By Mike Magda
The shrinking number of high-performance "tuner" trucks has not gone unnoticed in the pickup community. Industry observers can certainly cite the tight economy as the automakers' main motivation to eliminate high-performance street trucks from their lineups. But the aftermarket has cut back significantly, too.
"We saw a great run of tuner trucks for quite some time, dating back to the late ‘80s," says Larry Weiner of Performance West, a California company that designs concept vehicles for the aftermarket and corporate clients. "There was a high-water mark in the '90s and around 2000. Then you saw it go away."
Four-wheel-drive trucks have always been popular with truck owners, whether they were emulating off-road racers or monster trucks. Then the game-changing GMT400 platform was introduced in 1987. Tired of mini-trucks dominating the street, enthusiasts fell in love with sleek design of the full-size Chevy and GMC C/K 1500 pickups, and the aftermarket responded with a bevy of new products. Shops that normally catered to Mustangs and Camaros were suddenly swamped with orders to modify two-wheel-drive pickups by lowering the suspension; swapping on wide, low-profile tires; fitting the bodies with aero kits; and adding as much horsepower as possible. Wild paint jobs also served to bolster the market's fascination with pickups.
Tuners like Lingenfelter, Kenne Belle, Canepa, Stillen, Steeda, Roush and dozens of others soon developed and offered a variety of performance packages, and many eventually came out with turnkey vehicles. Even mainstream enthusiast magazines noticed the trend and started conducting comparison tests of some of the more powerful entries.
Detroit automakers also brought plenty of their own favors to the party, with the ground-breaking GMC Syclone, the torque-laden but clumsy Chevy 454SS and the spirited, though sometimes moody, Ford SVT Lightning. Dodge boasted the feisty Dakota R/T and later hit the pinnacle with the brutal 500-horsepower Ram SRT10. These all served to inspire truck owners to modify their pickups.
Then the factory performance market went away. Chrysler knew its days were limited and dropped just about all its hot-rod projects. The Silverado SS was mostly smoke and mirrors. GMC tried with the C3 but seemed more interested in leather selection than power upgrades. The "image" buyer wasn't interested in pickups anymore. The lone exception is the current Ford SVT Raptor, but it's geared for off-roaders.
A closer inspection of the market, however, reveals that a few players are still eager to burn rubber in the street-performance arena.
"We're sort of filling that niche of the Silverado SS and Lightning owner," says Mike Vendetto of Callaway Cars, which builds three versions of the Callaway SportTruck, including one rated at 540 hp. "But not everyone is making that leap anymore."
"As a tuner, we are at the mercy of what comes from the OEMs," says John Hennessey of Hennessey Performance, a Texas-based company with a wide range of power products that cater to many high-profile clients. "Thankfully, they have given us some great platforms."
Hennessy is especially bullish on the Raptor. Last year the company upgraded more than 100 Raptors with its VelociRaptor supercharger package, which can boost the stock 6.2-liter V-8 up to 600 hp. Hennessey is developing programs for the EcoBoost and the 5.0-liter engines, too.
"[The 5.0] is a great motor begging for more power. We just finished a 575-hp supercharger upgrade for a client, and he loves it!" says Hennessey, who also works with Dodge Hemi and Toyota 5.7-liter V-8 engines.
What caused the drought in the tuner truck market, besides the lingering recession? Experts point to a variety of reasons, including the growing size of today's pickup, increased emphasis on the environment and changing demographics.
"If you do your homework on Gen Y," Weiner says, "you're going to find that their interests are different. Only 43 percent have a driver's license compared to the previous generation at 66 percent. Also, they've come of age in a time of economic austerity, not a robust economy. All these things affect market segments."
In the tuner market's glory days, development costs were spread across to full-size SUVs, which were extremely popular with urban trendsetters as well as families. Many of those consumers are now drifting toward crossover vehicles, begging the point that late-model trucks are just too big and heavy to produce significant performance gains.
"As manufacturers develop trucks that continue to gain weight, the chances for a factory-built sport truck dwindle away," says Tony Marszalek, director of performance products at Roush Industries.
"Our HPE500 supercharger upgrade for Tundra, Sequoia, Land Cruiser and LX 570 offers performance similar to the Ram SRT10," counters Hennessey.
In the boom years, the regular cab remained the most popular model, with the four-door extended cab just coming into the market. Both configurations could be modified for the street with compelling results. Now the emphasis is on the heavier crew cab, which doesn't radiate street cred like the lean, muscular profile of a traditional regular cab.
"Athletic is in the eye of the beholder," Hennessey argues. "I think our VelociRaptor is one of the coolest, baddest-looking trucks on the road. And there are a lot of Tundra trucks out there that would give Raptor owners something to think about."
Hennessey's point was more than proven a few years ago when Toyota offered a supercharger package for the 5.7-liter V-8. A demonstration truck built around a lightweight two-wheel-drive regular cab hauled ass in a number of magazine tests, and it looked sharp doing so because it had the right proportions for a street-performance pickup.
Regular cab trucks also provide lower price points that give the customer more cash for modifications.
"I'll deliberately start with a stripper. Then we can tell the enthusiast, 'Look, we didn't spend 40 grand to start,'" says Weiner, noting that one of the last pickups he developed was the Dodge Red Express: "Regular cab, short bed, Hemi, and I think with rebates you could have bought that truck for 23 grand, brand new."
Another challenge to the tuner market is the growing number of states adopting California emissions standards. Twenty years ago, there might have been two or three states with the stricter smog laws. Today, 19 states have California-spec emissions standards.
"Anything the OEMs or aftermarket do will be faced with meeting emissions standards," says Weiner, adding that the automakers will also struggle to meet the stricter federal requirements for corporate average fuel economy. "So I don't foresee a big resurgence [in performance pickups] at this point in time."
One of the most exciting trucks toward the end of the tuner-truck phenomenon was the Roush F-150. Its last year was 2008, and rather than build another truck based on the 5.4-liter V-8, the company started developing a 6.2-liter version for the 2010 model year.
"When fuel prices skyrocketed and then the economy fell apart, we postponed the 6.2L program as well," says Marszalek. "We began developing the 6.2L program again in 2010 and launched it as a retail parts program in mid-2011. With truck sales now increasing and an increased demand from our dealer network, we decided to bring a 6.2-liter Raptor program to market as a post-title build."
When evaluating the overall tuner truck market, one could argue that there is a significant opportunity in the diesel sector. Roush is even working on propane and other alternative fuel options. But the wide-open performance street truck craze that enthusiasts enjoyed 10 to 20 years ago will likely never regain the same level of popularity. Of course, prophets of doom made similar predictions about the muscle-car market in the '70s.
"I think there will always be a demand for a sport truck," says Marszalek. "The key will be to get the market to compare performance improvements against the stock truck and not against the lightweight, high-horsepower trucks from the past."