Less than ten years after the climax of the glorious muscle car era, an evil troika of higher fuel prices, additional safety mandates, and skyrocketing insurance rates had effectively laid waste to the automotive performance scene. But Dodge came to the rescue in 1978, granting open-minded (and ecologically selfish) enthusiasts an unconventional reprieve in the form of its Li’l Red Truck (a.k.a. the Li’l Red Express), a factory hot rod that was found, in at least one magazine test, to accelerate to 100 mph quicker than any American vehicle of the day.
That was quite an accomplishment for a brick-shaped truck that started out as a mundane, short-wheelbase D150 Adventurer with a Utiline stepside cargo bed. The kicker, however, was a largely unrestricted 360-cubic-inch V-8 – a modified Chrysler police-spec engine with cold-air induction, a four-barrel carburetor, special cylinder heads, heavy-duty valve springs, and a gnarly camshaft – pumping out 225 hp and 295 lb-ft of earth-agitating torque. (Lax emissions laws for medium-duty trucks allowed Chrysler to slip this powerplant past the feds without so much as a catalytic converter.) All Li’l Red Trucks also received power steering, a beefy rear end, and a modified three-speed automatic transmission.
Noisy big-rig-style exhaust stacks behind the cab, genuine oak siding and pine flooring for the bed, chrome slotted wheels (wider in the back), and surprisingly tasteful gold “Li’l Red Express Truck” graphics made this pickup look good as it trounced sports cars at stoplights. Inside, the Li’l Red Truck got Chrysler’s comfortable Tuff steering wheel, and even the engine bay got a little cosmetic attention, with chrome added to the air-cleaner lid and the valve covers. All these goodies made the Li’l Red Express the most extreme and most desirable of Dodge’s supercool late-’70s “adult toys” lineup, which also featured the Warlock, the Midnite Express, the Macho Power Wagon, and the Street Van.
Updated emissions standards required that the Li’l Red be detuned slightly and fitted with a catalyst for its second, and final, year. Other changes for ’79 included a quad-headlight design and wider front wheels.
Many examples of this truck survive today, even though some original owners used them as regular workaday pickups. Best of all, the Li’l Red Truck is a rare example of a late-1970s vehicle that backs up its muscular looks with true axle-warping performance.
What To Pay
Top-notch trucks can surpass $30,000, but any example that costs more than $20,000 ought to be good enough to earn a trophy at your local car show. $10,000 should buy a presentable driver. Second-year models command slightly less.
7306 total; 2188 trucks were built in 1978, 5118 in ’79.
Watch Out For
Deteriorating wood trim; rust, particularly in the lower front fenders, in the rocker panels, and beneath the rear fenders.
Mopar Muscle: Fifty Years by Robert Genat, Motorbooks International, $50.
SPARES & DEALERS
Bruce Horkey’s Wood and Parts
Informal Online Li’l Red Express Club
A less-common, more powerful 1978 model with a black interior, quasi-bucket seats, and no air-conditioning.