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Chrysler’s Little Red Express pickup truck was designed to dance through a loophole in late 1970’s emissions regulations. It worked so well the Express turned out to be the fastest American production vehicle of 1979 and the original muscle truck.
Unlike its immediate predecessor in Chrysler’s Adult Toys lineup, the Dodge Warlock, the Little Red Express was much more than a show truck catering to the trick truck crowd. MOPAR powertrain engineer, Tom Hoover wanted to make a factory-customized truck that actually had the power to back up its image.
This was no easy task for the day. Emissions regulations had reduced muscle cars from the 60’s to detuned, smog-regulated embarrassments of their former selves. Automakers had resorted to customization packages, such as the Warlock pickup that did their best to look cool but had no real performance under the hood.
These were the darkest of times for American muscle. Hungry for another taste of MOPAR’s glory days, Hoover did his research and discovered there were major loopholes to work around the EPA’s vehicle-emission regulations.
Specifically light trucks were exempt from having to use catalytic converters if their Gross Vehicle Weight rating was above 6,000 pounds. The real kicker was that once an engine family was certified by the EPA as emission regulations compliant about 6-9 small modifications were permitted without having to be run through extensive testing again.
As if destined to work the system, Dodge’s smallest D-Series pickup, the D-150 step side had a GVW rating of 6050 pounds. Hoover came up with the brilliant idea to take Chrysler’s emissions compliant 360ci V8 Police Interceptor engine and drop it into what would become the Little Red Express.
Chrysler started with a standard 360ci V8 truck engine and began modifying it up to Police Interceptor status and beyond. Upgrades included:
- Camshaft from the 1968 340 4-bbl.
- Red stripe valve springs with damper from the 1968 340 4-bbl.
- Standard valve retainers (replacing rotators)
- Large Thermo-Quad from Police 360
- Intake manifold from the 1978 Police 360
- Windage tray from Police 360
- Roller timing chain and sprockets from Police 360
- Dual-snorkel air cleaner with fresh air ducts
- Chrome valve covers and air cleaner lid
- Street-Hemi style mufflers (2.5inch dual semi-stacks)
The Express put 225hp and 290lb-ft torque to the ground through a beefed up 727 transmission. She was good for a top speed of 128mph and a quarter mile time of about 15 seconds. Those might not seem like muscle car numbers by modern standards, but in 1979 the Little Red Express was faster than any American production car on the road.
As required by its title the truck was only available in bright red with a gold tape stripe package and gold decals on the doors and tailgate. For some reason gold accents was a big thing back then. Personally I blame disco.
The body side and tailgate body trim were made of real oak with chrome-headed bolts. But of course, the true source of the Express’ cosmetic appeal came from the dual semi-stack exhaust pipes; as if to mock the EPA for being foolish enough to assume a muscle-head engineer wouldn’t eventually work a massive exception through their smog regulations.
From 1978 to 1979 nearly 7,400 Little Red Express's rolled off Chrysler’s assembly lines in bold defiance of the times. It was short lived victory. When the gas crisis hit in 1979 production was cancelled in 1980.
The Little Red Express holds several important places in automotive history few people are aware of. For starters it was the pinnacle of Dogde's all but forgotten Adult Toys lineup. More importantly it represents a glorious albeit brief time in muscle car culture during a decade when American performance cars were close to dead.
Keeping that in mind the semi-stack exhaust looks tasteful, appropriate even.
In 1976 Chrysler was taking part in a shameless product line few people are aware of today dubbed ‘Adult Toys’. The toys were a series of factory-issued utility vehicles that rolled off the assembly line outlandishly customized in what would become a staple of late 70’s automotive culture. In 1976 the inevitable happened and Dodge birthed from its shag-carpeted doors the Street Van.
Based off the B100 or B200 Dodge Van, the Street Van was an obvious attempt to attract buyers already interested in the custom van craze of the time; people who did things behind bubble windows they preferred not be seen by outsiders.
Robert H. Kline, Chrysler Corporation's manager of truck sales explained the reasoning behind Chrysler’s entry to the customized van world of the 70’s.
"This model, the first of its type offered by a major manufacturer, has a special appeal to the motorist who wants to convert a unit to his individual tastes, needs, and life style,” he said. “Our special Street Van provides a custom interior and exterior while leaving a great deal of latitude for plain or fancy conversion of the area between the seats and the rear door."
Translation: “What happens between the seats and rear doors will not be judged. Just buy this weird van, hippie.”
The 1978 Street Van came straight from the dealership with a custom interior designed to wow van folk. Standard interior features included high-back bucket seats, carpeting in the forward compartment, fancy wood-grain insert on the instrument panel, bright trim around the gauges, door panels and horn bar.
Exterior mods included raised white letter tires, five slot chrome or painted spoke road wheels, bright front and rear bumpers, special moldings around the grille, windshield, tail lamps and side view mirrors. A Street Van nameplate was an available option to alert passersby who weren’t already tipped off by the rest of the package that the cabin was most likely hot-boxed with nefarious stank.
Despite the rich host of custom options the Street Van rolled off the line with Chrysler’s true intention was for it to serve as an enticing platform for even nastier customization. To get buyers headed in the right direction every Street Van came with a customization kit that included detailed instructions and plans to further the debauchery.
"Everything in the kit will make it easier for the do-it-yourselfer to finish the van in an expert, professional manner," Kline said.
Notable alterations the kit advised on with step by step guidance included the installation of port holes, sun roofs and roof vents. These modification suggestions imply improved ventilation was regarded as a high priority for the van crowd. Van stank is real thing that shouldn't be accepted as normal.
The kit also encouraged setting the mood inside the van with full-size templates for cutting side panels, headliners and floor coverings. Shag would be the cliché material of choice here, but it would be naive to assume leather and sound-deadening materials didn’t play significant roles in the design process as well.
As a final enticement the Street Van came with a complimentary membership to the National Street Van Association (Van Clan) which included a subscription to the NSVA’s publication on the custom van community.
Until it was discontinued in the early 1980’s the Street Van reigned as the purest representation of Dodge’s Adult Toys lineup; it was by far the most ‘70s of the bunch.
Nasty as it was the Street Van wasn’t the crowning achievement of the toys line. That title belongs to a Dodge pickup that can also lay claim to being the original muscle truck. :
Soon after venturing into the trick truck crowd with the Dodge Dude the marketing wizards at Chrysler sensed the public was hungry for more. Enter the 1976 Dodge Warlock; a production show truck for urban cowboys that wanted to look even more like Burt Reynolds.
The Warlock represented a landmark in Dodge’s new customized breed of vehicles dubbed ‘Adult Toys’. In the late 1970’s the toys packages were aimed at cashing in on healthy utilitarian vehicle sales by lavishing them with enough aftermarket performance imagery to make up for their complete lack of horsepower.
Smog regulations of the day made it nearly impossible to develop a powerful production vehicle of any genre. Robert H. Kline, manager of truck sales for Chrysler Corporation described the mojo behind the decision to look towards work vehicles as platforms for the enthusiast crowd to play with:
“We were seeing an upswing in the number of people who want a light duty pickup instead of a second car,” he said. “We also were aware that more and more people were customizing and personalizing pickups, particularly the short wheelbase models.”
“The 'trick truck' concept allows the customer to drive away from the dealership with a fully customized vehicle that has a personality of its own.”
To test the waters in the customization crowd Dodge released the Warlock in the mid 70’s as a show vehicle. It featured tinted windows, fat tires, bucket seats, oak-lined bed, oak sideboards above the box with gold accents and chrome plated running boards. The exterior was accented with gold pin striping that outlined the wheel wells and body lines.
Mood rings throughout the trick truck crowd turned a lusty hue for the Warlock. Dodge noticed the swelling of adoration and quickly released the Warlock as a limited production vehicle in late 1976.
In the following months droves of mustachioed men slid aviator sunglasses down their noses to ogle the Warlock in Chrysler dealerships. It wasn’t uncommon for these characters to drop 1-3 button levels on their polyester shirts to let passion vent from the dense shrubbery of their chest hair.
In 1977 Chrysler made the Warlock a regular production model.
“Warlock” was emblazoned in gold on the tailgate. The truck could be done up in Dark Green Metallic or Bright Red paint schemes. But the most preferable color was a dangerous Black accented by gold pin stripping. The dark scheme made the Warlock resemble the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Burt Reynolds was fast becoming synonymous with in the classic beer-smuggling movie, Smokey and the Bandit.
Inside the Warlock the bandit theme was standard. Every Warlock came with a black interior accented by more gold tape on the dash and doors.
Despite the outlaw image there were few if any performance upgrades to the wheezy engine options carried over from the standard D100 pickup: Slant six, 318 with two or four barrel carburetor, 360 four barrel, 400 V8 and 440 V8.
Thanks to smog regulations, for all the 70’s curb appeal the Warlock pioneered as a production trick truck its most important achievement was to serve as a platform for a pickup that could back up the image with real performance.
The crowning achievement of Dodge’s Adult Toys lineup exploited a loop hole in emissions regulations that had been overlooked in the Warlock. When it rolled off the assembly line in 1978 it was the fastest production car in America. Few people knew of it then and fewer know today that it was the original muscle truck.
Dodge called it The Little Red Express.
Remember the 1970’s? They were nasty. Imagine a decade where you could buy a hot-rod Dodge pickup truck with semi-stack dual exhaust straight from the factory. That actually happened. Dodge called it the Little Red Express. It ran a high-performance Police Interceptor 360ci V8 and was designed to dance through loopholes in emissions regulations.
In the two years it was produced the Express earned a little-known place in automotive history as the original muscle truck. It also stands as the crowning achievement of Dodge’s ‘Adult Toys’ lineup.
Yes, Adult Toys were also a thing Dodge did back then. The debauchery started in 1970 with the Dodge Dude.
Dodge Dude (1970-1971)
Although it’s debatable whether or not the Dude is officially part of what would become the Adult Toys lineup in the late 70’s it was an obvious precursor to the dirty movement.
First introduced in August 1969, the Dodge Dude was a sport trim package available on the standard D100 (1/2 ton) Dodge pickup. The package consisted mainly of paint and tape upgrades versus performance goodies. Regardless, the Dude was a groundbreaking example of a production truck pushing its boundaries into muscle car territory, even if only to capture the image.
The dude package consisted of a black or white body-side ‘C’ stripe decal, a Dodge Dude decal on the box at the rear tail lights, tail light bezel trim and dog dish hub caps with colored rings. The roof color options were matched to that of the body stripe and were available in a textured paint option Dodge advertised as vinyl.
To complement the faux Landau top routine dude pickups could be ordered with Chrysler’s “High-Impact” paint color schemes. Eye-popping options previously reserved for the muscle car crowd included “Medium Burnt Orange,” “Sub-Lime Lime,” “Bright Yellow,” “Plum Crazy Purple,” “Bright Red,” and “Bright Turquoise.”
The Dude package also came with interior upgrades that were hot stuff for the day and even hotter for a pickup truck, such as air conditioning and bucket seats with center console. Engine options were standard carryovers from the regular D100 pickup; 225 slant 6, 318 small block V8 and the big block 338 V8.
While adequate for light duty truck duties the Farmer Joe engines were proof the Dude package was more about blurring utilitarian practicality with performance image than burning up drag strips. That isn’t to say there was much to keep Farmer Joe from sauntering into a MOPAR retailer and outfitting his Dude package D100 with enough aftermarket performance parts to make his cows’ milk curdle.
Of the roughly 73,000 ½ ton trucks Dodge built from 1970-1971 its estimated only 1,500 to 2,000 were sold as Dude models. The rarest of the Dude breed was rumored to be a Canadian variant known as the “The Fargo Top-Hat Special”, which unfortunately turned out to not exist at all.
However the origin of the legend is based in some semblance of truth. During the time the Dude was in production there were only two ways to buy a Chrysler truck in Canada. They were sold either by Chrysler-Plymouth as Fargo Trucks or Dodge trucks by Dodge-Desoto dealers. Canadian Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships did in fact sell extremely rare Fargo trucks equipped with the Dude package; Canadian Dudes if you will.
Adding to the mystique of their obscurity Dodge D100’s equipped with the Dude trim package were odd ducks even in the production truck scene of the day, proof that Chrysler was interested in seeing if the aftermarket hot-rodder image of the muscle car era might translate to trucks.
Chrysler was on to something. The Dude set the basis for what would soon evolve into the company’s Adult Toys truck and van packages of the late 1970’s, a time when emission regulations were doing their best to kill all that was fun in mainstream American motoring.
While it lasted the Adult Toys vision produced sought after and little known rarities of the post-muscle car washout, such as the Dodge Warlock pickup, Street Van and the crowning performance achievement of the movement: The Little Red Express.
Read on and get educated. These rigs were nasty in the best way: