Muscle pickups, briefly popular in the 1970s in the form of truck’s like Dodge’s “L’il Red Express,” made a comeback in the early 1990s and the first manufacturer to really unleash them was GM. In 1990 and 1991, GM offered a very divergent pair of speedy pickups: GMC’s Syclone, based on the S-15/Sonoma; and Chevrolet’s 454SS, based on the GMT400 C/K.
An old-school bruiser, the 454SS came first, in 1990, and it outsold the faster, more exotic (and expensive) Syclone and help set the stage for Ford’s F-150 lightning, but it isn’t as well remembered today as either.
The second fuel crisis largely killed off factory muscle trucks for awhile – but GM had produced a variety of special models based on the 1973-87 C/Ks that were aimed at the muscle truck market such as the Chevy Sport and the GMC Street Coupe – both of which were primarily offered in the late 1970s (the last Chevy Sports were ‘81s).
Custom “Square body” C/Ks were less frequently seen in the 1980s but were still offered into 1987; and many regular short-bed trucks were modified by their owners.
The 1970s specials could be had with the 454 although they were not de facto models – most were just option packages and therefore usually could be ordered with a variety of truck engines, from humble sixes all the way up to the big block.
The GMT400 trucks took most of the 1980s to engineer but they were a massive success when they arrived – GM moved more than half a million units a year in 1988-89, early teething problems with suspension components aside.
The aerodynamic-looking trucks looked futuristic and felt comfy and modern inside. The huge array of configurations made it possibly to engineer a muscle truck on the cheap – thus the 454SS was an easy way to test the waters on a factory sport truck. Whereas most of the 1980s specials had been modified by outside contractors, the 454SS would come from the factory.
The recipe was a short-box C1500, Bilstein shocks and heftier suspension components, quicker steering, big fat street tires (this was before the advent of massive 20” wheels), and of course – a 230-hp, 385 lbs./ft. 454 V8.
The truck was dressed only in Darth Vader black with graphics that perfectly fit with Chevy’s look of the time – it would have looked perfectly at home alongside Dale Earnhardt’s Winston Cup Lumina.
The engine and overall speed are mild by today’s standards – It’d do 60 in 7.7 second and sucked down fuel at 11mpg – but the 454SS looked the part. Unlike the Syclone with its 500-lb. max load capacity, the 454SS was also actually useful as a truck.
The 454 was quite popular in 1990 – over 13K were sold, but Chevy made the truck a limited edition for the next three years, and just under 17K overall were made.
The 454SS faded fairly quickly from the limelight, likely because it was not as fast or exotic as the Syclone – although that truck was offered for a far shorter period of time and sold in very tiny numbers.
It’s an odd combination of the very modern-seeming GMT400, which looked and felt futuristic in 1988, and a very old-school approach to making a fast vehicle (take the biggest engine you can find and shove it into the smallest chassis), but it definitely paved the way for more trucks like it.