The Syclone That Came… and Went!

syclone-that-came-and-went
By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

How many appealing vehicles can you name that were only sold for one year?

Even the Edsel lasted three.

Here’s one that came — and went — as fast as it went: the 1991 GMC Syclone.

Zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds.

And that was back in ’91 — when a new L98 (Tuned Port Injection) Corvette needed a languid-seeming 5.3 seconds to make the same run. Even the exotic ZR1 Corvette, with its DOHC V8, needed 4.4. seconds to do what the Syclone did in fewer.

Nothing American could touch the Syclone in a straight-up drag race — and few things foreign (including Ferraris) could match it, either. Car and Driver magazine famously road-tested one against a then-new $122,000 Ferraris 348ts.

The truck won.

Despite costing about $100k less than the Ferrari.

It wouldn’t be until 2002 that GM built something quicker than the Syclone. And that car — the ’02 Z06 Corvette — was just barely quicker (0-60 in 4.2 seconds).

So, how come this phenomenal performer was such a brief blip on the radar?

Well, for openers, it was a truck.

A small truck.

And — let’s be blunt — a cheap truck.

Well, the truck it was based on certainly was. And it’s hard to turn Motel6 into the Ritz — no matter how nicely you dress up the individual rooms.

The Syclone was, when all is said and done, a hopped-up GMC Jimmy. And the Jimmy was the GMC-badged version of the lowly Chevy S-10. Which was the successor to the even lowlier Chevy Luv.

The Syclone, then, was the truck-equivalent of a really quick Pinto.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But people — most people — will take (and pay for) the slower Corvette.

Early models of this utilitarian pick-up were powered (if you want to call it that) by sump pump fours that struggled to develop double-digit output (82 hp from 1.9 liters, rocked up to 94 hp from 2.5 liters by 1990). The top gun (pop gun?) Jimmy option was a 2.8 liter, 125 hp V6.

Suffice to say, it was an unlikely platform for a performance truck. And probably a really bad idea for a successful (sales-wise) performance truck.

Except in one respect.

It was light.

The ’91 S-10 that served as the donormobile for what became the Syclone had a curb weight of about 3,300 lbs. As it turns out, this is virtually the same curb weight as a 1991 L98 Corvette. And much lighter than a full-size truck such as a ’91 C/K 1500 — which weighed about 1,000 pounds more.

The first rule of going fast is to weigh less than the other guy.

So going with the Jimmy as the starting point for a serious sleeper — a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Saturday Night Special — was sheer brilliance, if the object of the exercise was to not just slap down known performance cars like the Car & Driver Ferrari 348, but to do it to them before they saw it coming. The Syclone was like a Pinto with a Boss 429 crammed under its hood.

Who’d a thunk it?

Who’d a suspected it?

C&D writer Pat Bedard described the deliciousness of leaving the six-figure Ferrari flat-footed when the light went green. Of glancing in the Syclone’s rearview as the Italian supercar (cough!) struggled to catch up to his breathed-on Jimmy:

“When the truck brakes come off, full boost is downloaded to all four wheels. They barely slip. Acceleration begins with such a jolt the driver feels his breakfast slosh rearward. In a blink, the Ferrari is looking at tailgate. And the tailgate is getting smaller. Half a car length, one, two-car lengths of daylight between them before the Ferrari tops out of first gear. The race has just begun and already looks like a massacre.”

An Iron Sheik-esque humbling, actually. A vehicular Camel Clutch — and so much worse.

For the victim.

Being a truck had another advantage — if the object of the exercise is to whizz one by Uncle. Back in the ’90s, the Federal government’s fuel efficiency, safety and emissions requirements differed for passenger cars and what were then categorized as “light trucks,” the category into which the utilitarian little Jimmy fell.

Things that would cause problems — or never pass muster — if applied to a Corvette slid under the radar when applied to something like the Jimmy.

Also, the Jimmy was really cheap to make.

Nothing fancy about it, fundamentally. This was obvious once you sat behind the wheel and gazed upon the sheets of extruded plastic and shared-with-$10k-Jimmys knobs and switches. No fiberglass to mold, just bolt on some flares and splash it all with evil-looking shiny black paint.

The potential profit margin per truck was thus a lot more favorable, even for a specialty sub-model like the Syclone.

Assuming, of course, people recognized its magnificence.

They did not, as it turned out.

But boy, the should have. This truck was one for the record books, leaving four-wheeled ripples across the cover of said book.

Technically, GM did not build the Syclone. They were built for GMC by a contractor — Production Automotive Services, based in Troy, Michigan. They had previously been tasked by Pontiac with making the 1989 20th Anniversary Trans-Am something special.

They succeeded.

The first — and only — six-cylinder Trans-Am created by PAS turned out to be the quickest and fastest Trans-Am ever. Quicker than the ’73-’74 SD-455 Trans-Am. Faster — by far — than any prior Trans-Am. These things ran high 12s in the quarter and topped out somewhere to the right of 150 MPH.

Turbocharging and intercooling the six was the key to it all — and the same formula would be applied to what became the Syclone (and subsequently, its short-lived successor, the ’92-’93 GMC Typhoon).

The heart of the package was a turbo’d version of Chevy’s 4.3 liter “small block” V6 (a departure from the Buick-sourced 3.8 liter V6 used in the 20th Anniversary TA).

This engine was based on the venerable line of 90 degree small block Chevy V8s dating back to the 1955 283 and subsequent 327 and 350 V8s, but with six rather than eight cylinders. The same basic engine had become optional in the Jimmy and S-10 but this one was very special.

It featured a heavy-duty cast iron block with reinforced main caps, special (dished) pistons, high capacity fuel injectors, and a Garrett intercooler feeding chilled air to a Mitsubishi-sourced turbocharger stuffing the mix into the six at 14 psi under full boost. The end result — so said GMC — was 280 hp and 350 ft.-lbs. of torque.

This was at least 35 more hp (and 5 ft.-lbs. more torque) than the same-year Corvette’s L98 Tuned Port Injection 350 (5.7 liter) V8 delivered.

And that was only what was admitted to.

Road tests strongly indicated something fishy — in a good way. The “280 hp” Syclone delivered a juggernaut of acceleration that made the L98 (and even the ZR-1) Corvette seem dowdy in comparison. It was easily 1 full second speedier to 60 — and a 35 hp difference doesn’t explain that, Lucy.

Just as the ’89 Turbo Trans-Am was much stronger than its advertised 280 hp rating, so also the Syclone’s output was probably under-rated by at least 20 percent.

Both of these ringers were making at least 350 honest hp, if you math it out. Keep in mind the Syclone’s not-so-hot aerodynamics (which limited its top speed; one of its few weaknesses as a performance ride) and the fact that while the AWD system helped to hook it up, it also increased the inertial load that had to be overcome. The four-speed automatic (no manual was available) did help the boosted six wick up quickly (a loose torque converter works the same as bringing up the revs and deftly side-stepping the clutch in a manual-equipped car and also multiplies the available torque, which a turbo engine makes lots of) but one must also take into consideration the slippage losses through the converter — at least in this days, when automatics were much less efficient at transferring power than they are today, almost 30 years down the road.

The Corvette’s mass was easier to get moving — and its much superior aerodynamics ought to have enabled it to move faster.

But the fact was, it didn’t — at least, not until you reached triple digit speeds — at which point the Corvette (and the C&D Ferrari 348) finally began to pull away. The Syclone’s top speed was just under 130 MPH, whether drag limited (likely) or electronically (for liability reasons). A ZR-1 was just getting rolling at 130.

The Ferrari, too.

Still, there was something fabulous — and appalling, if you owned the Ferrari — about a hopped-up Jimmy that could walk away from you in a straight-up stoplight to stoplight street race.

And that may be just what killed it off.

It was too fast — and too cheap — to live.

Car people know that within GM corporate there has long been an unspoken but cruelly enforced policy — a third rail of sorts — that engineers dare not transgress. It is that Corvette must always be the highest-performing vehicle GM sells.

Period.

A knacker’s fate awaits those who test this policy — examples including the fate of John DeLorean’s XP-833 Banshee prototype, which got pulled at the very last minute from the 1965 New York Auto Show when GM higher-ups caught wind of it. The two-seater gullwing coupe — which would have been sold through Pontiac — was too close for comfort to what eventually came out (via Chevrolet) as the ’68 Corvette.

Another deader was the previously mentioned ’89 Turbo Trans-Am. It was too quick — and much too fast — for its own good. It had embarrassed the ’89 Corvette — and that would not do.

Note that the turbo TA was only made once, too.

Very possibly, the ax fell on the Syclone’s neck for exactly the same reason. Bad enough that a Trans-Am dared to outperform the Corvette.

But a Jimmy?

Weirdness entered into the bargain, too.

In 1991, all-wheel-drive was not only exotic, it was foreign. Audis, sure. But Chevys and GMCs?

A GMC truck?

What are you supposed to do with all-wheel-drive? It’s not for towing — but then, what good is a truck that can’t pull? Yes, yes, it hauls ass. But then why carry around that useless bed? GMC affixed a sticker that warned buyers not to put more than 500 pounds back there, else risk “damage to drivetrain and suspension.” This was the necessary compromise that attended dropping the thing’s ride height down several inches from the standard Jimmy’s — which pretty much eliminated the suspension travel that’s designed into most trucks.

So that they can carry stuff.

The Syclone could only carry two people.

It didn’t even have back seats.

Today, of course, all-wheel-drive is as common as carburetors still were back in the early ’90s. But 25 years ago, it was new — and slightly strange. People who bought Audis grokked it.

People who bought GMCs and Chevys did not.

Another bit of tech the Syclone featured was four-wheel anti-lock brakes, the first production application of this now ubiquitous technology. But early ABS systems — like early AWD systems — had some operating characteristics that took some getting used to. Such as feedback — pulsation — that could be felt through the brake pedal as the system did the electronic equivalent of pumping the brakes.

Still, for those in the know — and those who got out their checkbooks in time — the Syclone was a ride not to be missed.

Not quite 3,000 of these unlikely contenders made it to daylight — and all of those remaining today are as collectible as China plates with the White Star loggia recovered from the ocean floor.

Syclone Trivia

*Despite having a truck-style solid-axle (non-independent) rear suspension, the Syclone was capable of achieving lateral skid pad numbers very close to those of the same-year Corvette. And despite having drum brakes out back, it took less distance to stop a Syclone than a same-year Ferrari 348.

* At least a handful of Syclones were exported to Saudi Arabia, land of leaded premium fuel. The catalytic converter (mandatory in the United States since 1975) was thrown in the woods and replaced with a “resonator.” The ECU was also reprogrammed for leaded high-test. Given the lowered backpressure — and higher octane fuel — these Syclones were probably the quickest and fastest of the lot.

* The all-wheel-drive system (made by Borg Warner) split torque in a fixed 35-65 ratio, with 35 percent routed to the front wheels and 65 percent to the rear. Unlike modern AWD systems, the Syclone’s AWD system could not modulate power delivery in varying ratios either front to rear or from individual wheel to wheel, as most modern AWD systems can.

* In addition to the turbocharged V6 and AWD system, all Syclones were fitted with special 16×8 wheels and low-profile (50-series) Firestone Firehawk SVX tires, fast-ratio steering and a special gauge package (borrowed from the 1990 Pontiac Sunfire turbo). All 1991 Syclones were painted black — though other colors had been planned for the second-year production run that never happened.

* The rarest of all Syclones are the ten modified by American Sunroof Corporation, with styling input from auto industry legend Larry Shinoda (who among other things helped design both the ’63 Stingray Corvette while at GM and then — when he jumped ship and worked for Ford — the 1970 Boss 302 Mustang). All ten trucks were repainted red and featured targa roofs, a matching red fiberglass tonneau cover for the bed, Recaro sport buckets, a high-end Sony system, Borla exhaust system and reprogrammed ECU.

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5 Responses to “The Syclone That Came… and Went!”

  1. Spike says:

    A sleeper for the ages and one that I coveted back in the day. Owning a 1987 Buick Regal GN at the time, I was a well aware of what a turbo six could do — especially if it wasn't traction-limited by RWD!

  2. Jeff S. says:

    A few errors – not based on the Jimmy – that was the 2 door SUV. It was based on the GMC S15 pickup – there is no such thing as a Jimmy pickup. One of the reasons they made only 1 year of production is they could not sell them! In Feb, 1992 (yes, 1.5 years after a 1991 Model Year introduction in Fall 1990). They still had 1000 of the 2997~ or so still in dealer stock as left overs. I bought mine at the end of Feb 1991 …using a 35% dealer cash back offer GM used to get these things moved……a $27k truck…for $16500. It was also a very low sales year for auto industry.

    Yep, I still have mine. Just turned 50k miles last week (3/9/2016). It was the quickest thing on the road for many years…driving it made you feel like a god!

    • clint says:

      Thank you…. I was literally in the process of typing out a similar response when I decided to make sure someone hadn’t beat me to it. After all, the article is a couple years old. Good read, otherwise.

  3. JC says:

    Syclone were NOT cheap. Not at all. Originally, they sold for close to $27,000. In 1991. No one wanted a $30k S10. If they were built today, I’m sure they’d sell great. Customers want vehicles like this nowadays. In 1991? It was just too much truck for too much money.

  4. Rick A. says:

    I worked for PAS in Shreveport that built the Syclone. My autograph is on some of the stickers. I did the front rocker panels, and intercooler then transferred to doing the prom under the dash. Sometimes we had to take the trucks back to the main plant to get things touched up for whatever reason. One time I was on GM blvd going back to the main plant and a Mustang LX 5.0 came up beside me. I toasted it from about a 20 punch. Not many cars could beat a 5.0 back then. Good memories.