Roadside Classic: 1990 Chevrolet 454 SS – Overkill Is a Relative Term


 The time is about 1988.  The place is somewhere deep in the bowels of Chevrolet’s pickup division north of Detroit.  The event is a meeting of various people working within the truck division.

They are there to discuss how to inject a little pizzazz into their current lineup, hoping to create enough buzz to increase overall sales.  The ideas are many and varied; the discussion likely went something like this:

“Okay, guys and gals, Ford continues to kick our butt in the annual pickup sales race.  Nobody ever stops to consider that we, General Motors, also make GMC trucks; hell, there’s only about $4.35 worth of difference in badging, but does anyone ever stop to think that GM usually outproduces Ford in pickups?  Of course not.  So we at Chevrolet are terminally in second place.  Chevrolet being in second place to Ford is just wrong, and it is counter to the natural order of the universe.


“We just introduced our new C/K line for this current 1988 model year.  What does Ford do for 1988?  They put a tether on the fuel cap of a pickup that’s older than dirt – they introduced it in, what, 1980?  That’s a long time ago…”

“Uh, sir?  Didn’t we just replace a pickup that was introduced in, like, 1973?”

“Conners, was that you?  Must you always inject yourself?  Besides, I’m not talking about us, I’m talking about Ford.  Damn, those folks do nothing for eons and they still wipe the floor with us.  We need to find a way to increase our fleet sales….

“Anyway, despite our new pickup line that cost a boat-load, we need to find a way to rev up the customer base and generate some excitement.  We need a way to further invigorate our sales and create that little something different; to ‘brougham-it-up’ as they say at the glass house.  Thoughts?”

Conners spoke up.

“Uh, sir?  A lot of our customer base appreciates performance.  What about a performance option?”

“Conners, what do you mean by performance?  Hell, if a half-ton doesn’t perform for what they need, they can buy a three-quarter or one-ton pickup.  A one-ton with a 454 could pull the earth off its rotational axis if geared right.  What do you mean performance?”

Conners was a smart, articulate, and gung-ho individual although nobody quite knew his vocation.  It was widely assumed he was the ergonomics guy as the financial people poo-pooed all ideas, the attorneys wanted a disclaimer on everything, and the engineers weren’t quite so articulate.

“Uh, sir?  Well, since we dropped the rear drive Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Regal, and Cutlass coupes, a lot of people think that GM has abandoned them.  And most of the baby-boomers who bought Chevelle’s and Camaro’s back in the ’60’s and ’70’s have matured.  They want a mixture of comfort and performance that doesn’t exist with a Beretta.  Several focus groups indicate pickups are the future hot commodity in the coming decade.”

Conners was not met with much agreement from his superior.


“Conners, please.  This is GM; people will buy whatever we throw them.  If they want comfort and performance, then get the F-41 suspension on a Caprice.  And let me tell you, I just saw the initial designs for the new Caprice for ’91; that thing will be more popular than ice-water in Hades.  That is the hot commodity in the coming decade.”

Conners was a paradox of sorts.  His talent for boiling down events to such a painful truth, much to the chagrin of the idealistic ninnies surrounding him, did give him an engineer flavor.  His ability for an impassioned argument over anything also painted him in a hue of jurisprudence.


“Uh, sir?  GM has always been unparalleled in providing a wide variety to the customer.  I’m not certain how a new Caprice is going to provide variety when we canned the rear-drive Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick versions several years ago.  Hasn’t GM always been one to be bold and in-your-face with new, innovative, and daring products, such as the original Toronado or the Corvair?  Where has that spark gone?  Couldn’t this be our opportunity to prove that we aren’t whipped, but just getting ready to spring back into a new vitality, a vitality that shows we are a formidable entity who never shies away from engineering prowess and, dare I say it, overkill in variety?  Have we lost that spark that made us the largest corporation in the world?  I suppose my question is whether we want to lead as we have historically or be an also-ran, striving to achieve bland mediocrity?  What do we want to be?”

As Conners finished his statement, several people wiped tears of pride from their eyes.  They saw a young man who was brimming with life, was a GM loyalist to the core, and who wasn’t afraid to shake the status quo.  Even Conners’ superior was moved.

“Okay, Connors, get to work – but you have to stay within the parts bin.”


What was the result from this fictitious conversation?  It was the 454 SS, perhaps one of the most delightful examples of stuffing a huge engine in a small body since perhaps the early 1970’s.  Some might even call it overkill.

Webster defines overkill as:  an excess of something (as a quantity or an action) beyond what is required or suitable for a particular purpose.  

Overkill has such a negative connotation, which is unfortunate.  Overkill should be viewed as being a focused determination, a strong desire to accomplish a goal.

One could easily argue that starting a barbecue with a half-liter of gasoline is overkill.  It could also be argued that killing wasps with a shotgun is overkill.  But don’t both methods accomplish the intended goal?

Stuffing a 7.4 liter V8 from your heavier duty pickups into the smallest pickup available is focused and determined, both of which accomplished the goal of straight-line performance.  So what’s wrong with that?


Chevrolet had a goal in making the 454 SS – they sought a performance pickup.  For several years in the early 1990’s GM was doing just that; after the 454 SS in 1990, the turbo charged 4.3 liter GMC S-15 based Syclone arrived for 1991, and the mechanically identical GMC Typhoon SUV sprang forth in 1992.  The 454 SS was just their opening salvo in a skirmish that Ford would answer with their Lightning pickup.

Overkill is also a relative term.  Upon its introduction in 1990, the 454 SS was rated at 230 horsepower.  If you compare that to the base V6 engines with in excess of 300 horsepower currently available in pickups, that rating is laughable.  Yet for the time, it was glorious overkill that allowed the 454 SS to accelerate nearly as briskly as a contemporary Mustang GT.  Just don’t compare their fuel economy as the 454 SS had an EPA rating of 10 mpg city and 11 mpg highway.  Of course, pickups do tend to get worse fuel mileage.


The 1990 models had a three speed automatic with 3.73 gears out back; the 1991 and later models would get a fourth gear and 4.10 gears.  1990 would also be the peak year of sales at 13,478 with only another 3,500 being sold in the following three years combined.


I found this particular 454 SS alongside the road, for sale (shocking, I know, as it seems like half my CC specimens are for sale).  Talking with the owner confirmed that it does indeed accelerate like there is no tomorrow and, even better, he can get up to 12 mpg with it if he stays below 55 mph.

I just wonder if Chevrolet ever considered the 3.8 liter turbo engine from the Buick Grand National?