The late 1970s were a bleak time for America. The country was stuck with a bad case of stagflation, there was rife conflict in the Middle East as the shah of Iran was losing his grip on his country, and if you wanted anything fast and American, you were either wrenching on an older car, or looking longingly at the used car lots for a Hemi Challenger that wasn’t beat to within an inch of its life. This, however, didn’t stop Dodge from trying to bring the magic back.
It’s a well-known fact that by 1978, engines for the US market were constrained heavily. Emissions controls, safety standards, and unleaded fuel, along with exorbitant insurance premiums, killed the muscle car era for good. However, those emissions standards were not applicable to light trucks at the time. While all three of the Big Three automakers took advantage of this to some extent, Dodge decided to exploit the loophole as much as possible. They took inspiration from the modern vehicles of the era and looked for a throwback from the Sixties. I’ll be honest–they chose a pretty darn good one.
The original “Lil’ Red Truck” was a 1965 Dodge A100 pickup with a 426 Hemi dumped behind the seats. Its claim to fame was being able to wheelstand down a dragstrip and scare the lunch out of everyone in the area. Dodge took this as the spiritual inspiration for their newest “Adult Toy” (yes, I know it sounds rather dirty) lineup of light trucks. The D150 was already a relatively brisk seller, so Dodge’s first order of business was to make the appearance of the new “Express” a bit more menacing than what they had on their hands.
In the Seventies, trucker culture became very big. Dodge capitalized on this by adding functional smokestacks to their new performance truck. Their next order of business was adding the Stepside bed, popular at the time, and adding real wood all over the place, including every straight panel on the bedsides, the interior of the truck bed, and the panels on the tailgate. To finish off the striking appearance, Dodge covered it in bright red paint and added some distinctive gold foil badges to the doors, which stated “Lil’ Red Express” in Old-West style font.
Like I said, light trucks were not necessarily covered by the emissions regulations that plagued cars of the era. In fact, the law stated that a certified engine for use in passenger vehicles could be modified with other parts, but would not need re-certification from the government. As a result, Chrysler started rummaging through their box of toys to find ways to exploit that loophole.
In the end, Dodge used the 360 V8, but didn’t just dump it into the engine bay of their new baby. They took parts from all around the Chrysler parts bin to enhance the 360’s performance, including an 850cfm Carter Thermo-Quad 4-barrel carburetor, a camshaft from the 1968 340 performance engine, the E-58 heads (police-specification), and mufflers meant for the 440-cubic inch big block V8. The end result by today’s standards is a rather un-inspiring 225hp, but for its day, it produced 5hp more than the top-of-the-line Corvette–not bad for a truck. Notably, the first year of the Lil’ Red Express was devoid of catalytic converters–another exploited loophole. The standard transmission for all Lil’ Red Express pickups was the venerable TorqueFlite A-727 three-speed automatic, this time equipped with a stall converter. Dodge even included a cold-air intake from the factory and a 3.55:1 “Sure-Grip” (limited slip differential) as standard equipment.
In 1979, the truck got a few changes. Like the rest of the Utiline pickups, the Express got a new nose with bulky quad-square headlights and a split grille (top and bottom) to replace the round lights and inboard turn signals on the grille. The interior gained the new (and much-hated) 85-mph “Federal” speedometer (to discourage speeding, whatever that means), and the truck’s exhaust gained a set of catalytic converters, forcing all 1979 models to run on un-leaded fuel. Despite these changes, the ’79 model outsold the debut year, with 5,118 1979 models produced against only 2,188 in ’78.
They weren’t particularly cheap. The Express cost a cool $7,500 as a new truck in 1978. Just to compare, a 1978 Chrysler New Yorker 2-door hardtop would have cost a bit more than that at the time (one of Chrysler’s most luxurious offerings of the era). However, that price was justified a bit, especially after Car and Driver discovered that at the time, it was the fastest-accelerating vehicle from 0 to 100 MPH in America when it was new. It broke the quarter-mile in the high 14 to low 15 second range at the time, which was quicker than the contemporary Ferrari 308 and Porsche 928 of the era (once you get to the corners, though, the exotics will easily smoke it). Unfortunately, the party was over by 1980 thanks to the gas crisis that hit in late 1979, forcing resale prices into the dirt–leaving unsold vehicles on dealer lots.
Today, the Lil’ Red Express is looked at as an interesting footnote in Mopar history. It’s not in any way perfect, but it is now sought after by pickup truck enthusiasts, Dodge nuts, and people who enjoy late 1970s schmaltzy American cars. Due to its market position as a performance truck, its very low production numbers, and its distinctive looks, the Express has a lot of collector value, something that really can’t be easily said for most late-Seventies Dodge products.
I did a quick search around the Web, and I was a bit surprised. The going rate for a good Lil’ Red Express starts in the low to mid teens, but they quickly hit collector-car prices as condition and mileage improve. Fully-restored, turnkey examples are good to fetch at least 30 grand, especially the rare 1978 models (I see the 1979 model outnumber it by maybe 3 to 1 on the secondary market today). If you’re a fan of big rigs, offbeat American cars, the late 1970s, or rather interesting Americana, the Lil’ Red Express is definitely a truck to look for. If that happens to be you, reader, I wish you happy hunting.
-Albert S. Davis