History/driving impressions originally published in AutoWeek March 2, 1987
Overlap, overlap, overlap, the V-8 whispers, telling secrets about its camshaft, gently rocking the truck with the merest suggestion of motion. The column shift lever is at D, forward movement prevented by my right foot on the brake pedal.
As light turns green I release the brake and gently press the throttle pedal. Revs come up and a high stall speed torque converter starts delivering the bacon. With a chuffing from its stacks, the baby Peterbilt ambles through the intersection. I’ve just been getting to know this rolling jukebox, well forewarned by owner Otto Meletzke about the truck’s handling, or lack thereof, and a very serious motor under that big flat hood.
It’s not like one could get into this thing unaware. The Dodge pickup, a 1978 Uline D150, is a heavy metal concert of chrome, gold pin striping and red paint. That’s Median Canyon Red, pilgrim. Presumably the color of a medium canyon. There are genuine oak trim panels on the sides of the pickup bed and tailgate. Functional chrome-plated vertical tailpipes with perforated heat shields flank the bed just aft of the cab. Goodyear Radial GT tires, LR60x15 (raised white letters, naturally) encircle slotted steel 15×8 wheels, chromed and reflecting like a fun house mirror. Owner-added extras including a rollbar (chromed), push bar (also chromed), bedside stakes (real wood), gun rack, and National Rifle Association decal are not so much modifications but completion of the theme.
If any question remains the final notice is on the door: Li’l Red Truck on a decal the size of a blue ribbon watermelon. And if that still isn’t enough, the word Express states its business plain and simple. This truck calls.
That is, of course, in the figurative sense. The smallish bed might fit, say, a queen-sized mattress and innerspring, but one wouldn’t go flinging truck things – cinderblocks, fence posts, a load of manure – on the oak slats in the bed floor. The car’s tires and low ride-height makes one tend to refer to the vehicle not as a truck but a car, albeit a strangely shaped one. “Factory-customized,” is what Dodge calls it, “a truly customized pickup that will turn on the most avid ‘truck’ enthusiasts.”
Of course, if it were all simply glitter it would be just a rolling embarrassment. After all, if you’re going to dress like a South American general you really should have more than a South American army to back you up. And in the case of the Li’l Red Truck this was as close to an ICBM as you could get in the automotive performance desert of 1978: a 360cu in base V8 with a four-barrel carb and no catalysts, no smog pump, no Medusa of horsepower hobbling hoses and tubes. Just an engine with chrome-plated valve covers and air cleaner, nestled down between the inner fenders with enough room to tuck the south forty on one side and the north forty on the other. All this because the Li’l Red Truck came with option YW4, a 6050lb gross vehicle weight rating that entitled it to comply with the less stringent federal emission standards that lighter vehicles of the period had to meet, a loophole in the EPA rules that was just big enough for Dodge to drive a pickup truck through.
One feature of the Li’l Red Truck doesn’t have are the high-flow W-2 heads, though all the magazine road test of the time said it did. Dodges Competition Director Dick Maxwell says the heads were never approved for production. When asked about the tests, Dodge truck PR rep John McCandless said that, well, some pre-production trucks – with W-2 heads – may have been made available to the press.
No matter, really. The right foot still connects to a very potent lump and coming away from the light I have a chance to prove it. Lessee, road is clear ahead. Check the mirrors: OK. Let’s do it. Stomp on the right pedal and the beastie just seems to get itself up, the auto transmission going in search of the lost ratio, the torque converter reeling in the slack. Suddenly the cabin fills with generic automotive white noise and the Dodge thunders ahead like a bull rhino with romance on his mind. Here are the stats from magazine stories of the time: 0–100 mph in 19.9 seconds and a top speed of 118.8 mph. This from a vehicle with geegaws and furbelows and more aerodynamic drag than New York City.
Need more? The Li’l Red Truck could do the quarter in 14.71 sec. The then contemporary Porsche 928 took 15.3; the Porsche 911SC, 14.8; the Ferrari 308 GTS, 15.8, and the fastest Corvette couldn’t crack 15sec. Only the dreaded Porsche Turbo was quicker in the quarter.
Of course, all this fun as a downside: fuel mileage. One report gave an OPEC-pleasing 9 mpg, though admittedly with some heavy right foot activity. But then what else would you own one of these things for? And as for handling, one doesn’t so much as drive it as shepherd it. Let’s say it’s a little less than precise. And you couldn’t get it in California and, says Dodge, it didn’t meet noise restrictions in Rockford, Ill., or Murray, Utah. Which called for special detours, I suppose.
The Little Red Truck* landed in the middle of the Jimmy Carter era of diminishing expectations with the impact of Rambo parachuting onto Walton’s Mountain. As far as any long-term impact, however, there wasn’t any. It lasted a mere two years and vanished. The Little Red Truck* was perhaps simply an anachronism, but mostly it was a big nose thumbing to everyone who said you weren’t allowed to enjoy yourself anymore. And maybe that’s why it so much fun.
*Yes, it really was “Li’l”, not “Little.” Some editor at missed/created a li’l lack of continuity in the final paragraph. [Insert laughing emoji here].
The Dodge Li’l Red Truck is often credited with being the fastest non-exotic vehicle on the market in 1977. It’s a great story, but it’s not true. The claim comes from a Car and Driver comparison test of eight cars and one truck on the Ohio Transportation Research Center’s high-speed oval for what it called the Double-the-Double-Nickel Runoffs. The results were published in an article “Flat-Out in Ohio,” published in the November 1977 issue.
In the depths of what would later be called the Malaise Era, there were few vehicles that could top 100 mph, much less 110 mph, so the magazine’s editors rounded up a clutch of relatively reasonably priced vehicles to which could, and which by the most.
Without going into detail—get your own back issue—the fastest vehicle flat-out on the TRS oval was a Corvette at 133.7 mph, followed by a Pontiac Firebird Trans at 131.3 mph, Chevrolet Monza Spyder (119.5 mph) and then the Li’l Red Truck, clocking in at 118.8 mph, just edging out the Porsche 924, it with a 118.2 mph top end.
The plaudit Car and Driver could award to the Dodge truck, however, was “quickest,” for going 0-100 mph in 19.9 seconds. But pushing that prow into the wind became increasingly difficult with added speed, and getting to 110 mph took 28.8 seconds—half again as long as to 100 mph.. The substantially more svelte Corvette took the quickest-to-110 mph crown at 27.5 seconds, still only about a second sooner that the truck.
The only other first for the Dodge Li’l Red Truck was, no surprise, Interior Sound Level, at an ear-ringing 94.0 dBA. Said Car and Driver, “Exhaust boom was just part of [it]. Most of the ear-drum beating you get here comes from wind curving around the cab and fighting with the upright exhaust stacks and their expanded-metal heat shields.”
The real winners? The writers. At least it was a fun way to get out of the office. Especially for fun on a high-speed track. I got to do that several times myself, such as at Talladega with Saab. Read about that here.
More Dodge truck action? Read about the 1978 Dodge Warlock, one of the adult toys from Dodge.