Pickup Powerplants That Have Stood the Test of Time
At their core, no matter how many high-tech bells and whistles are added, pickup trucks are work vehicles. Functionality and capability are critical elements to the pickup’s importance, and the driving force of a pickup’s capability is its engine.
We’ve gone through the history of trucks over the last century and picked out the engines we believe stand out as enduring examples of the power, durability, and reliability expected from pickups.
1929-1936 Chevrolet I-6
Going back more than eight decades, the inline-six engine in the 1929 Chevrolet pickup was highly advanced for its day, employing overhead valves at a time when most engines still employed the more basic “flathead” design. Initial power ratings were a modest 50 hp for the most common 194ci version, but enhancements over the years brought output up to 80 hp. A larger 207ci version was offered in commercial models, with a slightly higher torque output. Although laughably modest by today’s standards, this engine provided reliable power to thousands in pre-war America.
1969-1998 Chevrolet 350 Small-Block V-8
Chevrolet earns a spot on this list once again for the 350ci small-block V-8. The small block itself dates back to 1955, when it was 265 cubic inches. But by far the best-known small block the world over is the “350,” which can be found in just about every conceivable transport module you can imagine, including boats, sandrails, schoolbuses, work trucks, sports cars, and believe it or not, even motorcycles. 1969 was the first year the 350 was offered in GM trucks, where it produced 255 hp. Various versions of the original small-block were offered in GM vehicles until the early 2000s, when it was effectively replaced by the third-generation “LS” series of engines. Nevertheless, Ed Cole’s enduring classic still maintains a fierce and loyal following among enthusiasts.
1989-1998 Cummins B59
The Cummins B59 was first introduced in 1985 as a strictly commercial engine but really gained its notoriety when it was installed in the Dodge Ram in 1989. Saddled with a far-outdated truck design compared to Ford and General Motors at the time, Chrysler knew it needed a standout feature that would get buyers to notice its trucks. When Cummins came knocking on Chrysler’s door in the mid ’80s, it found a receptive audience for its new engine. With 400 lb-ft of torque, it produced far more torque than any other engine in Chrysler’s lineup at the time and required significant re-engineering of the Ram’s driveline to handle the power. It was an instant hit with truck owners who routinely towed, and Ram continues to offers Cummins inline-six engines in its HD trucks to this day.
2001-2006 Duramax 6.6L V-8
The Cummins B59 may get credit for being the first modern “performance” diesel engine in pickups and rightfully so. But General Motors deserves equal credit for creating an engine that has also garnered a significant and loyal following among diesel performance enthusiasts. First introduced in 2000 as an option in the 2001 Chevrolet and GMC HD trucks, the first-generation LB7 Duramax was unbelievably refined for its day and much quieter than the comparable Ford Power Stroke and Ram Cummins engines. Its output of 300 hp and 520 lb-ft of torque also set a high-water mark for diesel engines at the time and quickly escalated the diesel power and torque race in the HD truck market. The current LML Duramax, which shares the same displacement as the original LB7, now produces 397 hp and 765 lb-ft of torque. However, one of the most sought-after Duramax engines is the LBZ, which was offered just before the imposition of the strict 2007 federal diesel emissions standards.
1965-1996 Ford 300 I-6
The 300ci Ford inline-six engine is not Ford’s first, but it is one of its longest-running. First introduced in 1965, the engine continued to be offered in the F-Series trucks for more than 30 years, delivering reliable, economical, torquey performance to truck owners. The engine even saw duty in many of Ford’s larger, heavier-duty trucks, equipped with a sought-after high-flow manifold. Output of the final port-fuel-injected evolution of the 300, which was offered until 1996, was 145 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. A version of this engine is still used in some UPS trucks.
1972-1978 Dodge 440 V-8
The most famous Mopar V-8 is and will probably always be the 426 Hemi, but the real workhorse of the lineup was the “wedge” V-8. There were actually two versions of Chrysler’s big-block V-8: the B-series and RB (raised block) series. The truck models used the RB-spec engine. By the early ’70s, federal emissions requirements were starting to strangle some of the domestic V-8s, but Chrysler continued to offer the 440 through the late ’70s in the D-series truck. This culminated in the creation of the lesser-known, but arguably even cooler, Midnite Express truck, which featured the dual stack exhausts of the better-known Lil’ Red Express. Just as the Lil’ Red was red-only, the Midnite Express was any color you wanted, as long as it was black.
1991-1994 Chevrolet 454 Big Block
It’s true the 454 big-block V-8 engine dates back to 1970, but for trucks, the most fitting home for the Big Kahuna of Chevrolet’s engine lineup was undoubtedly the 1991 Chevrolet 454 SS truck. The formula was simple — the biggest engine in the smallest truck. The 454 SS was based on the C1500 regular-cab, short bed truck, with some beefed-up drivetrain components from the 3/4 and 1-ton trucks to handle the engine’s 405 lb-ft of torque. Its maximum power output of 255 hp seems ridiculously tame by today’s standards, especially from such large displacement, but in the early ’90s, it was the hottest hauler you could get, at least until the smaller GMC Syclone turbo came out.
1994-2002 Dodge Ram 8.0L Magnum V-10
Not only did the bold styling of the ’94 Ram get the attention of the industry, Dodge also raised some eyebrows with the introduction of the 8.0L Magnum V-10 in the 3/4 and 1-ton models. Loosely based on Chrysler’s LA-series V-8s, the 488ci engine was the largest displacement engine in the fullsize truck market until GM countered with a 8.1L V-8 (and later Chrysler again with its own Viper-based 8.3L V-10 offered in the Ram SRT-10). Output figures were modest by contemporary standards, with 300 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, but it was the most powerful gasoline engine among domestic trucks by a significant margin when it debuted.
2011-2015 Ford 6.7L Power Stroke V-8
Ford had just emerged from a litigious period with diesel engine supplier International Harvester with its 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke V-8s and the numerous warranty claims on the engine. The successor 6.4L had a much more reliable fuel injection system, but Ford had already decided that it wanted to part ways with its engine supplier and bring development of the next Power Stroke diesel in-house. The result was the 6.7L “Scorpion” Power Stroke V-8. The clean-sheet design had many unique design features, including reverse-flow heads (outboard intake, inboard exhaust) and a twin-scroll turbo compressor, theoretically giving the function of two turbos in a single unit. Producing 390 hp and 738 lb-ft when it debuted, a software reflash to later models (and also offered to current owners) boosted output to 400 hp and 800 lb-ft. A significant update came in 2015, with the unique turbo being replaced with a larger, more conventional single turbo and further refinements in the fuel delivery system and engine management, resulting in an exceptionally quiet and powerful engine producing 440 hp and 860 lb-ft of torque.
1964-1987 Dodge 225 Slant Six
The venerable Dodge “Slant Six” isn’t the sexiest or most powerful engine on this list, but it earned its place through its sheer ubiquity and reputation for reliability. Although not powerful in an absolute sense, its undersquare bore and stroke ratio gave it strong low-rpm torque characteristics, making it ideally suited for truck and commercial applications. All slant-six engines came from the factory with just a one-barrel carburetor, but two-barrel performance aftermarket units were offered for those looking for more power. Unlike most contemporary inline-six engines which have seven main bearings, the slant six had only four, but the bearing dimensions were close to those of the much more powerful 426 Hemi V-8, so bottom-end strength was rarely an issue. The 225 continued to serve in the truck lineup until 1987, when it was replaced with the 3.9L Magnum V-6 based on the 318ci (5.2L) V-8.
1985-1995 Toyota 22RE
The sole non-American engine on the list, the Toyota 22RE, earns its place for being a tough, spunky workhorse that helped build Toyota’s reputation for building nearly indestructible trucks. Tracing its ancestry as far back as 1953, the 22RE as we know it today got its start in 1981 with the carbureted 22R in 1981. Fuel injection was added in 1982, raising output slightly. A major update in 1985 included a switch to a single-row timing chain and a new block, cylinder head, and piston design. The only major issue with this engine was the stretching of the timing chain on higher-mileage engines, which can damage the factory plastic chain guide and cause drivability issues. Replacement steel chain guide kits are readily available to remedy this issue for a reasonable cost. A turbocharged version of the engine (pictured) was briefly offered prior to the introduction of Toyota’s 3.0L V-6 on the trucks and 4Runner SUVs.
1999-2003 Ford 5.4L Supercharged V-8
The Ford F-150 Lightning is the definitive hot-rod truck for many, and a big part of its reputation is its engine. When it was introduced in 1999, the engine produced 360 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque. An update in 2001 raised output to 380 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Aftermarket tuners have been able to extract considerably more power than that out of these engines. A detuned version of this engine was used in the Harley-Davidson edition F-150, where it produced 340 hp and 425 lb-ft. The 550hp supercharged V-8 used in the Ford GT supercar is also related to this engine, with the key difference being its four-valve, DOHC cylinder heads. The Lightning was the talk of the town of the pickup world until the emergence of the Ram SRT10 in 2004 with its 500hp 8.3L V-10 out of the Dodge Viper.