Curbside Classic: GMC Syclone – GM Blazes a Trail and Abandons It

 

1 Front quarter

The short-lived GMC Syclone pickup and Typhoon SUV, which burst onto the automotive scene in 1991 only to disappear after 1993, turned the usual modus operandi of General Motors on its head. During the 1980s and 1990s, GM would repeatedly introduce a new model with a strong concept but flawed execution, spend years developing it, and finally produce a successful version just before discontinuing the model. The Pontiac Fiero (1984-88), the aerodynamic Caprice that transformed from a bloated whale into the Impala SS (1991-96), and even the Buick Grand National (1982-87), which did not reach 200 horsepower or get its signature all-black color scheme until 1984, are prominent examples. With the GMC Syclone and Typhoon, GM made the opposite mistake: introducing an exciting new model that was right from the beginning, but abandoning it almost immediately. Two decades later, the Syclone and Typhoon are highly collectible and few remain on the street, making this Syclone sighting in April a noteworthy event.

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GMC introduced the Syclone in 1991 to great fanfare. With pickup trucks and SUVs established as mainstream passenger vehicles by the beginning of the 1990s and serious horsepower starting to re-enter the market, the Syclone capitalized on both trends with a pickup that was not only the fastest truck ever made, but also the quickest accelerating vehicle available in the United States. With a turbocharged and intercooled 4.3L V6 rated at 280 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, all wheel drive with a 35/65 front/rear torque distribution, and four-wheel antilock brakes (the first in a production truck), it was a sophisticated performance package capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 in 4.3 seconds, with a governed top speed of 126 mph. Car and Driver compared a Syclone to a Ferrari 348ts in a September 1991 review, and although the Syclone’s performance characteristics were very different, with a weaker at the top end, it easily outran the Ferrari from 0-60 and in the quarter mile.  The Syclone was also quicker from 0-60 than the Corvette ZR-1 introduced in 1990 and the new Dodge Viper of 1992.

Engine

The heart of the Syclone was a unique engine shared only with the Typhoon. Sometimes confused for the Buick Grand National engine, it shared the Buick’s sequential fuel injection, turbocharger, and intercooler, but its foundation was a 4.3L Chevrolet 90 degree V6, not the 3.8L Buick 90 degree V6 of the Grand National. The drivetrain made efficient use of the turbo V6’s power, with a THM 700R4 automatic that kept the engine on boost, and a Borg-Warner all wheel drive system that allowed the Syclone to put the power down in all conditions, without wheel spin, just like an Audi Quattro.

Interior

GMC tried to give the Syclone a more comfortable and appealing interior, with bucket seats with piping and “Syclone” logos, fuzzy cloth layered over strategic locations, a console, and a leather wrapped steering wheel, but there was only so much that it could do to disguise the cheap-looking hard plastic interior from the S-10/Sonoma compact pickup. It also had an upgraded gauge cluster, but it came from the Pontiac Sunbird Turbo, itself not renowned for having an attractive interior.

With a base price of $25,970–$45,233 in 2014 dollars–the Syclone was expensive, and based as it was on the S-10/Sonoma, it did not look or feel like a car at its price point. Performance and not luxury or build quality was the attraction of the Syclone, though, and it delivered what it promised.

The automotive press loved the Syclone, since it offered a performance experience available in no other car at the time. Being the fastest accelerating vehicle on the market guaranteed it attention. Delivering its muscle through an automatic transmission requiring no launch skill or attention to turbo boost levels, and through an all weather capable all wheel drive system, made it a sophisticated and intelligent performance vehicle as well. Car and Driver and other domestic reviewers were not alone in raving about the Syclone. Even in Europe, reviewers normally highly critical of American cars loved what the Syclone could do. In this early Top Gear video review, a young Jeremy Clarkson–then required to talk about the car itself instead of being a snarky comedian–suspends his usual criticism of American cars and lavishes praise on the Syclone.

Typhoon

The Syclone was an experience that few drivers would have, though. GMC produced it for only one year and limited production to 2,995, with three more completed in 1992. The engine and drivetrain continued for two more years in the Typhoon, built on a two door S-10 Blazer/S-15 Jimmy body. The Typhoon was less of a novelty vehicle than the Syclone, with its SUV body and rear seat making it practical for passenger car use, and available in multiple colors instead of only black. It also was a limited production model, however, with 2,497 built in 1992 and 2,000 in 1993.

With only 7,495 produced in three years, the Syclone and Typhoon were halo cars that succeeded wildly and immediately created a tremendous reputation, but which GM soon chose to cancel and make into dead ends. Whether they would have been successful long term models is debatable, as is whether work-oriented GMC rather than Chevrolet was the right division to market them. There is an argument that carving out a niche as the leader in high performance all wheel drive vehicles during the SUV craze of the 1990s could have created a distinct and profitable identity for either GMC or Chevrolet, offering a domestic, truck-based equivalent to Audi’s Quattro sport sedans.

As it happened, the Syclone and Typhoon became short-lived aberrations with an enthusiastic following, much like the Buick Grand National. One of the original owners of the Syclone as a new car in 1991 was Jay Leno, then a successful comedian but not yet Johnny Carson’s successor as full-time host of The Tonight Show, whose motorcycle and car craziness was not yet nationally known or sustained by a seemingly infinite budget.  As he explains in the video, the Syclone was the hottest and most talked-about car in the country then, so he had to get one.  The appeal of the Syclone and Typhoon continues today even though many recent cars have exceeded their performance level.  With their turbocharged engines modifiable to well over 500 horsepower to give quarter mile times of 10 seconds or less, they will never cease to be exciting vehicles.

3 Right side

The recently found Syclone is the first that I have seen in many years, and it appears to be a well maintained occasional daily driver and weekend warrior. Original compact bumpers and body cladding, with a piece broken from the right front in a minor impact; original wheels, although missing their center caps; and slightly faded but clean paint with no visible rust make it a solid and complete example with some honest wear. The driver kept it parked as far away as possible from other cars in the parking lot, to help keep it in this condition.

5 Quarter rear

I call this Syclone a possible weekend warrior because there are indications that it sees drag racing use. A vanity license plate reading “HL SHOT” is partly visible in the rear bumper. The cab has the trendy accessory of a gauge cluster on the driver’s side A-pillar. If the owner added these details with good reason, then he has what must be a rare ride, one of the 2,998 Syclones that is still both driven regularly on the street and drag raced.

series_photo_7014Photo from auto.dmir.ru

I remember the Syclone and Typhoon as the vehicles that I coveted the most just after graduating from college, when I had no hope of actually being able to buy one, and the passage of time has added another reason that makes them appealing. The Syclone and Typhoon are now-classic muscle machines that are uniquely useful, one as a small pickup truck, the other as a small wagon. I have found it far easier to justify to myself owning a classic car that can work as a cargo hauler on Saturday and then raise hell on Sunday than one that can only raise hell, and the creation of countless classic pickup trucks powered by big block or LSx engines shows that many people have the same idea. The low payload ratings of the Syclone (500 pounds) and Typhoon (900 pounds) may limit their utility, but they are still good for the light-duty work that represents most actual use, and the all weather capability of their all wheel drive is a further bonus. An equally good condition survivor of the 7,495 Syclones and Typhoons with a “For Sale” sign on it, an unlikely find, would be difficult to pass up.