Strange but true: In 1978, the hottest domestic production car sold in America … well, it wasn’t a car. It was a pickup—the Dodge L’il Red Express Truck, a factory hot rod with the quickest zero-to-100 mph time of any American-made vehicle that year.
In the late 1970s the auto industry was struggling to meet strict new emissions and fuel economy requirements. The advanced electronic control systems used to achieve maximum efficiency on all vehicles today weren’t yet developed. As a result, performance suffered—V8 engines were offered on only a few models, often pickups, and with anemic power ratings, usually less than 200 horsepower. It was sort of a depressing time for performance enthusiasts, to be honest.
You know the engineers at Dodge weren’t going to let that situation stand. Noting that the regulations were a bit less stringent for trucks, the team selected Dodge’s shortest, lightest pickup, the Utiline half-ton D150 with a 115-inch wheelbase. Into this package they dropped the 360-cubic-inch E58 V8 from the Dodge police cruiser, the A727 Loadflight automatic transmission, and a SureGrip rear axle with 3.55:1 ratio. Now, by 2013 standards, 225 hp doesn’t sound like a lot, but in 1978 it was enough to rule the roost.
For visual appeal, the hot rod pickup received slotted chrome wheels, raised white-letter tires, wood cargo-box panels, Canyon Red paint, and a nifty gold-letter graphic on each door bearing the name “L’il Red Express Truck.” The crowning touch was a pair of large-diameter chrome exhaust stacks that rose vertically at the rear corners of the cab, emulating a big semi tractor.
Eager for good news, performance enthusiasts and the automotive media alike threw their arms around the Express. Almost 2,200 units were sold in 1978, followed by another 5,188 in 1979, as part of a hot marketing program called “the adult toys from Dodge.” Of course, these days the trucks have their own signature RAM Trucks brand, and class-leading performance can be found throughout the Dodge lineup—for example, in the HEMI-powered Challenger, America’s most affordable V8 muscle car.