It was almost exactly a year ago that a Ford dealership in west Georgia broke the internet with a simple but fun tribute to one of the most iconic sport trucks ever made. It started out as a manager’s passion project but ended up becoming bigger than they thought possible, and it practically happened overnight.
The F-150 “Lightning Tribute” was the loud and playful answer to the question many truck enthusiasts have been asking since 2004 – what would the F-150 Lightning be like if Ford brought it back today? The unofficial response from Pioneer Ford in Bremen, GA was a lightly-optioned single-cab/short-bed F-150 with a Roush supercharger and enough extra styling to pass it off as a tribute package. As I learned when I drove it last year, it’s a surprisingly effective 650-horsepower tire-killing machine capable of making any day a little better.
Needless to say, the Lightning Tribute garnered way more attention than Pioneer Ford expected. Only three trucks had even been built when it became the most popular vehicle ever covered on this site. With their newfound internet fame and the 2018 F-150s on the way with their reworked V8s and new ten-speeds, they immediately began work on making their tribute even better.
I was recently invited to go and quickly test out those improvements for myself – something I’ve been waiting all year to do again. It has some new custom touches inside and out, new suspension, and – crucially – the same playful attitude as before.
Disclaimer: Since I first covered the Lightning Tribute a year ago, I purchased a Mustang through this dealer after they offered to order it for me in an uncommon specification. I received the same deal and service I would have gotten at any Ford dealership and I do not benefit in any way from this truck’s commercial success or any sale the dealership makes. My buying experience with them has not influenced my opinions in any way.
Pioneer Ford’s 2018+ F-150 Lightning Tributes follow the same general blueprint of the previous truck. Start with the lightest and shortest F-150 configuration possible – an XL Regular Cab with the 6-1/2′ bed – and make the most faithful tribute to the original Lightnings as a single dealer could possibly make. It’s impractical to get every feature of the distinctive ’99-’04 exactly right when today’s F-150 is so different, but they came fairly close to the look with just a few visual tweaks.
Hardly anyone builds a street body kit for the F-150 these days and those that do (Shelby American) don’t sell them individually, so they had to rely on five-spoke wheels that look similar to the SVT wheels, side exit exhaust from MBRP, and Lightning badges to try and match some of that style. That all carries over unchanged on the new truck, but they’ve also added a new mesh grille with painted surrounds and painted mirror caps this time around.
They did however take a big step forward with the interior. No photos exist of the first Tribute’s interior because it was a completely stock F-150 XL interior. That changes on the new Tributes with custom suede upholstery designed to mimic that of the originals. It has a similar color pattern of the ’99-’04s and custom ‘Lightning’ embroidery in the seat backs as found on the ’93-’95 models.
It looks great inside and it has the added bonus of being far more comfortable than the standard seats. They used the factory seats as a base but it feels like there’s some extra padding thrown in.
Of course, nobody buys one of these to be comfortable. The real life of the party is the 5.0-liter V8 fitted with Roush’s latest Phase 1 supercharger kit for the 2018+ F-150. Taking advantage of new fuel injection in the base engine and other refinements, Roush was able to deliver a reliable 650 horsepower and 610 lb.-ft. of torque. The power is the same as the old Phase 2 supercharger kit the previous Lightning Tribute used but torque is increased by 25 lb.-ft. The very last thing a truck with only 41% of its weight over the rear tires needed more of was torque, but that’s exactly why it has more.
Pair that riot of an engine with Ford’s new ten-speed automatic and it absolutely rips. The 2017 Tribute had no problem powering through the ratios with four less cogs at its disposal, but the 10AT is a welcomed addition here nonetheless. I didn’t really love it in the Mustang and some of the same flaws (like sluggish response at lower revs) are still present, but there’s something about having 650 horsepower that masks those issues pretty well.
An important thing to note is this extra power does require a bit of a compromise in towing capacity. It can still tow lighter loads all day, but the recommendation from Roush is that you should limit towing to around 6,000 pounds to play it safe. And you should probably stay out of boost when possible. The original SVT Lightnings had that same compromise so consider it added authenticity.
Another major improvement over last year’s truck is the suspension which also gets a bit more serious. The old truck ran nothing but lowering springs (2″ front/4″ rear) on an otherwise stock suspension, but the new ones get Bilstein shocks to go along with it. It does wonders for the truck’s ride quality and sense of composure on the road.
It doesn’t magically transform it into a sports car because there’s no getting around the laws of physics that work against it, but it felt fine on some winding back roads – just don’t try and do touge battles with it. In fact, definitely don’t do that because the brakes are still stock (probably because nobody makes a track pad for it). Think of it more as a muscle truck than a sports truck.
To recap the updates and the 2018 Lightning Tribute in general, they’ve fixed most of what needed to be fixed and left all the good stuff alone. The Lightning Tribute remains one of the most hilarious vehicles you can imagine. 650 horsepower in something with a high center of gravity, a light rear end, and the aerodynamic properties of a brick just shouldn’t work, but it does in the silliest way possible. I love it just as much now as I did last year and that has everything to do with its attitude – it’s a serious amount of power in a truck that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The improvements do come at a cost though. Its starting price is $56,995 before standard rebates and incentives from Ford which is roughly a $7,000 increase over last year’s model. That price factors in a 3-year/36,000-mile powertrain warranty from Roush which replaces the voided Ford warranty (and only Roush-certified dealers will honor that). Every Lightning Tribute they’ve built so far has been sold but the order books are still open.
Whether that price makes sense to you or not is up to you to decide – I certainly have no regrets picking up a Mustang recently. However, I’m just glad something as ridiculous as this is still allowed to exist. And I hope it continues to exist for a very long time.
[Images © 2018 Hooniverse/Greg Kachadurian]