1991 GMC Syclone – The Factory-Built Compact Pickup That Humbled the Ferrari 348 – Top Speed

The Porsche 911 Carrera, the Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo, the Ford Mustang SVT Cobra R, the Mazda RX-7, the Mercedes-Benz 500 SL, and BMW 850i. All sporty coupes, equipped with plenty of power and performance. What do they all have in common?
Well, they were all driven to extinction by a small, inconspicuous, and dirt cheap pickup truck. The GMC Syclone. Back in ’91, the Syclone was among the coolest vehicles out there that money could buy. With its turbocharged V-6 engine under the hood, this factory-built bundle of insanity was capable of churning out sportscar-like performance figures. While Jason Cammisa from Hagerty, takes us on a tour of the GMC Syclone, we reveal other details about this insane truck from back in the day.
Inspired by the legendary Buick Grand National, the Syclone was a funnel of terror back in the early 90s.
The story of this beast begins in 1987 when Bill Davis, who was GMC’s chief assistant designer at the time, created a conceptual sketch of a lowriding S-15 (GMC’s version of the Chevy S-10). The idea of an insane show truck capable of boosting the brand’s blue-collar image appealed to the likes of former GMC engineer Kim Nielsen, who also happened to be a drag racer, and hence the project was unanimously approved by management.
A pearlescent white-painted Syclone featuring a beefy body kit and lowered suspension was later unveiled at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. A stock S-15, also known as the Sonoma since 1991, got a complete makeover under the watchful eye of Davis. In profile, the Syclone looks like nothing more than a black Sonoma with a lowered ride height. However, don’t be fooled by its modest looks.
The 3.8-liter engine sourced from the Buick Grand National required several modifications to work on the Syclone, and that would do nothing but increase production costs over the targeted limit. So GMC had to improvise. Eventually, with the assistance of Production Automotive Services or (PAS), the S-15’s stock naturally aspirated 4.3-liter V-6 engine was chosen instead, and it received the forced-induction treatment. The result? A V-6 that produced 280 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.
The revamped engine’s party piece, though, was a Mitsubishi sourced TD06-17C turbocharger linked to a Garrett water-to-air intercooler.
It would have been the perfect performance truck had GM decided to link this engine to a manual gearbox. Unfortunately, the four-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic 700R4, which had a bad rep and was unreliable, was chosen instead. On the bright side though, this transmission was slightly recalibrated and sent all the power to a Borg Warner sourced all-wheel-drive system from the Chevy Astro Van, which was rear-biased, sending up to 65% of power to the back, where it met a limited-slip differential.
Given its blistering speed, in 1991, Car and Driver pitted the humble Syclone against a brand new Ferrari 348ts, that cost nearly five times as much.
Surprisingly, the truck ran a quarter-mile faster than the supercar and so, they decided to take it up a notch. On the second run, the distance was doubled, however, the Italian sportscar still came in second. Finally, both cars went for another run over the same distance but this time, both started from a roll. Well, you guessed it right, the 348 ts lost once again.
The Syclone was, arguably, the most impractical truck out there, with the ability to haul less than 500 pounds in its bed and a steep $25,970 price (around $52k in today’s money). However, that was missing the point because there was nothing quite like it on the road. As a limited-production model, only 2,995 units were ever built. Production ceased by the end of 1991, although GMC did develop 3 additional units in 1992 for internal use.
The GMC Syclone is a bit of an oddity. Some people like Jeremy Clarkson loved it, while, Jay Leno has even used the truck as his daily driver in the past, and Ziggy Marley actually even own one. The makers of the Syclone can still be very proud of their achievement, as the truck is still the fastest pickup on the 1/4 mile.
Nearly three decades on, the Syclone can still be considered as one of the coolest factory-built pickup’s out there and to all but those who are aware of this muscle truck’s legendary performance, the Syclone will forever remain the ultimate sleeper.
Watch Jason Camissa gives us an overview of the Syclone and what made it so special.
Quit Wasting Time And Learn The Real Story Behind the GMC Syclone