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From Syclone To Lightning – This Was A Golden Age For Performance Trucks

Chevrolet 454 SS pickup muscle truck
Image via Chevrolet

While they are still available from the aftermarket, muscle trucks have long been absent from the lineup of Detroit’s automakers. The move towards focusing on the ever-expanding off-road segment has left a void where the once jam-packed segment thrived. However, you can now watch Donut Media’s Nolan Sykes take you through the history of the muscle truck era and its high-point in the 1990s.

Any conversation about the muscle truck must start with the 1978 Dodge Lil Red Express. Unlike passenger cars which were being strangled by the introduction of catalytic converters, trucks of the Malaise Era were not required to meet the same CAFE regulations. As a result, Dodge decided that the D100 platform would be an ideal home for the company’s performance-related ambitions. They stuck the 5.9L V8 engine from their police cruisers into the truck, and modified the motor with some free-flowing heads and a four barrel carb setup. The end result was 225 horsepower, which was enough to make the truck the fastest accelerating vehicle to 60 mph made by any American
manufacturer at the time.

However, it was the 1990’s that really saw the widespread introduction of the muscle truck segment. General Motors got the ball rolling when they released the GMC Syclone, perhaps the most famous of the street-oriented pickups. Thanks to its AWD system and a 4.3L turbocharged Vortec V6 engine producing 280 horsepower and 350 ft-lbs of torque, the Syclone was able to go from 0-60mph in just 5.3 seconds. This was fast enough to beat the Ferrari 348, leading to the truck’s immortal position on a Car and Driver magazine’s front cover.

Then came Chevrolet’s own take on the segment with the 454 SS, which is undeniably one of the coolest sleepers ever produced. Differentiated from the standard pickup only by its blacked out grilled, red bowtie, and bedside graphics package, the 454 SS remains an icon of the era. The truck’s impressive rating of 255 horsepower and 405 ft-lbs of torque was also responsible for driving GM’s Dearborn-based rival to build a muscle truck of their own.

The Ford SVT Lightning may have been the last truck to join the muscle truck wars of the early 1990s, but it remains a legend to this day. The truck was built to help cement Ford’s position atop the pickup truck market, and it features some genuinely racey upgrades. The SVT team completely reworked the truck’s suspension and tuned it for handling, before giving the truck a serious powertrain. The 5.8L V8 engine under the hood of the Lightning features heads borrowed from the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40, which help the motor produce 240 horsepower and an equal amount of torque.

The factory-backed muscle truck era may be behind us, but the resulting products stand by as a testament to their time atop the lineup. In an age where everything seems to come with sports car levels of power, including pickup trucks, it makes us wonder why Detroit’s automakers are hesitant to revisit the segment.

1991 GMC Syclone. Image Via GMC.

Written by Lucas Bell

Lucas holds a journalism degree from Wayne State University, and is a Automotive Press Association scholarship recipient. While an American muscle fan through and through, he once wrote a fascinating comparison review about eScooters.

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