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The Best Trucks GM Ever Built (In My Opinion)

Chevy Truck 1 When the 1973 Chevrolet and GMC half-ton pickups were introduced, they were the first truly streamlined pickup trucks on the market. And their timing could not have been better... imagine a pickup truck that was designed in a wind tunnel and introduced just in time for the first gas crisis.

What makes these the best trucks GM ever built? Well, they were breakthrough vehicles--the first, in my opinion, of today's modern pickups. No previous truck had combined rugged workability and pleasing creature comforts like this before.

Sure, today's pickups by all brands are more modern than these, but this was the benchmark that the competition took years, if not decades, to match. They rode well and drove true, with little or no slop in the steering gear. The cabs were tight and nearly rattle-free, and you could get parts anywhere.

Chevy Truck Interior These trucks were many years ahead of their competition in design, and had luxury features and trim almost unheard of in pickups before. Options included power windows, power door locks, tilt, cruise, and stereo; a bucket seat option with storage console, full gauges with tach, built-in air-conditioning (Instead of an underdash unit), full carpeting even on the doors, and woodgrain trim (Both inside the cab and on the body sides). Some even had hood ornaments and (Yuck) whitewall tires.

Another example of being ahead of their time was that these trucks had their headlight dimmer switch on the steering column for the 1984 models; as late as 1991, Ford still had their dimmer switch on the floor.

There is debate about whether there were any real differences between a Chevrolet or GMC pickup during these years. Other than badging, trim, and slight equipment availabilities, there really wasn't. A Chevy fender would fit a GMC, the beds matched, gauges were the same, engines and transmissions would swap, and so on.

The cabs had flush "Limousine-style" doors that looked like they were cut right out of the roof panel. Ford finally followed suit with aerodynamic cab styling beginning in the 1997 model year, some 24 years later. Now, I'm not picking on Ford trucks here, I have a treasured 2003 F-150 Super Crew. But facts is facts.

Chevy Stepside You could get an 8-foot or 6-foot long bed, either in full Fleetside width or the narrower Stepside. For whatever reason(s), my favorite style was the regular cab with the short Stepside bed. I liked the (then) modern look of the cab, but that bed reminded me of classic trucks from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Add all the goodies including bucket seats, and you had a preview of the sport trucks that would be offered later.

These trucks had way too many engine, transmission, and running gear combinations to even try to describe in this post. But as I remember, the usual hot setup was a half-ton, two-wheel-drive pickup with a 350 cu. inch small-block V-8 and a 4-barrel carburetor, bolted to a 3-speed (Later a 4-speed) automatic. This was a pleasant compromise between power and gas mileage, up from a frugal low-end 6-cylinder with 3-speed column shifter, yet below a thirsty 454 cu. inch V-8. You basically had a powerful car drivetrain in a comfortable pickup truck, and gas mileage stayed out of the single digits. Usually.

Chevy 3+3 There were no extended cabs or storage spaces behind the seats in these trucks like today's pickups, but they did offer a "3+3" cab with four doors and a rear seat. Using the same sheet metal, a spartan "Bonus Cab" work truck that had cargo space in lieu of a back seat was sold.

With trim names like Beau James, Custom, Custom Deluxe, Sierra, Sierra Classic, Bonanza, Sierra Grande, Gentleman Jim, Scottsdale, Cheyenne, Cheyenne Super, Silverado, Heavy Half, and more, you felt like you were living the days of the Old West. Bonanza was my favorite, reminding me of the TV show, of course. I'd like to rummage a truck salvage yard some day and find a Bonanza emblem just to remind me of the Cartwrights' Ponderosa.

Blazer Chalet 2 The Chevy Blazer and its GMC Jimmy clone were early modern SUVs. Maybe their width kept them from being better received by the public, as the 1991 Explorer later was. They became popular as support vehicles in public service departments, and Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) drove one in "JAWS."

Recreational Vehicle fever was in full pitch in the early and mid-1970s. The GMC Motorhome looked like a spaceship had landed and sprouted wheels, and used the front-wheel-drive transmission from the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado, initially powered by the Oldsmobile 455 cu in (7.5 l) V-8.

On a more compact level, in 1976 and 1977, Chevy sold the Blazer Chalet and GMC offered the Jimmy Casa Grande. Every one I saw was tan and brown like the one here, but other colors were available.

They were essentially factory slide-in campers bolted onto the Blazer/Jimmy with enough '70s-colored graphics to make the Brady Bunch feel right at home. When properly equipped, they had two bunks, a refrigerator, 2-burner stove, a sink, a dinette, 5,000 BTU gas heater, and drapes.

The ad says it's "The Blazer You Can Live In," but some sort of restroom facilities might be desired for a more permanent residence.

The "Big Dooley" was a monster of a truck in those days. They were six-wheeled one-ton vehicles, and had four wheels in the back with wider fiberglass fender flares. Dooleys were sold in both 2- and 4-door styles, and I've seen some Suburbans converted with four wheels in the back. Today, a lot of folks spell this "Big Dually," but "Big Dooley" just looks and sounds right to yours truly.

004 A friend of mine had this one, a Camper Special with a 454. I was a passenger in a car one night and watched him as he tried to pass us; we both approached a curve. Then one of his two female passengers panicked, grabbed the steering wheel, and he lost control. They slid sideways, rolled onto the driver's side, then over onto the roof.  They finally slid to a stop facing the direction that they had just come from.

By the time we got turned around and back to the accident scene, we didn't expect anybody to be alive. But all three were out of the truck, and there was no blood. Every window in the truck was gone except for the small door vent windows and the shattered windshield. The truck was upside down in the ditch, the cab roof on top of a large rock, exhaust pipes ticked as they cooled, and fluids were beginning to puddle.

The next day he refilled the transmission with ATF, kicked the remains of the windshield out so he could see, and drove it home from the wreck lot while wearing a motorcycle helmet and face shield. The doors still opened, and he used it for a farm truck for a few months till the bank came and got it. But that's another story.

There's no doubt that the truck's sturdy construction saved my friends' lives that night. Even with the extra weight from the beefed-up chassis and massive wheels and tires, the cab roof did not collapse. Oh, and I should mention for the record that none of the three had their seat belts on. But they should have.

Chevy_suburban_trio_1973 The 1973-1991 Chevy and GMC Suburbans were also built on this truck platform. From spartan workhorses to fully-loaded luxurymobiles pulling the finest of horse trailers and travel trailers, the Suburbans complimented whatever job they had. They were built for 18 years, making them the longest run in the Suburban's 78-year history, and were also the first four-door Suburbans.

In 1990 I tested one of the final Suburbans of this series on the car show, and by then, the truck was showing its age. Also, the bumper edge was so sharp that a burr cut into my finger, and I found a piece of the body side molding resting inside a rear door panel pull pocket. The truck was not a favorite with the crew. Maybe they were this rough all through their production run, or maybe by this late in the cycle, nobody building them cared. Either way, I don't recall any of the earlier ones being put together this sloppy.

Rusty chevy Of course, these trucks weren't without their faults; the first few years had significant rust problems. From disappearing front fenders and cab rocker panels to bed sides that literally fell off, body cancer was rampant in these. But GM stood up and took notice, and by 1980, these trucks were made of metals that would almost never rust.

Then there were the gas tanks. They were located outside of the main frame members, called "side saddle" tanks, and were protected only by the thin sheet metal of the bed side. To highlight this design, NBC's "Dateline" did a story on them that turned out to be rigged; the explosives actually went off before the moment of impact. GM took notice and sued, and heads rolled within NBC over the story.

The hood hinges would also rust and freeze if not kept lubricated, and forcing the hoods shut against the pressure sometimes bent the hood just in front of the hinges.

The only facelift these trucks got was in 1981. To improve gas mileage through better aerodynamics, GM designed new front fenders with a sculpted "ship bow" look to break the wind easier, fitted a new hood and cowl with exposed wipers, then added an under-bumper air dam to help cut through the air. Inside the cab, a new soft dash pad and fresh door panels complemented the new front end's looks. This was the only real change in these trucks during their run, and the Blazer/Jimmy and Suburbans were also updated that year.

002 I had this 1984 GMC pickup for a few years. It was loaded with extras, but had a lower trim level. Its 305 cu. inch V-8 tried to match a 350, but didn't quite make it.

The truck came with a slick black vinyl floor cover, and JC Whitney sold a nice carpet kit for the floor and another one for the doors. Both went on without much fuss, and I added a driver's door map pocket for that "European" flavor. Although I put black carpet kits in, to this day, I wish I had installed grey, which would have hid the dust bunnies.

We also replaced the solid rear cab window (backlight) with a sliding unit. After the new one was in, there were many times that all the windows could be opened, fresh air would blow through, and air conditioning was not needed. All that was needed to change the windows was some warm soapy water, a piece of small rope, and some elbow grease. These trucks were built so simple that even I could work on them.

GMC Pickup I think GM replaced these trucks too soon. With another facelift and some tighter quality control, surely they could have been built for at least five more years. But truck competition was really heating up by then, so GM tried to stay ahead of the game.

The pickups were replaced for the 1988 model year, and the Blazer/Jimmy and Suburban didn't change until 1992. The new trucks were improved in many ways, but the dash was a mess... just operating the radio and separate cassette deck was difficult at best. The first time I tried to work one of those, I instantly longed for the older truck and its simpler one-piece in-dash radio.

I love my Super Crew, but if anything happened to it, I might have to hunt down a mint copy of one of these.

No whitewalls please.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

Credits: The first image is from UniversalImports.com. The Blazer interior photo is from BringATrailer.com. The Stepside pickup image is from Reno-Nevado.OLX.com. The 3+3 cab picture is from 67-72ChevyTrucks.com. The Blazer Chalet image is from Tocmp.com/brochures/GMTrucks. I took the photograph of the wrecked Big Dooley in 1979. The Suburbans image is from ThisTrainIsForgOurRock.com. The rusty bed photo is from CarPhotos,CarDomain. My black & white GMC truck was photographed in 1990. Our final beauty shot is from 73-87ChevyTrucks.com.

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What makes this truck more of a leader than the Dodge D series introduced a year earlier as a 1972 model and produced until 1993? I drove a '76 Big 10 for a while. It actually handled okay, but needing parts for it's more common than dirt 350 V8 and being told to fabricate them by the Chevy dealer was informative about the GM ownership experience.

Since the Dodge D Series goes back to 1961, I felt that it was not a modern equivalent to these all-new '73 model GM trucks. Nor did Dodge or Ford offer the cab/bed/body combinations that GM did.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodge_D_Series

The only one of these I ever had was a 74 Suburban C20 "Cheyenne Super" back in the mid 90s with a 454... man that thing was a beast. Unlike most of that era this one only had a small amount of surface rust in the quarters, and it would pull like a freight train - got 8 MPG doing it, but there was nothing it couldn't pull. Still wish I had something like that every so often, it sure came in handy.

Loved this particular truck style. My family had several pickups and at least 4 Blazers. Treat em' right, they'll run forever.

The Dodge D series name went back to 1961, but the frames were new in 1972 with their first independent front suspension and the body was new. It even looked remarkably like the Chevy would look the following year. I suppose there weren't quite as many body styles, but there were quite a few including flareside, stepside, dual cab, Ramcharger SUV, and dual rear wheel.

I bought a 1986 C-10 Silverado for the whopping sum of $1300 off a Craigslist last year. 305 V-8, short bed, heavy-duty springs and rear end geared low for hauling. Someone had rebuilt the engine with Edelbrock performance parts somewhere around the 200,000 mile mark; it was a fair job but whoever did it didn't understand how a camshaft set back for torque needs spark timing compensation. A few minutes with a timing light took care of that. Oh, and it needed a water pump. $20 at the local auto store. A little more tweaking on the carb and now it's a fine daily driver and work truck that gets gas milage as good as anything new. A gas station cashier was shocked when, after paying the not-insignificant bill to fill the dual gas tanks that I wouldn't have to come back to refuel for two weeks! It's a big, lumbering beast that will pull stumps out of the ground and surprise the heck out of those annoying drivers who try to pass on the right where two lanes merge -- stepping on it lets loose a fear-inducing snarl from dual exhaust an the the old truck is suddenly three or four car-lengths out ahead...

I have the usual rocker panel rust, temporarily patched with Bondo and due to be replaced outright, and the bed is getting thin in spots and will get replaced at some point. There's a thriving aftermarket parts supply for these trucks. You could build a new one from the frame up from parts, if you wanted to.

GM didn't quite get everything right on this body. The rocker panels rust because the shape of the sheet metal traps moisture. They were redesigned to drain better in later years, but they will inevitably rot. The doors do rattle - badly - if the strike is adjusted to allow them to close easily. On the other hand, tighten the strike to stop the rattle, and they have to be slammed hard to close all the way -- take your pick. That's the verdict from a Chevy-trained mechanic friend of mine. Everything else is dirt-simple and nearly bulletproof on these workhorses.

Don't forget Ford put a new wind-tunnel engineered body on the F-series pickup starting in 1982. It still ran on the F-series chassis from the 1960's, so it was sort of the best of the old and new. I owned a 1983 F-150 years ago that I loved -- straight-6, three-on-the-tree, and manual steering. ("Armstrong" power steering, as it was called...) Another economical stump-puller that could still get up and go. In many ways, the Ford was superior in engineering, but parts were then, and still are, more expensive. In the Ford-vs-Chevy war, I have to hand it to Chevy over the long haul. GM succeeded in building a rugged, economical workhorse that can be kept on the road for as long as you care to look at it, really. Their engineers must have been overcome with temporary amnesia and forgot about that whole "planned obsolescence" thing. I keep seeing more and more of these old trucks being pulled out of barns and backlots and being put back on the road -- if you know one end of a wrench from the other, you can fix one up for less money than a more modern used car or truck would cost you. That's mighty attractive to thrifty Yankees in my neck of the woods.

I get quite the range of reactions to my time-worn workhorse Chevy -- the green crowd glares at me with contempt from behind the wheels of their Toyota and Honda hybrids; Suburbanites in SUV's (some, ironically, descended from my old beast) look down their noses at what they take for a rust-bucket beater that should be banned from the road. But then there are the old-school mechanics and car enthusiasts who smile and crane their necks to look at it as long as they can in traffic, or who come up in parking lots to have a closer look and recount their experiences owning a similar truck in their past -- a lot of comments along the lines of "I really need to find one of these for myself again" and genuine "They sure don't make them like they used to" comments.

New pickups have features to match luxury cars, and all the technological advances and gadgets, too, but where will they all be in thirty years? Seems to me that the 1973 C-series pickup achieved a high-water mark in value that few other cars or trucks ever have. Affordable to buy, new or used, affordable to repair, economical and safe to run, and affordably rebuildable even now. I sort of feel sorry for the guys in the bulked-up, leather-padded, chromed monster truck wanna-be's I see everywhere. Huge car payment, huge insurance bill, huge service bill, huge gas bill... poor sods... ;)

Style-wise, I prefer the previous generation Chevrolet/GMC trucks, but I grew up driving and using this model for most of my life. My father owned an original 1977 Suburban for 15 years. It must have had 200,000 miles on it at the time. I remember many a road trip in it, being squeezed in the back seat along with my brother and sister for summer vacation from Tennessee to Sarasota, FL and everywhere in between. After it was sold, we found it nearly a decade later at a public park on the west side of town. It still looked brand new.

I bought a basic Silverado with some money I had come into after an accident with another car... I remember the engine being wheezy and under-powered, but that could have had something to do with the leaking intake manifold that I never fixed. There wasn't a single body panel on it that didn't have some sort of dent or dent on it. It fogged up in the rain and it drank gas but it was simple to keep running.

My brother moved back to Tennessee from Ohio this year and brought his rusted, dented jalopy 1987 Chevrolet with him. Did they paint these trucks in any color other than red? He had a similar-vintage Blazer but he must have sold it because he didn't bring it with him.

I adore the 81-87 pickup. The thing about the Suburbans of that gen is that the body work is so darn ripply around the rear side windows. Still like them though.

The US Army used this series of trucks for about a decade as utility vehicles, IIRC the M1028. The were 4WD diesels, used as utility vehicles and some were modified with a power take-off (PTO) to run a hydraulic generator to power an s-250/450 Shelter. They were great trucks, very dependable, and they'd go almost anywhere even with a heavy load. In fact, I've seen a few still in service as mechanics' field contact vehicles, though they have been "illegally" fitted with better tires. The stock Army P/U had stock all terrain tires that became big donuts in the mud.

Though the PTO would sometimes blow out the transmission, resulting in about 10 heavy duty trashbags full of contaminated soil being dug up, I really liked the M1028, and I was was to see them replaced by the wider HMMWV.

".....by 1980, these trucks were made of metals that would almost never rust."

Is that supposed to be a joke?

I've got a loaded 2003 H2 Hummer that will last for several hundered thousand miles. There's nothing it can't do. (Except pass a gas station, but in Michigan winters it's worth every penny.) Everyone depends on my truck. Semi trucks follow in my path on the freeways in heavy snow. Plus, it's smooth as the most luxurious sedan. Though it looks like a stagecoach, I can get it up to over 100 mph if I don't watch it!

"Another example of being ahead of their time was that these trucks had their headlight dimmer switch on the steering column for the 1984 models; as late as 1991, Ford still had their dimmer switch on the floor."

What is there that's good about this? It was extremely uncommon to accidentally and unknowingly turn the headlights to bright with a dimmer switch on the floor. Now one can do that during the daytime easily, and then not realize that the lights are on bright when starting the car at night.

My father passed on a decade ago, so I have to write for him, but being his son and having spent five years by his side trying to keep his 1987 Chevrolet Suburban on the road, requires that I include the horrific memories we had of this vehicle.

Our neighbor already warned us of how bad these trucks were, having had one, so we were prepared to do whatever it took to pre-empt any problems with his new truck before it spiralled out of control. The reason he bought it was because nothing else was available to tow his new trailer home around the US. He and my mom spent a month every summer traveling, so he needed a vehicle like the Suburban.

The week the warranty was to expired, we dumped that truck faster than an Indy car getting serviced at it's pit.

Over the previous five years, this truck had a file folder four inches thick with repair bills and orders. This is what happened during that time:
New engine block
New gas tank
New electric switches
New dashboard
New transmission
New tail gate, painting and rustproofing
New door seals
New front consol

With these new parts, the truck looked new when we dumped it with under 60,000 miles on it. It was by far the absolute worse vehicle he had ever owned and kept it as long as he did because all the repairs were done under warranty and it was a second vehicle for him and used only as a grocery getter, then as a vacation tow vehicle. The truck was garaged and heavily maintained in order to prevent it from doing what it ended up doing - falling apart.

The build quality was abysmal. When we took delivery I walked around the truck and made a list of all the loose trim ready to fall off. The hood on this vehicle still shook violently whenever the truck hit bumps on the road. We called it a shaker hood. The dealer never fixed that problem. It seemed that the truck was in the shop 20% of the time he owned it during that 60,000 miles.

The dealer, and the three of us all counted down the miles when the warranty on this lemon would expire. The week it did, we had another vehicle lined up to buy. Dad got a great trade in for this bomb because it still looked new and obviously with all the care we gave it, it looked like a great find for the next sucker.

Best trucks GM ever built? No. That isn't true by a long shot.

You picked the body cancer '73 over a '72 chevy? My dad had a '70 chevy but he traded it in for a '73. Bad mistake. I think the trunk you have pictured is the only '73 I've seen that is not rusted out over the rear wheel wells.


I had a '74 Chevy regular cab with an 8' bed. It probably saw over 25 states in the time I had it. Very nice for the time, but primitive compared to my current Quad Cab 4x4, which is a cozy as a Lincoln.

We had a '73 Suburban - 454, automatic, 4.10 rear end - my dad would pass people going up mountains while towing a travel trailer. It got 8 miles to the gallon (towing, not towing, uphill, downhill,didn't matter)down to about 7 mpg when dad sold it at about 160,000 miles. Pretty good truck.

Ford builds trucks. Everybody else builds, well, something other than trucks. And it's been that way since I was born (1960).

'nuf said.

Toronado455: I agree with you about the ripples in the sheet metal on the Suburbans. Back then, a lot of people simply accepted this.

Rob: There was also a model of these made just for the Alaska Pipeline project. They were an orange color, had full-time 4WD, and my bud had one. We called it Nanook.

Dean: Where are all dimmer switches now? I've also noticed, in my semi-scientific interstate highway research, that 80% of the vehicles driving with high beams on are GM vehicles, and I'm not talking about the daytime running lights. Maybe they have a poor high beam indicator design?

TM: That's the only pic I could find online of a really rusty bed. Yes, I've seen worse as well.

I hope the comparisons of these trucks to other, newer brands shows how far we've come in almost 40 years of building full-size trucks. But I still think they are the first modern American trucks.

I really want dimmer switches back on the floor. I have college maintenance worker experience with two of these trucks. One with a 305V8 and one with a 350V8 and a "camper package." They were the living incarnation of the old saying; "GM vehicles run like $&it longer than most vehicles run."

The only bad thing about floor-mounted dimmer switches is that they tended to be placed right about where your left foot wants to go after you've come off the clutch.

With respect, I'll take something from the '92 - '99 GM truck lines. They aren't as easy to work on, but you can get an extended-cab pickup in a half-ton (other big & tall guys will understand), and the stock motors make plenty of power, balanced with reasonable gas mileage (my '97 Tahoe 2-door has cracked the 20 mpg barrier more than once). These trucks don't rust as badly as the previous generation, and the original four-door Tahoe set the standard for that style of vehicle. These trucks are still modern enough to have airbags and ABS brakes, but were right on the early side of the "luxo-truck" craze, so they still have plenty of honest character.

"The only bad thing about floor-mounted dimmer switches is that they tended to be placed right about where your left foot wants to go after you've come off the clutch."

Not the "only" thing. It was also impossible to use the dimmer switch while shifting; and that hole in the floor was just another spot that collected salt and caused rust-through in the floorboard.

Ford? GM? Dodge? Please. Give me a Studebaker pickup any day of the week. If it's tough enough for the Battle of Kursk, it's tough enough for rush hour.

sorry for you guys, you should have gotten a toyota hilux....

HiluxGuy: With videos like this, it's hard to quell your suggestion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnWKz7Cthkk&feature=player_embedded

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