For those of you who already know about the Dodge Li'l Red Express, please bear with us.
Starting with a production 360 four-barrel truck engine, they had added W-2 heads, a '68 340 automatic cam (P/N 2899206) with a 268 degree intake lobe, a reworked Edelbrock LD-340 intake manifold with a big Carter ThermoQuad carburetor and a viscous fan drive. Dual exhausts were added with a balance tube and big mufflers. Cold air came in through the parking lights. The transmission was an A-727 TorqueFlite (LoafFlite for trucks) with 440 four-barrel (A-134) Internals and an A-904 torque converter. Most people think of Hoover as a died-in-the-wool engine enthusiast, but he also has a soft spot for appearance, so the LRT got chrome valve covers, chrome wheels (15x7 in front, 15x8 in back), big (LR-60x15) tires and those oh-so-recognizable vertical exhaust stacks. The stacks had "flapper lids" on them like the rain guards on diesel trucks. My input from the street rodder's perspective was to add taillights similar to those on a '36 Ford. The prototype was finished in December 1976. It spent a little time on the street to make sure it drove okay and was quick enough to be interesting. Then Spehar and Bill Hancock drove it to DeSoto drag strip in Bradenton, Florida, for some final testing. Hoover told Hancock when they left to test at Bradenton, "Don't bring it back until it runs in the 14s and over 100 mph." They left the track at 13.76 and 119. In the meantime, planning for the 1978 Long Lead Press Preview in which all of the new 1978 models would be introduced to the print press was beginning. While the Long Lead focuses on new models, the public relations folks never turn down a chance to have something unusual there to stir up the press. Since they and the Truck Product Planners were all familiar with the LRT and what it stood for, it was decided to bring the prototype to the Long Lead. To use a hackneyed phrase, it was decided to run the LRT up the flagpole and see if anyone saluted. Well, salute they did!!
Keeping in mind that the pickup truck market was much more industrial in 1978, the idea of a unique performance truck was BIG news and the LRT was a huge hit with the performance press. For a "Gee, we might build a few of these" project vehicle, it received an inordinate amount of exposure. Probably the biggest coup to come out of the Long Lead was when Don Sherman, then with Car & Driver magazine, decided it would be interesting to take the LRT to the State of Ohio Transportation Research Center in Marysville, Ohio, where there was a 7.5-mile-long, high-speed oval. There, he planned to run it against industry performance cars in a double the double-nickel (over 110 mph) high-speed and acceleration test he was doing for his magazine. The public relations, product planning and especially the race people thought that was a great idea and off to Ohio it went. When the testing was over, the LRT was a star. Running against a 350/220 hp L-82 Corvette, a 400/225 hp Pontiac Trans-Am, a 305/145 hp Chevy Monza Spyder and a 121/110 hp Porsche 944, the 360/225 hp LRT was the quickest 0-100 at 19.9 seconds and fourth fastest at 118.8mph. In another dragstrip test against a Porsche 928, Porsche 911SC, Ferrari 308GTS, Porsche Turbo, and the fastest Corvette of the time, only the Porsche Turbo was quicker. The LRT ran the quarter mile in 14.71 seconds against the 928 at 15.3, the 911SC at 14.8, the Ferrari at 15.8 and the Corvette at 15.3. Keeping in mind this was 1978, over 20 years ago, and the LRT was powered by a small-block, it was pretty exciting when this red brick with chrome stacks had a top speed of well over 118 mph. Dragstrip results were even more frosting on the LRT cake. As you might expect, Hoover's package was a better drag racer than high-speed runner; it truly was America's last hot rod.
After the truck was returned, it was time to present it to the Engineering department for their blessing for production. The reception was less than enthusiastic. The reaction to the W-2 heads in production could generally be described as, "Not in my lifetime!" by the Engine Design and Development Chief Engineer. The consensus was the heads were too much of a deviation to fit through the emissions loophole and would be too hard to get through certification. Since no durability work of any consequence had been done, there was also concern about how the heads would hold up in a daily driver. In truth, a certification engine was covertly run on the night shift and did pass the truck "short" test. The Chief Engineer found out, got rid of the guys who ran the test and said, "No!" By the time the battles in Engineering were over, the W-2 heads were gone, and the cold air had become "not quite so cold" air from the radiator yoke, but the camshaft, carburetor, viscous fan and exhaust had survived. The taillights didn't make the cut either. While it was still a pretty good package, it obviously wasn't as fast as the prototype. For those who would say all the magazine testing was with a package that didn't truly represent a production vehicle, I'd say that at the time of the test, the prototype was legitimate. All the production changes came later. While Engineering was mulling over the entire package, Product Planning was adding their input. To make the LRT more distinctive, wood was added to the sides, tailgate and bed and the decals to the doors. As you can imagine, there was some resistance to the decals by the race guys, but if that was part of the political price to be paid for getting the project through, so be it. Heat shields on the pipes came after a few people burned their legs on the unshielded pipes. The last hurdle was noise. Uncle Sam had noise limits on light trucks and the LRT, which sounded good to racers, was too loud. Koffel went to the Sound Lab for an education in sound testing, borrowed some equipment and took the prototype to Milan Dragway to sort out the noise problems. The noise problem nearly drove him to the end of his notoriously short patience. As usual, it wasn't just the exhaust. While the fan and air cleaner were big contributors, the exhaust was the only one we could fix, and the rattling "flappers" were the worst offenders. After getting rid of the flappers and adding exit bends to the top of the pipes, pointing them towards the rear, he was able to pass Federal test. Three locations had sound limits we couldn't meet, the state of California, Rockford, Illinois, and Murray, Utah. The solution to that problem was simple: Don't sell them there. Finally, the LRT was approved and ready for production.
Records show 2,188 were built in 1978. The 1978 LRT was a big hit in the market and with dealers, so production was upped to 5,118 for '79. The 1979 LRT was cosmetically nearly identical to the '78, with just enough subtle changes to distinguish the two. However, the 340 cam was dropped in favor of the standard 360 cam to simplify assembly in the engine plant and catalysts were added. The trucks were sailing out of the dealership's doors, when BOOM-the gas crunch hit. A hot item in the marketplace suddenly went stone cold and orders stopped. Because of the gas crunch, Dodge dropped plans for a 1980 LRT. The '78's and '79's immediately dropped in value because of their appetite for fuel. However, owners who hung on to them found later that their LRT's had turned into very valuable assets. I think AutoWeek magazine summed the LRT up best when they said it didn't have any long-term impact on the market since it was only around for two years then disappeared. However, they also commented, "The Li'l 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's so much fun." To that I would add, Tom Hoover was right on the mark when he proposed and speced out his "Last American Hot Rod."