Powerful Pickups: The evolution of super trucks over the years

Table of Contents 1991 GMC Syclone1999-2004 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning2004-2006 Dodge Ram SRT-102010-2014 Ford Raptor2017

Muscle trucks have long been a part of the automotive landscape, with some of the earliest examples dating back to the 1960s. Super trucks, on the other hand, are a relatively modern invention.

With the advent of reliable forced induction (turbocharged and supercharging) and advanced four-wheel-drive systems in the early ’90s, automakers suddenly had a whole new set of tools to use when building ridiculously-quick pickups. Throw in parts-sharing between exotic sports cars and more humble workaday trucks, and things got even spicier once the 2000s rolled around. However, by the next decade, street trucks had been wiped out by a shift towards the off-road space, with the current generation of speed-demon pickups trading in corner-carving prowess for mud-slinging madness.

On the heels of Ford borrowing the F-150 Lightning’s name to bring huge amounts of all-electric speed and torque to the game, could we be on the verge of seeing the pendulum swing back to street performance? Let’s take a look at the evolution of modern super trucks and chart their transition from drag strip to desert runner.

1991 GMC Syclone

1991 GMC Syclone

The first true super truck was an unexpected bolt out of the blue when it hit the streets for the 1991 model year. Based on the GMC S15 compact pickup, the Syclone combined a bespoke all-wheel-drive system with a turbocharged version of that model’s venerable 4.3L V6 engine.

The end result was spectacular. Rated at 280 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, the four-speed, auto-only Syclone could reach 100 km/h from a standing start in just a few ticks over four seconds, which made it competitive with luminaries like the Porsche 911 Turbo in a straight line. GMC engineers went whole-hog on the Syclone’s V6, too, beefing up the pistons, slapping on a unique exhaust system, and strengthening the unit to handle significantly more boost from owners willing to experiment with what its intercooled turbo could provide.

Fewer than 3,000 Syclones were built, and almost all of them were finished in a black-on-black colour scheme, with exceptions like the Marlboro edition and the PPG Indy Pace Trucks. GMC would also produce an SUV version of the turbo truck, called the Typhoon, for a handful of years after the original pickup left the market.

Ford SVT Lightning

1999-2004 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning

The ’90s would see a number of muscle trucks vie for the affection of V8 lovers, including the Chevrolet 454 SS, and the first-generation Ford SVT Lightning. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, however, that the next link in the super truck chain would be forged: the 1999 Ford-F150 SVT Lightning.

Based on an all-new platform, the second version of the Lightning would shoot well above its predecessor, with a supercharged 5.4L V8 that produced 360 horsepower and 440 lb-ft of torque. This represented an increase of 120 ponies and 100 lb-ft of twist over the naturally-aspirated SVT Lightning of old, and allowed for a sprint to 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds, with the quarter mile disappearing in the high 13s. A power boost in 2001 would add 20 horses and 10 lb-ft to the SVT’s total output.

While this might seem slow compared to the Syclone, it’s important to remember that the F-150 the Lightning was based upon was a much larger full-size model, and didn’t have the advantage of four-wheel-drive. Despite its short, flare-side bed, it also retained respectable towing and hauling capability. The truck featured a lowered suspension system that gave it above-average handling for such a heavy vehicle, as well as a toughened drivetrain that could handle serious abuse through its four-speed automatic transmission and locking rear differential.

2005 Dodge Ram SRT-10

2004-2006 Dodge Ram SRT-10

Chrysler has always had a knack for stuffing its most powerful engines into the widest variety of possible platforms. In 2004, when the Ford SVT Lightning was in its final model year, the company managed to raise the stakes by building the most-bananas pickup truck to date: the Dodge Ram SRT-10.

Long-time Mopar fans took one look at that nameplate and realized that the full-size, single-cab pickup had borrowed the 8.3L V10 from the Dodge Viper to create the most super of trucks. With 500 horsepower and 525 lb-ft of torque on tap, the Ram further bucked convention by installing a six-speed manual gearbox, making it the one-and-only high-performance pickup of its era to feature a clutch pedal.

If a driver worked hard, it was possible to push the Ram SRT-10 to 100 km/h in fewer than five seconds, maximizing the traction-bar setup installed by SRT engineers, as well as the huge contact patch from its 305/40/R22 rear tires. With a suspension drop and Bilstein shocks, the pickup also handled much better than one would expect from its bull-in-a-china-shop build sheet. Dodge would eventually offer an extended-cab version of the SRT-10 that featured a four-speed automatic gearbox, lowering the drama a notch or two when smoking from one stoplight to the next.

2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

2010-2014 Ford Raptor

After the Ram SRT-10 left the scene, the super-truck world was completely quiet for almost five years. While a number of street trucks like the Toyota Tacoma X-Runner and the Chevrolet Colorado Xtreme would provide stiffer suspensions and lower ride heights, great big gobs of power were off the menu for pickup-truck buyers.

Behind the scenes, there was also a fundamental shift occurring at Ford, which had blazed the path for full-size super trucks with the Lightning a decade beforehand. SVT realized that in order to best the supercharged pickup’s performance, while also embarrassing the SRT-10 Ram, it would have to invest significant funds not just into its engine — a 500-horsepower motor had been planned — but also its brakes and suspension system. The biggest issue? Trucks were getting larger and heavier, and the team wasn’t confident it could one-up its past efforts without dramatically boosting the price of the next Lightning.

The solution was to abandon the street and instead focus on an arena where braking, handling, and weight were far less important. Enter the 2010 Ford SVT Raptor, a flare-sided, long-travel truck intended to tackle desert terrain at a high rate of speed without flinching. Motivated by a 310 horsepower version of the brand’s 5.4L V8, and with a mightier 411 horsepower, 6.2L mill on the options sheet, the SVT Raptor broke with convention, and in doing so, created an entirely new market for ultra-quick, mega-tough pickups.

It didn’t take long for Ford to figure out that the 6.2L V8 was a much better fit for its Fox-shocked dune basher, and by 2011 that engine and its 434 lb-ft of torque was the only one available. The Raptor had no direct competitors — every other off-road truck was more concerned with rock crawling and rugged construction than all-out speed — and the next generation of super trucks had found its champion.

2017 Ford Raptor

2017 Ford SVT Raptor

The F-150 was redesigned in the middle of the twenty-teens, and as a result, the Raptor left the market for a couple of years before roaring back in 2017. This time, Ford’s most potent pickup was bigger than ever before, and its massive countenance was buttressed by an even more aggressive suspension that pitched and rolled on asphalt, but absorbed all manner of abuse far from the beaten path.

The SVT Raptor redux also made major changes under the hood, abandoning the aural pleasure of its large-displacement V8 in favour of an EcoBoost 3.5L twin-turbo V6 that churned out a heady 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque. This massive thrust was enough to scream past 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds, or nearly a second-and-a-half faster than the Raptor of old. Of course, the truck’s circa-13-second quarter mile was made all the more terrifying by its incredibly loose suspension, but for dedicated Baja enthusiasts, it’s hard to think of a more intense out-of-the-box package than what the second-generation Raptor brought to the table.

2021 Ram 1500 TRX

2021 Ram 1500 TRX

Despite sitting out the Raptor’s decade-long super truck reign, and producing the bulky, heavy-duty-based Power Wagon off-roader instead, FCA knew it had an ace up its sleeve. Sitting on the shelf at SRT HQ was the 700-plus-horsepower Hellcat V8, which easily fit underneath the Ram 1500’s hood.

It was only a matter of time before Ram built a truck that could crush the Raptor in terms of power, and the only question was whether it would take more of a track-oriented approach, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT Trackhawk and the RAM SRT-10 that came before it, or would it instead tackle the Raptor head-on.

The answer, surprisingly, was a little bit of both. On a landscape where “regular” versions of the Ford F-150 were able to out-accelerate Dodge’s Viper truck, with the F-150 Platinum trim gaining a version of the Raptor’s torque-monster engine, it was clear to FCA that there was more money to be made in the off-road segment.

This explains the Ram 1500 TRX. With 702 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque from its 6.2L Hellcat V8, the supercharged pickup is nearly two seconds faster than the SVT Raptor from a dig, and it delivers that blast of forward momentum with enough ferocity to lift and twist the front end once traction is found by its four-wheel drive system.

At the same time, the truck’s 13 inches of suspension travel, special 2.5-inch Bilstein remote reservoir shocks, and full foot of ground clearance give the pickup formidable chops in the mud and sand. Every bit the equal of the Raptor when the going gets tough, the TRX is that much more rambunctious when sent out to play in terrain that would stop almost any other vehicle in its tracks. As the ultimate evolution of the super truck, the TRX has Ford so shook that not one, but two versions of the Raptor — based on the most recent F-150 platform — are planned to take it on.