General Motors has been a definite linchpin of automotive Americana for over a century. At one point in time, it was the world's largest and most profitable automaker, its corporate presence dominating markets from Boston to Bavaria, from Sydney to Shanghai. The only other American conglomerate that was more globally ubiquitous with its product during this so-called "golden era" was Coca-Cola. GM has even contributed to significant milestones in human history during its one-hundred and six years on our third dirtball from the Sun — the Lunar Roving Vehicle used in the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 moon missions was developed, in part, by the Detroit-based motoring leviathan.
For every galvanized moment of triumphant prudence beaming through the company's long biography, GM has also proven to be equally as precipitous. You could devote page after page to the long shitlist of malevolent cars its built and poor business decisions its made and wind up with a New York Times best seller. Just ask Bob Lutz.
We're not here, however, to discuss the remarkable horror stories of two year-old Chevrolet Vegas with rusty floorpans and knee-jerk Ross Perot tie-ins. What we're here to discuss is the direct result of Mr. Smith telling Mr. Jones next door what Consumer Reports printed this month and to spend his hard-earned money on a Japanese import; the company's cumulative "kiss my ass" response to middle-class dinner table discussions about how poorly GM builds its uncompetitive cars and why the next family sedan will be a Honda. No, I'm not talking about the turbocharged V6-powered Buick Grand National and GNX muscle cars that managed to stir the loins of every middle-aged NASCAR spectator during the dawn of the Intimidator days. I'm talking about the GMC Syclone pickup truck.
Before we dig in on GM's Van Gogh moment, let's continue to bird walk just a little first to better understand an essential element of what made the Syclone tick. Like General Motors, the pickup truck is another staple of motoring culture here in America. For the hard-working contractors, electricians, and plumbers across the nation, they're as much of a rolling toolbox as they are an actual tool. For other individuals with an urban cowboy personality disorder, they're a tasteless fashion accessory that they believe adds to their artificial "work-bred, work tough" aura. There is a third category of truck buyers who neither use their pickups for work or to impress the hottest piece of trailer trash chain smoking Virginia Slims out on the patio of some backwater Dairy Queen. These pickup owners treat their purchases as performance vehicles.
A pickup is typically a poor substitute for an actual enthusiast's car, regardless of its format or flavor. Sure, with a big stump-pulling engine out front blowing exhaust fumes out of two pipes around the back and a stripped out interior, it can perfectly imitate the barren charm of an old muscle car. But it isn't one. If you've ever chastised an old Ford Mustang for its poor self-discipline on a winding road, every fiber of your being would loathe what a truck would do in the same situation. Burdened by their bulk and genetics, most big-engined pickups really aren't sports or muscle car fast in a straight line, either.
Sport trucks are totally useless as performance cars then. And, once the owner of a sport truck goes the extra mile and lowers the suspension and starts removing most of the other elements that makes a pickup a pickup, it becomes more and more useless for actual work in the process. What this yields is a vehicle that looks like a truck, handles and typically performs worse than a car, and isn't even good for hauling three bags of mulch home from Lowe's.
What does all of that have to do with the GMC Syclone? Almost everything. The Syclone was the first sports pickup that managed to completely transcend most of those negatives, and in the process rebelliously ripping up the rule book on what constituted a performance vehicle. That said, it still wasn't much for actual work — its payload capacity was just a few hundred pounds and it couldn't tow anything. It wasn't a usable truck. So why exactly would you buy one then?
Pull up the spec sheet and it suddenly becomes clear. With a Mitsubishi turbocharger and Garrett intercooler on board, the 4.3 liter V6 would afford you 280 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. While this isn't that impressive in light of the naturally aspirated V6 engines we have today, those numbers were a very big deal back in 1991.
The deal gets even bigger from there. A 1991 Acura NSX was good to reach 60 miles an hour from a dead stop in about 5 seconds. The contemporary Ferrari 348 could get there in a little over 5 seconds. The GMC in stock form managed to hit 60 in 4.6 seconds. You can guess what the sticker price on the NSX and 348 was back in 1991. The Syclone was faster than either of the two of them and GM would only charge you $26,000 dollars, which was half the cost of an original Corvette ZR-1 and not much more coin than an IROC-Z Camaro.
Starting to see the big picture now? This was something that looked like a truck that could pull a Ferrari's pants down around its ankles and then point and laugh about what it was keeping tucked in its underwear. Even today — over twenty years later — it's no slouch and can almost keep pace with a new Camaro ZL-1. Aside from the numb steering gear, it could handle a winding road even in poor driving conditions without drama, thanks to it's all-wheel drive layout. And it wasn't exclusive to the elite, powerful and wealthy.
Even more remarkable is that the Syclone, after you strip away its low-profile tires, the turbo, and its bulging body-cladding, is really something made up of bits and pieces. That 4.3 liter V6 was the same motor that you would find under the hood of a typical run-of-the-mill S10 or Sonoma pickup truck. The all-wheel drive system was from the Chevrolet Astro minivan. The Syclone's unique instrument cluster was actually borrowed from a turbo-powered Pontiac Sunbird.
General Motors built 2,995 examples of the GMC Syclone for 1991. Production was set to continue for 1992 alongside the related GMC Jimmy-based Typhoon with an expanded color palette that included unheard of colors like white and red, but the plug was pulled at the last minute for really no good reason.
I can't think of anything that GM's built since that has been so totally outrageous. The Corvette and Camaro have always been upfront and honest about what they were made to do; their mission statement is printed right on the packaging. The GMC Syclone, on the other hand, was something completely left-field, a hairy-chested yell at the heart of Americans who wrote them off as being incapable of doing anything interesting, well-done, or innovative. While it still wasn't enough to rectify GM's dismal business sense and atone for the horrible cars it built, and while its status as a performance titan didn't carry enough of a halo effect to drag buyers it had forever lost to import builders back into showrooms, it will still forever have a place in automotive history as GM's best "fuck you" ever.
(Video from Test Drive Junkie)