A Brief History Of The Muscle Truck

Muscle trucks are one of life’s gloriously pointless indulgences. They make absolutely no sense in any traditional regard. If you wanted functionality and utility, you’d get a pickup truck. If you wanted to drag race off stop lights and burn rubber like it was going out of style, you’d get a muscle car. Why would you want both in the same vehicle if it would seemingly do neither task very well?

Well, because it’s a ton of fun, that’s why. It’s a distinctly American product, a huge engine stuffed somewhere it really doesn’t belong, the only benefit being the smile it puts on your face when you stomp the gas pedal. Sure, some of these trucks would manage single-digit fuel consumption if you enjoyed the loud pedal too much. Yes, braking and handling was an afterthought in most of them. But the fact that in 1991 you could buy a pickup truck that could smoke a Ferrari makes the world a brighter place. If you’re interested, read on.

So, where’d it all start? Well, not including car-based trucks like the Chevy El Camino and Ford Ranchero, it would’ve been in the mid 70′s. General Motors did manage to stuff a few 454ci V8′s into their mainstream trucks in the 70′s, which with a THM400 automatic would run pretty close with the emissions-choked Corvette of the time period. But it was Dodge that really put the performance truck on the map -- with the absurd-looking and absurdly-named Dodge L’il Red Express.

Yes, Billy, those are smoke stack exhaust pipes. And wood trim. And a big sticker that says “L’il Red Express Truck.” The LRT (for short) debuted in 1978 as part of Dodge’s “adult toys” lineup. Besides the goofy graphics, the LRT had a bit of a monster under it’s hood. They started with the lightest truck body (a single-cab flareside) and dropped in a 360ci V8. To this they added a smattering of factory performance parts. The “police spec” camshaft from the ’68 340 motor (252° duration, 33° overlap), heavy duty valve springs and retainers, the intake manifold and large 4bbl carb from the police-spec 360 V8, an oil windage tray, and “SuperFlow” heads as well as a dual-intake setup for the carb.

Transmitting all this extra grunt to the ground was a 9.25″ rear differential with SureGrip (that’d be an LSD to you) and shorter 3.55:1 gearing. The A-727 Automatic (which was required with the package) had a relatively high 2500 stall setting for quicker take-offs, as well.

The truck got dumbed down for 1979 (a standard 360ci camshaft as well as catalytic converters, boo!) and because of the 1979 gas crisis, production was canceled for the 1980 model year. Ahh, well -- good landing, wrong airport. Still, in the emissions-choked late-70′s, the LRT was one of the quickest vehicles you could buy: Car & Driver reported a surprising 14.7 second quarter-mile time, which was rocket ship territory back then. But as concerns of fuel mileage and emissions became important, the muscle truck went dormant for a good solid decade, before emerging again.

Fast forward 11 years to 1990. GM kick-started the performance truck segment with two killer trucks in two years. While they’re both GM and they were both any color you wanted as long as it was black, they couldn’t have been any more different in concept. The first was the Chevrolet C1500 454SS. The recipe was simple: smallest truck body, biggest engine, go. This meant a single-cab C1500 2WD chassis, and a 454 cubic inch (7.4 liter, to you Europeans) V8 under the hood. Yes, 454 cubic inches. That’s huge. The 454ci V8 was a low-compression unit -- only 7.4:1! and made 230 horsepower, but a stump-pulling 385 lb-ft of torque. This engine was coupled to a THM400 3-speed automatic with a 3.73:1 rear axle ratio, heavy-duty shocks and springs, thicker roll-bars and a quicker steering ratio.

For 1991, the 454SS got a significant mechanical upgrade: the 454 V8 was updated to 255 horsepower and 405lb-ft(!) of torque, and the ancient THM400 3-speed was replaced with a 4L-80E electronically controlled 4-speed automatic. Oh, and they shortened the axle ratio again to a 4.10:1, presumably because a single-cab short bed truck with 405lb-ft of torque can’t do a good enough burnout with a 3.73. Of course! The 454SS stayed in production until 1993, and offered a whole lot of rumbling V8 power for not a lot of money -- it was about $19k out the door in 1991 dollars. It would do 0-60 in under 8 seconds, which was quick, but by today’s standards the fuel economy was appalling: the EPA numbers were 10mpg city and 11 mpg highway, making it one of the thirstiest vehicles to ever wear EPA numbers.

Dodge continued to dabble in Muscle-truck-ology in the late 80′s as well. By the mid-eighties, Carroll Shelby was working full-time cranking out hopped up Mopar products, mostly FWD turbo hatches with tight suspension and lots of boost. But in 1989, he brought out his first V8, RWD product since his Ford products in the 60′s. The Shelby Dakota was based on the mid-sized Dodge Dakota, but with one major difference: whereas the biggest engine you could get in a Dakota in ’89 was a 3.9L pushrod V6, the Dakota used the 318ci pushrod V8 from the larger trucks, crammed into the smaller Dakota engine bay. The fuel-injected 5.2L V8 didn’t have impressive numbers by the standards of today (175bhp, 270lb-ft of torque) but when mated to a 4-speed automatic, a high-stall torque converter, and 3.90:1 gears, the Shelby Dakota could post an 8-second 0-60 time -- partially because it only weighed about 3,600lbs. Changes included a switch to electric coolant fans so the V8 would fit, a limited slip differential and an auxiliary transmission cooler, and upgraded shock absorbers at all four corners. Shelby only made 1,500 of these hot-rod trucks, but Dodge got the idea: the 90′s Dakota was so popular because it was the only mid-size truck to offer a V8. I’ve driven a late-ninties Dakota 2WD short bed with a 318ci V8 and a 5-speed, and it’s an unmitigated hoot to drive, with tons of torque down low and a basso profundo woofle from the dual exhausts.

In part two, we’ll look at some Muscle Trucks moving into the 1990′s, when things got a whole lot faster. Stay tuned, CarThrottle readers…