Home » In 1990, You Could Get A Chevy 1500 With 405 Lb-Ft Of Torque From A Big Block V8: Holy Grails

In 1990, You Could Get A Chevy 1500 With 405 Lb-Ft Of Torque From A Big Block V8: Holy Grails

Chevy C1500 454 Ss Ts2
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The pickup truck of today is a family car, a work vehicle, and a sports car. It’s wonderful that you can walk into a dealership and configure something like the glorious Ford F-150 FP700, a truck with a corrupting amount of power. Thirty years ago, the performance truck was more of a rarity. One of the first modern performance trucks was the Chevrolet C1500 454 SS, and it paired GM’s legendary GMT400 truck body with a big block V8. In its best tune, it made just 255 HP, but churned out 405 lb-ft of tire shredding, stump-pulling torque. If you love the GMT400, this is the best of the best.

This week, I’ve been asked to give you a rare double dose of Holy Grails. Yes, that was supposed to be last week, but some odd timing meant the TRD Solara ended up publishing on Monday. So, you’re getting Holy Grails number two right now!

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The performance pickup has long been a part of American truck lore. In the 1960s, truck buyers got to enjoy the Dodge D-100 with an optional 426 V8, good for 365 HP Gross, making for the truck equivalent of a muscle car. Some sources place the 1978 Dodge Li’l Red Express as the first American sport truck. Automakers were forced to bolt emissions equipment to their vehicles and at first, they couldn’t really figure out how to make an engine dole out healthy power while also not spewing out tons of hydrocarbons. As a result, you got cars like the Chevrolet Camaro Z28, which made 160 HP, and the Ford Mustang Cobra II, which made just 139 HP in its highest tune.

Images Dodge D Series 2
Dodge

However, makers of trucks with a GVWR of over 6,000 pounds didn’t have to put the chokehold on their engines. Dodge pounced on that by fitting a version of the Chrysler 360 police interceptor V8 under the hood of a truck. The Dodge Li’l Red Express made just 225 HP, but that was more than enough power to smoke everything from the Chevy Corvette to the Pontiac Trans-Am. The Li’l Red Express wasn’t just a muscle car killer, at the time it was faster than any other domestic vehicle to 100 mph. The performance truck was born.

After the Li’l Red Express, America started getting a bit addicted to making trucks and SUVs go fast. Many car enthusiasts will remember the iconic GMC Typhoon and GMC Syclone, the slick Dodge Shelby Dakota, and maybe the forgotten Dodge Dakota Li’l Red Express. Later, we’d get greats like the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 5.9, the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning, and the fabled Dodge Ram SRT-10.

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We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s take a look at the truck that can be considered to be one of the first performance full-size trucks of the modern era. That’s the Chevy C1500 454 SS, and it’s ridiculous from the excess amount of fuel it drank to its reported ability to light tires at a moment’s notice.

The Legend Of The GMT400

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Last week, the lovely Adrian Clarke gave us a design breakdown to explain why the GMT400 platform is a truck legend. I’ll let Adrian tell you why these trucks look so good:

Fortunately, it looked every inch the modern, capable all-American vehicle it was. Remember, this truck debuted in 1988, so serious design work would have probably commenced in 1983 or 1984. It’s staggering how advanced for the time it is – flush door handles, flush glazing (with an increased glass area), flush trim. Every detail sits perfectly on the surface without interrupting the overall cohesiveness of the appearance.

The profile is simple, almost like something a child would come up with if you asked them to draw a truck. Little more than three boxes placed end on end. But it’s not simplistic and rigid. The filet that runs along the top of the bed and continues into the cant rail and down onto the hood is subtle; not too soft, and not too tight. The feature line management is exceptionally clean; one single line that runs off the top of the taillight, down the bed, creates the bottom edge for the side window and gently arcs down the top of the fender.

There’s a neat inset feature running between the wheels and around the rear that provides a border for the trim pieces worn by the higher trim levels, so they look properly integrated and not just tacked on. The inset also works perfectly as the break separating the paint colors of two-tone trucks. The gentle curvature of the body side gives a feeling of solidity and strength – important because you don’t want a working vehicle to look weak. Anchoring the whole thing are wheel arch flares that are small but extremely sharply defined, meaning you get a nice straight consistent highlight along the length of the truck without any interruptions.

Gmt400bike

That’s just a clipping of Adrian’s great work and I recommend a read of it. For this, I will talk about the development of the truck itself. According to General Motors from the video below, engineers started work on the next-generation truck in 1982. Its designers and engineers had a monumental task ahead of them. The third-generation C/K truck, dubbed the Square Body by enthusiasts, was the best-selling series in the General Motors lineup. How do you top what’s already the best you have?

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Leading the charge was Chief Engineer for C/K Pickups Mike Juras and he was joined by Manager of Production Engineering Assembly of GM Truck & Bus Group Bob Tilley. Project Manager of Commercial Vehicle Design Ken Hammer joined in the fray, as did Chief Designer Don Wood. In a 1988 promotional video for the GMT400, GM explained that development of these new trucks required thousands of people and an investment of $1.3 billion in its mission to beat its own trucks.

According to Wood in that promotional video, one of the tasks given to the troops was to design a truck that put Chevrolet on top of the domestic truck wars. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Chevrolet had been beating Ford in sales since 1959. In the early years of the third-generation C/K, over a million units were going to new homes each year. However, by 1987, Ford sold 1,398,969 light trucks, surpassing Chevy’s 1,173,675 and retaking the sales crown. General Motors wasn’t fond of second place.

To get this job done, General Motors focused on exterior design as well as the cab. The new truck had to be stylish, but also easy to enter and easy to see out. Of course, the GMT400 is still a truck, so it still had to be a working tool as well. Also important was bringing the truck’s technology to the modern day. This didn’t mean adding screens like some automakers did in the 1980s, but using some electronics to make the owner’s life a little easier.

1988 Chevrolet Full Size Pickup (1)

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At first, the GMT400 trucks didn’t have the design we love them for today. According to that promotional video, GM took an early version of the truck to Dallas in 1983 and let prospective buyers give the automaker feedback. Some said GM made the truck have “a soft look” to it and it didn’t have “that tough truck, macho look.” Some of those who attended that consumer clinic said that the truck seemed vulnerable and that the body could be easily damaged.

General Motors held a number of these clinics, where designers and engineers learned that the American truck buyer had changed. Yes, people were still buying these trucks for work and commercial duty. However, General Motors found that there was an increasing amount of people who were buying pickup trucks as their family cars and daily drivers. So, the GMT400 trucks couldn’t be all for work, they had to be comfortable and easy to live with, too.

Taking in all of the feedback, GM’s designers made some changes. Bumpers were beefed up so they could better protect the truck. Changes were made to the slope of the hood, the design of the fenders, and even the headlights went back to the drawing board. Early iterations of the GMT400’s design also included taillights that went from high up on the bed right down to the rear bumper. However, putting the taillights right next to the bumper meant they could be easily broken, so the bottom portion of the lights were just removed entirely.

To ensure the trucks could still handle the work, engineers sent out about 40 trucks, half were rear-wheel-drive and the other half were four-wheel-drive, into the field. Customers would use the truck as they would normally while General Motors measured what they were doing with loads. Engineers then recreated those loads during development to make sure the truck could handle it. They also intentionally overloaded trucks and then took them for testing because General Motors knew pickup owners sometimes ignore ratings.

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The cab was also to be a vast improvement over previous full-size trucks. Remember, these trucks were meant to be daily drivers now. For engineers, this meant designing a cab that didn’t allow an intrusive amount of outside noise in. To do this, engineers pinpointed the sources of noises and added sound deadening in those areas. Streamlining the cab and the mirrors also meant less wind noise. In its promotional video, GM claimed the GMT400’s quiet cab compares favorably to a European luxury car from the era.

Chassis

The seats had to be cushy, able to restrain child car seats, and there had to be enough legroom for tall drivers, while the climate control had to be easy to operate. Engineers went so far as to create a plastic dummy to simulate a driver. That dummy was then placed in the cab and its angles were measured against medical data gathered by GM and universities about the optimal body part angles for comfort. GM says the GMT400 cab was designed to be comfortable for everyone from a small woman to a hulking football player.

We return to Adrian for a moment to talk about what went on under the cab:

1988 Chevrolet Full Size Pickup

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Underneath, the front suspension did away with the live axle and all its attendant compromises, and replaced it with an independent control arm set-up – sprung with coils for the 2WD models and torsion bars for the 4WD trucks, which introduced the Insta-Trac shift-on-the-fly transfer case, further increasing usability. There was power steering as standard, and ABS on the rear axle to prevent empty-bed lock ups. The front frame rails were hydroformed to reduce weight and increase strength and rigidity.

The fourth-generation C/K was launched in the 1988 model year. Despite the efforts of General Motors’ talented truck team, Ford retained the pickup crown. That’s not to say the C/K was a failure, just the opposite. General Motors continued to sell hundreds of thousands of examples, many of which remain on the road today. Of course, those six years of development also paid off in a great respected truck legend.

1995 Gmc Yukon 2 Door 1995 Gmc Y
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The vast majority of these trucks aren’t rare and aren’t all that special. General Motors was willing to sell as many GMT400s as there were warm bodies to buy them. The platform did create a few interesting offshoots, including the shorty SUV GMC Yukon GT as well as the first-generation Cadillac Escalade. One GMT400 truck stands above the others.

Big Power In A Sinister Body

1991 Chevrolet 454 Ss

In 1990, Chevrolet rocked the pickup truck world with what’s sometimes called its first performance truck. General Motors hit the 1990s hard with hopped-up trucks. Before the Syclone and before the Typhoon was this, the C1500 454 SS. This beast arrived in Silverado trim and unlike the boosted performance trucks that would come later, the 454 SS delivered power to the ground from a big block naturally-aspirated V8 borrowed from the C/K’s heavier duty trucks. The result was a stormer.

This truck was recommended as a Grail by both Matt Hardigree and David Tracy. Americans love the performance truck, be it a stripped-out base model with 700 HP or a quick pickup that looks like a trophy truck. It can be argued that these modern trucks began right here with trucks like the 454 SS.

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1992 Chevrolet 454 Ss Img 4865 1
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Part of what makes the 454 SS magical is that it’s a parts bin special. GM’s engineers didn’t bestow the truck with a new engine. The 454 SS didn’t even get a body kit that you couldn’t get on other trucks. Instead, the engineers paired some of the best parts from other GMT400s into one truck.

I’ll start with the exterior. The 454 SS starts as a C1500 in Silverado trim. Then, Chevy grabbed the Sport Equipment Package that was available for other trucks starting in 1989. This package took a truck painted in a single color and gave it blacked-out trim. In 1990, every Chevy 454 SS came in black, but later, you could get them in red or white. Black is the signature color for these trucks.

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Also helping the killer stance of the Chevy 454 SS is the truck’s ZQ8 sport suspension package. This dialed-in C1500 rides with Bilstein shocks, BFGoodrich tires, and higher-rate springs. Of course, it’s still a truck, so don’t expect sports car ride and handling, but it’s supposed to be an improvement over the normally bouncy and giggly ride of a work truck. Adding to the platform changes are double control arms and a quicker 12.7:1 steering ratio.

The highlight of the Chevy 454 SS is what’s under the hood. Chevy robbed the parts bins of its larger trucks to lower a 454 cubic inch (7.4-liter) lump into the C1500. While not the largest engine offered in the C/K series, it was a perfect mill for the 454 SS. Initially, this engine was good for 230 HP. That wasn’t much and it was bested by the likes of the Camaro IROC-Z, which offered 245 HP on tap. What made the 454 a good engine was its torque, which delivered a 385 lb-ft wallop of power, more than the 345 lb-ft the Camaro could manage. Sadly, there wasn’t a manual here. Instead, you got a three-speed automatic.

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1992 Chevrolet 454 Ss Img 4888 5
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These early 454 SS trucks were good for a sprint to 60 mph in under 8 seconds. Of course, that’s not bad for a big truck, though it should be noted that the smaller Syclone would come close to halving that time just a year later. The 454 SS also got an update in 1991 that gave the engine a boost to 255 HP and 405 lb-ft of torque. It was a small gain, but good enough to get the 454 SS to 60 mph in about 7 seconds. The transmission was also upgraded to a four-speed 4L80-E.

The interior of the 454 SS was unchanged from other Silverado-trimmed models. You got to sit in somewhat-adjustable velour buckets and fiddle with an electronic climate control system.

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All of this added together to make a truck that could easily light up the tires and not even GM’s sound deadening could muffle the sounds of a furious big block V8. Here’s some of Car and Driver‘s review:

First impressions of the 454SS confirm its no-frills approach to high performance. That’s because the ride is necessarily firm, and the engine noises are guttural and emphatic. But the 454SS can scarcely fail to impress. With more than 400 pound-feet of torque at a leisurely 2400 rpm, the Chevy greets any pressure on the right­hand pedal with an immediate lunge.

Never mind that this thing takes 217 feet to stop from 70 mph, and that the squashy pedal makes brake modulation a real challenge. Or that the anti-lock rear brakes sometimes lock up anyway. When you’re up there in that wide cab, listening to the big-block V-8 waffling under the deck like a marine diesel in a Cigarette boat, you’re king of the road. It isn’t long before you begin bullying motorists.

You can’t help it. The Chevy has a leer on its mug like Jack Nicholson in heat. Ease this broad visage squarely into the mirror of a driver squatting in the left lane and he’ll scamper for the right shoulder in a heartbeat. If that sounds like a crude power play, you’re getting the picture.

HIGHS: Unbelievable torque, rugged good looks.
LOWS: Same old Chevy interior, frightening fuel consumption.
THE VERDICT: Being the classroom bully is fun.

1993 Chevy C1500 454 Ss Cx7258 3

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Note the lows Car and Driver placed there. Car and Driver observed just 10 mpg. MotorWeek didn’t do any better. Mind you, that’s an unloaded and overpowered C1500 we’re talking about here. The EPA numbers weren’t much better with 10 mpg in the city, 12 mpg on the highway, and 11 mpg combined. At the very least, you can expect that you’ll get 10 mpg basically no matter what you do.

While the spec sheet doesn’t seem that impressive compared to the compact turbo V6 GMCs that also launched in the early 1990s, the Chevy 454 SS was quick enough to keep Ford at bay. In Car and Driver‘s comparison test, the 1993 Chevy 454 SS proved to be a slightly faster truck than the 1993 Ford F-150 Lightning, beating it in every performance metric. However, the magazine still preferred the Ford as an overall better, more refined truck.

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Mecum Auctions

Production of the 454 SS ceased after 1993, leaving about 17,000 smiling owners with tail-happy, tire-roasting trucks. That’s a tiny production figure compared to the hundreds of thousands of GMT400 trucks that were sold each year. It’s also not hard to find a 454 SS for sale, but expect to pay around $20,000 for an example with a lot of miles. Low-mile examples have stunning asking prices such as $60,000. New, these trucks were $21,835, or $47,110 today.

Today, you can buy pickup trucks that turn you into a supervillain with 700 HP and frankly absurd performance. And you can buy them for not much more than what buyers were paying 30 years ago. It’s incredible to see how the performance truck evolved from that Li’l Red Express and the 454 SS to trucks like the Ram TRX today. Really, if you want a fast truck, it seems you can’t go wrong, past or present.

Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

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(Images: GM, unless otherwise noted.)

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Black Peter
Black Peter
2 months ago

Where did the headline image come from? Because some weird AI wonkiness is going on with the motorcycle. I found some original artwork that shows it is (as I suspected) a Suzuki Katana, however in the top image of this article it morphed into something weird after half the tank. All the other pictures I found cut off around the “t” of Katana, did you use AI to extend the image?

Paul Wilcox
Paul Wilcox
2 months ago

The 1991, 1992, and 1993 454SS (with the better engine, 4 speed auto, updated dashboard, dual exhaust and other upgrades) were far more rare than the 1990, with less than 1000 produced each of those years. The 1990 was the high production year, with over 13,000 trucks, all of which were black with a garnet red interior. All the In 1992 and 1993 they made red and white ones with a variety of interior colors, in addition to black with red interior. The 1992 and 1993 trucks in red or white are the true Holy Grails among the herd. White with a blue interior is supposedly the least common.

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