The Best Trucks GM Ever Built (Also known as “The Square Bodies”)

Chevy Truck 1 When the 1973 Chevrolet and GMC half-ton pickups were introduced, they were the first truly streamlined pickup trucks on the market.  And their timing could not have been better… imagine a pickup truck that was designed in a wind tunnel and introduced just in time for the first gas crisis.

What makes these the best trucks GM ever built?  Well, they were breakthrough vehicles–the first, in my opinion, of today’s modern pickups.  No previous truck had combined rugged workability and pleasing creature comforts like this before.

Sure, today’s pickups by all brands are better than these, but this was the benchmark that the competition took years, if not decades, to match.  They rode well and drove true, with little or no slop in the steering gear.  The cabs were tight and nearly rattle-free, and you could get parts anywhere.

Chevy interiorThese trucks were many years ahead of their competition in design, and had luxury features and trim almost unheard of in pickups before.  Options included power windows, power door locks, tilt, cruise, and stereo; a bucket seat option with storage console, full gauges with tach, built-in air-conditioning (Instead of an underdash unit), full carpeting even on the doors, and woodgrain trim (Both inside the cab and on the body sides). Some even had hood ornaments and (Yuck) whitewall tires.

Another example of being ahead of their time was that these trucks had their headlight dimmer switch on the steering column for the 1984 models; as late as 1991, Ford still had their dimmer switch on the floor.

There is debate of whether there were any real differences between a Chevrolet or GMC pickup during these years.  Other than badging, trim, and slight equipment availabilities, there really wasn’t.  A Chevy fender would fit a GMC, beds matched, gauges were the same, engines and transmissions would swap, and so on.

The cabs had flush “Limousine-style” doors that looked like they were cut right out of the roof panel.  Ford finally followed suit with aerodynamic cab styling beginning in the 1997 model year, some 24 years later.  Now, I’m not picking on Ford trucks here, I have a treasured 2003 F-150 SuperCrew.  But facts is facts.

Fullscreen capture 3162018 51107 PM.bmpYou could get an 8-foot or 6-foot long bed, either in full Fleetside width or the narrower Stepside.  For whatever reason(s), my favorite style was the regular cab with the short Stepside bed.  I liked the (then) modern look of the cab, but that bed reminded me of classic trucks from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.  Add all the goodies including bucket seats, and you had a preview of the sport trucks that would be offered later.

These trucks had way too many engine, transmission, and running gear combinations to even try to describe in this post.  But as I remember, the usual hot setup was a half-ton, two-wheel-drive pickup with a 350 cu. inch small-block V-8 and a 4-barrel carburetor, bolted to a 3-speed (Later a 4-speed) automatic.  This was a pleasant compromise between power and gas mileage, up from a frugal low-end 6-cylinder with 3-speed column shifter, yet below a thirsty 454 cu. inch V-8.  You basically had a powerful car drivetrain in a comfortable pickup truck, and gas mileage stayed out of the single digits.  Usually.

Fullscreen capture 3162018 50202 PM.bmpThere were no extended cabs or storage spaces behind the seats in these trucks like today’s pickups, but they did offer a “3+3” cab with four doors and a rear seat.  Using the same sheet metal, a spartan “Bonus Cab” work truck that had cargo space in lieu of a back seat was sold.

With trim names like Beau James, Custom, Custom Deluxe, Sierra, Sierra Classic, Bonanza, Sierra Grande, Gentleman Jim, Scottsdale, Cheyenne, Cheyenne Super, Silverado, Heavy Half, and more, you felt like you were living the days of the Old West.  Bonanza was my favorite, reminding me of the TV show, of course.  I’d like to rummage a truck salvage yard some day and find a Bonanza emblem just to remind me of the Cartwrights’ Ponderosa.
Chevy ChaletThe Chevy Blazer and its GMC Jimmy clone were early modern SUVs.  Maybe their width kept them from being better received by the public, as the 1991 Explorer later was.  They became popular as support vehicles in public service departments, and Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) drove one in “JAWS.”

Recreational Vehicle fever was in full pitch in the early and mid-1970s.  The GMC Motorhome looked like a spaceship had landed and sprouted wheels, and used the front-wheel-drive transmission from the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado, initially powered by the Oldsmobile 455 cu in (7.5 l) V-8.

On a more compact level, in 1976 and 1977, Chevy sold the Blazer Chalet and GMC offered the Jimmy Casa Grande.  Every one I saw was tan and brown like the one here, but other colors were available.

They were essentially factory slide-in campers bolted onto the Blazer/Jimmy with enough ’70s-colored graphics to make the Brady Bunch feel right at home.  When properly equipped, they had two bunks, a refrigerator, 2-burner stove, a sink, a dinette, 5,000 BTU gas heater, and drapes.

The ad says it’s “The Blazer You Can Live In,” but some sort of restroom facilities might be desired for a more permanent residence.

The “Big Dooley” was a monster of a truck in those days.  They were six-wheeled, one-ton vehicles, and had four wheels in the back with wider fiberglass fender flares.  Dooleys were sold in both 2- and 4-door styles, and I’ve seen some Suburbans converted with four wheels in the back.  Today, a lot of folks spell this “Big Dually,” but “Big Dooley” just looks and sounds right to yours truly.

004 A friend of mine had this one, a Camper Special with a 454. I was a passenger in a car one night and watched him as he tried to pass us; we both approached a curve.  Then one of his two female passengers panicked, grabbed the steering wheel, and he lost control.  They slid sideways, rolled onto the driver’s side, then over onto the roof, finally sliding to a stop facing the direction that they just came from.

By the time we got turned around and back to the accident scene, we didn’t expect anybody to be alive.  But all three were out of the truck, and there was no blood.  Every window in the truck was gone except for the small door vent windows and the shattered windshield.  The truck was upside down in the ditch, the cab roof on top of a large rock, exhaust pipes ticked as they cooled, and fluids were beginning to puddle.

The next day he refilled the transmission with ATF, kicked the remains of the windshield out so he could see, and drove it home from the wreck lot while wearing a motorcycle helmet and face shield.  The doors still opened, and he used it for a farm truck for a few months till the bank came and got it.  But that’s another story.

There’s no doubt that the truck’s sturdy construction saved my friends’ lives that night.  Even with the extra weight from the beefed-up chassis and massive wheels and tires, the cab roof did not collapse.  Oh, and I should mention for the record that none of the three had their seat belts on.  But they should have.
Chevy SuburbansThe 1973-1991 Chevy and GMC Suburbans were also built on this truck platform.  From spartan workhorses to fully-loaded luxurymobiles pulling the finest of horse trailers and travel trailers, the Suburbans complimented whatever job they had.  They were built for 18 years, making them the longest run in the Suburban’s 80-plus-year history, and were also the first four-door Suburbans.

In 1990 I tested one of the final Suburbans of this series on the car show, and by then, the truck was showing its age.  Also, the bumper edge was so sharp that a burr cut into my finger, and I found a piece of the body side molding resting inside a rear door panel pull pocket.  The truck was not a favorite with the crew.  Maybe they were this rough all through their production run, or maybe by this late in the cycle, nobody building them cared.  Either way, I don’t recall any of the earlier ones being put together this sloppy.

Rusty chevy Of course, these trucks weren’t without their faults; the first few years had significant rust problems.  From disappearing front fenders and cab rocker panels to bed sides that literally fell off, body cancer was rampant in these.  But GM stood up and took notice, and by 1980, these trucks were made of metals that would almost never rust.

Then there were the gas tanks.  They were located outside of the main frame members, called “side saddle” tanks, and were protected only by the thin sheet metal of the bed side.  To highlight this design, NBC’s “Dateline” did a story on them that turned out to be rigged; the explosives actually went off before the moment of impact.  GM took noticed and sued, and heads rolled within NBC over the story.

The hood hinges would also rust and freeze if not kept lubricated, and forcing the hoods shut against the pressure sometimes bent the hood just in front of the hinges.

The only facelift these trucks got was in 1981.  To improve gas mileage through better aerodynamics, GM designed new front fenders with a sculpted “ship bow” look to break the wind easier, fitted a new hood and cowl with exposed wipers, then added an under-bumper air dam to help cut through the air.  Inside the cab, a new soft dash pad and fresh door panels complemented the new front end’s looks.  This was the only real change in these trucks during their run, and the Blazer/Jimmy and Suburbans were also updated that year.

I had a 1984 GMC pickup for a few years.  It was loaded with extras, but had a lower trim level.  Its 305 cu. inch V-8 tried to match a 350, but didn’t quite make it.

The truck came with a slick black vinyl floor cover, and JC Whitney sold a nice carpet kit for the floor and another one for the doors.  Both went on without much fuss, and I added a driver’s door map pocket for that “European” flavor.  I put black carpet kits in; to this day, I wish I had installed grey, which would have hid the dust bunnies.

We also replaced the solid rear cab window (backlight) with a sliding unit.  After the new one was in, there were many times that all the windows could be opened, fresh air would blow through, and air conditioning was not needed.  All that was needed to change the windows was some warm soapy water, a piece of small rope, and some elbow grease.  These trucks were built so simple that even I could work on them.

c764d-6a0105355ab3fc970b01b8d2dedfd0970c-piI think GM replaced these trucks too soon.  With another facelift and some tighter quality control, surely they could have been built for at least five more years.  But truck competition was really heating up by then, so GM tried to stay ahead of the game.

The pickups were replaced for the 1988 model year, and the Blazer/Jimmy and Suburban didn’t change until 1992.  The new trucks were improved in many ways, but the dash was a mess… just operating the radio and separate cassette deck was difficult at best.  The first time I tried to work one of those, I instantly longed for the older truck and its simpler one-piece in-dash radio.

I love my Super Crew, but if anything happened to it, I might have to hunt down a mint copy of one of these.

Just no whitewalls please.

–Chuck Lynch

Credits:  The first image is from MulierChile.com.  The Blazer interior photo is from BringATrailer.com.  The Stepside pickup image is from TopClassicCarsForSale.com.  The 3+3 cab picture is from an Ebay ad.  The Blazer Chalet image is from Tocmp.com/brochures/GMTrucks.  I took the photograph of the wrecked Big Dooley in 1979.  The Suburbans image is from ThisTrainIsForgOurRock.com.  The rusty bed photo is from CarPhotos,CarDomain.  Our final beauty shot is from 73-87ChevyTrucks.com.

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