(first posted 9/23/2016) General Motors’ “professional grade” division, GMC, has always been an honest-to-goodness truck brand: big, tough trucks for big, tough jobs and big, tough drivers. Surely GMC wouldn’t indulge in any of that “special edition” malarkey, right? Wrong. Let’s look at five examples of GMC taking its trucker cap off and letting its hair down.
GMC Sonoma GT
Years produced: 1992
Total production: 806
The GMC Syclone was a legendary sport truck. Packing a turbocharged 4.3 V6 with 280 hp and 360 ft-lbs of torque, the Syclone put pony cars to shame and could even spank plenty of Europe’s finest at the drag strip. But a $26,000 price tag on a Chevrolet S-10 – albeit a heavily augmented one – had buyers baulking and only 2,995 units were produced for a single model year, 1991. The sporty compact pickup wasn’t dead at GMC, though: despite scrapped plans for a 1992 Syclone, a more affordably priced and similarly-styled truck, the Sonoma GT, was introduced.
An overly high cost of entry deterred buyers from the raging Syclone but the same could not be said for the Sonoma GT: it retailed for a whopping $10k less. Despite this, only 806 units were produced. The GT didn’t receive the boosted engine, instead settling for a higher-output version of the naturally-aspirated Vortec 4.3 V6 with a stout 195 hp and 260 ft-lbs. The standard version of the Vortec produced 160 hp, although the higher-output version was optional across the range. With a curb weight of 3300 pounds, Car & Driver recorded a 0-60 of 7.6 seconds, or around 2 seconds slower than the Syclone. There were still some mechanical enhancements over lesser Sonomas, however, with a lowered sport-tuned suspension standard. The suspension’s firmness and the Sonoma’s simple and ageing underpinnings meant that although the GT was a tidy handler, this was at the expense of a comfortable ride. Also, no stickshift was available – the only transmission was a floor-mounted four-speed automatic.
The main draw of the Sonoma GT was its styling, very closely resembling the Syclone. That extended to ground effects, a deep front air dam and fog lights. Unlike the Syclone, the Sonoma GT was made available in other exterior colors such as green, red, blue and white. It was also available in teal, like pretty much every car in the 1990s. Inside, the interior was identical to the Syclone, featuring black or gray cloth seats with red piping and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Drivers were also rewarded with full instrumentation. The overall look, inside and out, was handsome but ultimately quite subtle. Perhaps that is part of the reason why these GTs sold poorly. After all, the base regular cab Sonoma started at around $3k lower and buyers could select the higher-output Vortec, although certain features of the GT package were not available options on other Sonomas. Nevertheless, the GT package simply wasn’t enticing enough to buyers and it lasted only a year.
Years produced: 1979
Total production: ?
Over the years, GMC has released myriad special editions of its trucks. Many of these, like the Indy Hauler trucks, were featured in numerous GMC brochures and other promotional material. Many of these, too, have been kept in running condition and/or restored. But what of the 1979 Mule? Well, this is the one GM media piece I can find that features it, and nobody seems to still own one. The Mule, then, is truly an enigma. An enigma with a great big cartoon donkey plastered on the tailgate.
What says sporty more than the name “Mule”, a dorky cartoon mascot, black-and-gold paint and oak side rails? Well, by the end of the tape-stripe 1970s a lot of leeway was given for the word “sporty”. The interesting oak side rails are a rustic touch and something not commonly seen on 1970s pickup trucks, while the mascot is very early 1970s Mopar. The ad is for Chicagoland dealerships, so was this a dealer special? Do any remain?
GMC Gentleman Jim
Years produced: 1975
Total production: ?
Picking just one more special edition GMC pickup out of many was hard, but the Gentleman Jim stood out. That wasn’t necessarily because of the flashy black-and-gold color scheme, considering the aforementioned Mule was similarly painted and black/gold was a popular combination in the 1970s (see: AMC AMX, Pontiac Trans Am). No, the Gentleman Jim is notable because it presaged the Ram Laramies, F-150 Platinums, Sierra Denalis and Silverado High Countrys of today. This was a lux truck.
There were no ventilated Nappa leather seating surfaces, of course, but the cabin was as luxurious as many personal luxury coupes of the time. Features included cut-pile carpeting, woodgrain trim and, intriguingly, vinyl or cloth bucket seats. There was also standard air-conditioning, AM/FM stereo and power steering, while all Gentlemen Jim came equipped with a Turbo-Hydramatic 350 automatic transmission and a 350 cubic-inch V8.
The Gentleman Jim didn’t survive beyond 1975. At the time, pickup trucks were seen as more utilitarian vehicles, and the Big 3 couldn’t begin to imagine how fat the profit margins would become and how lucrative the segment would be a few decades later. Why own both a plush sedan and a utilitarian truck when you can merge the two? The gaudy, golden Gentleman Jim was ahead of its time.
GMC Jimmy Diamond Edition
Years produced: 2000-01
Total production: ?
Diamond-quilted leather trim has become the latest design fad in luxury car design, gracing everything from the $36k Kia Optima SXLs to the $300k+ Bentley Mulsanne. Shhhh, don’t tell Bentley that GMC beat them to the punch with the Jimmy Diamond. The gentlemen and ladies at Crewe would surely bristle at the comparison. The Mulsanne may be an acquired taste, like a glass of Moët & Chandon or a fine blue cheese, but the Jimmy Diamond is more akin to a can of Easy Cheese and a wine cooler.
Ok, so the interior looks like it was constructed from cheap handbags, but kudos to GM for trying something a little different to spruce up the drab, plasticky Jimmy interior. A diamond-quilted interior makes sense in a special edition called the Diamond, but GM wasn’t content to leave it there. The exterior had to be modified as well, and ASC assisted with the modifications.
GM’s press release read:
Two standard features of the Diamond Edition are its grille guard and tubular side step rails. These accessories, while common to the industry, are rarely offered as original equipment.
Translation? Crap that you probably didn’t want to fit after purchasing your car has been fitted to your car. What, no giant mudflaps, gold badges or pasted-on hood “vents”?
Perhaps some found the Diamond’s styling to be their cup of Mountain Dew Code Red, much like Chevrolet managed to sell plenty of NASCAR-edition Monte Carlos. Ultimately, though, the Diamond was an attempt to maintain interest in an ageing truck that was being stomped in the sales race by the Ford Explorer. Alas, a $30k truck with a name like a two-bit Atlantic City mobster simply wasn’t going to cut it. Not even the more tasteful Jimmy Envoy edition would turn the tables against Ford, although it was a prelude to an entirely new and better truck.
GMC Envoy XL Denali
Years produced: 2005-06
Total production: ?
GMC’s Denali line has always followed a simple formula:
Step 1 – Take a regular GMC pickup or SUV.
Step 2 – Add some features, a big, blingy grille and raise the price.
Step 3 – Profit!
The aforementioned Jimmy Diamond was a pleasant-looking truck afflicted with some horrific visual detailing. The Envoy XL Denali was the inverse. The extra Denali gingerbread may have been flashy but it was relatively attractive. On that note, the regular-length Envoy was a handsome, square-jawed, modern-looking truck. Something got horribly lost in translation, however, when stretching the GMT-360 body to make the GMT-370 Envoy XL, Isuzu Ascender and Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT. And although GM slapped almost every badge they could on the GMT-360s, the Oklahoma City-manufactured GMT-370 was exclusive to the Chevrolet, Isuzu and GMC brands and lasted a mere three model years. The Envoy XL Denali lasted only two.
The GMT-370 trucks stretched the regular-length models’ wheelbase by 13 inches (to 129 inches) in order to comfortably fit in a third row of seats. A total length of 207.6 inches put the GMT-370s between the Tahoe and Suburban in length. Some “mid-size SUV”, huh?
With a live rear axle, the GMT-360 couldn’t host a comfortable third-row of seating. This explains why the GMT-370 was so awkwardly long and why the roof was raised at the rear by 3.6 inches: stretching was easier than engineering a new rear suspension. Curb weight was up by more than 300 pounds and fuel economy was worse. The upper reaches of the Envoy XL range also sat uncomfortably close to the more conventionally-styled Yukon in price. Although the Envoy XL Denali was a cool $10k less than a Yukon Denali, it also had a less powerful 5.3 V8 (versus a 6.0 in the Yukon) and, even by 2005 standards, the feature list wasn’t that impressive. All an Envoy Denali added over a lesser SLT was some different trim, heated seats and power-adjustable pedals. Besides, you could forego the billet grille and get a mid-range Yukon for the same price. Many people did.
Sales were sliding and the Envoy XL Denali never met that 2000s level of SUV fame: it was never mentioned in a rap song or featured in a music video. Not to mention, the imminent arrival of the redesigned 2007 Yukon would have been the nail in the Envoy XL’s coffin. GM also had the purpose-built and genuinely good Lambda crossovers launching, which they didn’t half-ass by simply stretching an Equinox 13 inches. GM shuttered the Oklahoma City plant and with it the GMT-370s, including the Envoy XL Denali.
In Part II, we will look at some rare models from some of the shorter-lived brands in GM’s menagerie.