Photos by Drew Phillips Photography
One imagines the conversation at Chrysler in the mid-1970s: “They’re out to get us, boys. The feds and insurance companies have killed the ‘Cuda and the Challenger. Nobody wants to buy an emissions-strangled pony car and all this stuff about safety is adding weight. Still, there are people out there who will pay up for performance. So, here’s what we’re going to do. Take the D150 pickup. Nobody pays attention to it except commercial buyers. Grab the small block V-8 and put our cop car kit on it. We’ll sneak past it past Washington because they don’t care about smogging the trucks and the insurance bean counters won’t believe what this truck can do. Now, paint it red. Like a fire truck. Add some wood, too. And, oh yeah, here’s the kicker. Put a big exhaust on it. No, not out the back. That won’t do. Take the stepside and mount those stacks vertically. We’re taking back the road!”
And so the 1978-79 Dodge L’il Red Express Truck was born as a bright shining sport truck in the middle of one of the most depressing decades of the 20th century. It joined its Dodge stablemates, the Street Van, Warlock, Macho Power Wagon and Macho Ramcharger, in the “Adult Toys” collection. It was the fastest American-made production vehicle in 1978, running the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds, according to Car and Driver!
The economic and automotive climates of today echo those of the 1970s, but unfortunately Chrysler doesn’t have the political or financial wherewithal to build a low-volume specialty truck like the LRT today. Even if it did, you can bet there’s no way they’d give it stacks today.
That’s where the aftermarket comes in.
One of the most famous names from Dodge's high-performance history is putting his mark on the all-new 2009-10 Dodge Ram 1500. Norm (aka Mr. Norm) Krause has teamed up with Larry Weiner at Performance West Group to create Mr. Norm's Red Xpress Truck, a modern take on the LRT.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Norm ordered and sold the largest-displacement Mopars he could order at his Dodge dealership in Chicago. Before they left his lot, he tweaked their carburetors and running gear to squeeze as much power as possible from the huge pushrod motors, creating conversion legends like the GSS 426 Hemi and the GSS 440 Dart. And Weiner’s PWG has built some of the most tricked out Dodge show trucks of the past decade, including the Cannonball Express Heavy Duty and Supercharged Hemi Ram1500. The blood of Mopar enthusiasts doesn’t get any redder than what you’ll find running through Mr. Norm’s and Weiner’s veins.
We had the opportunity to pair these two trucks: an all-original 1979 Dodge L’il Red Express Truck and a 2009 Dodge Ram Mr. Norm’s Red Xpress Truck. We didn’t bring them together to determine who the new “King-of-the-Pipes” is – there’s absolutely no disputing that the once and forever king is the L’il Red Truck -- but to appreciate each for its own merits and to see just how far we’ve come in 30 years.
The 1979 LRT
It’s a bit different from the original 1978 truck because emissions rules caught up with Chrysler after the LRT’s inaugural production run. The 1979 model saw its 360 cubic-inch V-8 detuned and stuck with a catalytic converter that lowered its performance a bit but that didn’t hurt its wild looks, which were updated in front with dual stacked headlights and a flat hood.
The LRT was on loan from a car collector in Arizona and it’s as fully original and cherry as a 30-year-old collector truck can be. There’s only 16,000 miles on the odometer and it still wears its original Goodyear LR60x15 tires. Under its hood is the original hardware bill that looks like it was typed on an old IBM Selectric typewriter.
Sometimes things change so slowly that you don’t realize how much they’ve changed until you stop and look back. That’s how it felt sliding into the LRT’s driver’s seat.
Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, I remember wood paneling, thin steering wheels -- and no airbags! -- but the picture that I still hold in my head of cars and trucks from that era is of a well-put-together interior. However, compared to today’s Ram, there’s no comparison. The LRT’s upscale Adventurer trim interior looks brand new off the showroom floor but the little details we take for granted today didn’t exist in trucks in 1979. There are exposed screws throughout the cockpit. The brights switch for the headlights is on the floor. The roof is bare metal without even “mouse fur” to insulate it. And the radio, of course, is completely analog. One cool feature, though, is the curved pull handles on the doors. They were definitely ahead of their time for a malaise-era truck.
While the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500’s interior was a quantum leap over the previous model, it’s shocking just how terrific today’s Dodge Ram 1500 interior is compared to trucks from 30 years ago. The quality, materials and especially the switchgear feel are all worlds better. Of course, there’s the issue of which has better character and I’d sum it up like this: The LRT’s interior has worn well over the years like a baseball glove while the LXT has an interior that could be compared to a gaming console controller – both let you play baseball but you don’t get the same warm feeling in your soul of actually having played the game. The modern Ram’s interior is superior but it feels clinical.
We also noticed how much bigger today’s half-ton pickups are compared to the light-duty haulers of decades past. Getting situated and driving the LRT is like driving today’s midsize pickup, like the Dodge Dakota.
Lift the hood on the LRT and you’ll find almost as much character under the hood as it has on the outside. There’s no plastic beauty cover to obscure and hide the dirty bits. The round air filter sits like a chromed flying saucer over the V-8. How many chromed parts do you find under the hood of today’s trucks? Not many.
Dodge paired the L’il Red Truck’s 360 V-8 with a three-speed automatic transmission. On surface streets this worked well and provided fair seat-of-the-pants acceleration feel scooting from 0 to 60 mph jumping on the highway, despite its primitive, performance-robbing emissions gear. But the three-speed can’t compare to today’s five-speed automatic in the Ram 1500. At speeds over 60 mph we kept waiting for an overdrive gear that never came and we were easily passed by most traffic. The 1979 LRT was still one of the best-performing vehicles of its day, but even today’s econoboxes can shame its highway performance -- though few modern vehicles will ever shame its style and individuality.
The LRT we drove had decent power steering (a weak spot for some of these trucks) and it felt pretty good at low and high speeds, as did the ride and handling. It was a little loose and it rolled a bit through corners but it wasn’t really bad. Perhaps the single biggest change of the last three decades of Dodge trucks is the swap from the 1979 D150's conventional rear leaf springs to the 2009 Ram 1500's multi-link coil spring back axle and the quantum leap in unloaded ride comfort and improved road manners that have come with it. Brake feel was weak; today’s Ram has much more boost and stopping power. There’s no way to fairly compare the two when it comes to dropping momentum.
The 2009 RXT
To start the transformation from a stock Dodge Ram 1500 into a Mr. Norm’s Red Xpress Truck requires $2,799. For that kind of scratch, you get the Red Xpress Truck graphics, custom Katzkin leather seat covers and embroidered carpet mats, a windshield banner, red powder coated custom disc brake caliper covers, dash and core support serial number badges and listing in The Original Mr. Norm's Grand Spaulding Dodge Registry.
“We haven’t put a lot of 30-year-old stuff on the Red Xpress,” said Larry Weiner of Performance West Group. “When we started this project with Mr. Norm, we looked at it and tried to think about how Chrysler would have done a L’il Red Truck today. This is a 21st Century pickup.”
The RXT we drove included goodies like a Mopar Ram R/T dual inlet hood, Dodge Viper-spec Scorpion Zero P305/40 R22 tires sitting on custom wheels that are unique to the Xpress, an Eibach spring kit that meets Mopar specs and lowers the Ram by two inches up front and by three in the back, a new rear differential cover that has a larger oil capacity and the all-important cat back exhaust kit with dual chrome pipes that punched through the cargo box directly behind the B-pillar.
As intimidating as the RXT looks with its big rig nose and silver stacks, there’s one thing Weiner wishes they could have done with the Red Xpress:
“We really wanted to mount the stacks on the sides of the cargo box but it’s too expensive,” said Weiner. “If Chrysler still offered a stepside bed, we’d have done it. We looked at fabricating customer boxes but the price was way too high. They would have cost close to $10,000 to make them look right and to engineer the necessary safety modifications that are required today. If you look at the L’il Red Truck, the fuel cap sticks right outside the box. That wouldn’t work today.”
Cost and complexity were also issues when trying to find a metal works company to replicate the heat baffling that surrounded the LRT’s pipes. It’s not easy to recreate at a reasonable price because of the custom fabrication involved for such a limited production run.
The exhaust is run cleanly through the bed’s load floor, and one benefit of sticking with the Ram 1500’s stock fleetside box is that it can haul more cargo in back than the D150 Utiline step-sider will. Of course, you’re going to want to keep things well away from the pipes. They get hot.
It’s important to point out that there are no performance tweaks to the engine, powertrain or drive components, so there’s nothing that would invalidate the warranty on the truck or violate tough federal and state emissions laws. Today, not even the aftermarket can get around clean-air rules.
The Red Xpress Truck comes standard with the Ram’s 390-horsepower, 407-lbs.-ft. of torque 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. It’s an awesome powertrain for a stock truck that’s marginally hobbled by its five-speed transmission (relative to competitors that now have six gears). It’s fast, too. Merging onto the freeway and passing traffic wasn’t a problem in this truck and it has an awesome exhaust note that rumbles through the cab. Hit the brakes and the truck instantly sheds speeds with gobs more stability and confidence than the ’79 rig.
Weiner wishes they could have offered two optional engines -- a 6.1-liter SRT-8 Hemi V-8 crate motor, rated at approximately 450 hp, or Mr. Norm's signature 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Gen III Hemi V-8, based on the 6.1-liter, rated at approximately 600 horsepower – but the economy has a put a damper on those plans.
“We can do a lot with the 5.7-liter Hemi truck and keep the premium as low as possible,” Weiner said.
Mr. Norm and PWG still have a few more tricks that they are planning to add to the RXT in the near future, including a real wood floor. The original LRT featured wooden planks that bolted into the cargo box that could be easily replaced when they wore out. Weiner hopes to offer a similar looking floor that could be installed over the bottom over the cargo box without cutting sheetmetal. There are no plans though to add wood to the Ram’s exterior body panels. That’s a detail that will remain unique to the L’il Red Truck.
For some of our photography, we drove the two red trucks together on the road in Southern California, where the car culture has always embraced custom vehicles.
The sight of these two rigs rolling down the highway with vertical stacks was enough to catch the attention of plenty of drivers and -- for a minute – let them forget today’s economic problems and concerns and live in the moment. And wasn’t that the point of the L’il Red Truck in the first place?
Interested in further reading about the 1979 Dodge D150 L'il Red Express Truck? Check out these excellent online resources:
Update #1 September-28-2009 09:20 PDT: Removed reference to new wheel update on 1979 L'il Red Truck