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by Mike Harshberger
Over the course of my childhood, I was always around cars. My father would buy junk that nobody wanted and needed lots of work. He’d clean them up, fix what was wrong, and sell them. I grew up with him teaching me the tricks of the trade, on everything from Ford and Chevy pickups to daily driver caravans. He and I always spent time together in the garage building something, and that will always stick with me.
In Fall 2006, I was shopping around for a project vehicle to build. I already had a daily driver Neon that I had done some good work on, but I wanted a go-fast muscle car or a 4x4 truck. I had saved enough money for a down payment working at a local restaurant waiting tables.
Looking around online, I came across a 2001 Dodge Dakota R/T on eBay. The price was right, it had low enough miles and a V8, the perfect project vehicle. The only problem was that it was in Illinois and I live in western New York. I think I was partial to it because my father had bought a new Dakota in 1997 and a new Ram 1500 in 2004. So, I showed everyone in school and at work and everyone thought it was cool. Then I decided to show my dad, and when he saw my face and how I talked about it, he told me “I don’t care if this thing is China, you and I are driving out there and getting it!”
So that weekend we left and drove 12 hours to Joliet, Illinois. The coolest thing about the trip was when we got there, it was a giant dealership that was almost a museum filled with classic and modern Mopar muscle cars and even SRT Vipers and Rams. While I was standing in the show room waiting, I could see outside as they drove the truck out of the garage. I could see it through the window, and as soon as I first laid eyes on it, I said right then and there, there’s my truck!
After driving 12 hours back home and stopping at dump motel for a few hours of sleep, we got home and I had two hours of time to spare before I had to go to work. My dad washed the truck for me, I got dressed and I drove it to work…. I was grinning ear to ear and enjoyed every second of it!
It wasn’t long after I got the truck that I started buying parts. Because I was younger, I really wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to head in. The parts I was buying were maintenance items and simple bolt-ons, for most of the first year. I was tinkering with it every weekend, waxing it, and going to car shows. Because the truck was lowered so much, the rear axle would bottom out on the rear bump stops so a good friend of mine who built mini trucks helped me out and we installed a bolt in c-notch and the ride quality increased dramatically!
I started getting ambitious and really wanted to take the truck to the next level. That winter I decided to buy some 20” chrome wheels and a steel cowl hood. That combined with the other little things I have done to it, it really stood out. It was also this year that I started getting involved with a local car club called 607 Motorsports, which really emphasized performance so it was a good fit. Later that year I began to plan an engine build.
After planning and research online with forums, I decided to start the engine work, which consisted of leaving the engine in the truck, and doing a top end build. Cam, heads, lifters, roller rockers, etc. In 2009, I also started going to a local quarter-mile drag strip to get some numbers and see where my build took me for performance. The truck factory ran 93 mph, after the build it ran 99 mph (the couple of times it ran this speed, it outpaced an R/T Challenger and a Ram SRT-10….not that I'm bragging ).
Other than installing ceramic coated headers and all 3” exhaust and a good friend painting the truck for me as a gift, 2010-2011 were two years where my priorities shifted slightly and I did a lot of “growing up.” In September 2010, I got married to my wife Jessica. In 2011, we bought a house and I focused on building my own garage so I could do future projects. In these two years, I just plain didn’t have the time or money to do what I love, but that’s life and you learn to balance priorities.
Then, in 2012, I came across a great deal on a 2002 Dakota 6-cylinder 5-speed manual 2WD reg cab short bed truck for $800. As soon as I saw it a light clicked on, “Why don’t I buy this and do a 5-speed swap in my R/T?” That was one thing I desperately wanted to do but couldn’t find a good kit to buy. So, good ole dad went with me upstate to Syracuse to buy the truck and trailer it home.
Now, this particular swap that I was about to try can be done, but the problem I was facing was CEL issues because no one has been able to the swap on a 2001 and newer Dakota or Durango with a 5.9L engine. But I swore up and down I can do this. I just know it!
So, every weekend during the winter of 2012, I was working away in my garage turning wrenches just like I always have. Finally it was done and mechanically it was flawless! Even the interior with the console and shifter, all factory parts and it looks so clean! I even made my own custom actual short throw shifter thanks to some ingenuity.
However, after I got my PCM back from being re-flashed it just wasn’t quite right. It would run awesome and I could rip on it and grab gears, but once in a while it would run rich and the revs wouldn’t go down. It also had a CEL on and kept showing NO BUS on the odometer. The thought was going through my head, “Oh man what have I done? I ruined this truck and I won’t get it figured out.”
After a few months of dealing with the problem and getting stumped, I was posting about my problems on a forum and I got a message from a guy from Florida who does SCT flashes and he told me, “Hey man, I think I may be able to help you, let me show what I have discovered with the software.”
At first I was leery and wasn’t sure if this guy could help me or not, but eventually I said okay, I’ll buy a handheld from you if you are willing to do these tunes for me. This guy was awesome with communication and working out problems I was having, and with his tuning I went down from 5 CEL codes, to only 2….and the truck was running better than ever! So my confidence began to grow and once winter came I planned to revisit the issue come spring of 2013.
Some would have said thirteen was an unlucky year, but this wasn’t the case for me. Come spring time I started working with my tuner again and through vigorous online research, I found the two check engine codes were coming from the same sensor, the same sensor that wasn’t hooked to the wiring harness since it was for an automatic transmission that wasn’t there.
Since I had the original 46RE still sitting out back in the shed I decided to pull apart the automatic, find that sensor, find out what wires go to where and wire it back into the R/T. Thanks to more research and studying countless electrical diagrams I found what I needed. Sure enough, the day finally came….I fired it up and let it run and no CEL’s…..talk about excited!
After a couple weeks of driving it I got it inspected and it passed (New York State inspection) and the rest is history. This was a huge step forward for the Dakota community as so many people couldn’t build what they wanted because of this problem, and now they all know as I had heavily documented my build progress on the Dakota-Durango forums (transmission swap / CEL resolution).
Since this discovery, it’s a been a great year for me and my ole’ pride and joy. I have driven the truck to work and on little joy rides, burnin up back country roads that are nice and windy, or as a stress reliever I just drive down the road and cruise around because I always end up with a smile on my face.
Below is a list of modifications and special thanks to those who have helped me get the truck to where it is over the years.
A more robust performance transmission, a T56 from a Viper would be ideal, but the parts I will need for this swap are hard to come by and expensive. So I'm going with the next best thing, a TKO 600 tremec 5 speed. The best part is, I can use a manual transmission bellhousing I bought from a Hemi Ram 2500 2WD that had the NV5600, and that means I can reuse all of my factory parts, such as the slave cylinder, clutch fork, clutch and pressure plate, and flywheel, and I won’t need to notch for the crank position sensor. A few custom things will need to be fabbed but that won't be an issue.
Jessica Harshberger – Wife – Putting up with my never ending hobbies
Robert and Susan Harshberger – Parents and friends
Ryan Hogan – Flyin Ryan Performance – helped make everything possible with his tuning
John Jenkins – Body and Paint Work
Jeff Groen – C-notch and misc.
Nick Wheeler – C-notch and misc.
Cody Russo – Misc.
Ray Harndon – Misc.
James Carl – 607 Motorsports, Cylinder Head Port and Polish, Misc.
And thanks to everyone else who has helped me over the years.
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