First Drive: Ford F-150 SVT Lightning
By: Michael Levine

This hills surrounding San Antonio frequently play host to massive lightning storms that strike central Texas each winter and spring. Usually nothing natural or man-made can match these fiery displays for their shear power or display but Ford's Special Vehicles Team sure is willing to try. Creating, and improving on, its own form of thunderbolt, Ford brought us out to the Lone Star State to ride and drive in the 2001 SVT F-150 Lightning.

Targeted at the hardcore, no compromise enthusiast, Ford's SVT unit, led by chief engineer John Coletti, has turned the normally conservative F-150 pickup into a raging 380 horsepower rocket.

SVT cars and trucks are a special breed of automobile at Ford. The Special Vehicles Team was started in 1992 when two Ford executives saw the need for the company to step up its commitment to develop and market a line of Ford-badged performance vehicles that would appeal to knowledgeable automotive enthusiasts.

Created in extremely limited numbers with pure performance in mind, the Lightning is also joined in the SVT stable by its siblings the Mustang Cobra and a brand new, entry-level Focus. So rare are SVTs that Tom Scarpello, Ford's Specialty Vehicle Marketing Manager told us, "As many SVT (vehicles) are built in a year as F-150's in a week."

Shortly after the establishment of SVT the first Lightnings appeared as 1993 model trucks and ran in production until 1995. Compared to today's truck the first generation now seems downright vanilla but was revolutionary in its day. Though little different fundamentally from the F-Series, the 93-95 Lightning boasted much more horsepower, 240 horsepower total, and a high-performance suspension with twin I-beams up front, Monroe Formula shock absorbers and front and rear stabilizer bars. It ran 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds with a top-speed of 110 mph.

Ford resurrected the Lightning in 1999. With its new F-Series body the Lightning now came equipped with a 5.4L Triton V8 and an Eaton supercharger helping pump out an astounding 120 more horsepower than the previous generation. The Lightning's 360 horsepower and 440 ft-lbs. of torque made it the fastest production truck in the world doing 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds, a title still held today. The twin short-and-long-arm suspension was lowered 1/2-inch up front and the solid axle, five leaf-spring rear suspension lowered 2-inches over the standard truck's three-leaf units. Little changes were made for 2000.

The 2001 SVT F-150 Lighting is another leap over the 1999-2000 model. Today's truck can do 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds and finish the quarter-mile at 100 mph in 13.9 seconds. And we can assure you, those 13.9 seconds go by very fast indeed.

SVT engineers worked diligently to improve the performance of the supercharger even though the supercharger itself was untouched. Compared to the 2000 model the Lightning's front air intake opening is 50 percent larger, with a 26 percent larger inlet opening in the filter box, providing more airflow to the supercharger and immediate throttle response. Additional rows of cooling tubes in the intercooler under the supercharger help improve power and efficiency.

The Lightning only comes equipped with a four speed automatic transmission with overdrive. No manual is offered contrary to what most enthusiasts might want. Ford doesn't have a manual transmission that can handle the Lightning's 450 ft-lbs of torque.

For its suspension the Lightning adds brand new Bilstein monotube shocks with better dampening than the tubular, gas-charged shocks found in last year's truck. The rest of the suspension and chassis remains unchanged. Compared to the 2000 model truck on hand during the drive you feel much more secure in tight corners and during hard driving. The Lightning hugs the road like Lycra on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. When combined with the limited-slip differential in the rear and specially formulated Goodyear Eagle tires, the Lightning exhibits the best handling found in a pickup truck not sporting all-wheel drive. Any of the understeer you normally expect to find in a pickup during aggressive cornering was quickly overcome using the accelerator.

Truly the Ford SVT Lightning's engine, transmission and suspension complement each other well. To experience the best performance we let the Lightning 'bolt' from a standing start with overdrive off. The 3.73 rear axle ratio aids in fast starts and it was amazing how solid the truck felt at well north of 75 mph on the empty Texas hillside roads, even more so than at lower speeds.

One of the more memorable points of the drive was when we came across an intersection where one of the other Lightnings had been only moments earlier. The only evidence the Lightning had been there was the cloud of gray smoke slowly dissipating above the thick, black rubber marks in the road.

The 2001 Lightning's exterior has received several enhancements over last year's model. Though the front fascia is still the same it sports a new billet-like grille and lower air intake. The headlights and tail lamps take a cue from the aftermarket import crowd - clear lenses. It's a great way to set the Lightning apart from the rest of the F-Series crowd and the rear lamps are especially striking. Finishing off the exterior are sharp-edged, 5-spoke 18" rims.

Inside the Lightning the interior is largely unchanged. The white-on-black gauges continue in the IP but now have electroluminescent backlighting.

Ford SVT has bumped up this year's production numbers for the Lightning from 5000 units to 7500. At $32,300 ($150 more dollars for the optional tonneau) these trucks won't last long at the dealership leaving only the sound of their thunder in the air.

2001 Lightning Specifications

ENGINE
Configuration Longitudinally mounted, single overhead cam, 90-degree Triton™ V-8 supercharged/intercooled, cast iron block, aluminum-alloy heads, forged steel crankshaft
Bore x Stroke 90mm x 105.6mm
Displacement 5,410cc (330cid)
Compression ratio 8.4:1
Horsepower 380 hp @ 4,750 rpm
Torque 450 lb.-ft. @ 3,250 rpm
Specific output 70.2 horsepower per liter
Redline 5,250 rpm (fuel shut-off @ 5,400 rpm)
Valvetrain Single overhead camshafts, chain drive, roller finger followers with hydraulic lash adjustment, beehive valve springs, two valves per cylinder
Intake valves 1 per cylinder, 44.5mm head diameter
Exhaust valves 1 per cylinder, 36mm head diameter
Fuel system Sequential electronic fuel injection, premium calibration
Induction system Pressure-charged with Eaton™ Corporation Generation IV Roots-type supercharger; water-to-air intercooler
Supercharger 8.0 psi pressure
Throttle body Dual-bore 57mm
Mass-air sensor 90mm diameter
Exhaust manifolds Cast-iron tuned header-style manifold
Exhaust system Tuned dual exhaust, ceramic-coated dual exhaust tips
DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Four-speed automatic (4R100)
Drive Shaft 4.5-in. aluminum
Rear axle 9.75-in. ring gear with limited-slip differential, 3.73:1 ratio
Gear Ratio Maximum Speed In Gear
1st 2.71 43 mph (68 km/h)
2nd 1.53 76 mph (123 km/h)
3rd 1.00 119 mph (191 km/h)
4th 0.71 142 mph (228 km/h)
Reverse 2.176
SUSPENSION
Front Short- and long-arm type, coil springs, tubular gas-charged Bilstein shock absorbers, 31mm solid stabilizer bar
Rear Solid axle, staggered gas-charged Bilstein shock absorbers, five-leaf springs, 23mm solid stabilizer bar
STEERING
Type Recirculating ball, power assist
Gear ratio 14.0:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.3
Turning diameter 44.3 ft.
BRAKES
Front 12.1 in. (308mm) vented disc, twin-piston caliper
Rear 13.1 in. (334mm) vented disc, single-piston caliper
ABS Four-wheel, three-sensor system
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels 18 x 9.5 in., five spoke, cast-aluminum alloy, painted surface
Tires Goodyear™ Eagle F1-GS™, 295/45ZR-18, unidirectional tread; 235/70R-16 spare tire