The Dodge Li’l Red Express Truck Tried To Make A Comeback In The 1990s As A Dakota

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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33 Responses

  1. Interesting related side note: The Dakota 4 was the ONLY vehicle that used the Chrysler 2.2/2.5 in a RWD application – they had to develop a specific bellhousing and/or transmission to make it work.

    Those transmissions became highly sought after by 4-cylinder circle- and dirt-track racers. The 2.2/2.5, especially with a turbo, could be built with some crazy power, but it took that Dakota trans to make them work on a RWD race car.

    1. False. There’s multiple transmissions that bolt up to the 2.2/2.5 block, and the Chrysler 5 speed isn’t the particularly desirable one. The most sought after one is a fairly rare Toyota 5 speed that bolts up directly as I recall. Several shops still have the prints to make adapters for Tremecs as well.
      (It’s been a long time and I decided to go IRS transaxle.)

  2. these days a two seater mini truck without 4wd is massively shunned by most. I would take a 318 magnum LRE with a 5speed manual. I might even scour the junk yards abit for a convertible cabe to swap out. Might as well make it even more strange and I always did like topless trucks like k5’s and Scout 2’s

  3. The hilarious thing is that they literally were doing this a year after the Shelby Dakota, which very deliberately chucked the 3.9 in favor of the 5.2 and quite a lot of aero to make it the absolute fastest truck until the GMC Syclone (which was actually built by PAS, not GM.) And the Syclone was an absolute disaster. They cancelled it because they couldn’t sell it – it was finicky, required 93 octane, and cost a staggering $26,120+.
    Nearly TWICE what the Shelby Dakota cost (just $15,813 and $400 freight,) which was already double a base Dakota – $7,995 for a 4 cylinder – but a well equipped 3.9 pushed $14,000! So that extra two grand got you a truck that I can tell you for fact will do over 140MPH.

    I don’t recall exact numbers, but I know that the Lil’ Red Express Dakota V6 would you set you back more than the Shelby Dakota. And when you got to ’91-’92 where they had a (far less exciting) 5.2 factory option, you were talking $15k plus the LRE kit. Which didn’t make it faster, and it still wasn’t near as fast as a Shelby Dakota, but it was priced closer to the face-melting Syclone.

    What makes it even worse is that they could have had something compelling if they’d put real effort into it. These could have easily been rolling with Turbo II’s or the 2.5 Turbo I high-torque, giving them 175HP and 175ft/lbs or 152HP and a very respectable 210ft/lbs and bolting right up to the A500 or better still, the 5 speed.

    1. Was sitting here thinking the same thing. But it sounds like you confirmed my thoughts. Shelby beats Hot Wheels styling effects everyday. Thanks for confirming my unclear memories. At this point this just deserves nothing, including my cash…

    2. Oh, and to put those horsepower numbers into perspective: the Shelby Dakota “only” had “175”HP and 270ft/lbs of torque. (Really was generally closer to 180ish.)
      Though the LRE could have NEVER been as fast as the Shelby Dakota. Period. Which is why I called out all the aero work on the Shelby. Without that MASSIVE front air dam, the front end will become airborne at somewhere around 105MPH.

    1. I wouldn’t disagree, but that is a big lift. The TRX would need to add 700lbs to its GWVR. Getting the dynamics right on a long-travel truck suspension is really difficult, so I’m willing to bet that even a 700-lb addition (maybe 400 to the vehicle and 300 to its load capacity) will involve more engineering effort (and potentially more of a compromised ride) than will be worth it.

      I could see mild hybrid systems being snuck onto those trucks instead, similarly to how the Tundra uses a hybrid as its performance drivetrain. That would keep them within emissions regs without any GVWR malarcky.

  4. There used to be one of these around here a decade or more back. Before I carried web-access with me everywhere, so I assumed it was a home-built. It was a bit janky, so could have been a backyard job. Or just neglected.
    I still see our local LRExpress on Cruise Night. Not my thing, but I gotta give the owner credit: it still stands straight & proud and makes good noises

  5. I kinda liked the original Little Red Express when I was in 9th grade, long before my automotive tastes matured into weird Saabs and small Japanese coupes.

    It was fun knowing good old Chrysler was cool enough to green light something a little outlaw-ish to take advantage of the EPA loophole.

    Of course, now when you see an original Little Red Express at a car show, they’re all owned by weird old guys who universally wear train engineer caps. What is up with that?

  6. Wish I could share a pic of my ’90 Dakota 3.9L V6 5-speed manual — a *real* beater. My Dad bought it new and it’s been in the family ever since. 115K and I think it’s wanting a clutch.

  7. It’s a rare truck and im partial to the Dakotas. The 4 cyl kills it though. I say find a used 5.9 and paint it like the 70s Warlock which was a variant of the Little Red Express, same body just more badass because its black.

  8. I had an red 85 Dakota Express that looked very similar to the one pictured. Wood accents inside with “Dakota Express” engraved into the trim. Instead of pipes, it had a chrome light bar that ran from the cab to the end of the bed with red marker lights in the end of the tubes. Great looking little truck. Most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in. A HMMVW was more comfortable. Drove cross country from west Texas to Ft. Stewart (Savannah), GA and back. No issues, but GAWD those seats!

  9. The original was seriously silly but kinda cool. The Dakota version is still silly but not cool at all. Personally, I wouldn’t want either of them in any condition. Just an old curmudgeon that isn’t that cool either.

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