1994 White Lightning - What If The SVT Had Turned the Ford Bronco Into A Muscle Car?
While performance SUVs are nothing new on today’s market, there was a time when “performance” and “SUV” were completely contradictory terms. The performance was reserved for two-door coupes, convertibles, import sports cars, while SUVs and off-road vehicles were intended to be rugged, 4x4 machines designed to cross deserts and climb mountains, not test speed limits.
No company was brave enough to introduce a performance SUV model in those days, although innovative car engineers did produce several interesting concepts and prototypes.
We've already covered the Bronco’s performance portfolio in Top 5 Memorable Racing Broncos and Top 7 Coolest Broncos Ever Produced articles. We also now know that the immensely powerful and fast 2023 Ford Bronco Warthog is coming, that it will blow the doors off the Jeep Wrangler 392 and will arrive with a Ford Raptor-inspired suspension paired with a twin-turbo V6 engine.
But, harkening back to the Broncos of decades past, there's one very pivotal car that represents what is possibly the greatest “what if” in Bronco’s history, as well as Ford’s missed chance to start a revolution in the SUV segment in the early 90s. This car is the 1994 Ford Bronco White Lightning.
By the early 90s, the Bronco was in its fifth and final generation as an old-school, rugged but capable, body-on-frame, off-road beast. Powered by either a straight-six or a choice of two V8 engines, it wasn’t mighty, but it had a lot of torque, which was more important for towing and carrying payloads. Even with its most powerful engine option, the 5.8-liter V8 with 205 hp, the early 90s Bronco reached 60 mph in disappointingly slow 11.4 seconds.
However, at about the same time, Ford’s managers had decided to embrace performance as a way to enhance the image of the brand. The now-legendary SVT division was given the green light to modify and tune the existing Ford products, which in 1993 resulted in two crucial premieres. One was the 1993 SVT Cobra, which was based on the iconic Foxbody Mustang GT, and the other was the first Ford’s performance truck – the 1993 Ford F-150 Lightning.
The Lightning was a big hit, and it was based on a regular, ninth-generation F-Series truck that was given the full SVT treatment. It was propelled by a 5.8-liter V8 engine with 240 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque, that was paired with a revised suspension, upgraded transmission, and brakes, as well as a unique appearance package.
The press loved it and called the F-150 Lightning, “a Mustang GT with a truck bed.” It was a fitting reference, since this Ford pickup had 0 to 60 mph time comparable to contemporary muscle cars.
At the same time, Peter Schweitzer, president of Ford’s marketing agency, had lunch with Dennis Schlueter, another Ford executive. Schlueter was Ford’s Domestic Special-Order Engineer and was close to the Lightning project and the SVT team, while Schweitzer was an ardent Bronco fan who was eager to improve his favorite SUV's performance.
As you'd expect, the two men understood each other perfectly, and just a few days after, Schweitzer left his newly-leased 1994 Bronco to be modified by Schlueter’s mechanics.
Since the fifth-generation Bronco was based on the ninth-generation F-150, there weren’t any problems with fitting the truck's 5.8-liter V8 under the hood. The Special Order crew also installed as many Lightning parts as it could, including seats, dashboard, brakes, and even a dual exhaust system. Interestingly, the 4x4 drive train was retained, but the axles were changed to a 4.10:1 ratio for better acceleration.
There were some subtle exterior modifications added, as well as a body-colored grille (the same as on the Lightning), unique wheels, and a custom-made spare tire cover. In just three months, the Bronco White Lightning was delivered back to Schweitzer still looking like a properly stock Ford product. Which it was, in a way.
Its performance was vastly improved over the stock Bronco, with the White Lightning achieving 60 mph in 7.7 seconds. It doesn’t sound much today, but back in 1994, that was just a bit slower than the F-150 Lightning and way faster than the regular Bronco or any other similar model.
The White Lightning Bronco felt much more nimble, maneuverable and controllable, and handled noticeably better with the work done on its suspension and brakes. However, it was still significantly heavier than the F-150 Lightning, which affected the performance.
Needless to say, car fans were excited about this prototype, even though Ford had no intention of making it a regular production item. In 1994, Ford had already decided to retire the Bronco nameplate after the 1996 model year, and F-150 Lightning’s production was over in 1995. So, while the White Lightning proved just how easily the standard Bronco could be turned into a muscle truck and despite how enthusiastically the car was received, there wasn’t any time or will from Ford to make it happen.
However, the White Lightning Bronco was featured in several high-profile car magazines and influenced a lot of people to take the same mechanical approach – find an F-150 Lightning and install the drive train and details into a last-gen Broncos.
Over the years, we've seen several very successful projects, and every now and then one of these cars emerges for sale. Until the 2023 Bronco Warthog arrives in dealerships, this is the closest to a factory high-performance Bronco you can get.
Interestingly, there's a link between this forgotten Bronco/Lightning hot rod and today’s models. After a few decades, we again have a new Bronco on sale today, as well as a high-performance version of the F-150 truck (Raptor). The upcoming 2023 Bronco Warthog is a mix of standard the Bronco’s platform and the Raptor’s drive train and suspension components.
So, this means that the idea behind the 1994 White Lightning is finally getting its deserved recognition, after almost 30 years. This is a fantastic case of history repeating itself, and we're glad that these cool ideas have a new lease on life.