Doomed: Chevy SSR, 2003-2006

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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.SSR lead

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.SSR two

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.

Well, eventually.

The same six-speed Tremec T56 box used in the Corvette. And you could pair the beefy Tremec with the Corvette’s engine, too.

Also eventually.

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.SSR top

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.

It all sounded great.SSR engine

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.

Sensible, even.

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.SSR concept

An early production example was tapped to pace the ’03 Indy 500 race.

All lights seemed green.

And yet, the SSR flopped. It never sold well when new – and it has yet to develop the cultic following the ‘Lil Red Express, the 454 SS and the Lightning (both generations) all enjoy to this day.   hood sinking 


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).

Was the SSR a truck? Or a roadster? GM tried to market the thing as something in-between, but this just left everyone confused.SSR concept 2

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).

You got what you paid for.03ssr 03indyssrpace

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.

A Chevy truck?SSR interior

Not so much.

The hardtop also added weight – which subtracted performance.

Strike two.

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.

The ‘Lil Red and the Lightning were still – respectively – a Dodge Ram pick-up and a Ford F-truck. Hopped-up, to be sure. But clearly part of the family.SSR bed

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.curdled milk

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.

It wasn’t too little by any stretch. But it was too late.SSR detail

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.

SSR Trivia:

* 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.SSR gauges 2

* 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).Lurch pic

* 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.SS signature

* 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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  1. Some people have put their SSR in the garage to keep it pristine. Others garage it in the winter so it looks great in the summer. There are those who used it as a work truck, by removing the bed cover (a two person project which takes 5 – 10 minutes. There are also people like me who use it as a daily driver. I bought it in Sep 2006 and have driven it as a daily driver since 2009. It currently has 230,000 glorious fun filled miles on it. It has been driven in 48 states and 6 provinces in Canada and still gets thumbs up wherever I go from old and young alike.
    Yes, GM made some mistakes in the design that may have increased the cost and caused the production to be cut short, but I am so happy to have mine that I bought a second one which I am keeping with lower mileage so I never have to be without one. I have had no major issues with either one. Like anything else, Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

  2. The SSR was never meant to be a high sales volume auto but rather a Halo vehicle to be in showrooms and show that GM could take what was a wildly popular and well received by motor press concept vehicle to production. GM needed some excitement and buzz and the SSR delivered in this regard. However they did lose big $$$ on each model they produced as would be expected for what really was a custom vehicle. Putting a more powerful motor in from the beginning would not have “saved” the SSR. It was a very costly niche vehicle and today many are in immaculate condition as they were largley purchased by people with discretionary money desiring a fun cruising hot rod type convertible with distinctive styling. Saying the SSR was “Doomed” reminds me of armchair quarterbacking criticism after a game has been played. In the moment ie…2000-2003 the idea and creation of the SSR was very appropriate and will play out nicely as a sought out piece of American automotive history for collectors. Very few if any Toyota Camrys will be collectibles or bring ANY amount of excitement to driving beyond day to day functions. (which they are good at) The SSR like many other autos had their time in the sun and those who own them still get the benefits of top down cruising in the sun. 🙂

    • Hi Craig,

      The car press claps like trained seals at every new model reveal; trust me – I’ve been attending these gigs for 25 years now.

      GM made the same mistake with the SSR that it made with the Fiero and the Allante… the initial model was badly flawed and had to be “fixed” on the fly… by which time, it was too late.

  3. you are very full of your own opinions that are not at all based in fact. why not try driving one or talking to owners? they absolutely have a cult following, far greater than the 454 ss ever did. people keep these forever and love them. i just picked up a used one and wasn’t too sure how much i liked it. within a week i couldn’t get the grin off my face driving it….and i have a nice 12 GS Vette Convertible. so next time you read only negative stuff from people whove never driven something…try getting real facts. im guessing youre book is more of the same …and frankly…doomed…

    • Hi Tim,

      You mean like the fact that it belly flopped epically?

      I did drive the SSR – the early ones were grossly under-powered and handled like skid steers. The later ones accelerated acceptably but still handled like skid steers and (unlike the SS 454) were and are largely useless for anything.

      Which is probably why it flopped!

  4. Pro-Tip:

    The SSR came with the very rare aluminum 5.3L and 6.0L truck engines. They save roughly 80-100 lbs over their iron counterparts. Mosey on over to your local junkyard and yank out the entire 6.0L/6-speed drivetrain from a wrecked SSR.

    Swap said drivetrain into an early 90’s Foxbody Mustang then add a bigger cam with a carb conversion kit. This will yield a docile, 500HP+ daily driver that is over 150lbs lighter than the wheezy stock Ford 302. You can reliably shove a 200HP shot of nitrous down its throat. Just add drag slicks and you now have a car capable of low 10 second quarter mile times for under $10k.

    • Eric and Pedro and everyone else with an uninformed opinion about the SSR.
      Don’t encourage people to harvest SSR Parts for other uses.
      With only 24,180 SSR’s built, we need all the parts available to keep the SSR Legacy alive.
      Even after only 12 years after the last one left the Production Line at Lansing Craft Center, parts are becoming progressively challenging to acquire. We’d like to keep as many SSR’s on the road for as long as possible.
      Someone above mentioned seeing an absolutely perfect SSR going down the road, when in fact the SSR Owners maintain their vehicles so incredibly well, there are almost none that are not kept in excellent condition, most have been improved past the point where Chevrolet left off. There are quite a few with >200K miles on them that still win best in show awards.
      Critics can chide that it should have had more HP, should have been built lighter, should have been a better pickup truck, should have been more like the lil Red Express.

      All those opinions are all missing the point. It wasn’t supposed to be anything other that what it is. Weight is there for structural stability of the roof and windshield. I like the weight when I’m towing my 30 foot sailboat, keeps me from getting pushing around.
      It’s a very good HotRod with 300HP 5.3 liter option, and an excellent one with the 400HP even as an Automatic. Add the 6-Speed manual shift, and it changes again. You just can’t compare it to other things. It is not those, and was never supposed to be. It’s a HotRod, It’s a Truck, It’s a convertible.
      It really is just an experience you can’t duplicate anywhere else. If you want to know about an SSR, go drive one, your whole perspective will be changed.
      I can park either of my SSR’s next to a new Corvette, and interest in the Vette is lost.
      Chevy Dealer asked me to move my wife’s 04 SSR away from his New 2018 Corvette on the lot this April, cause he could not sell the Corvette sitting next to my SSR. Guess the dealer knows the true value in GM products.

      • Hi LK,

        I’m glad you like your SSR – some people like Pacers, too! Not that there’s anything wrong with that… But both were sales flops – and neither GM nor AMC intended that. Hence, bad design. Good designs are successful designs.

        • Eric: You should read the opinions of people who actually know something above. If the title of your work is Doomed, Then perhaps you might be an expert on Sales flops, But not the SSR. By your definition of success through sales volume, you should hang out in Walmart or Amazon, perhaps the current definition of sales in America. But I dont seem to find your Doomed anywhere for sale on the biggest retailer in America, so I guess its Doomed by your definition. You ought to check your glamshot on
          Your bad 90s haircut is as Doomed as any meaningless and irrelevant opinion you might choose to have. Enjoy your Blog, nobody cares.

          • Well, Clover – let’ see….

            The SSR failed on the market, a fact. Rather than deal with that fact you call me names for bringing up the fact.

            And unlike the SSR, which lost money, I make money by writing. Including Doomed.

            When someone pays you to write, holler back!

  5. Amazing what you can see when you travel I-20 quite a bit… today. A few months ago I saw a perfect SS 454 and 3 weeks or so ago, an absolutely perfect SSR. It looked like probably nearly every one of them, new off the showroom floor. I’m guessing nearly every one of them made have been garaged and driven very infrequently.

    As you say, a two seater nearly as expensive as a ‘Vette is a hard sell for a truck/car/whatever it was. As an El Camino aficionado, I relish the idea, esp. since mine’s an SS with buckets but most look at it as a great big unsportslike sportscar. Of course the 77 I have would haul a big load and do it at triple digits which gave it a certain advantage but still, a niche vehicle.

  6. 4700 lbs!!!

    I never looked too much at these, figured they were another front drive debacle like the HHR or the PT cruiser.

    But 4700 lbs?? My 49 Ford F-1 “full size” is 2800 even with the 360 Chrysler and Auto replacing the iron flathead and 4 speed non synchro crunch n grind box. There had to be more to this than a retractible roof- good god that couldn’t have weighed 500 lbs!

    With unibodies, aluminum and magnesium, etc., the cars should be as light as the stuff from the 40s to 70s, even loaded down with safety and smog crap.

    Looking forward to Doomed… keep up the good work.

    • And to think that my ’77 Elco weighed 43 something and was larger with steel wheels and steel everything for the most part. It barely had seat belts much less air bags although it did have those stupid bumper shock absorbers that looked like hell but did a good job of absorbing a crash…..something I’ve seen them do.


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