Recently, GN posed a question to CC readers as to which were some of our favorite designs from General Motors during the Irv Rybicki era. It didn’t take a lengthy scroll through the comments to find that many liked the looks of this generation of C/K pickup, built on the GMT400 and GMT480 platforms. I was in middle school when they made their debut close to thirty years ago, but I agree with those who stated the styling of these trucks still mostly holds up in present day.
When these trucks were new, I remember thinking their chances in the marketplace were diminished due to their looks that were so slick and modern. When I was growing up in Flint, Michigan between the 1970s through the early ’90s, pickup trucks, particularly Chevys and GMCs, were everywhere, and many of them functioned as actual work trucks and not merely as statements as more are in present day. My theory had been that these redesigned trucks looked too “pretty”, and thus would not be taken as seriously as the more square-rigged, outgoing models. The Ford F-150 was still blocky and purposeful-looking, and the Dodge Ram was in pretty much the same form as it had been since 1980 – the latter seeming like the cargo-hauling equivalent of your grandpa’s Dickies denim overalls.
The new C/K seemed like a styling coup – instantly a Chevrolet (or GMC), but smooth and aerodynamic-looking, with lines that also made sense. The Roger Smith years proved to be terrible for GM in terms of so many things: product, market share, quality, styling, and the direct, profoundly adverse effects that many of Mr. Smith’s decisions had on my hometown, as thousands of GM jobs in the Flint area were eliminated. I mention all of this mostly just to provide context in terms of my experience of these trucks when they first came out.
The new C/K proved to be a bright spot for GM during those years, performing and selling consistently well from its inception. Had I been preemptively preparing myself for its failure simply because of its great looks, the lackluster quality of many GM products of the day, or some combination thereof? I drove one of these trucks semi-regularly at work for a landscaping job when I was in my 20s, and I needn’t have worried, as that poverty-spec, dual-headlamped early version was indeed a capable, reliable workhorse.
Production of these C/K’s spanned just over a decade (with the eleven model years between 1988 and 1998), and there are still a ton of them on the road in mid-Michigan. I have absolutely no mechanical skills, but I’m willing to wager that many of these trucks remain in regular use due to their robust drivetrains, wide availability and affordability of parts, and easy fixability.
I spotted our featured example in the parking lot of the local Meijer superstore where my mom had done most of her grocery shopping in the 1980s. For those not familiar with Meijer, it is a one-stop mega-store originally based out of Michigan that sells everything from food to clothing, tires, sporting goods, toys – you name it. It was our then-local predecessor to Walmart that now has a presence in multiple states in the Midwest. Meijer was where I spent many hours when I was growing up, between periodic shopping trips with Mom, through my teenage years when I’d hit the “Purple Cow” bakery and ice cream counter for hot donuts late at night with my friends right before we’d head over to the discount cassette tape section to see what was in the cutout bins.
Seeing this lone Chevy pickup in the parking lot as I made a late-night run while on a summertime visit (how many of you have also ever traveled out of state, only to discover you had forgotten the toothpaste?) was an instant throwback. Many of the GM jobs may be long gone from the Flint area, but many of its employees and products here are still hard at work, as our featured 1500 still seemed to be. As The Police once sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” True that.
(Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan.
Thursday, August 15, 2013.
Related reading from Keith Thelen: COAL: 1998 Chevy C1500 – Saying Goodbye.
I really admire this design. I think it has aged even better than Ford’s later aero jellybean trucks.
I’ll agree that exterior styling wise this has aged better than the Aero-150. The interior is another story.
I’ll second that. Almost the classic US truck (to me) and aging very gracefully.
Still plenty of these treading the boards in California….
Agreed, they were stout and mostly trouble free in Fleet duty .
Usual rust patterns, but agree it’s a nice style. A lot of these still roll here in Louisville,
Ft. Knox area as rode-hard-put-away-wet work trucks.
I spent 20 years living in Michigan. There’s not much I miss about it, but one of them is Meijer.
One of the things I *don’t* miss is rust. I went back to MI for a visit last summer and I saw many trucks, much newer than the subject truck, that were the subjects of significant rust.
i grew up a serious bowtie fanboi. We had a 78 suburan, which began to show rust within 4 years. but it was perfectly reliable and durable; several times in the mid 80s my dad and I would test drive ‘new’ trucks, only to lament that they were identical to our rusty 78. I distinctly remember testing an 85 K20, and other than the radio it was the same as our 78 to the smallest detail. Not impressed. But in 86 GM started releasing sketches of the groundbreaking new truck; I read about it in all the magazines – the styling was so modern it was hard to imagine they would build it. But in 87, we saw the first one….reminded me of the ground breaking Taurus and Corvette – both which seamed like space ships. Dad bought a loaded 88 GMC 2500 – last 15 good years, more than 200k miles. The rust finally killed it. These were GM’s greatest hits (opposite of deadly sin).
My uncle had one of these, a “base” model, that I borrowed once to haul a ladder from his house to my father’s house to make some repairs on the house’s siding. I like this model of Chevy pickup. Heck, I like most models of Chevy trucks, but one thing I really remember as being too “low rent” looking for what was an otherwise good looking truck was the grey switch gear on the dashboard. It looked like it was styled and furnished to GM/Chevy by Fisher-Price. Unfortunately, nearly every GM product of this time period had those awful grey switches.
The switches looked and felt cheap and the heater was like a dumb game. Door hinges tended to sag which meant a good hard pull to close which lead to the arm rests self destructing. They were good looking trucks but I never liked driving them.
I think that maybe 30% of the listings on my local List of Craig is for these trucks. GM had a big manufacturing presence in central Indiana and sold a ton of these here. Not tom mention that many of them came out of the Fort Wayne assembly plant.
These have proven to be tough trucks that are easily kept on the road as they have gotten old. For my money, these have been much less rust prone than the generations that came either before or since.
My kids rode many an imaginary mile on the penny horse at our local Meijer store.
Agreed JP, as a fellow Indy resident, these GMT400s are everywhere, and strike me as being better built than Chevy trucks before or after in terms of rust-proofing (although they’re certainly not immune at this advanced age). I helped a friend resuscitate a ’98 K1500 step side ext-cab he had rotting in his driveway. A reman Delco alternator, fresh battery, and power steering line later and the 209k mile beast awoke from its 2 year slumber. A ginger pressure washing (flaking clear coat) to get the algae off and some more scrubbing and polishing and he had a heck of a nice looking/drivingtruck. With a plebian 4cyl 5spd ’97 Ranger at the time, I was quite jealous of his comfy red-velour adorned 305ci 4wd Chevy. These trucks just scream “Indiana” to me.
Here in Arkansas where rust isn’t much of a problem, you still see a lot of these around. Some have been worked to half way to death, but a surprising number appear well cared for daily drivers.
Before crew cabs became ubiquitous, single cabs established a long local history of substituting for a family car. Bed riding in our “Arkansas convertibles” is still common practice.
Seeing a northern example that doesn’t look all rotted away suggests these may remain around for a long time yet.
IMO the current Silverado still looks like a cartoon of this one.
2007 was OK I thought. Took a step back in 2014. But not any worse than today’s F-150, Titan, Ram, or Tundra IMO, which all have hideously cartoonish front ends.
I feel that way about most newer models when compared to the older ones. Sometimes I get used to them, sometimes I never can.
This model looks so much better than the current one. Why do all trucks look so hideous now. None of the turn my eye, even the 60s era Dodges and Internationals look better than anything I can buy new today. And they cost way to damn much. I’d rather buy one with good bones and restore it for what would really be the depreciation on a new one after two years.
That doesn’t look like a 1990. Those one-piece halogens look more like a 1995 refresh.
The one-piece halogens came out in 1990, replacing the quad lights.
The grill says 1995+ as well, the 88-94 grill is flat, the 95+ has a bump on the center bar.
Thanks, gentlemen – I’ll fix the title.
1994 and up grill, the grill changed in 1994, the interior changed in 1995, and the engines got Vortec-ed in 1996…
I always liked the 94+ grill and the early 87-89 grill with the sealed beams, the early composite grills looked a little off to me…
Now when they changed the interior over the first years had a shelf on them in front of the passenger which is extremely useful, then for 1997 they threw that damn airbag in there making the dash look like a bulbous hunk of plastic… i always preferred the early interiors, with the later seats, and of course a vortec headed TBI motor swapped to a quadrajet… more power AND better mileage!
I’m also a fan of the early grille assembly with the sealed-beams… probably my favorite look for these.
When they added that rounded center bar is when the styling really came together.
Actually, that one is a ’94 (if it’s all original parts). The new style grilles came out in 1994, but remained with the old interiors. In 1995, the new interiors went in and new lower profile plastic side view mirror replaced the big folding steel mirrors. So 1994 is the only year with the new grille, the old mirrors and old interior.
That said, these trucks are notorrious for having grilles swapped amoungst other parts. Many owners swap the newer style grilles for the older ones. Its hard to see in the picture, but it does look like the 1988-94 dash and seats though.
Super-helpful as always – thanks, Vince (and Leon, below). I’m just getting around to checking back into comments on this post, so I’m fixing the title again to reflect the ’94 model year. I always like to think a featured vehicle is “factory”, so even if the grille has been swapped in, I’m sticking with your assessment.
The easiest way to tell a true 1994+ model is if it has the 3rd brake light on the cab. 1994 was the first year these things were mandated on trucks
As for the Ram known before as D-series, before the reskin of the front end in 1980, the basic shape dated from 1972.
And it with this generation truck then Chevy started the tagline “Like a Rock” with Bob Segar’s song.
Boy, that front fender looks pretty chewed up by the tin worm. Hate to see what the undercarriage looks like…or what’s left of it, that is.
I know I’m the only one who has had bad experience with these trucks. Sold it for a much more reliable Audi A3. Maybe I’m the exception that proves the rule.
Well, I for one really liked my ’90 GMC Sierra. If it had four doors, and four wheel drive I would still have it. The dash and heater / radio controls were bizarre to say the least, and I much preferred the later GMC with the “Ferrari” mouth grille, but right you are on the basic simplicity and durability of these. The parts are cheap, the design was good, and other than the usual known weaknesses such as rust area and door hinges, they were great! If they had full aftermarket running boards, they don’t rust. At all, it seems. And ours made many a run to the local “Fred Meijer”.!
How do you rotate the image as an edit?
Unfortunately, I don’t think you can, Darren. I think images have to be rotated and cropped before they’re uploaded. From what I can tell from your picture, your Sierra looks like a nice one. “Fred Meijer” – I like it!
I love Meijer. I knew of it from my time in Dowagiac, Michigan, where my grandparents lived in the ’70s and ’80s — but only of it. While Kalamazoo TV advertised it, there wasn’t one anywhere near Dowagiac.
So when one opened near my Indianapolis home in about 1994 it quickly became where I did most of my regular shopping. And since I moved to the ‘burbs one is literally across the street from my subdivision. So convenient.
Great post, as always Joe. I too remember when these trucks came out how advanced they looked. I remember my neighbour across the street bought a brand new 1988 GMC C1500 with a 305 engine. He kept that truck for about 12 years, with the only problem being a bad alternator. He swears by GMC truck to this day because of that one.
In my area, these GMT-400’s were very popular, and seemed to easily outnumber the Fords of that era. The ext.-cab 4×4 short box were so common that my friend and I used to call them clone trucks. Even today, these trucks have a decent following and demand a bit of a premium. A clean rust free regular cab short box demands a pretty penny. The work a day versions are pretty well all rusted out and used up, but there are still some kicking around usually in pretty rough shape.
I’d agree with the other comments that these trucks could be one of GM’s greatest hits. They were sized just right, very comfortable, durable, got good gas mileage and seem to run for a million miles well, one did for sure (with a Flint MI built 350):
While it’s easy to pick them apart for their goof first generation dashes, rust issues, and saggy doors, they were the best driving trucks of the era and big improvement over the previous generation. Considering the other stuff GM was pumping out during that time, it was almost a miracle something this good came out. They were also IMO better overall than the competition of the same generation.
I worked on a lot of these trucks at the GM dealer. I was there when these trucks were in their prime, so we saw a ton of them. They were definitely hit and miss when it came to reliability. Some trucks never broke and went for hundreds of thousand miles, while other trucks were in the truck very often. That said, almost every tech their drove a GMT-400 because everyone knew how good they were.
I agree. The biggest rap on the Fords, at least until 1993 or 94, was that blasted AOD transmission. Those things were subject to a wanky throttle control cable that if it went bad would cook the tranny in short order. I know that there are many who say these aren’t bad, but I liked the newer AOD-E so much better. I think the Chevy would be found in greater numbers today if for no other reason than the AOD in the Fords.
Thanks so much, Vince – and also for providing that great link. One million miles is mindblowing, for any vehicle.
You said “They were sized just right….” Absolutely. No need for anything bigger at all. I wish trucks were this size today and I would likely have one.
We had a base GMC as a company vehicle and it was indestructible.
Many years ago, I drove a few of these trucks, model years circa ’89 – 91.
They were a revelation for ride, handling, interior appointments and overall quality, over the previous generation. They rode and drove like a car, with much better equipment, sound insulation and were relatively luxurious, even the base models.
They made my early ’80’s Chevy pick ups feel like the primitive lumpen sheet – metal boxes they were. The new model was a long overdue overhaul of the GM pick up lineup.
My only regret is the G-van soldiered on for another 7 years, before its late-95 make-over…. which, imho was not as successful.
Up to ’95 these trucks used throttle-body fuel injection, primitive but very reliable with good driveability. In ’96 the 4.3L V-6 and 5.0L and 5.7L V-8’s got a mess known as central-point fuel injection. The system grouped individual injectors in the center of the intake manifold (right inside, actually) and each injector had a small hose leading into each intake port with a check valve at the end. The system was very prone to clogging. In addition, GM reduced the number of intake manifold bolts on the V-8’s and intake manifold gasket failures became more common. 1995 also saw the introduction of Dexcool antifreeze, which also caused intake manifold gasket problems until the gasket composition was changed a few years later. GM eventually came up with a revised fuel injector assembly that was far more reliable, and coupled with the new gaskets the engines were once again reliable.
Even though the TBi engines were slow, those engines were bullet proof. If something did fail, it was cheap and easy to fix. I saw a ton of them with very high mileage. In ’96 when the Vortec engines were released, they felt like the Corvettes of trucks. They were fast for their time, but that EFI system was problematic.
The poppet valves you discussed would clog up like you said, and we actually had a special tool to clean them out with pressurized air. The other issue with it was that this system was much higher PSI than the TBI system. The Vortec engines were very sensitive to fuel pressure. So if the pumps dropped out of spec a bit, they didn’t have enough pressure to open the poppet valves and you could get a no-start. We changed a lot of fuel pumps from these Vortec engines and they were a lot more expensive than the TBI pumps. Interestingly the 454 engines used a true MPFI setup. We did lots of intake gaskets at this time, but I remember doing way more 60 degree V6 engines (ie 3100’s) than Chevy V8’s.
Very true about the fuel pumps and pressure. I owned a ’96 454 for 14 years and it gave very little trouble.
This design was just so right – the modern one still pays homage to it despite its increase in size.
When i worked at my uncle’s place during the nineties we had a V8 diesel with 140 hp. Although i was into hot hatches (still am actually) i always loved taking it out for a job or a delivery to a client. I once took her up to 195 kph on the highway coming from Brussels …. Fully loaded … Those were the days i suppose 🙂 .
We used to run it for several years but at a certain point it had to go since the gearbox always broke down.
The Eurovan my uncle bought wasnt half as cool as the Chevy , unfortunately 🙁
A true workhorse of a truck.
These trucks ran forever. They also hold their value.
The mom and pop “buy here pay here” dealership I hang out at had a 1993 Chevy Cheyenne 4×4 version. It had 215,000 miles on it and was being used as a shop truck before it was sold. It was that attractive turquoise green paint that a lot of late 1980’s- early 1990’s GM vehicles had.
It was a nice driving truck.
The HVAC controls were fine for me but it was the radio that was a bizarre. The radio itself was buried in the dash. The unit with the display was the control panel. Then there was a remote tape deck that was in the location that a regular radio would be. This seems like thing that GM liked to do as there were several other models that had this set up.
I like the GMT-400 and think that GM did good by replacing the previous generation(though I think that they should have replaced it back in the early 1980’s) I still like the 7th,8th and 9th Gen Ford F-Series better
My 96 Sierra SLE still turns heads.
Last of the great two-tone color schemes, and my personal favorite. The reverse scheme looked great too. Nice truck!
*Dissenter here*, I never liked these. They cemented the previous generation’s stacked headlight facelift forever and ever, had about as much stylistic flourish as a Lumina, and really only come off advanced for 1988 because the previous design was 15 years old, completion from Dodge even older,and Ford’s F series wasn’t exactly fresh either, from 1980. The design is par for late 80s Irv Rybicki design – take the previous Mitchell era design and round the hard edges. It’s a pickup truck, the basic shape is set in cement, so it’s not a marvel that it wound up looking contemporary and became “timeless” when omnipresent aerodynamics were applied.
I also don’t care for the “modern” stepside bed these used. The charm of stepsides by this time was the 1950s origins of the main stampings and rugged trailer lights. Redoing it to look modern and aerodynamic looked dumb. Ford would later follow suit with their equally bad Aero flareside to go with the Aero facelift.
But the worst part about these trucks, isn’t a fault of the design. It’s that truck “accessories” didn’t evolve. Toolboxes, side steps, bullbars, camper shells, et al all remained boxy and rugged, and while these sorts of things shouldn’t be about aesthetics, they looked better on trucks that had the same purposeful rugged lines, while on these trucks they looked anachronistic. Additionally two tone paint should have stayed with the previous generation, and, revealingly, the “like a rock” commercials they ran for these 24/7 when I was a toddler is still burned in my brain, ugh!
I worked with a guy at a shop who had a 94 or so 4X4 pick up, we also had an FBI agent who drove a similar year 4X4 blazer. The blazer was a drug bust repo that he was using for his FBI duties, but it had a huge chrome push bumper and custom wheels. Well you can guess that the agent didn’t like the flashiness of the chrome stuff, so he got to talking with my coworker and they did a bumper & wheels swap. The agent took care of the bill & my buddy got all the chrome stuff for free.
Nice article. Enjoyed it.
When the 1988 Silverados were introduced, my reaction was “handsome looking truck” and very “car-like”. Test drove one and it was very smooth, comfortable and car-like.” Compared to the previous generation Chevy/GMCs, Dodges and Fords, it seemed like a “urban gentleman cowboy” rather than the “simple, rugged, rough outdoor” type.
But I didn’t like the instrument panel (hated the rotating disc in lieu of needle indicators), radio and HIVAC controls. By 1995 the instrument gauges had the conventional needle indicators, which looked a lot better.
Looked at the specs and found they downsized the truck somewhat. Compared to the ’73-87 models the bed dimensions and tailgate width were significantly narrower. But the cab interior dimensions were seemed roomier, especially with that newly-introduced (for Chevy/GMC) extended cab..
The other thing that struck me was the frame was a three-piece modular construction: front section, cab section and cargo bed section. Prior to 1988 they were full-length frames but necessitating separate full length for various cab/bed configuration. Guess GM found it more cost savings to take a modular approach.
Has there been any issues with the modular frames, especially at the areas where the frames were welded or bolted together? I noticed over rough roads more body flex more with the post 1988 compared to the pre 1988, especially at the section where the bed and the cab met.
They went to needle gauges in 1991, still using the old style dashboard.
Okay, I knew somebody’s memory was better. Thanks.
However, I do recall liking the newer dashboard with the needle gauges better than the old.
I should clarify my comment, not all trucks had the needle gauges in 1991. There was a mix of both sets used. IIRC, they all switched in 1992.
There is a book called “Road Fever” by Tim Cahill – Tim and Garry Sowerby got GM to lend them one for a road trip from Tierra del Fuego (lowest tip of Argentina) to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 23 days. It’s a very good read, I have a copy around here somewhere but have seen it in the library as well as used on Amazon. If you like these trucks and you like reading about travel it’s a great combo, the truck is definitely a big part of the story.
Tim Cahill is obviously a writer, he has numerous titles to his name. Garry Sowerby is an professional long-distance driver (not the same thing as a trucker). Actually I ran across his name again a few years ago after not hearing it for two decades, apparently he delivers weekly test cars to at least one of the editors of the other site that lives on the fringes of civilization in eastern Canada.
Anyway, great truck, good book, highly recommend reading it.
If I had to take a pickup truck for the few occasions I needed it, this would be the one I would take. I still see these ticking away on roads to this day, so clearly GM must’ve done something right. In my opinion, this was the best GM truck design since the late 60s C10s. I have no problem saying that I would take this generation CK over a Ford F series or Dodge Ram any day, and the only thing I can think of that would top this in pickup duty (at least for me) would be a mid-70s Ford F series.
My second vehicle, at age 19, was a 1989 Chevy Scottsdale. 4.3 V6, 5-speed, 4×4, regular cab stepside bed, and a color matched ARP (?) topper. It was 10 years old when I bought it with about 80k on the odometer.
Being an ’89, it had the sealed beam quad headlights, flat grille, early dash, and one-year-only black background CHEVROLET on the tailgate. It had 265/75/15 chunky tires on it, and honestly, it was pretty badass fo the time. I had catback duals installed, and it sounded pretty tuff, at least in my mind.
I ended up paying it off on a three year loan and ceremonially burning the payment book. Shortly after that, the engine shelled at around 125k. Ended up buying a replacement engine at O’Reilly, and then replacing the clutch and trans at the same time. It was a huge investment at the time, and even with typical cab corner rust and normal wear and tear, I figured it was worth $4k. Ended up buying my mom’s ’95 Camry (greatest car I ever owned) and leaving the Chevy in the care of my father, who literally sold it out from under me for like $1200 to get it out of the driveway. I was less than thrilled.
That truck taught me a lot, and was bone simple to work on, not to mention a good looking rig. I miss it! Of course, the Camry ended up being the buy of the century, so it was a square deal. The next Chevy I bought was a 2004 K2500HD—LQ4, 5 speed. Still have that one!
Still the best trucks to customize, as far as lowering and such, as was common in California during that period. I personally prefer the late 90’s and early 2000 versions with the LS motor.
Regarding the Dodge pickups looking like they did back in 1980, that style actually came out in 1972 and lasted to 1993. I remember someone I met had just bought a new ’94 Dodge pickup, and I thought the separate, bulgy fenders, hood & grill, and side body creases were just trying way too hard to make it look like a sports-car. I still prefer the square functional look of the ’72 – 93 generation, and that same look on older Ford and GM trucks like the one featured here. Of course now, they all have that oversize & overdone, bulges & creases styling – so I guess Chrysler was the trailblazer here in ’94 – just not for me.
Happy Motoring, Mark
Mark, you (and Stéphane Dumas, above) are correct – the Dodge’s basic design came out for ’72. I guess I should have been clearer that I was referencing the mild restyle of the front clip and rear for 1980, with only minor detail changes through ’93.
I remember really liking the ’94 Rams when they were new. They didn’t say “sports car” to me as much as scaled-down semi tractor. Next to a new RAM 1500, the ’94s actually look a little on the small-side, believe it or not!
My beloved 1990, currently convalescing in my parents’ driveway…
Another Chevrolet to keep the Monza company? :). Or was it a C3? (My memory could be way off, so sorry in advance.)
There are three things I vividly remember about this series of trucks having owned 4 of them, an ’89, ’92, ’95 and ’98. The first was how easy it was to change the headlight bulbs (’90 to ’98). To change the headlights all you had to do was unscrew two pins and the whole assembly tilted out for easy access to the bulbs. Much easier to change bulbs than the 2012 GMC Sierra I now own. Sometime around 1991 or 1992 they also went to 3157 push-in bulbs from 1157 bayonet base bulbs for the brake and turn signal bulbs. The second was the HVAC system on the ’88’s and ’89’s. When a truck equipped with AC was turned off one of the mode doors in the system would loudly reposition itself. The third was the new redesigned gauge cluster in 1995. From 1988 to 1994 the sound system consisted of three separate components: the graphic equalizer – cassette player, the tuner and the control head. For 1995 everything was contained in one unit. One other thing I never understood was the 1996 to 1999 central sequential multiport fuel injection system. Having electrical as well as poppet nozzle injectors and a two piece intake manifold seemed needlessly complex. GM should have just used the excellent tuned port injection that came out on the ’85 IROC Camaro.