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Pickup Power: History’s Fastest Trucks

Today’s pickups come in all shapes and sizes. While most truck owners prioritize ride height, towing power, and off-road prowess above pure speed, acceleration, and handling, there’s always been a certain set who wants the best of both worlds. Enter the street truck. Also referred to as a muscle truck, these high-performance models are the fastest pickups money can buy, transforming some popular job site MVPs into lean, mean racing machines.

What makes for a good, fast truck? A larger engine packed into a tiny chassis is a good place to start, but that’s often just the tip of the iceberg. Lower suspensions, locking differentials, forced induction, new headers, and exhaust kits are par for the course. So are reverse leveling kits, where drivers remove the rear lift block to create a squatter ride. This lower ride means better handling through the corners, which is an important consideration when working with the kind of power some of these trucks are capable of.

Transforming a stock model into a true street pickup has been a popular pastime for the modding and tuning community since the segment’s earliest days. These DIY mad scientists have produced some truly one-of-a-kind vehicles, but the auto industry has also created its fair share of race-worthy pickups. The trend stretches as far back as the 1970s when early examples like the Dodge Lil’ Red Express first hit the market, but street trucks truly came into their own in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The push towards electrification has unlocked some new potential when it comes to pickup power, especially in terms of acceleration, and the new era of supertrucks has taken the trend all the way up to the modern era. Today, supertrucks like the Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram 1500 TRX are blurring the line between street- and off-road models, offering unrivaled horsepower and torque while still dominating the trail. From the Lil’ Red truck that started it all to some of the latest and greatest in automotive experimentation, join us as we take a closer look at some of the fastest pickup trucks the road has ever seen.

Dodge Lil’ Red Express

Top speed: 128 mph
Quarter-mile time: 15 seconds

This specialty segment traces its roots back to the Lil’ Red Express, a hot-rod version of a Dodge pickup that immediately set itself apart from the crowd thanks to its factory-installed semi-stack dual exhaust and long list of performance-minded upgrades. Dodge started with a powerful 360 c.i. V8 engine, modifying it in the image of the Police Interceptor to include the law enforcement model’s Thermo-Quad carburetor, intake manifold, windage tray, and more. The Lil’ Red Express was also graced with a limited-slip axle, new springs and dampers, chrome valve covers, and a dual-snorkel air cleaner, mods that wouldn’t be out of place at a local hot rod meet.

This combination was good enough to give the “Lil’” pickup some 225 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque, resulting in a top speed of 128 mph and a quarter-mile time of 15 seconds. While a little pokey by today’s standards, those numbers would make the Lil’ Red Express one of the fastest production vehicles of the late 1970s, with a quarter-mile time that beat the Chevy Corvette by 1.1 seconds. Early models could skirt emissions regulations thanks to a loophole that let vehicles with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) above 6,000 lbs be produced without a catalytic converter, though that oversight would be addressed going into the 1979 model year.

If the Dodge truck sounds like a life-size Hot Wheels model, there’s a good reason for that. The fledgling street truck was part of the brand’s late 1970s “Adult Toys,” a unique lineup of attitude-heavy trim packages that started off with the Dodge Dude option for the half-ton D100 pickup. Dodge would continue to expand on the concept with the Dodge Warlock, another D100 package that saw the brand drop tinted windows, wider tires, and most noticeably, an oak-lined bed, sideboards, and “Warlock” scrawled across the tailgate in gold paint. The Lil’ Red Express and Warlock were joined by the Ramcharger and Macho Power Wagon pickups in the Adult Toys lineup, along with a thoroughly customizable Street Van model catering to the 70’s van culture.

While the Adult Toys were a popular novelty, they were introduced at an unfortunate time. The gas crisis of the late 1970s saw Dodge quickly shelve most of the models after just a couple of years on the market. Tightening emissions standards and an increased emphasis on efficiency would see bold automotive experiments like the Lil’ Red Express fall out of favor for the next decade, but the specialty segment would come roaring back in the 1990s.

Chevy 454 SS

Top speed: 120 mph
Quarter-mile time: 15.7 seconds

Muscley street trucks didn’t die after the gas crisis. They just went underground. Tuners continued to modify their pickups into lean, mean racing machines throughout the 1980s, but it took until 1990 for the industry to take another crack at the segment. The Chevy 454 SS would mark the first production-level street truck in over a decade, setting the stage for all performance models to come.

Chevy didn’t reinvent the wheel with the 454 SS. The truck followed the time-honored formula of taking a light truck and infusing it with as much power as it could handle. The 454 SS was a bit of a departure as designers opted for a full-size model, but with a short box, two-wheel drive, and a single cab, it was on the smaller end of the full-size spectrum.

Under the hood, Chevy powered the 454 SS with a 454 c.i. V8 from its heavy-duty pickup line, giving the pickup 230 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque. Again, that’s not anything crazy by today’s standards, but still an accomplishment in 1990’s terms. With a top speed of 120 mph and a zero to sixty mph time that clocked in under eight seconds, the 454 SS was almost as fast as the Lil’ Red Express while adhering to emissions standards. Chevy would round out the 454 SS with a heavy-duty front sway bar, revised steering, beefier tires, and Bilstein shocks, creating a solid template for performance that would be replicated countless times throughout the early 1990s. The 454 SS might not be history’s fastest pickup, but it is responsible for the second wave of pickup performance that continued to grip the industry through the mid-2000s.

GMC Syclone

Top speed: 124 mph
Quarter-mile time: 14.1 seconds

If you’re searching for a pickup that can go toe-to-toe with a Ferrari, look no further than the GMC Syclone. Designed to be a high-performance version of the GMC Sonoma, this 1991 compact pickup was GMC’s entry in the nascent muscle truck wars. Once the fastest stock pickup truck in the world, the Syclone’s 280-hp, 4.3L turbocharged V6 allowed the model to reach a top speed of 124 mph. The Syclone lent this same setup to the 1992 GMC Typhoon, a high-performance SUV based on the Blazer that was designed in much the same vein.

The Syclone was engineered in conjunction with Production Automotive Services (PAS), which had earned considerable industry cred with its work on the 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am. With the Syclone, PAS and GMC pulled out all the stops, giving the pickup a Mitsubishi turbocharger, Garrett water/air intercooler, and upgraded head gaskets, intake, and exhaust manifolds. The truck retained an all-wheel drive setup, a rarity in the muscle segment, with a BorgWarner AWD transfer case sending 65 percent of the power to the rear wheels.

We could wax on about the Syclone’s sport-tuned suspension, wide tires, or first-in-class four-wheel anti-lock brakes, but the Ferrari comparison speaks a thousand words. In a 1991 test by Car and Driver, the 1991 GMC Syclone beat the 1991 Ferrari 348ts in a number of important performance-related categories, from zero-to-60-mph time (5.3 seconds to 6.0), quarter-mile time (14.1 to 14.5) and, thanks to the oversized four-wheel anti-lock brakes, even braking with a 70-to-zero-mph time of 183 ft to the Ferrari’s 187.

Ford SVT Lightning

Top speed: 110 mph (1993), 140 mph (2004)
Quarter-mile time: 15.6 seconds (1993), 13.6 seconds (2004)

Introduced as part of the best-selling pickup’s ninth generation in 1993, the Ford F-150 SVT Lighting still stands as one of the industry’s most captivating high-speed creations. Created by Ford’s Special Vehicles Team (SVT), the Lightning (not to be confused with the F-150’s newer all-electric Lightning pickup) immediately turned heads.

Instead of sticking to the formula that the Cyclone and 454 SS established, Ford took a different approach. The Chevy and GMC versions were focused solely on on-road performance. With the SVT Lightning, Ford sought to retain the truck’s off-road capability while packing it with enough power to leave the competition in the dust. That power came in the form of a 5.8L V-8 that made 240 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. A four-speed gearbox sent all the power to the back wheels.

While the SVT Lightning packed 40 fewer ponies than the GMC Syclone, it was a good deal more versatile. Ford’s decision to maintain the pickup’s truck-like qualities meant that the original Lightning could tow up to 8,400 lbs and handle the rough, off-road terrain that would stymie models like the Syclone and 454 SS. A twin-beam coil spring front suspension was paired with a solid axle and leaf springs in the rear, allowing the SVT Lightning to better absorb the bumps and bruises of off-road driving.

Ford would offer the original SVT Lightning until 1995, then take a three-year hiatus before reintroducing an all-new, even more powerful version in 1999. A 5.4L supercharged V8 replaced the previous unit, giving the second-gen SVT Lightning between 360 and 380 hp depending on the year. A heavy-duty transmission borrowed from the F-350 was used to harness all that power, and an overhauled design integrated the latest advancements in suspension technology. With a top speed of up to 140 mph, the second-generation Lightning ushered in a new era in the performance pickup segment. The new, all-electric F-150 Lightning and F-150 Raptor keep this legacy alive, with respective top speeds of 110 and 120 mph, but the decades-old SVT is still the king of the Fords when it comes to pure speed.

Dodge Ram SRT-10

Top speed: 153 mph
Quarter-mile time: 13.6 seconds

The Dodge Viper has long stood as a paragon of high-speed performance. The curvy, low-slung racer is a dream car, through and through, thanks largely to its massive 8.3L V10 engine. What happens when you drop that V10 under the hood of your flagship pickup? You get the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Dodge’s Performance Vehicle Operations (PVO) took the lead on the boundary-pushing model, creating a truck that produced 500 hp and 525 lb-ft of torque. With a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds in its Regular Cab form, the Ram SRT-10 could even compete with some of the fastest sports cars of its time.

Of course, that level of performance came at a cost. Unlike the Ford SVT Lightning, the SRT-10 was not made for off-road fun or towing duty. Ram gave the SRT-10 a custom-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and the rack and pinion steering and independent front suspension from the Ram Heavy-Duty while lowering the truck by one inch in the front and 2.5 inches in the back. The truck’s aerodynamically focused modifications and cooling upgrades were the most notable changes. Engineers outfitted the pickup with a bulging hood that contained a honeycomb grill hood scoop, allowing the SRT-10 to suck up all the air it needed to keep the massive 10-cylinder engine nice and cool. A tonneau cover with an attached spoiler helped to reduce lift and drag and, more importantly, made it clear that this wasn’t your garden-variety pickup.

The SRT-10 made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records when NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan pushed the truck to win the title of world’s fastest production pickup, racing an average speed of 154.5 mph on a closed track. It’s fitting that the brand that kicked off the segment with the Lil’ Red Express would also produce the ultimate example of muscle truck achievement. The SRT-10 was eventually discontinued in 2006 and is an exceptionally rare pickup on the used market. Dodge produced just over 10,000 units in the truck’s three-year run, making the swift pickup an instant collector’s item.

Today’s pickups might pack all sorts of cutting-edge features like multifunction tailgates, burly off-road equipment packages, and all-electric powertrains, but few can match the speeds achieved during the golden era of the high-performance street truck. Newer supertrucks like the Ram TRX and Ford F-150 Raptor might come close and certainly surpass the 1990s and 2000s examples when it comes to torque and pure acceleration, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a production truck that can top the 130 mph mark. As we mentioned, these trucks are exceedingly rare and prized amongst collectors. Take the GMC Syclone, for example. The speedy pickup sold for just over $25,000 in 1991 but now fetches an average of $43,000 on the pre-owned market. Pristine examples of the Syclone have sold for as much as $80,000 to $100,000, proving that speed is still an important selling point in the pickup market.

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