The end of the muscle car and stringent emissions regulations gave birth to some strange performance vehicles in the 1970s. Small displacement, turbochargers, and even front wheel drive. But some loopholes in environmental protection laws meant that some big rear-drive V8 power still snuck out the door. Here’s one of the most noticeable of those sneaky cars. Our Find of the Week this week, a 1979 Dodge Li’l Red Truck.
Muscle cars reigned supreme in the early 1970s. Big block, Hemi, SS, Boss, six-pack, and anything else they could think of that said “performance” were the names thrown around by manufacturers to promote their latest hot coupe. Then in October 1973, the OPEC oil embargo sent gas prices spiralling. New emissions regulations were designed to curb the smog that was causing problems in much of the country but also cut power. And insurance companies weren’t happy with average Joe being able to drive down to his local dealer and roll out with nearly 400 hp.
During the mid-’70s, muscle cars started to disappear. By 1977, a Chevrolet Corvette came with just 210 hp. The Mustang had just gotten its V8 back, but it was a 4.9L making just 140 hp. Dodge’s Charger might have made 200 hp, but it weighed over 2,000 kg. Even the mighty Challenger was a rebadged Mitsubishi with the Hemi badge glued on a 2.6L inline four that eked out a mere 105 hp.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Engineers at Dodge wanted performance back. They had already been running the “Adult Toys Program” which sounded much more innocent in the 1970s. It was made up of vans and trucks with lots of customization options. Fancy wheels, stripes, roll bars, and just about anything they could do to make their vehicles stand out. But they weren’t faster.
The new US emissions regulations had some holes. If a vehicle had a GVWR of more than 2,772 kg, then automakers could change the engine without having to recertify it. The changed engine passed emissions based on the original’s compliance. So they could build a performance vehicle, but it had to be a truck.
The base was a short-wheelbase D150 pickup. Under the hood was a 5.9L V8. But it wasn’t quite a stock 5.9. It had modified cylinder heads with bigger valves. There was a four-barrel carb. It was a police-spec engine with bigger cams, a cold air induction system, and those big-rig style exhausts coming out of the bed. The only transmission was a three-speed automatic with a high RPM stall speed torque converter and 3.55:1 gears in the limited-slip rear end. It made 225 hp (more than a Corvette), and a massive 340 lb-ft of torque.
There were some exterior changes too. Lots of chrome, including on the exhaust stacks. All the trucks were bright red with gold stripes and a gold decal on the door. That wood trim on the bedside and the tailgate was real oak. The rear tires were massive Goodyear LR60 tires. That’s the equivalent of about 275/60-15 by modern measurements.
After a huge reception for the concept trucks in 1977, the Red Express went into production for 1978. The trucks weren’t cheap. The options required to get one added nearly 50 percent to the truck’s sticker price, bumping it to about $7,422.
But it was a huge success. Magazine testing at the time declared it the quickest vehicle built in North America during the two years of production. More emissions changes for 1979 meant that it gained a catalytic converter, but it didn’t slow the truck down. Dodge sold more than 7,000 of the trucks before another energy crisis hit and stopped the fun after just two years of production.
The truck we’ve found this week is a 1979 model for sale in Sherwood Park, Alberta, just east of Edmonton. It’s extremely low mileage, with the owner reporting just over 46,000 km on the odometer. It has all the graphics, the wood trim, and an immaculate interior. If you’re looking to catch attention and turn heads in a pickup this summer, it’s hard to do it much better than in a Dodge Li’l Red Truck. And it’ll even haul your stuff, too.
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