The mid- to late-1970s were rightfully regarded as the darkest days of performance. In an effort to meet ever-tightening emissions standards, engines were detuned as compression ratios were lowered and outputs were further strangled by emissions controls such as more restrictive exhausts with catalytic converters.
The mid-'80s would see a big resurgence in performance as newer technologies allowed engineers to once again tune engines for performance while still meeting emissions regulations. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
Indeed, if one was looking for something American that would accelerate with gusto during the late 1970s, the pickings were mighty slim. Sadly, a V8 of the era typically made only around 140 to 170 horses with just a handful of performance-oriented vehicles able to join the 200-horsepower club. As such, performance choices were essentially limited to Chevrolet's Corvette with its optional L82 350 V8, Pontiac's Trans Am with the optional "T/A 6.6" (W72) 400 V8… and Dodge's Li'l Red Express Truck pickup.
Yes, that's right — a pickup truck.
Red and righteous
Dodge took advantage of less stringent emissions regulations for pickup trucks, and with a wink and a nod created the Li'l Red Express Truck for 1978. The basis for this unique vehicle was the short wheelbase, "Utiline" (stepside) version of Dodge's D150 pickup truck. From there, the engineers and designers had a field day. Bright red paint covered the body and real oak wood accented the bedsides and tailgate while "Li'l Red Express Truck" decals and gold striping added still more pizzazz. Even among all that eye candy, one of the most arresting features was the chromed-out, vertical exhaust system whose big-rig-style pipes would have done a Peterbilt proud.
Inside, the outlandish Dodge had a much more sedate styling scheme. Buyers had a choice of either a bench or optional bucket seats (with a standalone folding-center armrest) in either red or black. A sporty thick-rimmed, three-spoke "Tuff" steering wheel was initially standard, though it would be replaced by a less-stylish four-spoke wheel the following year.
A V8 with vigor
With all that flash on the outside, there had to be some dash under the hood. And with a free-breathing 360 V8 dropped between the front fenders, the Li'l Red Express delivered. Specifically, the high-output V8 was derived from the Police package 360 and sported a massive 850-CFM 4-barrel carburetor, a dual snorkel air cleaner, a performance camshaft and a real dual exhaust system with 2.5-inch pipes. It was rated at a strong-for-the-time 225 horsepower. And that was likely a conservative rating given the performance it provided for a near 2-ton truck.
A chrome air cleaner and valve covers dressed things up and harkened back to the muscle-car era when car makers were proud to show off their engines. Unfortunately, a four-speed with a Pistol-grip shifter was not an option, as the sole transmission fitted was a column-shifted, beefed-up automatic that admittedly did a fine job of sending the power to the 3.55:1 rear end. The Li'l Red Express rolled with fat, 15-inch white-lettered tires mounted on chrome wheels.
A pickup with plenty of pickup
Performance figures were impressive for the time. The Li'l Red Express could sprint to 60 mph in around 7.5 seconds and blast down the quarter mile in the mid-15-second range. In other words, in those performance tests, this big red truck would run about neck-and-neck with the aforementioned Corvette and Trans Am. Make it a race to 100 mph, however, and the Dodge would leave those sleek sports cars behind. Gathering up the fastest American vehicles available for 1978, Car and Driver conducted such a test and ended up naming the Dodge Li'l Red Express as the fastest accelerating American vehicle from 0-to-100 mph.
Lively yet short-lived
After testing the waters and producing just 2,188 units for 1978, but seeing strong demand for its hot rod truck, Dodge ramped up production for 1979. Total production for that second year was 5,118 units. For 1979, the Li'l Red Express Truck saw a handful of minor changes. Round headlights gave way to a quartet of square units, the hood was flatter and catalytic converters were fitted (as emissions regulations for trucks tightened up), now requiring the use of unleaded gas. Thankfully the latter had little effect on performance, likely due to the fitment of dual converters rather than a single one and the availability of higher octane fuel.
The gas crisis of 1979 helped to seal the fate of the Li'l Red Express Truck. Units sat unsold on dealer lots while gas prices grew and gas availability shrunk. Understandably, the company pulled the plug on the pickup after the 1979 model year run. Still, there was no denying that Dodge's shining performance star provided much-needed light during a dark time.