When muscle cars were legislated off the roads, muscle trucks became a kind of end-run alternative. A way to offer the same basic gear in a form that did not have to pass muster with some or even any of the federal government’s emissions ands fuel economy and safety requirements. Because trucks were not considered cars – and were subject (for awhile) to different (and far less onerous) regulatory standards.
Obvious examples include the ‘Lil Red Express Dodge offered for two glorious years (1978 and then again in ’79), the first year without catalytic converters (trucks still being EPA-exempt in those more permissive days of yore) and with a police-spec’d 360 V8 breathing through a pair of diesel-style stacks on either side of the cab.
There was also the Chevy SS 454 pick-up (last of the big blocks) sold for few years in the early ’90s.
And, of course, the Ford SVT Lightning pick-up, which appeared around the same time (first generation, 1993-1995) and then again in ’99 (through 2004) this time, with a supercharged V8.
So what happened to the Chevy SSR?
On paper, it appeared to have all the right stuff – plus some never-before-seen (in a truck) stuff:
The first-year (2003) SSR came standard with a 300 hp 5.3 liter V8 – much more engine than either the ‘Lil Red Express (225 hp) or the Chevy SS 454 (230 hp) ever offered – and unlike either of those two, the SSR’s V8 was paired with an overdrive automatic transmission – which meant it was both quick and highway-viable.
Neither the ‘Lil Red Express nor the SS 454 – which lacked overdrive gearing – could claim that. They hauled ass, but they sucked gas. And they sucked on the highway, due to the aggressive final drive ratios (3.55 for the Express) which – without overdrive gearing to compensate – had their engines spinning at around 3,000 RPM at 60-ish while the overdriven SSR loped along at 2,000 at 70.
The second-generation (’99-’04) Ford SVT Lightning did have an overdrive transmission. But it never offered a manual transmission.
The SSR did.
The same six-speed Tremec T56 box used in the Corvette. And you could pair the beefy Tremec with the Corvette’s engine, too.
Beginning in ’05 – the third year of production – all SSRs came standard with the ‘Vette’s larger 6.0 liter LS2 V8, tuned to 390 hp – then 400 for ’06. This was more power than even the ’99-’04 Lightning ever delivered (380) and without resorting to a supercharger.
The other thing the SSR featured than no prior muscle truck even thought to offer was a convertible top.
A retractable metal hardtop, to be precise.
It was designed by American Specialty Cars (ASC), the contractor that car companies from GM to Toyota frequently turn to when they need something special, roof-wise.
ASC is generally given credit for having designed the first moonroof as well as simulated and actual convertible soft-tops for cars like the Buick Reatta and the Porsche 968.
The SSR’s top, though, would not be made of fabric.
It would be made of steel – giving the vehicle the physical security of a hardtop when up and the open-air experience of a true convertible when folded away. The top retracted at the touch of a button in a choreographed ballet of servos and actuators.
Looked neat, too.
The SSR – Super Sport Roadster – was inspired by the look of ’40s-era “Advance Design” pick-ups such as the ’47-’55 Thriftmaster and Loadmaster, GM’s first post-war models. These trucks – with their sleek, almost car-like shapes, pontoon fenders and running boards, were hugely popular when new and have become highly collectible today.
By the early 2000s, the retro-nostalgia craze was in full bloom. Chrysler’s PT Cruiser – inspired by ’40s-era panel-delivery trucks – was a monster hit; Ford was selling Steve McQueen’d ’67-themed (but air bag-equipped and smog compliant) Mustangs as fast as they could be stamped out. Impalas had round tail-lights again and there was a rumor afoot that a new Camaro – made to resemble the old Camaro – was in the works.
GM product planners no doubt thought the time was exactly right for a retro-themed muscle truck. It seemed perfectly reasonable.
The idea had been tried out before – and had worked. It ought to work again.
A concept was unveiled at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show and was well-received by press and public. It was built on a modified GMT360 truck platform (Chevy Trailblazer EXT) and powered by the Trailblazer’s optional 5.3 liter V8 working through a specially calibrated four-speed automatic. Like the other muscle trucks, the SSR was meant to be a tire-fryer, hence a RWD-only format.
An early production example was tapped to pace the ’03 Indy 500 race.
All lights seemed green.
Probably because the SSR was neither fish nor fowl. A fundamentally flawed design – like the Royal Navy’s battlecruiser HMS Hood in World War II. It had battleship guns, but was lightly armored – which led to a bad result when it encountered a battleship with heavy armor and big guns (the Bismarck).
At launch (2003) the SSR was also simply too slow – because it was simply too heavy. Empty, it weighed just over 4,700 pounds. This slowed the SSR down in the same way that Usain Bolt would not run the 200 meter dash in record time with a sack of bricks on his back. Even with 300 hp (from the 5.3 liter V8) which was considerably more than either the ‘Lil Red Express or the 454 SS brought to the table, the SSR needed about 7.7 seconds to get to 60.
Now, this was about the same time as the ‘Lil Red Express and the 454 SS delivered – but the times were different. In 1978, anything that could get to 60 in less than eight seconds was a hot rod. The ‘Lil Red Express could match moves with Trans-Ams and Z28 Camaros, which was impressive and made the Dodge (which was a truck, after all) stand out as audaciously as a stripper at the Vatican.
Same goes for the 454 SS.
But by 2003, the SSR’s performance was Camry-esque.
Its mileage, meanwhile, was not.
Which would have been ok if the thing moved out. But it didn’t. No one faulted the Lightning for being thirsty because the thing was incredibly quick (5.4 seconds to 60).
Plus, the SSR was hideously expensive – only a few thousand dollars less than a Corvette. Which was much quicker (and much less thirsty) and seated just as many.
The first-year SSR had a base price when new of $42,430. For perspective, the 2003 Ford SVT Lightning was priced fully $10,000 less ($32,460). If you bought the Ford, not only would you get to 60 at least two seconds sooner, you’d also have enough money left in your pocket to feed the thing for the next five years.
The SSR’s high cost was directly attributable to its trick retractable hardtop. This has long been the Achilles Heel of retractable hardtops. They’re ooh’d and ahh’d when previewed at car shows – but their forbidding price tag invariably leaves them collecting dust on dealers’ lots. (GM made this same mistake again with the Pontiac G6.)
There are exceptions, but they are almost always exotics (such as the Mercedes roadsters) and people are used to spending exotic dollars on such.
Not so much.
The hardtop also added weight – which subtracted performance.
If Chevy had offered the SSR as a hardtop – not retractable – it would have cost less and weighed less and been faster, too. These criteria, when you stop to think about it a little, define what a muscle car ought to be.
And probably should have served as guideposts for GM’s putative muscle truck.
The ‘Lil Red Express and the Lightning also had the advantage of being based on production pick-ups and shared the same basic body – and bed – as their work truck siblings.
The modifications were mostly under the hood – and almost entirely “bolt -on” stuff.
This helped keep costs down.
The SSR, meanwhile, was a custom. It shared a basic platform with the Chevy Trailblazer, but its frame and body panels were all unique pieces, which made each more expensive to produce which led to the SSR’s asking price climbing past the threshold of reasonableness.
Marketing was another problem.
Chevy had to sell the SSR as an orphan. Of uncertain parentage – and of dubious purpose.
For instance – and unlike the Dodge and the Ford – the SSR was pretty much useless for anything more than laying rubber and drinking gas.
The first and second year models couldn’t pull as much as a Toyota Camry (just 2,500 pounds; a Camry can handle 3,500 pounds) and could barely haul more than a Camry in its pitifully small (22.5 cubic foot) “bed” … which was more like a purse. The more traditionally laid out ‘Lill Red Express and the 454 SS – and the SVT Lightning – were still trucks when all was said and one. They had proper (if short) beds and could actually be used semi-plausibly for work.
Or at least, could be used to carry more home from Lowes than a Camry could. This made them easier for men (the likely demographic) to buy because it was possible to justify the purchase to the wife. Hey, we can take the trash to the dump with this thing! It’ll be good to have come winter!
But the SSR had all the practical appeal of a 5,000 pound Miata that cost as much as a Corvette.
Chevy also made the usual GM mistake of underpowering a model that touted performance (prior examples including the Pontiac Fiero and, later, the Cadillac Allante) and – once again – leaving the poor thing to twist in the wind for two full years before fixing the problem.
By which time, the milk had curdled.
Note that the ‘Lil Red Express, the 454 SS and, of course, the Lightning all came with the right engine from the get-go. No one could kick sand in their faces.
That’s what made them attractive immediately.
It was not necessary to “reintroduce” them to potential buyers who may have been interested at first but shied away once they found out there was more hat than cattle to the thing.
The 6.0 V8, languidly put into production for the ’05 model run, compensated for the SSR’s beefiness – the additional 100 hp cutting the 0-60 time down to a more impressive 5.4 seconds.
This was nearly as quick as the Corvette from which it borrowed its engine.
If only it had been put into the ’03 SSR. It might have made all the difference.
But GM let two years pass before correcting the mistake.
The SSR was already sinking fast by the time it was announced that the new V8 was on deck; the water was already washing over the forecastle.
By 2005, there was nearly a full year’s supply of SSRs built and waiting desperately on the docks. Only about 9,000 had been sold by then – and while GM had never anticipated or expected the SSR to be a volume seller, this was much lower than initial projections.
By the fall of ’05, the decision had been made. As Roberto Duran once famously cried… no mas!
2006 would be the the final year, with the last SSR actually built on March 17 of that year.
* SSRs could be ordered with a “torque-o-meter” ($400) in the secondary gauge cluster mounted on the console just ahead of the shifter. It read from zero to 400 foot-pounds of torque, to let you know just exactly how much twist was being put to the pavement at any given moment. It assisted dragstrip-style launches by letting you rev the engine to its precise torque peak – 4,400 RPM – before side-stepping the clutch (six speed models) or holeshotting the converter (automatics) for the quickest 0-60 and 1/4 mile ETs.
* SSRs ordered with the manual transmission also came with a heavier-duty 9.5-inch axle (automatic-equipped SSRs use an 8.6-inch Zexel-Torsen axle). Both versions were fitted with a 3.73 ring and pinion and limited slip.
* Each SSR came with staggered front (19 inch) and rear (20 inch) wheels, fitted with enormous 255/45ZR-19 and 295/40ZR-20 tires, respectively. These huge meats probably contributed to the SSR’s lukewarm performance by greatly increasing the vehicle’s rolling resistance (without contributing much to its handling, which remained Lurch-like).
* The SSR’s frame was – like the Corvette’s – fully hydroformed. Instead of joining separate sections using welds – which were prone to inexactitude, even when performed by computer-controlled welding machines – the entire piece was extruded as a single assembly using extremely high pressure water and specialized forms. This process eliminated production variances from vehicle to vehicle and GM continues to use the process to this day.
* Total production over four years amounted to approximately 24,112 SSRs. The exact number produced continues to be debated, in part because of dispute over whether models exported to other countries ought to be included in the total as well as pre-production and prototype examples.
* In addition to the actual Pace Car, Chevy sold a number of pace car replicas, each of which was painted the same color as the actual pace car and came with a serialized plaque denoting its unique status.
* If there had been a 2007 SSR, Chevy reportedly planned to offer it in “burnt orange” paint.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.
Copyright 2015, Eric Peters
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