1978 Impressive Expresses...
To accompany Karl Pippart's story of the Li'l Red Truck's development and history, we selected two examples of the breed for this story. The unmolested '78 version at left is owned by Bob Osborne of Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and was purchased by him in the condition seen here. Since acquiring the inaugural-year machine in 1996, Osborne has used the truck primarily as a showpiece, making occasional cruise events with it. For the second example, Grover Hurley's restored '79 version above was our chosen feature. The Mount Morris, Michigan, resident purchased his truck after a previous owner had completed the restoration, though this particular truck was always properly cared for and has seen only 30,000 miles of use in the last 22 years. Hurley has owned his truck for more than five years now, enjoying sunny-day cruising and parking in the shady spots of car shows, as a final hurrah for the old Chrysler Corporation. Both of these trucks prove that Detroit's performance years weren't reserved strictly for the musclecar era. Both are representative of the factory construction, and they were indeed the little trucks that could...do anything, that is.
Dodge Truck History
The performance market had changed by the mid-'70s. The 426 Hemi, four-speed Pistol Grip shifter, six-barrel induction, Air Grabber hood, HIP colors, and most of the performance models (e.g., 'Cuda and Super Bee) were gone from the scene. The first Arab oil embargo, an overzealous insurance industry, and officials from the federal government basically conspired to bring the musclecar movement to an emphatic end. At the same time, an increasing number of import models built with four-cylinder engines and front-wheel-drive transaxles were overwhelming domestic auto production. As a result, the attention of many motoring enthusiasts turned toward the hot trend of the era: light-duty pickups and vans.
With these vehicles, radical customizing rather than performance was the order of the day. The popularity of such vehicles helped spearhead the "Adult Toys" program from Dodge Truck, which included the popular Warlock model. Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover took things a step further and proposed another truck with a bit more moxie, or as he called it, "The Last American Hot Rod." Thus, a legend was born.
Unknowingly, the feds provided a big assist. First, if the gross vehicle rating was 6,100 pounds or greater, then leaded gas with a no-cat exhaust system was allowed. Second, a handful of modifications were allowed to an emissions-certified engine, and the full certification cycle didn't have to be rerun. Tom Hoover wasted no time in exploiting these loopholes. The "Warlock Project," as it was called, initially dealt with mechanical upgrades. The basis for the prototype was a production truck pulled off the assembly line. It was painted red and had wood planking in the bed. Ted Spehar's Specialized Vehicles handled the makeover and Gary Ostrich performed the engine work, with Dave Koffel supervising the overall operation. Originally, the vertical exhaust stacks were to have big, rig-style flappers, but that setup proved too loud, so curved chrome tips were substituted. Under the hood, things became really interesting.
A fuel-injected 440 was initially considered, but the big-block V8s were already scheduled for termination, so the 360 became the logical starting point. Basically, an E58 360 short-block was built up with a Holley induction system (4160 Series carb and aluminum intake), W-2 cylinder heads fitted with 1.5:1 ratio bronzed rocker arms, heavy-duty valvesprings and dampers, 252/252-degree camshaft, 8.4:1 compression, and the full tilt of E58 internals; a double-roller timing chain, "selected crankshaft," heavy-duty main bearings, and a windage tray for the oil pan rounded out the package. The A727A LoadFlite transmission received a 440 V8 valvebody and a high-stall, nonlockup torque converter. For the exhaust, 211/42-inch diameter head pipes sent the gases through B/RB wedge-style mufflers and out the vertical 211/44-inch tailpipes surrounded by chrome heat shields. Low-mounted, round taillights and backup lights precluded the use of a rear bumper. Four LR60x15 Goodyear GT radial tires were mounted on 15x7 (front) and 15x8 (rear), five-slot chrome wheels. Other features included a 9.25-inch rear with 3.55 gears and a Sure Grip differential, a flip-top gas cap, "W-2" decals on the fenders and forced air induction. With the prototype ready, some road testing by the mag wags was in order.
Both Hot Rod and Car and Driver magazines were given the keys to the "Little Red Truck" for evaluation purposes in their Nov. '77 issues. With the air induction duct work routed to the parking light lens cavities (lenses were positioned below the headlights), Hot Rod averaged 14.70 seconds at 93-plus mph in several quarter-mile passes. The quoted power figure was 225 hp at 4,000 rpm. Hot Rod stated a production version was virtually a done deal, but in case it wasn't, they gave the mailing address for Vehicle Product Planning Manager Dick Maxwell, who was an integral member of the "Warlock Project" development team. When Car and Driver had the "Little Red Truck," the duct work was routed to the relocated parking lamp lens location below the headlights and the production lamp lenses were reinstalled in the grille. C&D gathered together several vehicles that they felt could "double the double nickel" and go through some additional types of performance testing. The LRT was quickest from 0 to 100 mph in 19.9 seconds and fourth fastest at 118.8 mph. It tied for second best in the braking test and was the worst interior noise offender at an ear-splitting 94 decibels. The prototype was a smash success.
Next, several decisions were made concerning the finalized production version. First, the Product Planning Division wanted the truck to be more distinctive and more saleable. The decals and exterior wood accents were added and the name changed to Li'l Red (Express) Truck. The regular-production taillights, which incorporated back-up lights, were positioned high enough to allow for the installation of the rear bumper. The flip-top gas cap was retained (early-build trucks only), as were the 15x7 (RA3) and 15x8 (RA6) wheel sizes, but the front tires were changed from LR60s (WMH) to GR60x15 (WMG) in order to further accentuate the lowered front profile. The spare tire was deleted (Wx6) on the '78 Li'l Reds.
The engine received some radical revisions (no) thanks to the engineering department. Because the W-2 cylinder head wasn't a production piece, engineering felt it wouldn't pass emissions certification and durability reviews-even though covert testing proved the chief engineer wrong-so the standard 360 heads with 1.88-inch-diameter (intake) and 1.60-inch-diameter (exhaust) valves were bolted on. Leakproof valve-cover gaskets were used under the chrome-plated valve covers. A cast-iron intake replaced the aluminum piece and a Carter ThermoQuad with an 850-cfm rating was placed on top (regular E58 360 TQs were rated at 650 cfm). The viscous drive fan was retained and bolted to an E58 water pump. The camshaft was a 268-276-44 bumpstick and was '68 340 hardware (as were the H/D valvesprings, dampers, and pushrods). Compression was pegged at 8.4:1, while the E58 360 had an 8.0:1 squeeze. All LRTs used the 1974-early '75 360hp pistons (PN 3780071). Under a chrome air-cleaner lid, the ductwork led from the base to factory openings in the pan below the grille. Rated at 225 hp and 340 lbs.-ft. of torque, the special 360 was coded EH1. (Note: The '78 LRT W45 was unavailable for sale in California.*)
Standard equipment included the GH3 Utiline body style (115-inch wheelbase), front and rear chrome bumpers, and the YA1 Adventurer Package (Note: on the fender, the chrome-plated script bade said "Adventurer", while it said "Custom" on the prototype). There were also extra-cost-required options, such as ST1 power steering, LM2 AM/FM MX stereo radio, YF1 Convenience Package, LB2 oil pressure gauge, LF4 Tuff steering wheel, SW1 front antisway bar and YW4 6,100 pound gross vehicle weight package. The color was PY3442 Bright Canyon Red. Extra-cost optional equipment included air conditioning, tinted glass, Sure Grip rear, sliding back glass, cruise control, OSRV oversize mirrors, tachometer or clock, and a gauge package (battery charge and vacuum). The interiors consisted of either red bucket seats with center storage compartment or black or red bench seats.
The first of the Li'l Reds hit the showroom floors in January 1978, and a technical service bulletin explaining the new model was issued and dated June 26, 1978. The MSRP plus destination charge came to almost $7,000. Production was supposedly limited to 2,000 units, but the popularity of the '78 LRT resulted in a final tally of 2,188 examples. Hot Rod flogged a production '78 in its June '78 issue and achieved a quarter-mile time of 15.71 seconds at 88.06 mph and averaged fuel economy of 13.1 mpg; the production version was a well-balanced package. Better yet, the success of the '78 version was the green light for the continuation of the model in 1979. Changes, both minor and major, were the theme for the '79 LRT, the most important of which affected the exhaust system. For light-duty trucks, the ever-busy feds had now raised the GVW limit to 8,000 pounds; therefore, the '79 LRT received a catalytic converter, enhanced emissions-controls, and was required to use unleaded gasoline. The speedometer, which had read to an even 100 mph in 1978, now went to only 85 mph.
The grille was revised to house-stacked, square headlights. Changes were made to the design of the hood and the rear-side marker lights were relocated into the taillight housings. The exterior paint color was now PY3450 Medium Canyon Red, the LR60s were mounted on 15x8-inch wheels at all four corners, the WX1 fullsize spare was included, and the Tuff steering wheel was replaced during the model year with a four-spoke unit. Due to inflation, the price of a base LRT was now up to approximately $7,500. No matter, Dodge couldn't build enough Li'l Red Express Trucks to satisfy demand; until the Carter Administration's energy crisis hit and sales plunged, 5,118 units left the factory gates.
The success of the previous LRTs almost led up to a spinoff for 1980. Featured in the Oct. '79 issue of Pickup, Van & 4WD magazine was a photo of the Li'l Express Truck painted black. The prototype was indicative of the expanded color choices that would be offered by Dodge. This distinctive truck hasn't surfaced, but could still be in existence.
The original '77 LRT prototype was shipped to Walker Evans along with two production versions for the December '79 running of the Baja 1000. After the race, which Walker won, two trucks were returned to Dodge and one was retained by Walker as a race prerunner; this was the last time the only W-2-equipped LRT ever constructed was seen. Very few motor vehicles built from the mid-'70s to the early '80s were powerful and memorable enough to be favorably compared with the musclecars of the '60s and the early '70s. Fittingly, the LRT powered its way to the top of the list as the best example of its generation. Long live the Li'l Red Blur.
*The LRT wasn't sold in several municipalities and states because it exceeded their maximum noise levels.
The Li'l Red Book by Skip Gibbs 1997, S&P Creations; The Li'l Red Express Truck a source and fact book by Skip Gibbs, 1995 S&P Creations; 1979 Chrysler 300 Handbook by Dale Burkhardt & John Veatch, 1989; Carlisle All-Chrysler Nationals 2000 program, pages 68-70; Archives of Classic Auto Research Service.