Build A Motor: 1979 Dodge ‘Lil Red Express

How would you rebuild this blank canvas? This desirable 1979 Dodge ‘Lil Red Express has no engine or transmission, making it a unique opportunity to build a restomod out of a truck usually reserved for collector status. The seller notes it is quite solid overall and comes with some of its original interior. Bidding opens at $2,999 and there’s no activity yet. Find it here on eBay where the auction ends soon.

The seller is correct in his assertion that these ‘Lil Red Express trucks tend to fall into two categories: completely used up or highly preserved / restored examples that cost a mint. This example is pleasingly in the middle, as it doesn’t appear to be a basketcase but it will also never appreciate quite like a truck that retains its original engine and transmission. The paint is tired but the body appears straight.

The interior isn’t technically all there, as the door panels are missing and the seat upholstery is pretty tired. So, you’re not out of the woods inside the truck, either, as that will need work to be perfect. At least it has the optional bucket seats and the factory radio and steering wheel are both still present. Speaking of wheels, the rollers are aftermarket Centerlines with new tires, but I’d want to find OEM wheels at some point.

The dash panel still looks good, but the carpets are also missing. I’d factor on the interior needing nearly a full make-over despite the seats and dash being in place. Now, the question is, which motor and transmission would yu go with? I’m inclined to keeping it original as possible, albeit with some performance modifications worked into the rebuild. The desire to restomod it may be strong with some of you; if so, what motor would you swap in?

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  1. canadainmarkseh Member

    Id be looking for a modern donor truck with a hemi and overdrive trans. If you could find a wreck and strip out the necessary electronics I think you’d end up with a superior truck I’d restore the body, repaint and rebadge as to original. I’m sure the seats could be recovered without to much trouble. As far as the wheels go I think I like the centrelines that are on there now. The all important to some numbers matching engine is gone so plunking in an old 360 CID would not be in my plans. Nice find.

    • whmracer99

      Yup, had the same idea. The old 360 motors were tough on fuel and not great on HP in that year range even if you could find one of the original motors that went into one of these trucks — especially when compared to one of the modern hemis. Think almost any owner would be much happier with a modern drivetrain. These trucks don’t bring a ton of money and there’s a long way to go to get it looking and driving like a new one. Would almost have to be someone that just wants one of these that would spend the time and money.

    • Billy 007

      Is now the right time to bring up a slant six again?

      • Balstic

        That might be cool and restore the rest of the truck. Might sound interesting with the stacks.

      • TinCanSailor

        Not a bad choice! I had a 68 Dart with a 225 upgraded with a solid lifter cam, 4 bbl intake, 390 Holley, and headers with a 3 speed manual (shifter moved from tree to floor). It was a very torquey engine…

        It ran mid-14s, which is not fast by modern standards, but at the time (early 80s), I could jump all over new Mustangs, Z28s and Trans-Ams. I’m sure modern tech (FI, roller cams, etc) could make a slant six haul butt.

  2. Dirk

    Let’s face it, the truck is pretty far gone from original and really, the world doesn’t need yet another Li’l red express truck so, why not have some fun? Drop it and bag it, chop the top like maybe 6 inches, and throw a set of 22s and some low-pros on it. Whatever you put under the hood doesn’t really even matter, that’s not what it’s about so long as it drives down the road. Finish it off with a totally wild paint job, something really creative like nobody has ever seen before and some otherworldly underbody LEDs. That’s what I’d do – why do the same boring old s___?

    • Balstic

      taste. What you describe is not, it is the same old thing design challenged people do. Most people quit putting LEDs on cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles a decade ago.

      • Dirk

        Well, you’ve got me there. I have to admit those Li’l Red Express Trucks represent the absolute epitome of impeccable automotive taste, real class. My mistake, sorry, just trying to broaden your horizon a little. I’ve been designing, building, and customizing cars for over 50 years, the only ones that turn me off are those built with poor or sloppy build quality or those that destroy something wonderful and old and original solely for the sake of “modernizing”.

      • Balstic

        Dirk, while the Lil Red Express is not the epitome of design taste, it does hold a place in the historical perspective of the American automotive lineage. It does not hold major significance as a Cord, Duesenberg, Stutz, or other milestone autos. My point is we seem to think that just by putting air bags, dropping, chopping and putting large tires is the pillar of design. What happened to the art of designing from scratch ,moving design principles forward, kind of like the Fooses of the world. I am not a designer though I do appreciate quality design as well as execution. I personally would return the lil Red Express back to original even though it isn’t numbers matching. It will never be valuable per day, no matter do with it but you would dump less money into his than yoursuggestion would.

      • Dirk

        Without being an original numbers matching vehicle, that truck will never, ever, ever again be an original Li’l Red Express Truck no matter what – it will, at best, be a replica or, at worst, a fraud or else maybe just a red truck and nothing more so all I’m suggesting is to lighten up a little and try something different. If you’ve never owned a car with airbags, they’re a real hoot – a lot of fun.

    • grant

      I can see building a custom out of this one, sure. But lets leave the 90’s behind us!

  3. Hide Behind

    Volare Front end, disc all around, 440 carbed, mild cam, and headers, w/Dana 60, no more than 355 gears, rear resprung for lowering , air ride suspension, paint and interior.
    Why not restore as ,”L’ll Red, cuz it is no longer an original and just makes an easily made fun ride challenge, to have fun with and still get decent return on investment 2 or 3 years an future.

    • Russ ( Popeye ) Peele

      I got a 71 Dodge truck short bed step side, strong 318, automatic, needs restored. It’s an old N.C. DOT road truck

    • Tricky

      Why would you go with a Volare front end when it already has IFS and discs?

      I have a ’77 Dodge D150 Custom pickup and the front-end geometry on these trucks is pretty spot on! Im with Grant on this one, re-engine using something modern (current Hemi), modern trans, maybe IRS the rear end and really trick paint job. I would leave the interior semi-stock as a throw back to its original roots (recover the original 2+1 bench and maybe new gauges). They are a good truck, nowhere near collectable status yet, but gaining in popularity I think!

  4. Classic Steel

    A great Candidate to put batteries in and go electric 👍😜

    Yep a quiet lil battery go getter👌😜👀🙃

    • Dirk

      Don’t give Elon Musk any ideas, he already has enough problems.

  5. Balstic

    Not enough money to keep him occupied obviously.


    I agree with the idea of a modern Hemi with the necessary electronics etc but years ago finding the correct exhaust system complete with stacks was almost impossible, then you have to find proper wood for box

  7. CanuckCarGuy

    It’s a ‘Lil Red Express…there’s really only one option when a truck has factory chrome stacks; drop in a Cummins and build a coal roller.

    • canadainmarkseh Member

      That’s a great idea too Cunukcarguy. But your going to need a heavier suspension. A 5.9 cumins weighs 1150 lbs and the transmission about 600 lbs that’s why you only see them in 3/4 tons and 1 tons I still like the idea though. I’d rename it too. What’s your thoughts on a similar name.

      • CanuckCarGuy

        ‘Lil Red Roller.

  8. h60memo

    The engine I would put in it, definitely a V8, the transmission definitely a manual.

  9. TC

    Restore the body and interior and then go all out and install Hellcat motor and tranny in it!!!!

    • Balstic


  10. Miguel

    This truck is no longer a Li’l Red Express. It is missing all the equipment it would have had so now it is just an old step side truck.

    Do with it what you want. It isn’t worth much.

    • Will

      You are exactly right. It looks as though this was a donor truck for lil red express restoration on another truck. Are there any express truck unique bits left? I dont see any

      • Russ ( Popeye ) Peele

        Yep in N.C.

  11. mike D

    no bids as of yet, no mention of a windshield, am pretty sure the seats could be re upholstered richer carpet since the orig is gone Crate 360? no mention of the bed, or the side racks being a p/u back at that time the smog regs were more lax than those for cars if the stacks are hard to find, then pipes out the back ( duals, of course) .. and am I incorrect in saying the decal on the tail gate also said Li’l red express? ( not truck) and…since it isn’t going to be ” correct” anyways, how about a deeper red? Manual tranny, (5 spd?) but a HD auto may do it would be a fun truck!

  12. JimmyinTEXAS

    Since originality is gone forever a good frame and suspension lowered 3 or 4 inches, gen 4 or 5 viper v-10 and transmission of choice. I would choose to leave the chrome stacks just because I like the looks.

  13. robeffy

    Hey, Dodge sold Warlocks, so, repaint it, do whatever you want to it, and call it a Warlock.

    Warlocks were a stripe package, added to whatever driveline and color you ordered… The chrome stacks were Lil Red only.

    • Russ ( Popeye ) Peele

      Yes, would love to. Thought about doing this 71 Dodge truck like a warlock. Black and gold stripping. Then again, thinking of selling it.

  14. Mike R in De

    This would be kinda fun when done, but too much is already missing. I’d have to go with the running gear from a police package Durango (EFI engine and trans, disk brakes all around, seats)!! And, oh yes, keep it down just help the handling. Maybe Plum Crazy with gold metal flake graphics. Call it Purple Haze, when frying the tires!! Don’t worry about the missing stacks, but they would make great cut-out exits!! Great fun to dream, just waiting for PCH to come drop off the check!!

  15. Miguel

    I don’t get the pricing for the left overs of a parts truck.

    This is what about the same money get you for a truck in Mexico.

  16. Miguel

    I don’t understand the pricing of this shell.

    Here is what you can get in Mexico for about that same price.

  17. Neal

    How about “Ghost of the Lil Red Express”!?!?
    Paint it white with silver and red or maroon ghosted flames. Antiqued pale barnwood for the bed slats and side stakes.
    Custom silver gray and red interior.
    Redo the graphics in silver with red/maroon accents.
    Drive train doesn’t matter so long as it goes.

  18. Miguel

    Is this site working for you guys this morning?

  19. Miguel

    Are comments working yet?

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