Evolutionary: Digging up the Ford F-150 Raptor R's bones under a Lightning-filled sky

These trucks both wear the "F-150" badge, but they're as different as can be, King Kong and the robot humanity built to fight him off

Article content

In person, they are as different as can be, King Kong and the giant robot humanity has built to fight him off. But these two trucks wear the same badge and spring from the same ancestral roots: one is a Raptor R, the other a Lightning Lariat, but both are Ford F-150s.

Advertisement 2

Story continues below

Article content

When Porsche released its Dakar off-road sports car earlier this year, there was some discussion as to what could match the 911 for flexibility as a platform. Well, Ford has Stuttgart beat, and then some. The F-150 can be a dune-jumper; drag-racer; plumber’s best friend; leather-lined office for a construction project manager; horse-hauler; or a battery-electric commuter. You can even use one of the hybrid versions as a generator to run your house during a power outage.

Ford sells an absolutely ludicrous number of its half-ton trucks, topping the sales charts every year since the mid-1960s. We’re talking average sales of 138,000 units every year, just in the Canadian market. Half the new vehicles on the road wearing a Blue Oval badge each year are F-150s.

How did we get here, and how did we end up with such wildly disparate machines as the supercharged-V8 Raptor R and the all-electric Lightning? (The latter, it has to be said, has a front end very reminiscent of a 1980s Mercury Sable.)

Article content

2024 Ford F-150 Lightning Lariat
2024 Ford F-150 Lightning Lariat Photo by Brendan McAleer

It’s a case of taking a vehicle with utilitarian origins and directing its growth in ever more radical directions. That through-line of utility remains, but two other themes emerged: performance and livability. To get to the roots of the Raptor R and Lightning, we’ve got to go right back to the original Ford plant.

Advertisement 3

Story continues below

Article content

When everything was basically a truck

In modern terms, a “car” is thought of as a sedan or coupe, riding relatively low; a “truck” is taller, with better ground clearance and more space inside. Things get more complex with the introduction of SUVs and crossovers, but basically, you’ve got your urban machine built for city streets and highways; and you’ve got your rural basically-a-horse-with-wheels for the rugged stuff.

The thing is, when Henry Ford debuted the Model T in 1908, pretty much most of North America was truck country. No interstates, no Trans-Canada Highway, and only a few cobblestone lanes — the most common motorized vehicle would have to ride high like a wagon, and be capable of handling some off-roading from time to time.

1918 Ford Model TT one-ton stake-bed
1918 Ford Model TT one-ton stake-bed Photo by Ford

The Model T could certainly take on all manner of rough roads, especially when equipped with one of the popular aftermarket gearboxes that added a few more ratios between the default High and Low. Driving a Model T is an experience in and of itself, requiring a cross between tap-dancing and semaphore, and if you want to stop by Thursday, better start braking on Monday.

But they’re capable little donkeys, and here we find the F-150’s earliest roots.

The Model TT was a longer-wheelbase version of the T, sold as a cab and engine so that buyers could slap whatever they wanted out back. If you wanted a pickup truck, then a couple of boards would do, and it’s off to haul hay bales like in all those Super Bowl beer commercials. A factory steel bed arrived by the mid-’20s.

Advertisement 4

Story continues below

Article content

1935 Ford pickup
1935 Ford pickup Photo by Ford

By the late 1920s, the TT had been replaced by the Model AA (which, no surprises here, was based on the Model A). A Model A is a great deal more refined to drive than a T, but the AA was very much a work-first machine.

You’d never think of loading your family in one, not unless you were fleeing the dust bowls of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 1930s.

But having said that, the A and AA were pretty closely related. Today, Model As are popular for vintage overlanding events like the Peking-to-Paris run because they are simple to repair and can put up with unfinished roads.

A commanding seating position and an ability to handle some gravel were baked right into the cars people were already buying. What would happen next was less about pickup trucks changing, and more about people changing their ideas about pickups.

Hayseeds in suburbia

In the post-war boom, it was a chicken in every pot and a chrome-laden car in every driveway. A pickup truck? That was for the guy who fixed your furnace, or maybe a furniture-delivery company. Pickups came with a smell of the farmyard about them, and it was a time when even pets wouldn’t leave the house without their fedoras and spats.

Article content

1954 Ford F-100
1954 Ford F-100 Photo by Ford

Ford introduced the first F-Series pickup in 1948, and it was now a capital-T Truck. No longer sharing underpinnings with Ford cars, the F-1 was a half-ton pickup with extra strength built in, intended to work for its living. The second-generation F-100 was much the same. Creature comforts started creeping in, but these were limited to items like sun visors.

Advertisement 5

Story continues below

Article content

There’s a reason that early Ford pickups from this era are highly collectible, and it’s because most of them were worked to death. They were tools, not toys, and owners simply used them right up.

However, the mid-1960s saw the introduction of the Ranger package on the F-Series, and a number of significant improvements to ride and handling. The Ranger wasn’t quite what you’d call a “sport truck,” but it was the sort of thing that a sportsman might buy for leisure activities. Haul logs to the cabin, load up on fishing gear, maybe even take the dirt bike out to the races and do your best Steve McQueen impression.

With the polished, slightly stuffy 1950s fading into memory, a bit of rugged outdoors was becoming more mainstream. Pickup trucks started finding their way into more suburban driveways, especially with factory-available four-wheel-drive. But it was the 1970s where everything would really change.

Article content

1975 Ford F-150
1975 Ford F-150 Photo by Ford

What’s disco? I only listen to country

In 1975, Ford introduced the F-150 as a heavier-duty version of the F-100, intended as an end-run around some emissions standards. Almost by accident, it had created the best-selling truck line of all time.

Reason being, the F-150 was now available in both two- and four-door variants, and with an extended cab (since 1974) that was big enough to haul a few kids around. There were fewer and fewer drawbacks to owning a pickup as your primary means of transportation, cruising around town listening to Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton on the AM radio.

Advertisement 6

Story continues below

Article content

Yolo Freeman of Montezuma, Iowa stands inside a tire of Bigfoot truck during the Ford pre-show event as part of the 2022 North American International Auto Show held at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit on September 14, 2022
Yolo Freeman of Montezuma, Iowa stands inside a tire of Bigfoot truck during the Ford pre-show event as part of the 2022 North American International Auto Show held at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit on September 14, 2022 Photo by USA Today via Reuters

At this point, however, a true off-road enthusiast wouldn’t necessarily be looking at the F-150. Through the 1970s, the F-Series that provided the DNA of what would become the Raptor was the F-250 “Highboy.”

Everyone’s most familiar with a dark blue 1974 F-250 that was modified with massive 48-inch wheels: Bigfoot, the first monster truck.

That variant of F-250 went away right as Ford’s “heavy half-ton” F-150 came out. However, right into the 1980s, Bigfoot captured the imaginations of kids who were busy jumping their BMX bikes off dirt berms.

Lightning strikes twice (well, three times actually)

Up until the 1990s, most Ford pickup hot-rods were built-not-bought. Bigfoot, while made for off-roading and car-crushing stunts, is just one example. There was little stopping home mechanics from hopping up a V8-powered F-150 in the same way they might tune a Mustang.

But in the 1990s, Ford was looking to burnish the image of the F-150 a little, and turned to its newly formed Special Vehicles Team (SVT). Formerly responsible for dealer-available Ford performance parts through the 1980s as Special Vehicles Operations, SVT would build some very special Mustangs. First though, it’d get a bigger horse to gallop.

Advertisement 7

Story continues below

Article content

1993 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning
1993 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning Photo by Ford

The 1993 Ford F-150 Lightning was equipped with a 240-hp 5.8L V8, paired with a heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission. It was tuned to handle well, but could haul and tow as much as a standard F-150, and was only offered in black or red over three model years. Lady Gaga drives a red one.

The second-generation Lightning was based on the 10th-generation F-150, and it immediately became a movie star. Now powered by a supercharged 5.4L V8 good for up to 380 hp, the Lightning was a single-cab truck built in Oakville, Ontario, and it could run heads-up in a drag race against Camaros and Mustangs. As a nod to this straight-line speed, a red Lightning features as the shop truck driven by Paul Walker in the first The Fast and The Furious movie.

SVT changed tactics after the second-generation Lightning, opting for supreme off-road performance with the 2010 SVT Raptor. But this allowed Ford to resurrect the badge when it came time to launch its new battery-powered F-150.

Raptor vs. Lightning

Most F-150s sold by Ford during the past few years are either work truck specials or four-door mid-trim models used everyday by families. These two variants, the Lightning and Raptor, are outliers, but they tell us a great deal about the breed. First, the Lightning: really, it’s nothing like either of its gas-driven predecessors, being a fairly plain-looking and hardly sporty crew-cab pickup truck. Only the unique lighting and Lightning badge set it apart, but they’re clues that everyone seems to spot.

Advertisement 8

Story continues below

Article content

Everybody wants to talk about the Lightning. From plumbers in traffic shouting questions; to a chat with a Rivian-owning neighbour, the Lightning is the talk of the moment. That’s because it combines the essential usability of the modern F-150 crew-cab with the ability to not wince at the price of fuel. While range issues crop up with towing, this truck plus a proper home charger makes for a do-everything suburban machine.

And it is also very, very quick. Even though this Lariat edition isn’t trimmed out as a performance level, it’ll easily blast past both previous V8-powered Lightnings in a drag race. Though that’s not its personality; rather, this is just a big, comfortable cruiser with massive reserves of power. It’s more like a big-block Ford Galaxie 500 from the 1960s than it is a pickup. Just that you can randomly buy and haul home plywood sheets, should the urge seize you.

The Raptor R, on the other hand, is all about aggression. Built mostly as a riposte to the Ram TRX, the Raptor R takes the Baja-ready F-150 Raptor and stuffs the engine out of a Shelby GT500 under the hood. Mostly under the hood. It seems like parts of the engine are actually sticking out.

If the Lightning works best with a home charger, you basically need a personal oil-well to keep this thing’s 700-hp supercharged 5.2L V8 in gasoline. It’s even faster than the Lightning, and it doesn’t want to sit back and cruise. The spirit of Bigfoot courses through this big monster, eager to be let off the leash in the mud and dunes.

Advertisement 9

Story continues below

Article content

If this were a 1980s screwball comedy, the Raptor R would absolutely be giving the Lightning swirlies right about now. More properly, the former is a send-off for the great V8-powered performance F-150s of the past, and the Lightning is the first peek at the F-150’s electrified future.

That future will not be a light switch, but rather the slow turning of a dial, a growing mix of light-hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully battery-electric models. Ford already has a Powerboost F-150 capable of longer-range towing, but also hybrid efficiency. At some point, these two trucks will become one, a battery-electric off-roader to rival the likes of GM’s reborn Hummer EV. “Lightning Raptor” sounds pretty catchy. Or “Raptor Lightning?” Either way, it’ll be just one more step in the F-150’s long evolution.

Brendan McAleer picture

Brendan McAleer


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation