Forget the ‘57 Chevy, the Corvette and Camaro.
With 100 years of production and the auto industry’s oldest continually used nameplate, the archetypal hero vehicle for General Motors’ biggest brand is a Chevrolet truck, and it’s celebrating a century on the market.
Chevy trucks turn 100 this fall, just in time for the brand to capitalize on its hard-earned, hardworking reputation with new models in the hottest parts of the market with the Traverse SUV on sale now and a new generation of pickups coming soon.
“GM’s been in the truck market forever, even when it was less popular,” IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. “The Silverado pickup and Suburban SUV grew up with America.”
The first truck Chevrolet engineered was about as basic as it gets: a one-ton flatbed with no cab, roof, doors or padding on its wooden bench seat. It was literally a horseless carriage, a mild adaptation of the age-old design that put a 36-horsepower 3.6-liter four-cylinder engine in front of the driver, where a horse would have gone a year earlier.
Prices started at $1,325, a pretty penny at the time, and more than double the $600 Ford charged for the Model TT that had debuted as its first pickup a few months earlier.
“Chevrolet’s trucks have been a critical part GM’s business model for much of the company’s history,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “The Ford-GM rivalry has forced both companies to repeatedly up their game over the past century.”
Until Ford and Chevrolet hit on essentially the same idea of developing a vehicle specifically to haul and tow, pickups had been modified cars. A customizer would buy a car from the factory, chop its frame up to create a longer cargo bed and get rid of unnecessary frills such as rear seats and doors. The 1918 Chevy One-Ton and Model TT created a new class of more capable and durable vehicles.
GM built a whopping 384 of those Chevy trucks in 1918, all of them at a factory in Flint, not far from where GM still has a huge pickup plant. A second plant in Oakland, Calif., started building Chevy trucks for customers on the West Coast in 1919.
People began to expect more from their trucks by the 1930s. The vehicles began doubling as family transportation for farmers and Chevy responded with niceties such as windows, doors fenders and running boards on its second-generation pickup. Prices started at $400.
The Chevrolet Suburban essentially invented the SUV and the luxurious, truck-based people hauler when it went on sale in 1935. “It was built on a truck chassis and shared lots of sheet metal and mechanical parts with the pickups,” GM Heritage Center director Greg Wallace said.
The Suburban is the auto industry’s longest continually used model name, and the progenitor of modern family-carrying 4WD vehicles.
Pickups gained style and panache when legendary GM design chief Harley Earl lent his magic to the 1938 half-ton pickup, which shared some design cues with Chevrolet cars.
When Detroit reinvented itself as the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, civilian vehicle production stopped and GM plants built engines, axles and more for hundreds of thousands of troop- and cargo-carrying Chevy and GMC trucks.
After the war, aerodynamic styling wraparound windshields made pickups more socially acceptable and introduced the first trucks that enthusiasts would customize and turn into hot rods. Chevy’s 1955 Cameo Carrier pickup was called “the Gentleman’s Truck,” thanks to features such as an automatic transmission and chrome bumpers. It was a signature vehicle for future GM design chief Chuck Jordan, whose other work included the ultimate expression of tail fins on the 1959 Cadillac.
Pickups and SUVs grew more popular for the next four decades despite a few lulls when fuel prices rose and the economy faltered.