Curbside Classic: 1981 GMC Caballero – Red Hot

1981 GMC Caballero. Chandler, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

Riddle: “When is an El Camino not an El Camino?”

Answer: “When it’s a GMC Caballero!”

Or a GMC Sprint, to be fair.  This past July 4th weekend found me in the metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona area to celebrate with some of my best friends, with most of us knowing each other from Chicago.  Four of us were headed to downtown Chandler to check out a famous brew-pub that been on one of our lists to try.  Yet another beautiful thing about my sobriety (the end of this week will mark seventeen months) is that I can now always be the built-in designated driver when needed.  It didn’t take much straining for me to spot this bright red beauty from the car as we headed toward the parking garage.

1981 GMC Caballero. Chandler, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

These particular friends, part of a larger group, are especially close to my heart, as they were some of the first real friends I had made when I first moved to the Windy City in the early Aughts.  We have all been and seen each other through some major life changes.  Many of them grew up in the diversely populated south Chicago suburb of Park Forest, in an environment very similar to that in which I grew up in Flint, Michigan.  After carefully feeling me out, they had then embraced me as one of their own, almost as if I had gone to high school with them.  Indeed, I know so many of those stories like I had been there.  Over the course of almost twenty years, some of us have moved away for new and different phases of life.  An increased physical distance between friends does not need to translate to a loss of closeness.  I flew into Phoenix from Chicago, and two in our group flew in from central Texas, so it really was a Chicago reunion in southern Arizona.

Portillo's Hot Dogs. Tempe, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

The Chicago theme seemed to run through much of what we did that weekend, including lunch at Portillo’s hot dogs in Tempe, not far from the campus of Arizona State University.  I had last been to Portillo’s (pronounced por-TIH-los, versus por-TEE-yos or -jhos), a Chicago legend, maybe ten years ago at the suggestion of my cousin and his wife who were visiting for an extended weekend.  It’s never not a good time for a Chicago-style hot dog, and I’ve already been to both Wolfy’s (open since 1967) and Superdawg (1948) since only this April.  Chicago dogs have a very specific constitution: an all-beef hot dog topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, tomato wedges, sweet relish and a dill pickle spear, sport peppers (which are small, green, and pickled), with a dash of celery salt and served on a poppy seed bun.  Under no circumstances whatsoever is there to be any ketchup anywhere near it.

A Chicago red hot from Wolfy's. West Ridge, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, April 7, 2021.

A Wolfy’s red hot.  West Ridge, Chicago, Illinois.  Saturday, April 17, 2021.

The Chicago dog is also called a “red hot” among its assortment of nicknames.  Speaking of red hot, the high temperatures in metro Phoenix on July 4th weekend averaged something like 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius).  Even the water in my friends’ swimming pool registered in the upper 90s, according to the floating thermometer.  It was only appropriate that the one, major classic vehicle spotting and photo op that occurred during the weekend was of this ’81 GMC Caballero finished in a color that could accurately be described as “red hot”.  It wasn’t wasted on me, either, that this truck was parked on West Chicago Street in downtown Chandler.  I believe that there are no coincidences.  The accessories on this truck, including its custom wheels, blackout trim and cargo bed, look so correct and perfect to me, much like the toppings on a Chicago red hot.

1981 GMC Caballero. Chandler, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

This GMC’s “Caballero” model name also seemed extremely fitting for this setting.  A Spanish word that can mean “gentleman” or “horseman”, it seems direct correlated to the English noun “cavalier”.  All of this imagery jells perfectly with my ideas of the West.  I haven’t spent a lot of time in this area of the southwestern United States outside of periodic visits to these friends (and to Las Vegas, which is a whole, separate thing), but this area has so far lived up to most of my mental pictures of what it would be like.  There is the dust, majestic mountains, tons of cacti sprinkled everywhere, extreme heat, and things in the animal kingdom like scorpions and (rumored) road runners that actually look like miniaturized versions of the giant Warner Brothers cartoon bird.  The only thing missing was Yosemite Sam, as seen on vehicle mudflaps warning other drivers to “Back off!”

1981 GMC Caballero brochure cover photo, as sourced from the internet

The GMC double to the Chevrolet El Camino was called the Sprint when introduced for the ’71 model year.  It sold fairly well, with solid first-year sales of about 5,500 units.  (The highest production figure for any GMC coupe utility would arrive for ’79, when there were close to 7,000 copies made.)  Being regularly outsold by a ratio of close to 10:1 by the Chevy perhaps gave GMC Sprint owners the bit of differentiation they were looking for.  Following the redesigned 1973 – ’77 “Colonnade”-based generation, the downsized ’78s sported the new “Caballero” name, and sales of the GMC increased by about 10%, to 6,600 units that year.  The front grille on this example is from an ’81, the last year of dual headlamps before a switch to quad lamps for ’82.

1981 GMC Caballero. Chandler, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

As with any vehicle of this era, it’s possible that the grille is a only replacement sourced from an ’81 donor vehicle, but if this example is an ’81, it’s one of about 4,400 produced that year (against about 36,700 Chevy El Caminos).  Of these final-generation utes from GM, there was only one model year, 1983, in which the GMC version didn’t sell better than 10% of the combined total between GMC and Chevrolet.  I wonder if I might have been one of the “GMC guys” in wanting to drive something different (in name) than the popular Chevy.  GMC has long been marketed as being “industrial grade” versus its bow-tie wearing counterpart, but when I saw both Silverado and Sierra pickups being built nose-to-tail during a Flint Assembly plant tour ten summers ago, I saw nothing but what looked like near-complete interchangeability with only minor detail changes between the two makes.

1981 GMC Caballero. Chandler, Arizona. Monday, July 5, 2021.

An attempted license plate search proved fruitless, so I can’t say for sure what was under the hood.  There were four engines available for ’81: two six-cylinder engines displacing 229 and 231 cubic inches (with the same 110 horsepower rating), and then two V8s, with one displacing 267 cubic inches with a two-barrel carburetor and 120 horses, and the other being a 305 with a 4-bbl. carb and 135-hp.  A fun fact that has long fascinated me was that the bed of the downsized ’78 was the same length as that of the larger ’77, at about 79″ long.  I’m a big fan of doing more with less, speaking of which, I never would have believed maybe even two or three years ago just how much more I would enjoy visiting with these friends without an adult beverage in my hand.  You know you have found your tribe when you all love and support each other’s good decisions without judgement and give each other the freedom to evolve as life moves forward.  That’s about as red hot as it gets.

Downtown Chandler, Arizona.
Monday, July 5, 2021.