Dodge Li’l Red Express: The Grandfather of Factory-Built Performance Trucks


In the late 1970s, American automakers were still struggling to adjust to the oil crises that plagued the decade. While most pickups released during that period were far less powerful than they were just ten years earlier, Dodge said, “truck it!” and went in the opposite direction.

The company started a project called “Adult Toys” and as part of this limited-edition lineup, they launched the Warlock in 1977. Based on the third generation D-series workhorse, it was a factory-customized performance pickup built to appeal to younger buyers. However, Dodge wasn’t done, and behind closed doors, they were working on the most outrageous truck America had ever seen.

The brainchild of Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover, who called it, “The Last American Hot Rod”, it was converted from a stock half-ton D150 Adventurer into a high-performance beast by Mike Koran’s team of mad scientists at Specialized Vehicles Inc.

Like the Warlock, the Li’l Red Express Truck was a vehicle built to stand out from the crowd. It came with a bright Canyon Red paint job complemented by gold pinstriping, clear-coated oak wood trim panels, chrome bumpers, sidesteps, and wheels, as well as two huge, big-rig-style exhaust stacks that became its most recognizable feature.

But it wasn’t all about head-turning looks. Unlike its sibling, this rabbit truck could shred tires with the same aplomb as the true muscle cars that went extinct at the beginning of the 1970s.

When it was introduced in 1978, it was powered by a unique version of the 360 ci (5.9-liter) E58 V8 dubbed 360 Express. It made around 225 hp and 295 lb-ft (400 Nm) of torque that was delivered to the rear wheels through a modified LoadFlite three-speed automatic and a Sure Grip limited-slip differential.

The engine was derived from the 1978 Police-spec 360 and was the work of Hoover who exploited several loopholes in the stringent emission regulations. While most of the components from the original Police 360 were retained, the engine got several performance upgrades such as red stripe valve springs with dampers and a camshaft taken from the 1968 340 ci (5.6-liter) V8, an 850-CFM ThermoQuad four-barrel carb, and dual-snorkel air cleaner with fresh air ducts. You can hear it rumble in the video below posted on YouTube by St. Louis Car Museum & Sales.

With this crazy powerplant under the hood, the Li’l Red Express could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) in just 6.7 seconds, quicker than much more expensive sports cars. Moreover, according to Car and Driver who ran a series of performance tests in 1978, it was the fastest American-built production vehicle from 0 to 100 mph (161 kph) with a time of 19.9 seconds.

Although it wasn’t cheap, with prices starting around $7,000 ($29,370 today), Dodge sold 2,188 units in 1978. The market demanded more but the company simply couldn’t cope with the huge number of orders, so production was extended throughout 1979. This led to 5,118 additional units that came with minor aesthetic modifications, a new dark red color, and a catalytic converter.

It’s estimated that less than half of these are still around today. Due to its uniqueness, you would think that a low-mileage example in excellent shape would demand six-figure sums yet, they sell for around $25,000, which is a small price to pay for one of the most iconic pickup trucks of all time.

Built in an era when performance was not on the menu of most American automakers, the Li’l Red Express was a breath of fresh air. The reincarnation of a 1960s muscle car in a quirky truck body, it laid the groundwork for today’s popular performance truck segment.