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Did you know that Ram (formerly Dodge trucks) sells a rear-drive, standard-cab, short-bed R/T model with a 395-horsepower Hemi? It’s fast: Car and Driver got 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.1 sec. at 99 mph. The vented hood and roaring exhaust complete the muscle theme.
Maybe more amazing is that Car and Driver achieved similar performance from a bigger GMC Denali Crew Cab 4x4 with a 420-horse 6.2-liter V-8. The fact is, today’s workaday V-8 pickups are as quick or quicker than many classic muscle cars. And so, the buzz that once surrounded “muscle trucks” just doesn't resonate as it has in decades past.
Still, here are five that lit the fire.
The Mopar musclecar was dead by the late 1970s, but Dodge answered peoples’ need for speed and loudness in a unique way: The utterly ridiculous, yet undeniably wonderful, L’il Red Express truck. Based on the company’s shortest and lightest stepside pickup, the L’il Red Express looked like a hillbilly hotrod with its bright red paint, functional dual chrome exhaust stacks, chrome wheels and wood bed-side trim.
A high-performance 360-ci 4-barrel small block V-8 produced a decent 225 net horsepower, and the automatic transmission sent the torque back to a 3.55-geared Sure Grip axle. Early magazine reports with sub-15 second quarter-mile times came from a prototype truck; the production version ran the quarter in 15.7 seconds at 88 mph according to Hot Rod magazine. That was quick enough to out-drag a Camaro Z28, and it was downright phenomenal for a two-ton brick.
Dodge sold 2,000 of the $7,000 hotrod trucks. The 1979 L’il Red Express got catalytic converters, rectangular headlights and other changes but sold another 5,118.
The L’il Red Express was actually Dodge’s second muscle pickup. The brand offered a High Performance Package for the 1964 and 1965 D100 pickup, which included a 365-horsepwer (gross) 426-ci wedge V-8. It was rare then, but a few still exist.
1990-93 Chevrolet 454 SS
Following the L’il Red Express’s formula established a dozen years prior, Chevy built the 454 SS on the standard-cab, short-bed pickup. Under the hood was the good old Chevy big block, a 454-ci V-8 making 230 net horsepower. The suspension was also tweaked for better handling. Quarter-mile times were in the high-15s.
Chevy sold nearly 14,000 the first year, when the sole color choice was black with a red interior. Performance improved with 25 added ponies, a 4-speed automatic and 4.10 axle ratio the second year, but sales fell off a cliff. The 454 SS was gone after 1993. A Silverado SS introduced 10 years later was much quicker, yet more civilized with all-wheel drive and luxury features.
GMC, which for the longest time marketed barely altered clones of Chevy trucks, unleashed about the craziest muscle vehicle ever in 1991: Syclone. Built on the compact Sonoma pickup, it packed a turbocharged 4.3-liter Vortec V-6, essentially a Chevy 350 small block V-8 minus two cylinders, teamed to full-time all-wheel drive.
Output was an impressive 280 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque, which made the Syclone more powerful than the standard Corvette. But speed was just one of its calling cards. The little monster could spring from 0-60 in just over five seconds and crush the quarter-mile in 14 seconds. At the time, that was serious performance car territory. With AWD and a lowered suspension, the freakish Syclone could hug the curves, too.
GMC built fewer than 3,000 Syclones before moving on its successor, the Typhoon SUV.
1993-1995 Ford SVT Lightning
Just when Chevy killed its 454 SS, Ford entered the muscle truck game with the first Special Vehicle Team (SVT) Lightning. The formula was familiar: standard cab short bed pickup with a hot V-8, tweaked suspension and special trim. In this case, the engine was an SVT version of the venerable 351 Windsor, now known as the “5.8-liter.” Horsepower was 240, and a 15.8-second quarter-mile timeslip was about the same as the defunct Chevy’s. But it took Ford four years to sell about 11,500 Lightnings.
The name returned on a 1999 model in the F-150’s tenth-generation “aero” body. Under the bulbous hood was a 360-horsepower, 440-lb.-ft. supercharged 5.4-liter Triton V8 (later, 380 hp and 450 lb. ft.). The new Lightning was actually quicker than the Mustang Cobra. Ford moved about 28,000 over six years.
2004-2006 Dodge Ram SRT-10
Dodge went nuclear in 2004, dropping the Viper V-10 into its lightest full-size pickup. (The regular truck V-10 was a far milder cast iron engine.) Here we had a 500-horsepower pickup, just because Dodge could build one. It even had a 6-speed stick shift, but the SRT-10 Quad Cab introduced later used an automatic. Dodge offered that version, Car and Driver reported, because Viper owners wanted a Viper-powered pickup to tow their Vipers. That makes sense. Dodge built just under 10,000 of these monsters.