classifieds for a low-mileage regular cab R/T.

The hunt finally ended in late-summer when he spotted a 1999 R/T in Texas with 53,000 original miles. After haggling with the seller, he bought the truck for $5,800. Best of all, this was no ordinary R/T. With a Mopar M1 intake manifold, Mopar PCM, Comp Cams roller rockers and a K&N AirCharger kit, the modifications gave the truck an estimated 30-horsepower increase without impairing daily drivability.

The truck had already been lowered on Eibach springs, and Mahin installed Belltech Street Performance shocks to complete the handling upgrade. A custom roll pan, clear corner lenses and flat-black R/T decals were also added, giving Mahin’s Dakota a stealth appearance and bad-boy attitude.

While not quite as fast as his Lightning, he doesn’t regret making the trade, especially with the extra $2,000 dollars stashed away for future upgrades. He said the R/T is easier to drive, especially in the corners. “It’s smaller and easier to manipulate,” Mahin said. And of course, judging by the length of the black marks in front of where he works, it might be a little more fun too.

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A poor man’s Buick GSX

True automotive enthusiasts will never forget the 1970 Buick GSX, arguably the greatest muscle car of all time. With 360 hp and 510 lb-ft, it had more torque than any American car ever produced, a title that stood for 33 years until the 2003 Dodge Viper. According to Motor Trend, the car could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and blaze through the quarter mile in a blistering 13.38 seconds at 105.5 mph. Pristine examples typically bring in $100,000 or more at auctions, and they’re only going up in value.

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While my dad has always dreamed of owning one, it likely isn’t happening without mortgaging the house. To keep from breaking his sprit, I came up with a more realistic solution. Little did he know, the GSX moniker was resurrected in 2003.

During this period, the supercharged L67 3800 Buick V6 was starting to make a name for itself as a potent powertrain. Aftermarket companies became cognizant of the growing popularity of the platform and began making parts to satisfy owners. The L67 quietly lurked beneath the bonnet of the Buick Riviera, Buick Regal GS, Buick Park Avenue Ultra, Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, Chevy Impala SS, Chevy Monte Carlo SS and the Oldsmobile LSS, so they wouldn’t have to worry about a low-volume market or demand. While all of these cars were pretty quick from the factory, they didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of their true performance potential. Street Legal Performance (SLP), one of the aftermarket companies that produced parts for the 3800, sought to change this in 2003 with the Buick Regal GS, a midsize sports sedan with a factory-rated 240 hp and a hefty 280 lb-ft of torque.

To generate excitement about the new offering, SLP resurrected the GSX name for the Regal that would be available for order at Buick dealerships across the country. SLP began with aesthetic modifications, replacing factory badges with chrome ‘GSX’ emblems on both doors and the tail light. An aggressive grille and unique lip spoiler gave the car a more sporty appearance while the Z06 inspired chrome wheels and throaty dual exhaust screamed that this was no ordinary Regal.

Next, SLP modified the car’s suspension and handling by lowering it 1.5 inches and adding bigger anti-sway bars and tubular rear trailing arms. As far as engine modifications, SLP let Buick customers dictate exactly how fast they wanted to go by offering a Stage 1 (+15 hp), Stage 2 (+20 hp) and Stage 3 package (+30 hp).

With 270 horsepower and 312 lb-ft of torque, the Stage 3 GSX was the fastest Buick produced since the legendary 1987 Buick GNX. Yes, it had four doors and the Saturn Yellow paint was now gone, but the new GSX definitely didn’t disappoint owners who remembered the name’s performance legacy.

The GSX was only available to order from 2003 until the end of the Regal’s production in 2004. The short two-year production and expensive MSRP resulted in very few factory GSXs being made, and they’re almost impossible to come across today. SLP produced a low-volume number of the GSX’s aesthetic, suspension and performance parts to allow Regal GS owners to do the modifications themselves. As a result, it’s easy to mistake an authentic GSX with a clone. A true GSX will have a chrome SLP label in the driver’s door jamb, which was not available for purchase.

In 2012, I stumbled across a 2003 Stage 1 on eBay and told my father that I had finally found a GSX he could afford. He was currently in the market for a sporty daily driver, and the GSX name was all it took to sell him on the car. Unfortunately, the original owner discarded the factory wheels once the chrome started to peel, but I was able to track down a set last summer to return the car to its original factory appearance. The exceptional handling and supercharger-whine never fails to keep a smile on his face, and he loves the attention it gets at car shows. For about $6,500, my dad was able to satisfy his desire for a GSX. I guess the house will stay, at least for now.

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GSX Picture- http://www.1zoom.net/Cars/wallpaper/306603/z1672.3/

You want a fast, great-handling sport sedan? Buy a Ford Taurus.

Yes. You heard me correctly. I didn’t stutter. Would you like to own a domestic sport sedan for less than $5,000 that is fully capable of putting Fox Body and SN95 Mustang GTs to shame? Then look no further than the top-selling car in America throughout much of the 1990s. While a regular Taurus is anything but unique, the high-performance Taurus SHO is a different story. Produced from 1989-1995, the Taurus SHO features a 24-valve 3.0L DOHC V6 engine built by Yamaha. Yes, this bull had a little more kick than the pedestrian 3.0 Vulcan V6 found in most Taurii.

Now 25 years later, it’s hard to understand why Ford decided to undermine the legacy of the Mustang by purposely making their four-door family car faster than their halo pony car. As it turns out, the creation of the SHO might have never been Ford’s true intention. Rumor has it Ford was developing a mid-engine, two-seat sports car called the GN34. In the mid 1980s, Ford signed a contract to have Yamaha design and build the engine, but the GN34 never came to fruition. With the terms of the contract still intact, Ford had to find a home for the Yamaha engines and it needed to happen sooner rather than later. After what I can only presume to be a decision made under the influence of heavy narcotics, the suggestion was made to house the beast under the hood of a Ford Taurus. Thus, the SHO was born.

With 220 horsepower and a 7,300 RPM redline, the SHO sounds closer to a Formula One car than your typical V6-powered sedan. While acceleration was a bit lethargic at low RPMs, vacuum actuated butterfly valves would open the secondaries at 4,000 RPM. At this point, you better have both hands white-knuckling the steering wheel throughout the rest of the power band. Although it’s open for discussion, I’m quite sure the term “torque steer” was named after the SHO.

In summer of 2013, after begrudgingly making my Riviera withstand its first ever winter in snowy Columbia, I purchased a 1992 Taurus SHO 5-speed to serve as my “SHOplow” from December through March. I purchased the car from the original owner for a mere $1,500 with on 72,000 miles on the clock. It had been driven in many Kansas City winters until the the brake lines rusted out sometime in the early 2000s, where it became a rather large yard ornament for the next decade. I replaced the rotten brake lines with a nice used set from the junkyard for $20, and the car was back on the road. The struts and subframe bushings were shot from sitting so long, so I snatched a brand new set of Monroe Sensa-Trac struts, Eibach lowering springs and aluminum subframe bushings on Craigslist for a grand total of $450. To help the car look a little more modern and aggressive, I stumbled upon a set of rare 17″ Cobra R wheels in the 5×108 Taurus bolt pattern for $400 and bought a new set of Cooper RS3-A all-season performance tires for $500 to complete the handling package.

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If it isn’t apparent by now, I have a tendency of falling in love with projects and going a little overboard. The rare black interior was in excellent shape throughout, except for the seats. Instead of buying cheap covers, I wanted to do a two-toned red and black theme to match the exterior of the car. I had an upholsterer re-foam and re-cover the seats in my design for $600, bringing the car’s grand total to just a hair under $3,500. Although the aesthetic modifications like the interior and wheels could have been spared, a low-mileage sports sedan capable of out-running and out-handling cars five times as expensive was definitely worth it.

SHO INterior

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If you don’t mind a little paint fade and subframe rust, this Taurus was the perfect budget build. If you’re intrigued by the sleeper status of the SHO, they are available on Craigslist, shoforum.com and Facebook’s Taurus SHO Marketplace for dirt cheap. Although they have a dedicated cult following, collector status has never quite latched on for some reason, making it a great candidate for Stop Dreaming and Drive.

You drive a Rolls Royce?

High School graduation was fast approaching in two months, and I was still cruising back and forth to school in my 1969 Buick GS. Sadly, I knew the car wouldn’t be coming with me to Columbia. I had already made up my mind to attend MU in the fall, and I had been browsing eBay for a new daily driver for the 220-mile trip that would be fun, comfortable and fuel efficient. One of the cars I had been looking at was the 1996-1999 eighth generation Buick Rivieras. They were the last breed of Buick’s two-door coupes, and offered attractive styling with a factory-equipped supercharger. With 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, the supercharged 3.8L V6 had plenty of get-up to throw you back into the plush, Lazy-Boy recliners of the Riviera in instantaneous fashion.

Little did I know, my mom and dad had been searching for a graduation present and were secretly spying on my eBay search activities. On a weekend in March, Mom told me that Dad went trucking for the weekend with my uncle, and I didn’t think anything of it. The next night, he pulled into the driveway in a 1996 Buick Riviera. I couldn’t believe it! With medium garnet red metallic paint and burgundy leather interior, it was my absolute favorite color combination. It had been driven exclusively by an older couple that took immaculate care of the car, with a fresh wax and leather conditioning every six months. Although it had 95,000 miles, it looked and ran like it had less than 30,000.

Sadly, I don’t have a picture of what the Riviera looked like exactly when I first received it. Many of my friends thought it was an old mans car, but none of them knew what lurked beneath the hood. In my honest opinion, the car did look a little plain and outdated, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I knew the car had a lot of potential, and I couldn’t wait to uncap it. While this isn’t an exact picture of the car, this is what it looked like.

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I loved the svelte, rounded body lines of the Riviera and knew that with a little bit of work, it could turn a lot of heads. After adding a rear spoiler, tinted tail lights, a black grille and an 18-inch set of black chrome MSR wheels, it didn’t take a lot to transform grandpa’s Buick into a car that is frequently called a Rolls Royce at grocery stores, gas stations and car shows. For a car that was purchased for a mere $4,500, there is no greater feeling than having it mistaken for an $80,000 luxury import.

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With just these few appearance mods, it’s been featured in two calendars and won trophies at multiple car shows. While I was happy with the transformation, I wanted the car to have the performance to back up its menacing looks. I started by fabricating a homemade fender-well intake with Spectre 3.5-inch aluminum tubing and a 9-inch K&N cone air-filter. While the look was much improved, the relocation of the filter into the fender well helped reduce intake air temperatures and made the supercharger wine like rabid hyena under wide-open throttle.

The next project was the exhaust. The factory manifolds and 2.25-inch catback were optimized for quiet operation, not performance. I installed ceramic coated SLP headers and had an exhaust shop fab up a 3-inch exhaust system with Borla Pro XS free-flowing mufflers. The intake and exhaust modifications broadened the power curve and really woke car up in the mid and high RPM ranges. However, it felt like the car had lost a little bit of the low RPM torque, so I replaced the factory 3.8-inch supercharger pulley with a smaller 3.5-inch unit. Finally, I installed a colder 160-degree thermostat and colder spark plugs to keep engine operating temperatures down and reduce knock retard with the added boost. To adjust the factory computer settings to the new modifications, I had the car tuned by PRJ Performance. With an estimated 280 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque, the car will definitely put a smile on your face as you pull away from unsuspecting challengers.

While the car still has a few finishing touches left, I’m incredibly happy at how far it’s come. In just a few weeks, it become the world’s first eighth generation Riviera with a custom hood that I designed from scratch. Late this summer, I found a body shop that took my design and made it come to life. It features a rounded 2-inch fiberglass cowl and “supercharged” hood vents from a 2014 Jaguar XKR. While the Riviera is an excellent starting-platform, any car can be something special with just a little imagination and creativity. There’s a whole world of unique, cheap performance cars just waiting to be transformed. My goal is to point you in the direction of these hidden gems and help you realize their potential, but it’s up to you to scour Craigslist, AutoTrader and eBay for that peculiar car or truck you’ve always been drawn to. It’s time to start the hunt!