COAL: 1990 GMC Suburban – Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fires of Automotive Hell

90 gmc burb front

A few months back (November 30, 2014 to be exact) , I promised that I would share my biggest automotive mistake. That day has finally come. It is difficult for me to talk about this darkest chapter in my long history of gambling by buying questionable vehicles. I’m still feeling the financial repercussions of buying this vehicle even today, nine years later. My current vehicles are a reflection of the lessons and trauma caused by this vehicle. As you will recall, I was once thought that my Saab was the worst auto decision I ever made. That fiasco pales in comparison to the tale of woe that you are about to read.

From my previous B-Body wagons, I learned to love the feeling of body-on-frame, V8 powered rear-wheel drive. My last COAL gave me an appreciation for forward-facing third row seats that allowed for the hauling of both cargo and people.  I also enjoyed the elevated driving position and extra ground clearance. As a result, I added these attributes as desirable in my next vehicle.

When I had to reluctantly give up my Caprice wagon and search for a new vehicle, I used my good experience with the B-Body as a template for my search. After searching on the internet for a while, I encountered a 1992 Buick Roadmaster station wagon for $900….perfect! I called the dealer who reported that the car had been sold but he had a few more wagons like that in stock. He then ran through what he had:



1988 Chevy Celebrity Eurosport Wagon, with 40,000 original miles. I immediately said no because it had front-wheel drive.  I so regret this decision. This is the car I should have bought. I actually saw it on the lot…it was beautiful!



1988 Mercury Colony Park. I turned him down because I’d never had a Ford before and was not about to start now. It turned out to be a good decision; I saw the car and it was pretty rusty.



1988 Olds Custom Cruiser. I said no because it had the leisurely Olds 307. Been there. Done that.

Finally he said…1990 GMC Suburban with 145,000 miles. Now that intrigued me. It had my additional requirements of three rows for people and cargo, as well as the higher ground clearance and elevated driving position. I figured this was a truck, therefore, even more rugged and reliable than my Caprice…. an upgraded B- Body of sorts since it had essentially the same drivetrain. I thought this would be an upgrade! It even had a stand-up hood ornament. Moreover, Suburbans have a reputation to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” Indeed, my parents’ neighbor had an ’87 Suburban, which he rarely maintained and always abused, that was still going strong at 335,000 miles with no sign of slowing down. I figured there was no way I could go wrong with a Suburban. I was so wrong about that.


The next day, we went bright and early to the used car lot. We got there early before it opened, and there it was, parked in the front row. It was two-tone black over silver with the dual “barn doors” out back. I did a walkaround and there were a few dings and the paint was faded (in the GM early 90’s way) on the roof but, all in all, it looked pretty solid. I looked underneath and there appeared to be surface rust on the frame rails, but again not too bad.



The owner of the lot showed up a few minutes later and before we knew it, we were going for a test drive. The truck ran and drove very well, was fairly well equipped with AC and power windows and locks. There were three rows of bench seats, allowing for a maximum of nine passengers. However, during the test drive, the brake warning light  illuminated. A little unnerved, I informed the salesman, who was riding in the back seat. He calmly said “How are the brakes?” I applied the brakes and the truck stopped safely and securely. The salesman said that it may be loose wiring…he made me jiggle the emergency brake a little and sure enough, no more brake warning light. With that little hiccup taken care of, I LOVED the driving position, the power of the torquey 5.7 liter TBI V8 and the cargo and passenger room. It only had rear-wheel drive but it came equipped with a limited slip differential and I figured it would be easier on gas than the heavier four-wheel drive version.

I was sold. I wanted to take it home that day. A deal was struck for $1,800, and we left happily and we took it home without incident. The only thing we noticed was that the doors were hard to close…but if we slammed them hard a couple of times they would stay closed, so we figured we’d get used to it.

The first harbinger of things to come came the next day when I could not remove the ignition key from the steering column. It was stuck there and was not moving. I finally called a locksmith and while waiting for him to arrive,  I tried one more time to remove it and sure enough, it came out. Embarrassed, I had to call off the locksmith while he was en route. He was nice enough not to charge me. But this was only the beginning of the nightmare.

Gas prices were incredibly high during this time, pushing $4.00 a gallon. This amounted to about $50.00 for half a tank. Being that my job was 65 miles away, I knew that driving the Suburban to work everyday would not be a good idea so I took the train to work daily, driving the truck five miles to the train station for the first week after I bought it.

At the end of that week, it was time to get my new vehicle inspected so I took it to my local mechanic telling him we were going grocery shopping and would pick it up in a few hours after he was finished with the NJ state inspection.. We left looking forward to putting our newly inspected vehicle into full family service. Ten minutes after we left, my cell phone rang. It was the mechanic:

“Hello, Fred…this is Mike….you’d better get back here to take a look at this truck.”

This lump formed in my throat and stomach. Here is what the mechanic found:

Two tires had glass in them
Radiator was leaking
Engine failed emissions
Engine had a misfire

All of this was minor when he told me the following:






All that kept the body connected to the frame was the weight of the body and steering column. All the areas where the body mounts were installed were completely rusted away! Any jolt, like hitting a large pothole at speed, would have been enough to dislodge the body from the frame. In fact, this had already begun to occur just by putting it on the lift.  And to think I had driven my wife and child in this thing!

I asked my mechanic what needed to be done to fix this. He told me that this was something he couldn’t fix and his best advice to me was to get rid of the truck immediately. For some reason, I refused to accept that as an option and began looking for other places that would be willing to work with me. I quickly found that nobody in my area was willing to take this on. I should’ve cut my losses right then, but I was stubborn.

At work, I told a colleague my sad story. He said he knew someone who could help me, Mr. C.  Mr C. owned an auto repair shop that did anything and everything. I took the Suburban to him and he agreed to fix the problems, including the body mounts.

A week later, I was looking at brand new body mounts with new metal welded in, two new tires, brand new radiator, engine tuned up, and a NJ inspection sticker.  Total cost: $5,500, or three times what I paid for it! But hey , I thought, at least now I have a reliable, working truck.



I think it was home for about a week when a horrible banging noise started in the rear end. Turns out, the rear-end gears were shot! $1,300 later, again I was sure that at least I had a reliable working truck. By this time, the brake warning light was also constantly on. The brakes seemed fine, so I just put some black electrical tape over the light so its red glare would bother me no longer. Also, when first starting out, the temperature gauge would rise rapidly and almost get into the red zone and then fall back to normal. I thought this was strange but since it never overheated, I just ignored it and hoped for the best.

Early one morning as I was leaving the driveway  for work. I stepped on the brake and nothing happened. The pedal went to the floor…total brake failure. Since I was just leaving, my speed was low enough that I just threw it in park to stop the truck. I stepped on the brakes again, and all was fine. So, I shrugged it off and drove to work. I would not have done this today although it actually got me to work fine without incident and  I really enjoyed driving it. The drive home from work was great…until five miles from home, when the oil pressure light came on! With fear and trembling, I took it to the mechanic. Because he was really busy, he did not get to it for a few days. This led me to imagine all kinds of horrible scenarios. Finally they called me and said that they had figured out the problem: It was low on oil! They filled up the crankcase and I was good to go.



All was fine for a few weeks since I used the truck to take me no further than the train station five miles from my house. I even took my parents out to lunch in it, finally making use of the third row seat. A few weeks later, after again taking the truck to work, déjà vu set in when once more when the oil pressure light came on. This time, more extensive tests were done and it was determined that at the very least, an engine rebuild was needed!  This would’ve cost an additional $2,500.

Utterly disgusted and nearly broke, I was completely demoralized and just didn’t want to deal with it anymore, I was sick of it and just wanted out.  I sold it for scrap for $200. This misadventure reminded me of a COAL by Michael Freeman about his experience with an 82 Suburban. Except unlike me, Michael had the wisdom to know when it was time to get out. Plus, he paid a lot less for his and got the same $200 in scrap value that I did.


90 gmc burb left

Including the price of the truck, I spent close to $9,000 (not too far from the down payment I made when I bought my house) and had nothing to show for it except the $200 scrap value. I had only myself to blame… how could I have been so stupid and prideful and obsessed? Ultimately, this was THE worst automotive and arguably financial decision I have ever made!

Extremely depressed, I turned to what I thought would be a familiar, reliable solution. It turned out to be a respite from my experience with the Suburban….but a very short respite. Sometimes, that light at the end of the tunnel–is a freight train headed straight for you. Tune in next week...