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Today we learned: The Dodge Ram was the first vehicle designed entirely by computer

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1994 Dodge Ram 1500. Photo via Chrysler Media.

The 1994 Dodge Ram influenced modern truck design away from the boxy appliance look of the Seventies and Eighties and toward today’s hyper-masculine, does-this-truck-make-me-look-like-I’m-working-hard designs. It pretty much pulled Chrysler’s truck business out of the dumpster. It also, perhaps more significantly, became the first vehicle to arise entirely from computer-aided design.

Even today, clay models are an important step in nailing down a vehicle’s design, but, prior to the Eighties, they were more or less necessary for visualizing how a proposed design would look like in real life. And then came CAD, or more specifically CATIA (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application), which French aircraft maker Dassault developed in the late Seventies and released commercially in 1981.

According to Bob Sheaves’ accounts to Allpar, Chrysler started looking into computer-aided design—specifically CADCAM—by 1983, using the Omnirizon-based Plymouth Scamp as a test subject. However, it was AMC—likely thanks to Renault’s partial ownership of the company—that brought CATIA to Chrysler after the latter purchased the former. “Chrysler spent almost $2 billion over five years to convert everything, from product to process, to CATIA,” Sheaves wrote.

By the time of the AMC purchase, Chrysler had a miserably low share of the pickup market and its designers had already submitted one rejected design for a new Ram (nicknamed “Louisville Slugger”). A second proposal from the AMC/Jeep design studio (nicknamed “Phoenix”) looked far too much like Ford’s F-150. So, according to Sheaves, in 1989 Bob Lutz and Francois Castaing ordered the T300 project to start over again from scratch. That order apparently included moving product development entirely to CATIA. As Sheaves wrote:

The 1994 Dodge Ram (BR) was all digital. There was no reason for clay models. From the start of the program at JTE we worked strictly in CATIA with 3D surfacing and solids; no clay was required, as CATIA built exact models in full scale of the panels and structure. The first article body shells (consisting of the complete body, bed, and all closures and structures) were directly cut from the 3D math data. From the first panel to the completion, every piece fit properly.”

No less, according to Sheaves, no other carmaker in the world had ever designed a vehicle from start to finish digitally. “Even Dassault said it couldn’t be done,” he wrote.

In part thanks to the new aggressive look, sales shot through the roof—by 143 percent for the 1994 model year and another 77 percent for the 1995 model year. And to Chrysler execs, CATIA had proven its worthiness. When it came time to develop the second-generation Dakota for the 1997 model year, Chrysler’s engineers not only used CATIA to design the truck itself, they also used it to design out the entire assembly line, cutting 30 months of development time off the Dakota’s gestation.

In 2010, Chrysler replaced CATIA with Siemens NX CAD software.