Doomed: Li’l Red Express, 1978-1979

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Eric’s forthcoming book called, Doomed.

High-performance trucks are back, but they aren’t new.

One of the first of the breeds dates back to the height of the Disco era, 1978, when high-performance cars had all-but-ceased-to-exist because of the then-new government regulations applied to them in the manner of a chokehold and with the same effect.

The handful of “performance” cars that came along (like the Pontiac Trans-Am and its sister, the Chevy Camaro Z28) had to have, among other things, catalytic converters to meet the latest emissions standards that applied to passenger cars. Because catalytic converters were then new-tech, the cats were hugely restrictive and physically large. They took up a lot of room under the floorpans, and they added a lot of cost to the car. That’s why mid-late ’70s cars like the Trans-Am and Z28 and even the Corvette had just one hugely restrictive catalytic converter.

This meant single exhaust in the Trans-Am and Z28’s case, with “dual outlet” exhaust tips, which put a chokehold on the V8s under their hoods, just as the government and safety folks intended.

They both loathed performance cars for political and psychological reasons—the government for reasons of control and the safety folks for killing off the fun.

Then as now.

But in 1978, light trucks weren’t yet obliged to wear catalytic converters—a happy loophole exploited by Dodge to create the Li’l Red Express, which was the quickest American vehicle you could buy off the showroom floor that year.

It was a truck capable of running the quarter-mile in the high 14s, quicker than a new Corvette and as quick as many of the quickest muscle cars made before the advent of catalytic converters.

It was almost as quick as a 440-powered ’70 Challenger or Charger.

And like them, it was capable of running on regular leaded gas, which was still available in ’78, but could not be used in vehicles with converters because it would quickly plug them up.

No worries here, plus some savings, as leaded costs less than unleaded. Plus, it just smelled better, as known by those who remember.

The Express also had and could do things no Corvette (or Trans-Am or Z28) had or could, beyond outrun them.

It had a pair of functional smokestack exhaust pipes, the vertical equivalent of the side pipes some new cars (like the Corvette) once had but were no longer allowed to have due to the catalytic converters and drive-by noise regulations.

It also had a bed to haul things while also hauling ass—this was the Li’l Red Express!

It began as a regular cab/short bed D150 Ram pickup truck, chosen as the starting point by Tom Hoover (considered the father of the famous 426 Street Hemi) and Product Planning and Performance Group members Dick Maxwell and Dave Koffel. For the same reason, Pontiac engineer John DeLorean chose the unassuming Tempest as the foundation for what became the GTO back in 1964.

The truck was basic, and it was relatively light for a pickup.

To this was added a high-performance, uncorked version of the venerable Mopar 360 V8, a slightly hogged-out version of the hot little 340 small block that powered pre-catalytic muscle coupes like the Dodge Demon/Plymouth Duster.

It was initially planned to use a set of very high-performance W-2 heads with a Holley aluminum hi-rise intake perched in between and a square bore Holley four-barrel carb on top of that. Just as Pontiac had been compelled to dial back the ’73-’74 Trans-Am’s SD-455 V8 (which was one of the very last pre-catalyst true high-performance American V8s), Dodge ended up using a less aggressive spread bore intake mounting a Carter ThermoQuad four-barrel that was similar to the GM/Rochester Quadrajet in many ways. It was not an outright performance carb like the square bore Holley, but it did have 850 CFMs of airflow capability when the secondaries opened up.

There was also a dual-snorkel air cleaner—echoes of the good ol’ days!—and a nice lumpy (for 1978) camshaft with 33 degrees of overlap and 252 degrees of duration, hot for ’78. The 360 also used police-spec SuperFlow cylinder heads and valve springs, a heavy-duty timing chain, and was fitted with a special oil pan with a windage tray that wasn’t used in regular production 360s.

It all resulted in 225 net horsepower, a significant number for 1978, when the hottest engine you could get in a Trans-Am was the 220 horse 400 (a bigger V8 that made less power), and a meager 185 horsepower 350 powered the Z28. It was essentially identical to the standard 350 small block used in run-of-the-mill Malibus and Novas, with zero high-performance parts to set it apart.

It didn’t even get a dual-snorkel air cleaner, and it couldn’t touch the performance of the Li’l Red Express.

A performance-calibrated set-up 727 Torqueflite three-speed automatic with a higher-stall torque converter was bolted to the back of the 360, with the power multiplied by 3.55 rear gears.

It was the only new vehicle you could buy back in ’78 that could chirp the tires from first to second with an automatic transmission.

That was as it came.

And because it came without the emissions controls that afflicted cars that year and did not have to comply with emissions tests, it had the uniquely legal potential for higher performance no performance cars of that year offered.

Up the compression from the factory 8.2:1 and maybe install those W-2 heads, some headers, and a hotter cam. Get it into the 12s, perhaps, and still get your sticker.

And then there was the as-it-came exhaust, unlike the pipes that came with anything else extant in 1978.

Or, since.

One for each side of the V8, first of all. True duals, as it once was in high-performance applications. There were zero catalytic converters to interrupt the flow—just a crossover to increase the torque. The sound emanated from a pair of big-rig chromed and heat-shielded stacks on either side of the cab, just aft of the doors, after passing through a set of Street Hemi mufflers.


The rest of the truck got the treatment, too. Real wood (oak) paneling was used along the bedsides and inset into the tailgate and the bed floor.

Inside, you had your pick of the standard bench or optional buckets. All Li’l Red Express trucks got a full set of gauges and a set of specific chromed, five-slot 15×8 wheels with 60 series tires, huge for 1978, came as part of the deal.

It sat low with a noticeable forward rake. Unlike today’s performance trucks, which come standard with four-wheel-drive, the Li’l Red Express did not even offer it. Once upon a time, a good burnout was as important as a good quarter-mile time. The Li’l Red Express delivered both.

Dodge’s ad for the thing read as follows:

“Meet the new Li’l Red Truck from Dodge, the truly ‘customized’ pickup that’ll stir excitement even among the most avid ‘truck-truck’ enthusiasts. Best of all, it comes fully equipped from the factory—no need to seek out expensive local customizers and special equipment suppliers. The new Dodge Li’l RED TRUCK will turn a lot of heads—a limited edition pickup with chrome-plated good looks. Only Dodge has it. So, live a li’l…a Li’l RED TRUCK, that is!”

Naturally, it was only available in red, with gold-accent striping and “Li’l Red Express” stenciling on the doors. If you’re going to make a point, make a point! It was impossible not to see this thing.

Or hear it—the uncatalyzed sound of yesterday, in the here and now.

It helped people remember what was gone when it came to performance cars in 1978: no more Demons and 340 Swingers.

Some 2,188 people wanted a keepsake that year.

More than twice as many people (5,118 of them) grabbed a set of keys the following year, intuiting the fun could not last. Indeed, it had already begun to pass.

The ’79 model was saddled with a cat and could no longer burn regular gas. It also got the ridiculous 85 MPH speedometer that the government decreed as part of making people feel bad about speed. This proved to be the last year for the Li’l Red Express—the “loophole” having cinched tight, the fun no longer allowed.

For two years, though, you could buy what you used to be able to buy in the body of a truck instead of a car.

Li’l Red Express Trivia:

    • There were two prototypes 440-powered Li’l Red Expresses made for the show car circuit.
    • The production Li’l Red Express carried a base price of $7,422 vs. $5,168 for the base D-150 short-wheelbase pickup. Major options added were buckets seats ($200) and air conditioning ($624).
    • 1978 models have round headlights; in ’79, these were changed to square.
    • The Li’l Red Express was not available in California due to emissions and noise compliance issues—intimations of un-fun times ahead. For the same reasons, Pontiac was unable to sell the high-performance version of the Trans-Am in California. Instead of the 220 horse 400 with a manual four-speed, they got the 185 horse 400 with an automatic.
    • While a red exterior with gold trim was required, Express buyers could select either a red or black-trimmed interior.
    • If you didn’t want a Li’l Red Express, Dodge also offered the same thing in black. It was called the Midnight Express.
    • Interestingly, the published quarter-mile performance of the ’79 models, which had catalytic converters, is slightly better than the performance numbers posted by the ’78s, which had no cats.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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