Home » The GMC Marlboro Syclone Was A Ferrari-Shredding Convertible Truck Built By You-Know-Who: Holy Grails

The GMC Marlboro Syclone Was A Ferrari-Shredding Convertible Truck Built By You-Know-Who: Holy Grails

Gmc Syclone Marlboro Ts
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Back in the early 1990s, GMC punched out an SUV and pickup truck that will forever have a place in the history books as two of the coolest vehicles ever to wear the brand’s badges. The rare GMC Syclone was the fastest production pickup truck for years, and it took bigger, much-more-powerful trucks to unseat it. It’s faster in a quarter mile than a Ferrari 348ts, practically useless as a truck, and looks plain villainous. How can you make one of the greatest trucks even better? Have design legend Larry Shinoda make an eye-popping red Syclone for tobacco company Phillip Morris, put T-tops on it, and then give away just 10 of them. This is the 1991 GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition, and it is a Holy Grail.

We were tipped off to the existence of this truck from X user bog_beef. It’s well-known that countless vehicles look fantastic in a Marlboro livery, but I must admit I’ve never pictured such a thing on a truck. I don’t even smoke cigarettes and I’d totally rock the 1991 GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition. However, the chances that any of our readers will ever drive one of these trucks or even see one in person is likely slimmer than their chance of being struck by lightning this year. Phillip Morris took just 10 of the 2,995 regular production Syclones and turned them into these special trucks.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Oh, and did I say that the GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition has T-tops? This might be the raddest truck you’ll see for a while.

A Sports Car With A Bed

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Part of what makes the Syclone such a fascinating story is the fact that it got made in the first place, but this was an era when General Motors was having a lot of fun. Another awesome part of the Syclone’s story is just how many legitimate sports cars it was able to beat, at least in a straight line up to about a quarter mile.

As Jason Cammisa explains in a video for Hagerty, the story of the Syclone started with GM engineer and drag racer Kim Nielsen. The year is 1987 and the Buick Grand National’s production was coming to a close after terrorizing American streets for a handful of years. Nielsen realized that after the Grand National’s death, the most interesting car at GM would be Corvette, and that couldn’t stand.

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Reportedly, Nielsen brewed up an idea to elevate GMC’s image while also building something interesting for the GM portfolio. GMC engineers sourced a Grand National’s 3.8-liter turbo six and fitted it into the engine bay of a GMC S-15 (later called the Sonoma). The resulting truck didn’t run, but it looked striking with a white body, white wheels, and a pink pulse-style pinstripe. The truck was rolled into auto shows, where GMC’s documentation claimed the truck could hit 60 mph in under 6 seconds and stomp out quarter mile times in the 13-second range.

The public was amazed, and the engineering team pitched the project to General Motors brass. The team ran into a problem when they found they couldn’t source any more Grand National engines. However, the Chevrolet S-10 and GMC Sonoma did have a 4.3-liter V6 that, while unrelated to the famous Grand National 3.8, would be receptive to turbocharging. Unfortunately, the team hit another wall when Chevrolet said it wasn’t interested. But GMC was, and the project was finally given the green light. Development was expected to take seven years and $200 million.

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GMC

To beat this expectation, Nielsen and his engineering team decided to find outside help to get around GM’s red tape. One potential choice was ASC/McLaren, which worked on the Pontiac Turbo Grand Prix by ASC McLaren. The other was Production Automotive Services, which had its hands on the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo. ASC/McLaren’s prototype sport truck was a GMC S-15 with a turbocharger. Production Automotive Services did the same, but that firm’s prototype went further, borrowing an AWD system from the then-new Chevy Astro AWD and instrumentation from a Pontiac Sunbird Turbo. Nielsen’s team tested both trucks and the Production Automotive Services prototype was a clear winner. [Ed Note: PAS was headquartered in my old home town of Troy, MI. -DT]. 

From there, Production Automotive Services would be in charge of developing the truck, certifying its emissions, and building the production versions. Out of the other end came a truck that stomped the competition for years. PAS added a Mitsubishi TD06-17C turbocharger and a Garrett water-to-air intercooler to the S-15’s 4.3-liter V6. Other changes came from a twin-bore throttle body from the Corvette, lower-compression pistons, a new intake, and new exhaust manifolds. Power spiked from 160 HP to 280 HP and 350 lb-ft of torque. A BorgWarner transfer case ensured 65 percent of the engine’s power fired to the rear wheels.

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GMC

GMC advertised the truck’s ability to hit 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and a quarter mile in 13.4 seconds. As I noted earlier, Car and Driver figured out how to beat the advertised acceleration time, cutting that down to 4.3 seconds and the quarter in 12.98 seconds. It is because of that test that you’ll read that the Syclone was even faster than a Corvette ZR-1 and a Ferrari 348ts. Sure, the Corvette and the Ferrari had higher top speeds and could take a corner, but at least to 60 mph and often to the quarter mile, the Syclone was effectively untouchable.

It has been claimed that the Syclone held onto the fastest truck title for 30 years, but that seems to come with some caveats and depends on who is in the driver seat. Car and Driver‘s original test in 1990 claimed speeds so fast that not even the Dodge Ram SRT-10 could beat it to 60 mph or in the quarter mile. However, when Car and Driver tested the Syclone again in 1991, the truck hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and did the quarter in 14.1 seconds.

Gmc Syclone Mini Truck
GMC

How did the truck become much slower? Jason Cammisa explains that in the 1990 test, Car and Driver was commanding a pre-production truck. Nielsen says the original test truck wasn’t a cheater, but was a healthy truck operating in perfect conditions. Cammisa continues that the truck from the original test had an iced-down intercooler and Nielsen, a drag racer, was the driver. The truck from the first test was also running 93 octane fuel while the second truck was running 91 octane fuel in California.

Nielsen also felt that there had to be something wrong with the second truck because Car and Driver was suddenly slower than everyone else. So, a bunch of factors worked against the truck in the second test that made it quite a bit slower. Yet, despite the penalties, the second truck did still manage to beat a Ferrari 348ts.

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GMC

In other words, whether the Syclone was the fastest truck for 30 years seems to depend on who is in the driver seat, which magazine you read, and what issue you read at the time. If you take Car and Driver‘s 1991 recorded times, then the Ford SVT F-150 Lightning dispatched the Syclone in 2001. Either way, what is true is the fact that the Syclone was supercar fast for a price of just $25,970, or $59,874 in today’s money. Just don’t expect to use a Syclone as a real truck given its low ground clearance and its 500-pound payload. Oh, and the vast majority of the 2,995 Syclones were black. Leave it to tobacco company Phillip Morris to spice up an already grand truck.

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The 1991 GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition

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Phillip Morris

The International Syclone Typhoon Registry has preserved the story of the GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition. The registry has tracked nine of the ten trucks commissioned by Phillip Morris. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

As Hemmings writes, in 1991, Phillip Morris promoted Marlboro Racing by running a giveaway for 10 Corvettes with special wheels and that characteristic Marlboro look. The promotion was a hit, gathering 3 million entries. In the past, the company also gave away Camaros with marketing success. Phillip Morris decided to do it again in 1992 and initially, the chosen vehicle was the Dodge Viper. However, that didn’t work out and instead, Phillip Morris purchased ten production Syclones.

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From there, the tobacco company hired none other than legendary designer Larry Shinoda to pen a custom look for the Syclone. Shinoda is perhaps most famous for his work on Corvettes, Corvairs, and the 1969 Mustang Boss 302. Shinoda is also associated with the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ. Lesser known is Shinoda’s work on the Star Trek Shuttlecraft-like Rectrans Discoverer 25 and these Marlboro-themed Syclones. I think Shinoda managed to make the Syclone even cooler than it already was.

To make these ten trucks a reality Phillip Morris gathered a slew of manufacturers together adding a laundry list of items to the truck, from the International Syclone Typhoon Registry:

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  • C.R. Laurence PowerLite slide-down rear window assemblyGuidon locking fiberglass tonneau cover
  • Boyd Coddington “Cobra” wheels with Marlboro emblem center caps & Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires
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  • PPG Industries “Hot Licks” Red paint
  • White “vibe stripes”, windshield decal, & Marlboro emblems provided by Graphik Concepts
  • Recaro leather seats with Simpson 5-Point racing harness
  • Custom Momo “Evolution” steering wheel
  • Sony sound system
  • PROMPaq performance chip
  • Borla stainless steel exhaust, “Turbo Extractor Design”
  • Belltech Rear Suspension (rear leaf springs and blocks) lowered 3 inches
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The pièce de résistance of the Marlboro trucks was the contribution from the American Sunroof Corporation. ASC chopped up the Syclone’s roof, reinforced what was left, and added T-tops that were stored in a special area in the bed. You’ll note that nothing was done to the engine, but there’s no need to mess with perfection. Now, after all of those mods, the Syclone looks even cooler.

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As the International Syclone Typhoon Registry writes, the Marlboro Racing ‘92 Contest was held until September. Those wanting to enter the sweepstakes were told to fill out a form, answer four questions, and explain in up to 20 words why they were fast enough for the Marlboro Championship Team. The forms were put in all sorts of media from car buff mags to Playboy.

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Etsy

This time, the turnout wasn’t in the millions, but over 85,000. Still, Phillip Morris did as advertised and gave away ten customized trucks to ten lucky people. In addition to a bright red truck, winners were treated to a four day, three-night trip to watch the Marlboro Indy race team and pit crew with VIP access, tours, pit access, photo shoots, and Marlboro gear. Allegedly, Phillip Morris did take pictures at the event, but some kind of malfunction meant that the promo shots were lost afterward. Since there were so few entries this time around, Phillip Morris USA also stopped doing the promotions.

The truck used in surviving promotional materials was the very first built. This truck was also driven by Rick Mears as the pace car for the Marlboro Challenge CART Indy Car event in October 1992.

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The International Syclone Typhoon Registry has done a great job of keeping up with the trucks. As of today, the registry notes that seven of the trucks are in private collections. One was imported into Estonia and abandoned, California fires destroyed one, and nobody seems to know what happened to one of the trucks. At best, that means there are eight of these trucks left in America and they very rarely come up for sale.

For example, truck #6 was seen at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2014 where it sold for $66,000. This truck then showed up for sale on eBay a year later for an asking price of $79,995. GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition number 7 was sold in 2018 for $56,100 during the Mecum Kissimmee auction. As I said, these rarely come up for sale and they seem to be so obscure that most people have either forgotten about them or don’t even know the trucks exist. But now you do.

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The GMC Marlboro Syclone Edition is rarer than many of the Holy Grails we write about. Sure, it didn’t get any more power, but I cannot think of anything better than blasting down California’s Pacific Coast Highway in one of these trucks, roof open, and jamming to some tunes. It sounds like most of these shockingly red trucks are rarely driven private collection pieces. I hope whenever they do go out to play, it’s a great time.

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Aaronaut
Aaronaut
25 days ago

Wait? GM estimated SEVEN YEARS of development to beef up an existing truck?? Yeesh.

Mister Win
Mister Win
23 days ago
Reply to  Aaronaut

You can’t rush perfection

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
25 days ago

A long time ago I remember reading that these Marlboro Syclones had the top speed limiter removed as part of the chip they had in them.

I don’t think I’d want to take an S-10 engineered in the 80s higher than the governed 124mph top speed though.

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