Looking at the Chevy S-10, you might find it hard to imagine it traces all the way to Ford’s 1917 Model TT. Back then, pickup trucks were seen as nothing more than workhorses. American consumers began showing interest in owning pickups for lifestyle rather than utilitarian reasons in the 1950s — a market that Japanese automakers were already up to speed with.
Of the three big U.S. manufacturers, Chevrolet made the first competitive move by introducing its S-10 compact pickup in 1981 for the 1982 model year. It was the first domestically produced compact pickup of its kind. Of course, it prompted GMC to follow suit with the S-15. That brand subsequently introduced a high-performance version, the Syclone, inspiring various S-10 owners to modify their pickups.
Legends among Chevy trucks
In a multipart series, “Legends of Chevy Trucks,” the General Motors Heritage Center covers its long history of pickup trucks. In the final installment, the Heritage Center honored the S-10’s place among legends. The feature article reveals that the first-generation Chevy S-10 succeeded in outselling foreign competitors in the same category, becoming “the best-selling truck in its class” the first year.
It goes on to explain Chevy’s design vision was to build a smaller pickup using many styling cues of its larger trucks so that it looked tough despite its small stature. It also kept with the contemporary squared-off body with a broad grille bearing Chevy’s iconic bowtie badge. To add the cherry on top, Chevy offered the famous “period-correct two-tone” paint job. And no vehicle from the 1980s is complete without classic vinyl and cloth upholstery, both of which were interior options.
The Chevy S-10 changed the pickup game
The Heritage Center explained how the first-generation Chevy C-10 simplified the process of shifting between two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive modes. Traditionally, four-by-four systems were strenuous to deal with because the freewheeling hubs had to be unlocked manually. But the S-10’s “Insta-Trac” could activate and deactivate four-by-four mode from inside the truck without having to unlock the front wheels manually. And it was the first four-by-four to allow drivers to shift between 2 High and 4 High while moving.
Chevy also proved that a small pickup truck could still haul a fairly good payload, with a rating of up to 1,625 pounds. That impressed many truck owners in the early ’80s. This points toward a pickup truck that appeals to lifestyle buyers but still provides adequate utility.
Unless you wanted to be stuck flipping through AM/FM channels, a stereo equipped with a cassette player was an option. For those born during the CD or MP3 era, an in-car cassette deck in the early 1980s was like upgrading to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (becoming more standard these days). And though we complain about heated gear shifters not coming standard, power steering, power door locks, power windows, and air conditioning were also options.
The well-trimmed S-10 models featured names still well known today, such as Tahoe, Durango, and Sport.
The ’82 S-10 offered a diesel engine just like the 2021 Colorado
When Chevy’s designers were drawing up the plans for the 1983 S-10, they knew buyers yearned for more flexibility and powertrain choices. So between the 1983 and 1984 model years, the S-10 got a 2.0-liter, two-barrel, 83-hp diesel engine. Today’s Colorado comes available with a 2.8-liter turbodiesel engine producing 186 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. It goes to show how far engine technology has come over the years.
The first-generation Colorado was supposed to replace the S-10 but did a terrible job of it. It was compact like the S-10 but not as durable. First-gen Chevy Colorado (2004-2012) owners complained about leaking cabins, rusting beds, poor interior finish, and glitchy electrical components. Nevertheless, the newer Colorado models are not only midsize but also have greatly improved over the past couple of years.