Curbside Classic: Dodge Li’l Red Express – Dodge Dakota Edition

(first posted 2/23/2012)     Most truck enthusiasts have undoubtedly heard of and perhaps seen the original Dodge Li’l Red Express sold in 1978 and 1979. Maybe a number of folks have heard of the Warlock or the Dude trucks. The earlier Sweptline trucks even have a niche following. Dodge seems to have a bit of history with special edition trucks. But what about the Dakota Li’l Red Express?

The iconic red paint and a semi-truck style exhaust stacks of the original are hard to miss. One of the big attractions was a healthy 360cid V8 engine that was mostly unencumbered by exhaust regulations, at least for 1978. It raised the profile of the D-series trucks in a way that the early Warlock had not.

It was a welcome relief from the smog equipment chocked “performance” cars of the late 70s. A 1978 Corvette made all of 185 horsepower unless you happened to live in California and then you received 10 less. By comparison, the Li’l Red Express made 225 horsepower with the help of a more aggressive cam and many police duty parts such as the four barrel carburetor.

It exploited a loop hole in the emissions regulations for vehicles over 5000lbs not being required to run a catalytic convertor. The Li’l Red Express was actually the fastest accelerating car that Car and Driver tested in 1978. For 1979 some changes like the dual stacked headlights and a catalytic convertor were brought in but it was again a strong performer. Sales were up but 1979 would be the last year as another gas scare brought an end to the fun.

A little over ten years later someone must have figured there was enough pent up nostalgia to have another go. The Dakota based one isn’t quite the performance stand out its predecessor was (relative to everything else) but certainly is not a slug either with most being equipped with a 5.2L V8 in a lighter, smaller package. It was possible to get a V6 as well. The 1992 V8 models have the best performance with the introduction of the Magnum engine. The Li’l Red Express Dakota bits were produced by LER Industries of Edwardsburg and sold as a dealer option for 1990-1992. LER Industries started life in 1975 in the conversion van craze of the 70s then moved onto RVs after that. They don’t seem to be with us any longer.

The conversion included special step-side box, (non-functional) exhaust stacks and decals. The inner box was constructed from galvaneel (thin, galvanized steel) with the fenders made from fiberglass. Unfortunately the box doesn’t have the wood panel accents like the 70s version. Production numbers are most often quoted as thirty two or occasionally thirty eight but that seems to be for 1992 only which was the lowest volume year. The consensus seems to be that the 1992 production was really just using up left over parts from the previous year. Either way total production is much less than the 7306 of the D-series based one.

The 1992 examples have a numbered plaque mounted on the dash. I grabbed this photo (as well as the engine and interior shots above) from an For Sale ad.

There was also a Dakota Warrior which was inspired by the Warlock using the same step-side box but this time without the special exhaust pipes.

This is the only article I could find about them.

A few home made replicas have been made with reproduction emblems but the genuine article should say Li’l Red Express Dakota not just Li’l Red Express Truck. The bed was available separately so there might be a few step-side box Dakotas kicking around.

Related: CC 1979 Dodge Lil’ Red Express