Pickup trucks are as old as the automobile itself. The earliest models were conceived to do the work of horse-drawn carts. All through the 1950s, pickups remained beasts of burden. The trucks shown here have roots in humble work trucks, but with custom features carefully engineered by their manufacturers became high-performance super trucks with enough speed and style to shame many traditional sports and muscle cars.
The optimistic years after World War II made it possible for automakers to consider adding extra style and performance to their trucks. The first evidence of this trend is the 1955-58 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier. Smooth rear fenders (more like sedans of the day), chrome detailing, and two-tone paint made the Cameo stand out. In response to the Cameo, Dodge introduced the 1957-59 Sweptside D100. Special features included tail fins (modified rear fenders from a same-model-year Dodge station wagon). These trucks offered some car-like features and extra performance. The Dodge was available with a Hemi V-8. Curiously, neither sold well due to their extra cost. The world wasn't quite ready.
Dodge figured the world was ready in 1978. A small group of employee enthusiasts figured out how to exploit a loophole in federal emissions regulations and packaged their truck in a wacky way that could only have come out in the '70s. It had stained oak trim in the bed and Kenworth-style exhaust pipes rising up behind the cab. The loophole allowed a standard Dodge D-150 short-bed pickup to have its engine bay stuffed with a hot-rodded 360-cubic inch (5.2-liter) V-8. With 225 horsepower, a special automatic transmission, short rear-axle ratio, and big tires, the 1978 Li'l Red Express Truck became the fastest American-made production vehicle of the year, car or truck. One contemporary test clocked the Dodge through the quarter mile in only 14.7 seconds at 93 mph. Corvettes of the day were slower. The model was discontinued after just two model years.
Emissions regulations tightened in the 1980s, and economic hardships prevented any super trucks from coming to market until Chevrolet engineers stuffed an old-school big-block 454 cubic-inch (7.4 liters) V-8 into the C1500 Sportside pickup. The huge engine didn't make much horsepower (only 230), but its 385 lb.ft. of torque (405 in 1991) could launch the truck like a Howitzer. The truck's handling was also addressed, fortified with Bilstein shock absorbers, quick ratio steering and low-profile tires. This full-size pickup hustled from 0-60 mph in just 7.1 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds at 87 mph.
The 1991 GMC Syclone took a decidedly high-tech approach to achieve super truck status. Based on the humble S-10 pickup, the Syclone boasted one of the most advanced powertrains on the planet: a turbocharged and intercooled 4.3-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower and 350 lb.ft. of torque coupled to all-wheel drive. Only the world's fastest sports cars were faster than the Syclone 0-60 mph, which it hit in under five seconds, still impressive 18 years later.
Ford recognized the increasing appeal that pickup trucks had for personal use. It also saw the attention that General Motors received by introducing high-performance versions of their trucks (the 454 SS and Syclone). Their Special Vehicle Team's Lightning was Ford's response that focused as much on handling and balance as power. A modified 5.8-liter V-8 (351 cubic inches) boasted 240 horsepower. Based on the two-wheel-drive F-150 short-bed, the Lightning could circle a skid pad at 0.88 gs. This was enough grip to chase down many sports cars. Acceleration to 60 mph took just over seven seconds, and the quarter mile disappeared in about 15.8 seconds at 86 mph according to contemporary tests.
After their first Lightning model, Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) took a few years off to ponder their next super truck. Their second-generation Lighting came out in 1999 and featured a supercharged 5.4-liter overhead camshaft V-8 that by 2003-04 produced 380 horsepower and 450 lb.ft. of torque. The 2003-04 Lightning pickups were the fastest and best handling, with a top speed of over 145 mph. Quarter mile times in the mid-13 range were common, helping to make the second-generation SVT Lightning the fastest production truck in the world according to The Guinness World Book of Records, until our next truck came along.
The ultimate super truck built for the street is undeniably the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Offered from 2004-06 in Regular and Quad Cab body styles, this pickup's main attraction is its 488 cubic-inch (8.3-liter) V-10 engine shared with the Dodge Viper super car. With 500 horsepower, the big Ram could hit 154 mph after decimating the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 105 mph. Handing and braking performance were also addressed, with special components including 22-inch aluminum wheels fitted with steam-roller sized tires, P305/40R22 Pirelli Scorpion tires. Don't expect anything like this truck from the new Chrysler under the guidance of Fiat, but we can dream.