These Are the Best Special Edition Pickup Trucks Ever Made

By golly, these are good.

byCaleb Jacobs|
Culture photo


Truck culture is, to be honest, quite hit or miss. This much I understand. But for folks who use their pickups for work and play, there's no shortage of great options from the past half-century (or longer). We're going to focus on the play aspect here by listing off the best special edition trucks, of which there are several speed demons and even a quirky urban runabout.

Spoiler alert: It's not a Subaru Brat, but those are cool too.


1978-1979 Dodge Ram L'il Red Express/Midnite Express

It's easy to start with a truck that most everyone knows. Dodge's L'il Red Express was the original hot-rod pickup with its 225-horsepower, 360-cubic-inch V8 engine. It came adorned with wood paneling on the bed and twin exhaust stacks, which tied together the quirky-but-cool aesthetic.

Dodge also offered a somewhat lesser-known variant named the Midnite Express, which came exclusively in black and typically packed a hulking 440-cubic-inch V8. Exact production numbers for that truck are much lower at just 200 or so units, though Dodge officially built 2,188 L'il Red Express pickups in '78 with 5,118 more joining in '79.

Car and Driver ranked the L'il Red Express as the quickest production vehicle from zero to 100 miles per hour in its first year on the market. It could run the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds and according to those who've driven them, they felt pretty fast. I can't vouch for that myself, though.


1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota

The first-generation Dodge Dakota had more than one super special edition. There was the Dakota Convertible, in case you wanted your midsize pickup to also have a drop-down ragtop, and for those who preferred speed, there was the Shelby Dakota. The latter had a 318-cubic-inch V8 shoehorned under its hood, serving as a spiritual successor of sorts to the L'il Red Express.

This being the Rad era, the Shelby Dakota rocked pillars behind the cab instead of stacks. It also had its share of vinyl graphics, and there was no mistaking one of these for an ordinary Dakota.

The Shelby-fied pickup was actually the second-quickest ever after the L'il Red Express, and it's credited for making the Ford Lightning and Chevy 454 SS happen down the road. More on those later, but there's something to be said for the V8-powered Dakota—even if it did make only 175 hp.


1991 GMC Syclone

Some folks will argue that the list should stop here. Indeed it doesn't get much better than the GMC Syclone, a truck that packed a turbocharged version of General Motors' 4.3-liter V6 and all-wheel drive. It later spawned a Blazer-based SUV variant named the Typhoon, though real OGs credit the Syclone as being the greatest of them all.

It wasn't great at normal truck things—you'd be pushing it by loading 500 pounds in the bed and it could technically tow 2,000 pounds, but only if it really needed to. That said, it hit 60 mph in a still-impressive 4.3 seconds while charging to an unofficial quarter-mile time of 13.4 seconds. Not bad for a factory pickup.

The Syclone made 280 hp and 350 pound-feet of torque, and GMC only made 3,000 of them. They were all black, save for the Marlboro Editions which were painted red and white. Good luck finding one of those on Craigslist. 


1991-1993 Chevrolet 454 SS

Onto another GM performance special. The 454 SS was based on Chevy's two-wheel-drive half-ton truck, albeit lowered and riding on 15-inch wheels with meaty street tires. It dropped the normal 350-cubic-inch small-block for a 454 big-block that made 230 hp and 385 pound-feet of torque, all while wearing a menacing black scheme.

Or, you could have it in red. Or white. Most were black, though, and no matter the color, values are rising for the 454 SS. Millennials are on the hunt for a burnout machine of their own and with average fuel consumption hitting nine or 10 mpg, it's perfect for a weekend cruise.

Just don't bank on daily-driving one without paying a fortune for gas.


1997-1998 Chevrolet S-10 Electric

It's a little funny, then, to bring up the Chevy S-10 EV. Some may not count it as a production vehicle, but GM did build the battery-powered pickup for two years before discontinuing it. The truck was mainly targeted at fleet operators who needed highly efficient vehicles for around-town driving, as the 16.2-kilowatt-hour model had an EPA-rated range of just 33 miles. The 29-kWh truck, meanwhile, could travel 72 miles on a single charge.

The shorter-range S-10s made do with lead-acid batteries while the rest had nickel-metal hydride units, similar to other early EVs. A single AC induction motor provided 114 hp, which was just enough to lug the relatively heavy S-10s from one stop to the next. They weighed a hair over 4,000 pounds while the traditional gas models weighed about 3,000 pounds, for reference.

For a final bit of nerdy trivia, the S-10 Electric was actually front-wheel drive. It could hit 70 miles per hour eventually, and that time was probably extended greatly when carrying its max of 971 pounds in the bed.

Motorweek via YouTube

1999-2004 Ford Lightning

Yes, the first-gen Old Body Style Ford Lightning might be the most recognizable, but arguably, the second-gen is better. For starters, it has a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 rather than a tuned, naturally aspirated 351 Windsor. It's got a wonderfully '00s street truck body kit, and there's a pretty huge aftermarket for the platform if you want to go even faster.

Lightnings from the 1999 and 2000 model years packed 360 hp, while the 2001 and onward trucks had their Eaton-blown V8s turned up to 385 hp and 450 pound-feet. Later versions also had a 3.73 rear end, which was perfect for quick pulls up to highway speeds...and maybe beyond.

Clean examples aren't so easy to come by, but they're definitely out there. And if you pick up your own but hate the automatic transmission, there are forum threads out there to help swap in a Tremec T56 six-speed.


2004-2006 Dodge Ram SRT-10

Much like today, the folks at Ram were power-crazed in the mid-2000s. They made that perfectly clear when they put a frickin' Viper V10 in their half-ton truck. It was available in multiple specs, like single- or quad-cab, with a four-speed automatic or even a six-speed manual. What else could you want from your 500-hp super truck?

Those who care mainly about street performance are likely to opt for the single cab, as it features a lower ride height and that beloved stick-shift. If you're buying an SRT-10 to tow your Viper, though, you'll want the quad-cab as it's the only variant rated to tow that much. That said, it can drag an impressive 7,500 pounds behind it without issue. The tradeoff? It's only available with an automatic.

Little changed from one generation to the next, save for the styling, so you can have your 8.3-liter race truck in whichever flavor you like. When new, they stickered for $45,000 to a hair north of $50,000, and today, primo examples command about that much.

Via Bring a Trailer

2006-2008 International MXT 4x4

International hasn't mass-produced pickups since the '70s, and even then, it's always been known for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that keep America running. That didn't stop it from building the MXT 4x4, which was more or less a tactical military vehicle adapted for civilian use. 

Clearly, the MXT rides higher than most factory pickups. That's partially because it rides on 40-inch Pro Comp tires that are also 13.5 inches wide. Its 6.0-liter DT365 turbodiesel engine has no problems turning those, though, as it produces 300 hp and 530 pound-feet of torque. Later models came with International's 6.4-liter V8 diesel, but I'd advise you to steer clear of those.

Most MXT owners love them for their tough and rugged looks, but they're capable of towing 15,000 pounds when needed. Just be prepared to pay six-figures if you're really, truly interested in one.


2019-2020 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison

Rounding out our list is the newest of the bunch—the Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison that's been warmed over by American Expedition Vehicles. They're still sold on Chevy dealer lots, and you can buy one new if you so choose. What you'll get for your money is pretty impressive, too, no matter if you spring for gas or diesel power.

The great news is, you still get those sweet Multimatic DSSV spool-valve dampers along with a slew of AEV goodies. Think Boron steel skid plates, stamped steel bumpers front and rear, winch mounts, and multiple recovery points for when the going gets tricky. The ZR2 is plenty capable from the factory, and the Bison makes it even more adventure-ready out of the box.

You can't have it in a single-cab because, um, Chevy doesn't build them that way. Still, the Colorado ZR2 Bison can slay most any trail where you'll find Jeeps and maybe even new Ford Broncos strolling through without a problem.

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