After two months of employment at Fast Lane Classic Cars in St. Charles, Mo., I must admit that working at a classic car dealership certainly has its perks — especially for an auto enthusiast like me.
While I’m sure Toyota salesmen get their jollies from driving around in a hybrid Camry or Prius, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of taking a customer for a spirited test-drive in a 1991 GMC Syclone.
Inspired by the Buick Grand National, the Syclone is a funnel of terror on the streets. With a turbocharged engine and rear-biased all-wheel drive system, the Syclone stands alone as the world’s fastest production truck nearly 25 years after its demise. How many other cars can you say that about?
You can imagine my excitement when I overheard that a customer from Illinois was here to see the Syclone. I sprung from my office chair faster than Bugs Bunny from his rabbit hole to grab the set of keys.
Though my time behind the wheel of the Syclone was short-lived, it certainly wasn’t wasted. As I rolled to a stop just before the three-lane intersection, I resisted the strong urge to apply my left foot to the brake pedal and spool up the Syclone’s Mitsubishi-sourced turbocharger with the accelerator pedal. While daydreaming of the impending launch, I soon realized it was my turn to go. Brake boosting would have to wait. As I buried the pedal, it quickly became clear that this boosted bad boy didn’t need any help.
With very minimal turbo lag, the Syclone launched from the intersection while its sticky Cooper RS3-A all-season rubber chirped in defiance as they struggled to transmit the Syclone’s ghastly 350 pound-feet to the pavement. With my neck pinned against the headrest, a school-girl giggle escaped as the archaic boost gauge needle soared to 14 pounds per square inch. Sixty miles per hour came alarmingly fast, and I reluctantly let off the throttle. The loud exhale from the factory blow-off valve immediately followed.
Even 25 years later, it’s hard to find a single truck that is as rewarding to drive. Whether it’s launching from a stoplight or zipping through a double S-curve, the Syclone is turbocharged nirvana disguised as an S-10 pickup.
While hooning the king of the sport truck segment is nothing less than exhilarating, the story of its creation is nearly as intriguing. After the last Grand National rolled off the assembly line in 1987, Buick engineers were getting a little stir crazy after the brand’s most notable performance car was discontinued from its lineup. Though they had helped Pontiac create its Turbo Trans Am using Buick’s LC2 3.8-liter V6 engine, it didn’t feel the same with an arrowhead badge in place of the familiar tri-shield.
To show the world that Buick performance was far from dead, engineers fitted a rear-wheel drive Chevrolet S-10 with its infamous turbocharged powerplant and Grand National exterior badging and wheels. Even the “turbo bulge” hood was transferred over. But General Motors shot down Buick’s proposal to build a turbocharged Grand National pickup — leaving us only to imagine what could have been.
Chevrolet was also intrigued but already had the 454 SS as the brand’s sport truck offering and didn’t want the two models to compete against each other. Instead, the idea was proposed to GMC who was just crazy enough to try it.
Buick’s turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 engine required costly modifications to fit in the Sonoma’s cramped engine bay, so a boosted version of the 4.3-liter LB4 Vortec V6 would have to suffice. Paired to a four-speed 4L60 automatic transmission borrowed from the Corvette, the 280-horsepower boosted-six enabled the the Syclone to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in only 4.6 seconds and complete the quarter-mile in the low 13-second range.
In September 1991, Car and Driver was so impressed by the Syclone’s performance that they pitted it against a brand new $122,000 Ferrari 348ts. Amazingly, the $25,000 pickup beat the Italian supercar in both the quarter-mile and acceleration tests.
After 2,995 units were produced in 1991, the Syclone was discontinued after just one year. Though it may it may have been a sales flop, the limited-production pickup has since gained the attention of automotive enthusiasts and collectors alike. Though the Ford Lighting and Dodge Ram SRT-10 sport trucks have come and gone, neither was able to match the Syclone’s herculean zero-to-60 time.
Visually, the Syclone looks to be nothing more than a black Sonoma with a lowered ride height, plastic ground effects and 16-inch aluminum wheels. But its modest styling arguably makes the truck even more alluring. To all but those who know of its legendary performance, the Syclone will forever be the ultimate sleeper.