A white 2012 Ram 1500 is shown from the front at an angle after leaving a dealer that had used trucks for sale.

Built Tough Then & Now: The History of the Ram 1500

Just about any place that has used trucks for sale is bound to have a Ram 1500 or two out on the lot. This popular truck has been around since 1981 and has undergone several changes over the decades, including a few name changes, huge styling overhauls, and, of course, plenty of tech upgrades. Trim levels and variations have also come and gone, but throughout it all, Ram has kept up its reputation for making trucks that are capable and tough as nails.

Let’s take a look back at how the Ram 1500 has evolved over the years. Now in its fifth generation, there are plenty of changes to cover. Whether you’re shopping for a used truck or an enthusiast interested in automotive history, you’re sure to get something out of this look at one of America’s greatest trucks.

First Generation: 1981 – 1993

Dodge had been making trucks for quite some time, but the first one to be called a Ram was created for the 1981 model year. The automaker had previously used a Ram’s head hood ornament on its tough trucks, which was the inspiration for the name. In the first generation, the number “1500” wasn’t part of the name at all. Instead, two-wheel drive trucks were given a “D” and four-wheel drive trucks a “W,” followed by a 150 for a half-ton truck, 250 for a three-quarter-ton truck, or 350 for a one-ton truck. So the equivalent of a 1500 would have been called a Dodge Ram D150 or W150. From the beginning, these models were configurable and available with a variety of different cab sizes and bed lengths.

Second Generation: 1994 – 2001

For 1994, the half-ton truck was renamed the Dodge Ram 1500, and it received a total overhaul inside and out. A bold new exterior design projected the truck’s large-and-in-charge attitude front and center, and its large size stood out from the competition at the time. Inside, it had even more to offer, with a large center console providing great interior storage and an on-the-go writing surface, several storage bins throughout the cabin, and an electrical outlet in the dashboard. These features may seem par for the course to modern truck buyers, but at the time, they were innovative solutions to issues that drivers had been having for years.

Third Generation: 2002 – 2008

The 2002 Ram features a smoother body design, with rounded edges rather than sharp angles. This improved the truck’s aerodynamics and reduced wind noise, making the cabin more comfortable and quiet. Beneath that exterior is a new ladder frame designed to be both strong and reasonably lightweight. Four-wheel disc brakes became standard this generation for added safety, and several of the engine options were upgraded to increase power and torque.

Fourth Generation: 2009 – 2018

More styling changes came along for the fourth generation, adding more chrome accents and a refined interior. Infotainment also began to emerge, with available features now including Uconnect hard-drive radio, a built-in GPS navigation system, and a SIRIUS backseat TV. The coil-spring rear suspension provides a smooth ride, while an upgraded HEMI V8 engine provides up to 395 horsepower and 410 lb-ft of torque.

For the 2011 model year, Ram Trucks officially became its own brand rather than just a model in the Dodge lineup. Since an entire division is expected to have more options than a single model, it makes sense that a few new trims were added to the 1500 family for 2011. The Tradesman was designed to have all of the features small-business owners are looking for at a price that fits their budget. The Outdoorsman provides a rugged option for adventurous drivers. At the higher end, the Laramie Longhorn provides drivers with a lush interior and luxury features.

The Rebel trim level was introduced for the 2015 model year, providing an off-road-ready version of the Ram 1500. The very first Rebel came loaded with features like specialized Bilstein dampers, a rear anti-roll bar, and protective skid plates. It also has unique exterior styling, with dark black accents replacing chrome for a bold, adventurous look.

By 2018, the infotainment system featured an 8.4-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, a Wi-Fi hotspot, HD radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The 2018 Ram 1500 is also available with creature comforts like heated and ventilated seats and a heated steering wheel. Higher trim levels get stylish additions like leather seats and genuine wood trim.

A black 2022 Ram 1500 is shown from the front at an angle.

Fifth Generation: 2019 – Present

The current generation of Ram was kicked off in 2019. The design is sleeker and more streamlined than in past years. Thanks to advances in automotive design, the new Ram is both bigger and lighter than its predecessors, as well as more capable and efficient. The interior was redesigned, adding more lush comfort to every version and also providing trim levels with unique designs, giving each one its own personality. This improvement didn’t go unnoticed by the industry: the 2019 Ram 1500 received plenty of recognition, including a spot on Car and Driver’s 10Best Trucks and SUVs list, a coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and the title “Truck of the Year” from MotorTrend.

In 2021, the Ram 1500 TRX made its debut, taking the off-road capability of the Rebel trim to the next level. This high-performance beast packs a Hellcat V8 engine under the hood, providing it with up to 702 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque. This makes it both speedy and capable of towing up to 8,100 pounds. The body is eight inches wider than a standard Ram 1500, and it has a stronger frame, too, along with an enhanced suspension system that keeps its ride smooth on rocky terrain.

Meanwhile, other versions of the Ram 1500 saw their own set of upgrades for the 2021 model year. 2021 Rams are available with a head-up display that puts vital information directly in the driver’s line of sight, so you can check vehicle stats or navigation without taking your eyes off the road. A digital rearview mirror lets you toggle between a regular mirror and an LCD monitor that provides video from a rear-facing camera in real-time, so you ca

n get a wider view of what’s behind you.

The 2023 Ram 1500 is the most advanced yet, loaded with technology that can keep you informed, entertained, and safe on the road. A newly available 12-inch digital cluster puts navigation right behind the wheel, along with the speedometer, fuel gauge, and other vital information. Since it’s fully digital, the colors can be customized, and 3-D graphics can make directions clear and easy to see at a glance. The 360-degree Surround View Camera system keeps the driver fully aware of what’s going on from all angles, making it easy to maneuver even in tight spaces with a trailer in tow.

Modern Ram trucks also have plenty of safety and driver assistance features. Blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, and adaptive cruise control all come in handy for freeway driving. Automatic emergency braking can detect pedestrians and larger obstacles alike. Parallel and perpendicular park assist come in handy when it comes time to fit this huge truck into a parking space. Other available features include rear cross path detection and automatic high-beam headlights.

For Then to Now, the Ram 1500 Remains at the Top of the Segment

Just looking at the first Ram trucks next to the latest models, it’s clear that a lot has changed over the years. From a capable workhorse to a well-rounded vehicle that is equally at home on a worksite, a campsite, or the highway, the Ram 1500 has certainly come a long way. If this progress continues into the future, the next generation of Ram trucks could be packed with features and comforts that aren’t on anybody’s radar today. We’ll just have to wait and see what the engineers at Ram come up with next.