Yesterday, I was driving on the highway and saw a flatbed hauling a filthy, rusty old pickup truck. That’s not uncommon where I live. This truck, though, was uncommon: it had a pair of tall exhaust pipes, wood panels on the sides of the bed, behind the big rear fenders, and, on the doors, a big decal that read “LI’L RED EXPRESS TRUCK.” I’ve heard of this thing. The Li’l Red Express was the vehicle that kept muscle cars alive in a time when they should all have died. I’ll explain.
Now, I know a pickup truck isn’t what you normally think of when you picture a muscle car. For this to all make sense, we have to go back to the time of the Li’l Red Express, a smoggy, sleazy time called the 1970s.
Muscle cars, one of the most uniquely American categories of cars, were not transitioning to the new and, let’s face it, somewhat grim realities of the 1970s. The 1973 oil crisis was the first big blow to the thirsty, V8-powered brutes, and, later in the decade, more stringent emissions standards were making it harder and harder to build high-power engines that met the mandated requirements.
By 1975, when the catalytic converter became common, muscle cars as we knew them were all but dead, replaced with anemic pretenders like the pitiable Mustang II.
The truth was the carmakers just hadn’t yet figured out the complex problem of making a high-power engine that wouldn’t spew hydrocarbons into the air like an open hydrant in a ‘70s movie that took place in New York in the summer. It’s a tricky problem, and the result was that there really weren’t any fast, powerful muscle cars being built in the late 1970s.
It’s worth noting that I wrote “muscle cars” there. That’s because the emissions standards that effectively mandated a power-sucking catalytic converter were written for passenger cars and not trucks, which were exempt.
That means that a clever automaker could still make an old-school muscle car just like they used to, with a big, powerful, filthy V8 engine and fuck-all connected to it for emissions regulations. Well, as long as that car was a truck.
Well, the actual rule was that if the gross vehicle rating was 6,100 pounds or more, it was free to forego the cat, and was not required to be certified with a full emissions cycle.
Noted Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover, the “father of the Hemi,” was the engineer that seems to have first made this realization, and the result was the Li’l Red Express Truck.
It’s one of the best examples of loophole exploitation since the Eruv.
The Li’l Red Express truck was, really, a muscle car wearing a pickup truck costume. And it really was a costume, with fireapple-red paint, real wood panels on the bed, and ornate gold striping and lettering, giving the thing a look something like a demented, useless fire engine. And, of course, there were the massive chrome exhaust stacks. It was overdone, somewhat cartoony, but a hell of a lot of fun.
The truck used a version of Chrysler’s 360 (5.9-liter) police interceptor V8 engine making a respectable 225 horsepower, with a four-barrel carburetor, Hemi-style headers leading to those bonkers vertical exhaust pipes, and driving the rear wheels through a three-speed 727 Torqueflight transmission.
For some perspective, a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 made only 160 horsepower, a ‘78 Ford Mustang Cobra II made a grimace-inducing 88 horsepower (okay, to be fair the 302 V8 made 139 hp), and a Dodge Charger, with a similar V8 and transmission to the Li’l Red Express, made only 140 horsepower.
Unsurprisingly, when Car and Driver tested the Li’l Red Express in November of 1977, they found it to be the fastest vehicle from 0-100 MPH, stomping the competition which included a Corvette, Trans Am, Porsche 924, Saab Turbo, and a Thunderbird.
The sheer bonkers-ness of the Li’l Red Express truck is a glorious thing to behold: the ridiculous name, the absurd look, and the impressive performance, all wrapped up, gleefully, in a body selected only because it fit through a loophole. The Li’l Red Express truck is a wonderful testimony to the irrationality of the motor industry, which is, arguably, exactly what makes it so wonderful.