A few nights ago, my fiancée and I found ourselves scrolling through Facebook looking for a junker to challenge David’s $700 Chevy Tracker to an off-road duel. Between endless ads for rustbucket trucks, we found something that stood out. One ad showed the glorious bed of the famous Dodge Li’l Red Express. But there was one problem: The rest of it was just a first-generation Dakota. Was this a tribute? Did Dodge really make another Li’l Red Express? This truck is real, sort of, and just a handful were made by one company.
To understand why anyone would bother making a sequel to a 1970s truck, you have to appreciate the crazy situation that the original Li’l Red Express Truck came from in the first place. As with many wacky stories of the auto industry back then, it goes back to emission controls and the Oil Crisis. Our own Jason Torchinsky explains in his Jalopnik article:
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.
However, there was a loophole of sorts. Vehicles with a gross weight rating of more than 6,000 pounds weren’t under heavy government scrutiny. Automakers could still make muscle cars, so long as they were heavy. And what was heavy enough to sneak by the rules? A pickup truck.
Dodge tossed a version of the Chrysler 360 police interceptor V8 under the hood, paired it to a four-barrel carburetor, and semi truck-style chrome exhaust stacks. It didn’t stop there, as the truck got paired with a wood-trimmed stepside-style bed, bright red paint, and ‘Li’l Red Express Truck’ printed in gold on the doors.
Its 225 horsepower wouldn’t be much for a truck today, but back then that was dominating power:
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.
When Car & Driver tested the Li’l Red Express in 1977, the mag found it boogied up to 100 mph faster than even a Corvette and a Trans-Am. And in Dodge’s clever interpretation of the law it created what remains a cool muscle truck. By 1980, CAFE standards caught up, and the GVWR threshold was raised to 8,500 pounds. An archived March 1992 issue of High Performance Mopar magazine explains that the original trucks developed quite the following.
That caught the attention of Edwardsburg, Michigan-based LER Industries. The company formed in 1975 to build conversion vans. But as the ’70s conversion van fell out of vogue, LER found business in customizing motorhomes. Seeing further opportunity, LER decided to bring two popular Dodge trucks back to life. In February 1990, LER brought back the Li’l Red Express. Then in June, it came out with the Warrior, a revival of the Dodge Warlock using the same bed, but without stacks and painted black. These trucks weren’t based on the big Ram, but the smaller Dakota.
As High Performance Mopar writes, the LER conversion was mostly cosmetic. The box was made of galvanized and annealed sheet metal. A magazine called it “virtually unaffected by corrosion.” So while the rest of your Li’l Red Express Dakota rusted away, at least the bed would look pretty.
Continuing with the changes, the sculpted fenders of the bed are fiberglass. On the doors, the gold script returns. But where the original truck said “Li’l Red Express Truck,” this drops “Truck” for “Dakota.” And completing the conversion are a set of vertical stacks. It looks the part, but notably missing in the recreation is any wood. The stacks are also non-functional, but are open on the bottom in case the owner wants to finish the job.
As I said before, these changes are purely for the looks. You didn’t get a cop engine or anything different than what already came out of the Dodge factory. And the interior was also unchanged, save for a small plaque that came with some examples.
When these trucks were released in 1990, the biggest engine available was the 239 LA V6, which made 125 HP. In 1991, the 318 LA V8 became available and bumped the power to 170 HP. And finally, in 1992 the 318 became the Magnum, which laid down 230 horses.
Oh, and I should note that you didn’t need to get the big engines, and you could get a Li’l Red Express Dakota powered by a 2.5-liter four making as little as 100 HP.
When a magazine tested the Magnum-powered Li’l Red Express Dakota, it was faster than the original Li’l Red Express Truck. However, unlike the original, the Dakota wasn’t fastest vehicle on the block. By that time, automakers had figured out how to make powerful cars with emissions equipment. So the little Dakota is easily outrun by the likes of the period Chevrolet Corvette. And at 8.3-seconds to 60 mph, it was also a second slower than the Chevrolet 454 SS. But the Chevy pickup didn’t look as silly as a Li’l Red Express.
The Li’l Red Express Dakota was never an official Dodge product, but LER did offer it through Dodge dealerships from 1990 to 1992. And if you already owned a Dakota, you were able to get it converted through LER directly.
If you’re a Dakota fan and you now have the hankering for one of these, I have good and bad news. The good news is that there are a few for sale out there. The bad news is that the better ones don’t give you much choice. The minty-looking Li’l Red Express Dakota that I featured here is for sale for just $7,395, but it has the four-cylinder under the hood. There’s a V8 for sale up in Wisconsin for $8,500, but it has high miles and rust from a long Midwestern life. For reference, you can get a restored original Li’l Red Express Truck for $21,000.
Amazingly, I was able to find only one piece of literature from LER about the truck, and it seems to have just pictures and LER’s phone number. As for LER itself, records suggest that it closed up shop in 1997.
In the 1992 High Performance Mopar article, LER claimed to have sold 160 of the conversions. It’s unclear how many 1992 conversions are out there, but estimates are 32 or 38, depending on who you ask. That means that there are likely under 200 of these out there, making them both pretty forgotten and rare. Still, it’s awesome that LER at least tried to make the Li’l Red Express have a comeback, and it makes me want to see a modern interpretation of the idea.