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Retro Review: GMC Syclone

Jesse McGraw

In 1991, the fastest accelerating car wasn’t a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or any other super car of that year. Instead, it was a light pickup? Here’s a breakdown of the GMC Syclone.

A One Year Wonder

The 1990’s were full of great sports car designs that we still love today. The Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche 911, Acura NSX, and BMW M5; driving any of these, you’d be supremely confident you were driving the best thing on the road. That is until your exotic and very expensive sports car gets it doors blown off by a little pickup truck built in Detroit. Let’s take a dive into the what, why, and how of the short-lived car history oddity that is the GMC Syclone.

A Brilliant Idea Nobody Wanted

Back in the late 1980’s, Buick engineers were mulling over ideas on what to do with the Buick Grand National’s turbocharged 3.8L V6 engine after the model was discontinued in 1987. One idea was installing the turbocharged V6 into the body of a Chevrolet S-10 pickup already under the GM corporate umbrella. The Buick engineering team managed to get a prototype truck ready to present with Grand National-like badging, adding a cowl hood, and some sportier wheels to match the performance they had installed.

1987 Buick Grand National - carsforsale.com

1987 Buick Grand National – carsforsale.com  |  Shop Buick Grand Nationals on Carsforsale.com

A performance truck wasn’t in keeping with Buick’s brand, so it was onto Chevrolet given the use of the S-10 platform. Chevrolet, having plans for the 454 SS performance truck already in the works, wasn’t on board for the design either. This left only one other option in GMC, with a pickup also based on the platform as the S-10. GMC accepted the idea but would end up scrapping the Grand National badging and engine choice. Instead, GMC would compile its own list of performance parts for the S-15 pickup (later named the Sonoma) and looked to an outside party to help build what would become the GMC Syclone.

A Storm Brewed in Michigan

PAS (Production Automotive Services) was a specialty vehicle manufacturer in Michigan that partnered with GM in producing some of their limited vehicles and parts. Notably, their first affiliation with GM came in helping build the engines for the 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am and quality control testing these editions. Having proven their craftsmanship, GM handed PAS the responsibility of producing the new GMC Syclone. So, what all did they throw into these super trucks?

1991 GMC Syclone engine - carsforsale.com
1991 GMC Syclone engine - carsforsale.com
  • Turbocharged 4.3L Vortec V6
    • Mitsubishi TD06-17C turbocharger with a Garrett water-to-air inter-cooler
    • Lower-compression pistons
    • Custom intake and exhaust manifolds
    • Multipoint fuel injection system
    • Larger twin-bore throttle body from Corvette engines
    • Produced a recorded 280hp and 350lb-ft of torque
  • Full-time AWD BorgWarner transfer case
    • Split the engine torque 65% to the rear axle and 35% to the front axle
    • It is the same setup found in the Chevrolet Astros or GMC Safaris of the time
  • 4-wheel anti-lock braking system
    • Disc brakes in the front
    • Drum brakes in the rear
    • Braking ability of 60-0 in 116 ft
  • 4L60 4-speed automatic transmission
    • Hydraulically shifted based on governor pressure and throttle valve cable position
  • Lowered sports suspension modifications
    • Thicker sway bars
    • Stiffer shocks and springs
  • Performance wheels
    • 16×8-inch aluminum rims
    • 245/50/16 Firestone Firehawk tires
  • Modified body kit
    • Wider fender flares
    • Aerodynamic side skirts
    • Deep front air dam
    • Standard tonneau cover
1991 GMC Syclone - caranddriver.com

1991 GMC Syclone – caranddriver.com  |  Shop GMC Syclones on Carsforsale.com

All these speed and handling performance upgrades were great for the ride, but not for being a truck. The maximum cargo capacity was only 500lbs and towing was 2000lbs, but not recommended by GMC. The interior also displayed a warning that stated “This vehicle is not intended for off-road use. The reduced height of this vehicle will not allow it to clear obstacles commonly encountered in an off-road environment. Off-road operation could result in serious damage to chassis and drivetrain.” The whole idea behind the new concept was hated among pickup truck purists. However, the Syclone was ready to prove that just because it wasn’t the best at being a truck, it was still the quickest car of its time.

Rolling onto the Lot

The GMC Syclone showed up on the market offering only one color – black. Black paint, black trim, black plastic interior, and featured just a small amount of red for the vinyl name badging and some interior lines. Speaking of the interior, Syclones came with racing inspired bucket seats with lumbar support, an instrument cluster taken from a Pontiac Sunbird Turbo, large leather wrapped steering wheel, and most of the standard features one would expect at the time such as AC and AM/FM radio.

GMC Syclone lined up next to the Ferrari 348TS - caranddriver.com
GMC Syclone lined up next to the Ferrari 348TS - caranddriver.com

While not really a standout in design, given the price point of around $26,000, but the Syclone held the titles of Fastest Accelerating Vehicle and Fastest Production Pickup Truck of the day. Just looking at the truck, one would never guess it could hit 0-60mph in 4.6s! This made it the perfect sleeper and provided one of the most interesting comparisons in the car world. The GMC Syclone was pitted against the Ferrari 348TS on a ¼ mile dragstrip and won by .4s of a second! While the Syclone tops out at about 128mph, its faster 0-60 time left the Ferrari in the dust. Pretty humbling when you realize the 348TS sold for $122,000, more than four times the amount the GMC Syclone sold for.

The Passing Storm

GMC Syclone, Typhoon, and Sonoma GT - gmc.com
GMC Syclone, Typhoon, and Sonoma GT - gmc.com

Following 1991, GMC stopped production of the Syclone. The truck only saw 2995 produced in 1991 and a mere 3 in 1992. The short-lived model spawned two successors in the GMC Sonoma GT and GMC Typhoon. The Sonoma GT would only look like the Syclone visually, losing the AWD and turbocharger, while gaining better cargo and towing capacities. However, the Typhoon would take the performance of the Syclone and stuff it into a GMC Jimmy body. The GMC Typhoon offered the fun acceleration and performance while allowing for more passengers in its SUV body. The Typhoon would also allow for more personalization offering a full line of different paint and trim colors that the Syclone never saw.

1992 GMC Typhoon - carsforsale.com

1992 GMC Typhoon – carsforsale.com  |  Shop GMC Typhoons on Carsforsale.com

In 1993, GMC would end the Typhoon at 4,697 models being produced. While the Typhoon saw a longer run than the Syclone, neither of them saw large enough numbers to keep them on the production line. PAS discontinued its relationship with GM and went on to merger with TDM Technologies, leaving some to speculate GM wasn’t a fan of trucks and SUVs outmatching their Corvette.

The GMC Syclone was a fun idea that left us too soon. Its creation led to other manufacturers adopting the fun performance truck trend seen in the Ford F-150 SVT Lightning, RAM SRT-10, and Toyota Tacoma X-Runner, but none of these could boast beating a Ferrari of their time at the dragstrip. If only we could get a modern version of the GMC Syclone just to experience that kind of – wait what? We can?

Limited Revival

Specialty Vehicle Engineering has been the performance parts and limited production vehicle producer for GM since the early 90’s, following PAS’s departure. In 2019, the company got the rights to reproduce the GMC Syclone, which would be based off the 2019 GMC Canyon Extended Cab models. Only 100 of these limited specialty vehicles were produced with the original flat black and accented red Syclone design scheme of the past. Performance features included:

  • 455HP supercharged 3.6L V6 engine
    • Stainless Steel Cat-Back Dual Exit Exhaust System
  • High Performance Brake Upgrade
    • Piston Forged Front Calipers in red with black SYCLONE graphics
    • Two-piece 13.6” diameter slotted front rotors
  • Sport Suspension Package
    • Lowered 2” in the front
    • Lowered 5” in the rear
    • HD Traction Bars
    • HD Spring Bushings
    • Higher-Rated Front and Rear Performance Shock Absorbers
    • HD Rear Sway Bar
  • Performance Wheels
    • 20” x 9” front and rear 5 spoke Alloy Wheels with SYCLONE graphics
    • Y-rated front and rear performance tires

While that sounds like a great way to celebrate a powerful truck of the past, SVE took another step further looking towards 2021. Again, based off of the GMC Canyon platform, they plan on making a 750hp beast of a sports truck. That’s right, a 2021 750HP V8 AWD Syclone, and only 50 of these ones will be available! The only downfall is if you live in California, where emission regulations make it only drivable at sanctioned motorsports events. So, are you going to be driving in one of the recent recreations or keep it vintage and find an original 1991 GMC Syclone? Either way, buckle up for a quick ride sure to sweep the competition.

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Jesse McGraw
Jesse McGraw

Jesse's life-long car obsession began when he started collecting Hot Wheels as a child. He’s constantly keeping up with the latest car news and diving deep into automotive history. His automotive journey began with a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, only recently replaced by an impeccable 2014 Kia Soul. You can find him modifying and racing cars in video games when he’s not playing paintball or writing about cars.

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