Cohort Capsule: 1979 Dodge Li’l Red Express Truck – Blasting Away Malaise Through Its Twin Exhaust Stacks

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images posted at the Cohort by nifticus

The fact that the pre-production version of this pickup was the fastest vehicle from 0-100 mph (as tested by car & Driver) says a lot about the state of performance in the US during the 1970s. This Li’l Red Express truck was both a clever work-around of the emission regulations of the time, as well as a harbinger of things to come. As traditional big-engined fast American cars were disappearing, the pickup truck took over their role, one that could never have been guessed at ten years earlier. And of course, that role has just continued to expand over the decades since. The Li’l Red Express truck was delivering the future in its short bed.

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Its git’up and go came from a specially-equipped 360 V8. According to the main sources available, Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover found some kind of loophole in the EPA regulations that allowed some modifications to be made to an engine after it had been certified (Update: not so).  The the prototype used a police 360 engine, but with SuperFlow heads, HD valve gear, and the quite aggressive camshaft from the 1968 340 V8, fed by a big 850cfm Thermoquad four barrel carb. The 1978 production version ditched the special heads, supposedly because they were not durability-tested. And no catalytic converters were necessary; the 360 exhaled through Hemi-style mufflers and then dusted the less-than pristine exhaust up through the twin vertical “big truck” stacks.

I have some doubts about the EPA “loophole”, but since this is a D150 series truck, it had the higher GVW that allowed it to get by with lower emission standards at the time. And the 1979 version did get catalytic converters, although they seem to not have dinged its performance.

The Li’l Red Express’ engine was rated at 225 net hp at a very low 3800 rpm, which seems somewhat at odds with that camshaft’s qualities. The 1968 340 would happily spin to 6,000 rpm. Whatever…

Update: the specs given for the cam in this engine (252 degrees) do not match those given for the 340 cam (268in/276ex). So clearly that part of the story is BS. This 360 is basically just a police 360 V8, possibly with a bigger carb. The modest hp rating confirms that.

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A 2500 rpm stall-speed torque converter on the mandatory A-727 Torqueflite made rubber-burning take offs easy; or hard to avoid. 1/4 mile times of 15.70 @ 88.06mph for the production version wasn’t exactly Hemi-‘Cuda territory, but this was 1978. Speaking of, the second energy crisis, which came along in late 1979, blew the L’il Red Express out of the water.

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The resurgence of performance in the 1978-1979 period was short-lived, and so was the lifespan of the Li’l Red Express. But it’s a colorful representative of the early rise of the pickup’s reign and V8 standard-bearer on America’s streets.