Pickups have existed in some form nearly as long as cars have, with flatbed versions of the Model T and Model A puttering around America's cities and countryside for years. Following World War II, purpose-built pickups with a stronger frame, separate cargo box, and heavier-duty suspension emerged and defined the modern conception of a pickup.
For most of the nearly seven decades since, the predominant role of pickups has been utilitarian. There have been a few performance or style-oriented variants over the years from different manufacturers, but none has shown the committed, ongoing effort to building performance pickups that Ford has.
It is telling that one of the two first models to come from Ford's newly formed Special Vehicle Team in 1993 was a truck. The other was the original Mustang Cobra. Here is a look at the trucks of SVT over the past two decades.
Adding insult to injury, Chevrolet had introduced its high-performance 454 SS model in 1990, shoehorning the massive 7.4-liter V-8 from its heavy-duty models under the hood of a short-bed half-ton model. Although it produced only 230 horsepower, a feeble 31 hp per liter, it cranked out a much more substantial 385 lb-ft of torque. It was upgraded a year later with a four-speed transmission (from a three-speed) and got a power bump to 255 hp and 405 lb-ft of torque.
1993-1995 Ford F-150 Lightning
It was five years after General Motors had launched its sleek, futuristic GMT-400 trucks. In comparison, the Ford F-150 was a somewhat boxy, frumpy throwback. Aside from an updated grille, the rest of the truck looked like the early '80s platform upon which it was based.
1999-2004 Ford F-150 Lightning
In 1993, the final year of the 454 SS' production, Ford finally countered with the original F-150 Lightning. Although the 1999-2004 model is much more widely recognized among enthusiasts, the original set the stage for Ford's performance pickup efforts. It had a specially tuned 5.8-liter V-8 producing 240 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. The suspension featured a beefier anti-roll bar and a ride height lowered 2.5 inches. Special 17-inch alloy wheels and 275/60-17 tires helped deliver handling performance unexpected for a full-size truck of the time. A 4.10:1 axle ratio in the 8.8-inch rearend ensured the 351's torque shot the Lightning out of the hole quickly. The 0-60-mph time for the Lightning was in the low 7-second range, very quick for its day.
When most enthusiasts think of the Ford Lightning, it's the '99-'04 model that comes to mind, and for good reason. The original 1993 effort was laudable at the time, but the '99 was a much more comprehensive performance makeover relative to the base-model F-150. Its supercharged 5.4-liter Modular V-8 produced a full 360 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 120 hp and 100 lb-ft over its predecessor. Its Flareside rear fenders and bed gave it a decidedly more aggressive appearance than the conservative-looking first-generation model. Adding to the attitude was a dual-tip side-exit exhaust, giving the passenger the best seat in the house to hear the blown V-8's exhaust rumble. Tires were aggressive 295/45ZR18 Goodyears, based on the company's high-performance tires for sports cars, but with a specially strengthened sidewall for truck duty.
The 2001 model year brought a power bump to 380 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, upgraded Bilstein shocks, and a shorter 3.73 axle ratio, from the '99 model's 3.55. The official factory 0-60 time of this model was 5.8, down from 6.2 seconds in the '99 model, but in our test of a 2004 model, the final year of the Lightning, we recorded a scorching 5.1-second 0-60 sprint and 13.6 second quarter mile.
By 2004, yet another competitor had emerged to challenge the Lightning's performance pickup supremacy, the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Packing the colossal 8.3-liter V-10 from the Viper paired with a six-speed manual, at first glance, it seemed it would be a dragstrip massacre, with the Dodge bringing 120 more horsepower and 75 more lb-ft of torque to the table. The Dodge did have a performance edge, but not by the margin many expected. The Lightning was a mere 0.2 second slower in our 0-60 testing, and only 0.3 second behind in the quarter mile. But the Lightning was a big winner in the bang-for-the-buck department, coming in nearly $12,000 less than the Ram SRT-10.
With the end of the line coming for this generation of the F-150, and the all-new 2004 model starting to roll into showrooms, it looked like the era of the high-performance F-150 was over. But was it?
2010-2013 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Although taking a radically different form from its street-oriented predecessors, there was no question that the Raptor was and is a legitimate performance truck. When first introduced in 2010, the Raptor came with the run-of-the-mill 5.4-liter three-valve modular V-8 available on all the other F-150 models. Its output of 310 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque was adequate, but hardly overwhelming. But the Raptor was about far more than laying down quick 0-60 times at the dragstrip. It was all about having fun in the dirt.
One of the key differentiating characteristics of the Raptor compared with other purpose-built off-road trucks of the time, most notably the Ram Power Wagon, was that it was built for more than just rock-crawling. The Raptor's unique suspension employed Fox Racing shocks and long-travel (by factory standards) front suspension, making it just as comfortable in the sand and on high-speed desert trails. Its bespoke aluminum control arms gave it a track a substantial 7 inches wider than a normal F-150's, necessitating its trademark front flared fenders and unique grille-mounted running lights.
To further distinguish the Raptor from ranch-hand F-150s, The perforated grille design was bisected by bold FORD block lettering. Initially offered only in the SuperCab (extended) body style, a full four-door SuperCrew version was added for 2011 after overwhelming demand from customers and enthusiasts. The other big news for 2011 was the highly anticipated 6.2-liter Hurricane V-8, giving a major power bump of 101 hp and 69 lb-ft of torque. The larger V-8 helped cut 0-60 times by nearly two full seconds, making a substantial difference in both real-world performance and seat-of-the-pants feel.
For the 2012 model year, a Torsen front differential and optional front-facing camera were added, improving traction and crawling and giving the Raptor a virtual "spotter" for technical off-road trails. The 2013 model adds new color options, patent-pending accessory beadlock front wheels, HID headlights, and an optional truck-specific version of MyFord Touch.
Although Ram has fielded the RamRunner package available as a dealer-installed package from Mopar for a stiff $18,000 premium, the Raptor stands alone as the only comprehensive factory full-size performance effort aside from the aforementioned Ram Power Wagon. But if your idea of off-road fun involves more than low-speed rock-crawling, the Raptor remains the only and best turnkey choice.
What other hi-po pickups does SVT have in the works for the future? Only those in the deepest inner sanctum of Dearborn know. But if they're anywhere near as good as the offerings from the past 20 years, we're in for some truck performance treats.