Car of the Week: 1978 Dodge Li’l Red Express

By Brian Earnest

John Roberts thought it was just an ordinary Friday evening. The Rotonda West, Fla., resident was on his way back home when his son Wes called from Indiana, where John had raised his family before moving to Florida. “I talked to him for a minute and then he said I’ll call you when you get home,” Roberts recalled. “I thought that was a little strange. He had me on the phone and I was thinking, ‘Why don’t we just talk now.’ We always talked on the phone once a week and I didn’t think anything of it …

“So I get home and pretty soon I hear a rumbling down the street and I look up and there’s this Li’l Red Express truck coming toward the house. It pulls in and Wes is driving it! He got out and said ‘Hey Dad, this is your truck.’ Geez, I get choked up even today thinking about it. I said, ‘Wes, what are you doing here with this truck?’ He said, ‘It’s yours. The truck is for you.’ I said ‘I can’t afford this,’ but he said, ‘You don’t owe me anything. The truck is yours.’

“He just decided to do something nice for his dad.”

The red pickup was the same one that the pair had checked out in Muncie, Ind., several months earlier when John headed north for a visit. John was blown away by the wonderful condition of the truck and knew the asking price was “a steal,” but still couldn’t bring himself to write out the check and take the truck home. “I just couldn’t pay that much money for a toy for myself,” he lamented. Roberts had to pass on the truck, but he still talked about it occasionally and one day Wes decided to see if the truck was still available. “He’s a big Mustang guy and I was helping him look for one, and then he called me one Sunday afternoon and asked me for the number of the guy that was selling the Li’l Red. He said he just wanted to call the guy and see if he still had it.”

Wes called the man and found out the Li’l Red was still for sale. He called his dad back and told him the car had been sold, which was only a half a lie because the car had indeed just been sold, to Wes himself.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say the arrival of the hot red pickup has given Roberts a whole new lease on life. He has become a bit of an expert on the trucks over the past 18 years, has become an active member of the Li’l Red Express enthusiast community, has become a chief judge at national meets and is the author of the “78-79 Li’l Red Express Identification Handbook,” which he said recently went to its fifth printing. “I’ve kind of gotten neck-deep in these things over the years,” he laughs. “I’ve learned a lot about them on my own, and learned a lot about all the little differences between the two years they were built. People think the trucks were all the same, but here is actually something like 186 little differences between the years. I had all that stuff in my brain and figured it’s time somebody wrote all that down.”

That was back in 2000 and Roberts chuckles at the notion that he has now become a know-it-all on the flashy retro trucks. He clearly remembers seeing one for the first time and having no idea what a Li’l Red Express was. “The first one I saw was when I walked into a Dodge dealer,” he recalls. “For 22 years I sold auto dealer supplies so I was always visiting dealers, and I’ve always been kind of  a speed nut. I always loved speed and used to race late model stock cars back in Indiana … At the time I was looking to buy a Dodge Omni. Well, it turns out that everybody was buying Omnis and the dealers didn’t have any left. I had no idea; I figured you could just got down and buy one on the lot, but I found there was a waiting list … As I left and walked out door look out and saw this red truck with wood on the back and chrome stacks, and I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ I went and looked it over and it had the 360 police engine, it was all chromed out with the big stacks and wood trim. It was an eye knocker! I thought, boy I’d like to have one of those things. They were all flashy and big ol’ fat tires. They were built to run!”

The $8,000-plus price tag caused Roberts to keep looking, but he had become a fan of the trucks for life, even if he doubted he’d ever own one.  “You know, $8,000 doesn’t sound like that doesn’t much today, but back then you could buy Dodge pickup — full-size — with almost everything on it for $3,500, or something like that,” he notes.

Rockin’ Red Surprise

The muscle car era was a fading memory by the late 1970s. There were few cars that still looked the part — the Corvette and Trans Am among them — but true speed demons were a thing of the past, victims of the oil embargo, soaring insurance costs and tighter emissions laws.

Yet somehow, Tom Hoover, known as the father of the 426 Hemi, kept the flame alive with the Li’l Red Express — a truck seemingly built in another time and place. Hoover found a bit of a loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on emissions by using a truck. Light-duty trucks were exempt from needing catalytic converters if their gross vehicle weight rating was above 6,000 lbs. Hoover decided to use a Dodge D150 Adventurer with a step side bed as the base for his muscle truck.

Chrysler’s in-house “hot rod shop” took the high-performance 360-cid E58 ‘police code’ block and pumped it up with a few other goodies, such as a camshaft from a 1968 340-cid V-8, Super-Flow cylinder heads, a special cold air intake at the radiator yoke, and a Carter four-barrel carburetor. The 225-net-hp engine was mated to a modified A-727 automatic transmission with a 2500-rpm stall converter and 3.55 Sure Grip rear axle. A rear stabilizer bar was standard.

A big part of the factory “customized” pickup’s tough personality came from its Hemi-style mufflers that fed twin chrome exhaust stacks with perforated heat shields that stood up from behind the cab.

The Li’l Red Express was only available in red with cool gold pinstriping. There was no mistaking a Li’l Red for something else. 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.

The chrome-plated steel wheels wore 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.

The seats were either black or red with a matching dashboard and door panels. The steering wheel looked like it was borrowed from a vintage late-1960s MoPar. A bench seat, AM/FM radio, oil pressure gauge, power steering, a column shifter and a convenience package were all standard.

Air conditioning, tinted glass, bucket seats, sliding back window, cruise control, tachometer, clock and heavy-duty front springs were all on the options list. These all added to the Li’l Red Express’ $7,400 base price.

No doubt the truck’s biggest claim to fame was the frequently heard boast that it was the fastest new vehicle on the market when it debuted for 1978. Indeed, at least one popular magazine test confirmed it. Car and Driver found the Dodge truck was the fastest vehicle to 100 mph among the eight new rides it tested for a magazine story.

In short, the Li’l Red Express was everything a muscle truck should be — flashy, fast, very noisy, and lots of fun to own. It wasn’t practical, and wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it went fast in a straight line and looked great in the process. And perhaps the clincher for making them cool trucks to own — both in the late 1970s and today — is the Li’l Red’s rarity. Only 2,188 were built for 1978 and 5,118 for ’79.

A Florida import

The 1978 Li’l Red Express never made it to new car lots in Florida when it was unveiled because of noise restriction laws there, and in several other states. Roberts’ truck was sold new at Palmer Dodge in Indianapolis and he is the proud third owner.

“It’s got 87,000 miles on it, and it’s got rock chips in front and little dings, but I’m not about to tear it down and restore it,” he says. “That’s was what I thought I would do when I first got it. I thought, ‘There’s not a bit of rust on it. I’ll tear it all down and put it all back together and have a brand new truck.’ … Well, one of the other judges found out what I was thinking of doing and he said, ‘No, don’t ever restore this truck. If you want a truck to restore go buy and old beater that needs a total restoration.’ And he was right. They are only original once.

“It’s not perfect, but I’m not afraid to put it in a car show. It’s not a concours level truck so it probably won’t win anything … I’ve replaced the alternator and battery and tires, but mainly it’s just maintenance items. I did finally change the carburetor last year and stuck an Edelbrock 600 on it. Nothing has every really been pulled out of the truck or changed. It’s been cleaned up good, but it’s basically all original from the ground up.”

Roberts loves the fact that the Li’l Reds are so wonderfully imperfect. They come with countless quirks and challenges, but they are never boring.

“It’s a 1978 vehicle, and of course Li’l Reds are noisy, anyway,” he laughs. “The exhaust is about 18 inches from your head. Mine doesn’t have air in it , so in the summertime here in Florida with the black vinyl seats and no air conditioning, you don’t want to drive real far some days. It doesn’t handle that great, it does have a front sway bar on it which most rucks didn’t have, but it’s a straight-line goer. From from zero to 100 I can still walk the dog pretty good. Even at 74, I can still push down hard with my right foot.”

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