How many of Ma Mopar's legendary muscle cars weren't actually cars? There were over 7,000 built in 1978-'79 that weren't--and their existence is thanks to a couple of loopholes in Federal clean-air laws back then.
Dodge's Li'l Red Express was the production version of a prototype that legendary Chrysler engineers Tom Hoover and Dick Maxwell made, combining a potent LA small-block with the lightest weight Mopar that didn't need catalytic converters--the Dodge D-150 Utiline pickup.
Those loopholes included one that permitted modifications to an already emissions-certified engine, and required all vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) rating of 6,000 pounds or below to meet the strict emission limits that went into effect for 1975.
The resulting Li'l Red Express (LRE), which had Mopar's W-2 cylinder heads atop its E58 cop-car 360, was quickly turned into a production truck that debuted in March of 1978 as part of Dodge Truck's Adult Toys line of pickups, SUVs, and vans.
Before production actually began, however, the W-2 heads came off, as there hadn't been enough time to do the durability testing needed for mass production. Fortunately, the E58's heads were up to the job, and other high-performance parts, like the camshaft from the '68 340 and the 3.55-geared Dana 60 rear end, stayed in.
2,188 '78 LREs were built in the last half of the '78 model run, including the one seen here that Greg Willis owns. "It was pretty dead," says Greg of its condition when he bought it. "I tried to buy it back in 1987 from the original owner, but he wouldn't come off of it, and he gave it to one of his buddies. He burned it up pulling a boat with it."
After Greg was finally able to convince the owner to sell it to him in 1999, he got it home and was able to get the 360 in it to run, but he found the 727 was junk. "It had been burned so hard that I couldn't get it apart, so I had to throw it on the pile and start fresh with another one," says Greg.
The LRE also needed help with its cab and bed as well. "Someone had welded a piece of sheetmetal in the bed," he says of the modification that took out the original wood bed floor. "I had to cut that out and put new bed boards in it. The bed sides were kind of beat up, so I had to work on those."
The '78's D-Series cab also needed attention, both inside and out. "We put new floorpans in it, then we got the interior done," Greg says of the work needed to not only repair the cab, but bring its Adventurer-level bucket seats, tach-equipped dash, and the rest of the cabin back to shape.
LREs all had Adventurer-level trim inside, and Greg's has had its buckets, dash, doors, an
A wooden bed floor was standard in the LRE, and K&G Wood Crafters made the reproduction bo
When it came to the pickup bed, Greg didn't use wood floor boards from a reproduction parts maker--Greg had K&G Woodcrafters make a new set. "My wife says it looks better than the wood floors in her home," he says with pride.
Once all that was done, it was time for new Bright Canyon Red paint, plus fresh brightwork and trim. This was at a time when Greg was headed into the hospital for surgery. "The doctors told me I couldn't work on it for a while, so we figured it was a good time for it to go to the paint shop," he recalls.
That Greg was able to restore this LRE is amazing, especially when you consider that he did much of the work after losing much of his eyesight to a diabetes-related disease. His desire to bring this truck back to its original condition wasn't stopped during the six and a half years it took to restore it from worn-out to factory-fresh.
Greg's efforts paid off in a big way when his LRE took Best in Show honors at a national event produced by the National Association of Li'l Red Express Truck Owners.
Dodge brought back the LRE for 1979, but The Man caught on, and mandated that it wear catalytic converters and four quad headlights. 1979 Li'l Red Express sales totaled 5,118--most of them before the oil shock hit in the spring of 1979. The doubled pump prices spelled the end for Dodge Truck's Adult Toys, as dealers were hard-pressed to sell their stocks of LREs, Warlocks, Macho Power Wagons, and Street Vans.
Still, the '78 Li'l Red Express--the last muscle Mopar that didn't need unleaded gasoline--made an impression on truck buyers then, and (in the case of Greg's) still makes an impression whenever they're shown.