1979 Dodge Lil Red Truck
1979 Dodge Li’l Red Truck. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The combination of tightening emission standards and skyrocketing insurance rates killed muscle cars in the early 1970s. Those lightweight intermediates packed with big V-8 engines, starting with the 1964 Pontiac GTO, would be definitely out of place in the seventies.

It was a decade in which quests for lower emissions and higher fuel economy brought the word “driveability” into our vocabulary — a hunkered-down era far from the flamboyance and performance of the sixties.

With car engines being throttled down by things like low compression ratios (necessitated by the catalytic converter’s need for lead-free gasoline), air pumps and exhaust gas recirculation, more and more performance enthusiasts turned to light trucks for their fun. These had not only largely escaped emission legislation, but were also relatively inexpensive.

No manufacturer stepped up to this adult-toy category with more alacrity than the boys from Dodge. In 1977 they introduced their Dodge Warlock pickup with gold pinstriping and genuine oak racks. It came in several colours and could be ordered with four-wheel-drive. This would be the prelude to an even more outlandish pickup for 1978.

In mid-1978 Dodge brought out its Li’l Red Truck. It was based on the regular Dodge D150 Utiline half-ton narrow-box pickup, which had a 2,921 mm (115 inch) wheelbase. But that’s where the relationship to utilitarian motoring ended. The Li’l Red Truck was strictly a toy for big boys.

Naturally the truck came only in red, in this case Bright Canyon Red for 1978, and Medium Canyon Red for ’79. It got Dodge’s upscale Adventurer cab and was set off with a golden “Li’l Red Express Truck” decal on each door. It could be optioned with such personal choices as extra instruments, including a tachometer.

For an extra touch of “woody wagon” cachet it had oak panels bolted to the sides, tailgate and floor of the cargo box, and it rode on fancy chrome wheels fitted with LR60-15 white-letter Goodyear radial tires.

But what really separated the Li’l Red Truck from other pickups were the two 63 mm (2.5 inch) diameter chromed vertical exhaust stacks, complete with perforated heat shields, that poked out from under the box at each corner of the cab. They rose up to discharge above roof level, just like the real 18-wheeler the Li’l Red Truck aspired to be.

Those prominent pipes were fed by a 5.9-litre (360 cubic inch) V-8 engine, which was modified and reinforced to pump out 225 horsepower at 3,800 rpm, and 295 lb-ft of torque at 3,200. It breathed through a four-barrel carburetor, and was dressed up with chrome-plated rocker covers and a twin-snorkel air cleaner.

This big-inch thumper drove the rear wheels through a three-speed LoadFlite automatic transmission, a beefed-up version of Chrysler’s famous TorqueFlite car unit.

With its barn door aerodynamics, and a weight of over 1588 kg (3,500 lb) one would have expected only mediocre performance. Such was not the case, however, thanks to the brawny V-8, a 3.55:1 axle ratio, stiff, cargo-carrying rear springs, and the low-profile 60-series tires.

They all worked in harmony to get the pickup through a standing quarter mile in 15.71 seconds, according to a June 1978 Hot Rod Magazine test.

In November 1977, Car and Driver magazine tested a Li’l Red Truck, fitted with special large-port cylinder heads, alongside eight hot cars of the day, including a Chevrolet Corvette, Pontiac Trans Am, Porsche 924 and Saab Turbo. The truck beat them all with a zero to 161 km/h (100 mph) time of 19.9 seconds.

But while the testers found the Li’l Red Truck to be quick in acceleration and, in spite of its bluff shape, to have a fast 191 km/hr (118.8 mph) top end, they also found it noisy and rough-riding. This is not surprising, with those giant stacks blasting at ear level, and springs meant for hauling cargo, not coddling passengers.

Dodge sold 2,188 of these macho playthings during its shortened 1978 model year, and carried it over into 1979 with only minor changes. Sales totalled a surprisingly good 5,118 for 1979, in what would turn out to be an otherwise bad year for Chrysler.

The company had been caught going one way while public preference was going the other, and was suffering with large, unwanted, out-of-date cars. The whole North American industry was in the doldrums due to the second oil crisis of the decade. With emission standards starting to tighten, it would be the last year Dodge would offer the Li’l Red Truck.

The little rig had been a brief reincarnation of the ’60s muscle car era, this time masquerading as a truck. It was outrageous and impractical, and definitely out of step with the times. But it was also a fun, commercial hot rod.

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