Somewhere in a Ford Motor Co. meeting room, probably about seven years ago, some genuinely prophetic minds got together.

The truck folks were firming up the replacement for the 17-year-old F-150. The engine crowd had mapped out an all-encompassing new modular V-8 engine program. Those engines all would have overhead camshafts.

The truck folks talked to the engine crowd and it was agreed these modular overhead-cam V-8s would be good things to power the slick new 1997 F-Series. Never mind that using overhead-cam engines for trucks flew directly into the face of conventional wisdom. In deciding to use overhead-cam V-8s for the new F-Series, somebody at Ford was either lucky enough or prescient enough to be at the vanguard of a trend: trucks as "personal use" vehicles.

Ford planners gambled that new, refined overhead-cam engines would appeal to this growing segment of personal-use truck buyers. They gambled that specifying lumpy, overhead-valve engines - whose grunty, low-rpm power delivery was so intimately tied to the traditional notion of pickup trucks as work vehicles - wasn't the thing to do if trucks were to become more civilized.

The result found the new 1997 F-Series launched with single overhead-cam (SOHC) "Triton" V-8s - first a 4.6L unit and later the more powerful 5.4L - as their upgrade engine options. Ford was right: a steadily increasing proportion of buyers weren't using full-size trucks for anything resembling manual labor, and the new engines suited them just fine. As a bonus, the customers still buying the F-Series for work-first duty didn't mind theoverhead-cam V-8s either.WAW's Best Engines testers have been won over, too. 1 998 marks the second year the 5.4L Triton has earned a Best Engines trophy - no small feat considering our panel is not generally fond of the driving characteristics of trucks and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs). Or their engines.

But the Tritons, two years after their introduction, still feel magical. There's solid low-rev torque (not quite like a pushrod engine, mind you) combined with the sort of high-rpm cruising and refinement that would be the envy of many a passenger-car engine. The 5.4L Triton V-8 is the only truck engine that can hold its own against the best powerplants in the business.