Car of the Week: 1978-’79 Dodge Lil’ Red Express

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By Michael Petti

Muscle cars were an extinct species in the United States by the end of the ’70s, leaving sports cars to carry the performance torch. There was, however, one street machine that could smoke a new 1978 Corvette or Trans Am: the Dodge D150 Adventurer Li’l Red Express truck.

In addition to sky-high insurance premiums and the oil embargo of 1973, muscle cars had also been strangled with clean air devices. However, the late Tom Hoover, known as the father of the 426 Hemi, found a way around government emissions regulations during the late 1970s — the pickup truck. Hoover discovered that he could make a muscle machine from gaps in the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on emissions using a truck. At the time, light-duty trucks did not need a catalytic converter if their gross vehicle weight rating was above 6,000 lbs. Hoover also detected modifications could be made on an already-certified engine without redoing the EPA’s 50,000-mile recertification. With this knowledge, Hoover could work his magic on a regular Dodge D150 Adventurer with a step side bed.

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Hoover, along with Dick Maxwell and Dave Koffel, formed Chrysler’s in-house “hot rod shop.” These men took a high-performance 360-cid V-8 engine — the E58 ‘police code’ block — and added goodies to power their new muscle truck, such as a camshaft from a 1968 340-cid V-8 and Super-Flow cylinder heads.

A special cold air intake was at the radiator yoke. Nourishment to the engine was by a Carter four-barrel carburetor. The 225-net-hp engine fed power to a modified A-727 automatic transmission with a 2,500-rpm stall converter. This, in turn, pushed power to the ground through a 3.55 Sure Grip rear axle. A rear stabilizer bar was standard.

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Coincidentally, tricked-out trucks and vans were all the rage at this time, so there was little question that a market existed for a factory “customized” pickup. Dodge’s truck packed plenty of punch and deserved a striking exterior and interior in line with the times. The Li’l Red Express received both.
The engine exhaled through Hemi-style mufflers with a crossover pipe that ended in twin chrome exhaust stacks with perforated heat shields that stood up from behind the cab. The setup gave the Li’l Red Express the look of a Freightliner.

The only color available on the Li’l Red Express was a flashy red, which was enhanced by gold pinstriping accentuating the wheel arches. There were also gold decals on the doors and tailgate. Clear-coated oak wood trim panels adorned the pickup box’s sides, floor and tailgate. The front and back bumpers were chrome as were the side steps. Likewise, the engine was dressed up with a chrome-plated air cleaner and valve covers.

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En vogue five-slot, chrome-plated steel wheels of the Li’l Red Express were shod with Goodyear raised white-letter tires. The front tires of ’78s were GR60x15s on 7-inch-wide chrome wheels while the back tires were LR60x15s on 8-inch wheels.

Additional eye candy was in the interior with the choice of either black or red seats and a matching dashboard and door panels. A “tuff” steering wheel was reminiscent of those found on muscle-era Challengers. A bench seat, AM/FM radio, oil pressure gauge, power steering, a column shifter and a convenience package were standard.

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Not many boxes could be checked when ordering options for the already-loaded Li’l Red Express. Air conditioning with tinted glass, bucket seats, sliding back window, cruise control, tachometer, clock and heavy-duty front springs were some items available. These all added to the Li’l Red Express’ $7,400 base price, which was already a significant jump over the $4,171 base price of the 1978 D100 Utiline (stepside) upon which the Li’l Red Express was based.

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In the November 1977 issue of Car and Driver, the Li’l Red Express was the fastest in acceleration up to 100 mph among eight cars tested. By the way, the “Express” on the doors came from the E58 police engine, where the “E” stood for “Express.”

Unfortunately, emissions standards caught up to light-duty trucks in 1979 that were rated below 8,000 lbs. The result was that the Li’l Red Express now had a catalytic converter and required unleaded gasoline. Power fell a bit. Nevertheless, the 1979 version could still dust others between stoplights.

In addition, there were some cosmetic changes between the 1978 and the 1979 models. The ’78 Li’l Red Express had a single round headlamp on each side of the grille while the ’79 had stacked dual square headlamps. The LR60x15 tires on 8-inch-wide chrome wheels were now at all four corners. A four-spoke steering wheel replaced the tuff wheel in ’79 and an 85-mph speedometer replaced the previous year’s 100-mph speedo. Bright Canyon Red was available only in 1978, and Medium Canyon Red was the only exterior color for 1979.

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The new Li’l Red Express was not available in all states and municipalities, because it exceeded maximum noise levels in some areas. The high-pitched V-8 could wake up the dead.

The 1978 Li’l Red Express came out in March of that year. Even with a short model run, 2,188 were produced for the 1978 model year. For 1979, 5,118 units were assembled. However, the truck would not return in 1980. The “dual stack exhaust” music died with the second oil embargo.

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