Performance enthusiasts tend to think of sport trucks and high performance sport-utilities as a relatively new concept, with pickups like the SVT-developed Ford F150 Lightning and Dodge Ram SRT10 as notable examples of the former and five-doors like the Jeep Cherokee SRT8, Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport serving as evidence that the latter has found global appeal in recent years.
Chrysler had toyed with the idea of a fast pickup when Dodge produced the ‘Lil Red Express in 1978 and revisiting the notion again briefly with the Shelby Dakota in 1989, while Chevrolet offered the C1500 full-size truck with a 454ci V8 in regular cab and short bed configuration in 1990.
But then in 1991, a truly earnest effort came from an unlikely source, and with it, a seemingly unlikely power plant for a fast truck. The result was the GMC Syclone pickup and Typhoon SUV, a pair of seriously quick trucks which proved that Frankenstein’d parts bin specials could be very capable, provided the engineers involved really did their homework.
While the aforementioned examples provided enthusiasts with some kicks in an unlikely package, the Typhoon and Syclone offered enough performance to take on the world’s fastest performance cars at the time, and they put models like the Chevrolet Corvette, Nissan 300ZX and even the Ferrari 348 on notice for a fraction of the price.
Building The World’s Fastest Truck And SUV
With emissions controls still putting a stranglehold on big displacement V8s well into the 1990s, General Motors turned to an alternative that had proven its worth with the Buick Grand National and GNX just a few years prior – turbocharging.
In fact, it was actually Buick’s engineers who turned their sights on the unassuming ’89 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck as the next candidate for a Grand National-style high performance treatment, going as far as to slap on the Grand National’s hood scoop and wheels and stamping BUICK onto the tailgate of their prototype pickup. Under the hood sat Buick’s LC2 3.8-liter V6, complete with the Grand National’s forced induction.
But GM brass (rightfully) didn’t see Buick as the appropriate nameplate to put out a Grand National-powered pickup truck, instead turning to GMC to prevent stepping on the toes of the then-new Chevy C1500 SS 454 full-size.
The Syclone proved to be a best case scenario of parts-bin development, festooning proven go-fast parts from all over General Motors together to make the muscle truck a reality. Starting with the refreshed-for-1991 S-10/Sonoma platform, engineers hooked a Mitsubishi TD06-17G turbocharger up to the Vortech 4.3-liter V6 and added a Garrett water-to-air intercooler along with unique pistons, main caps, head gaskets, intake and exhaust manifolds. The twin bore 48mm throttle body from the L98 Corvette would feed GMC’s new beast, and all in, the power plant generated 280 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.
A GM 700R4 four-speed automatic transmission was tasked with the shifting duties and routed the power to all four corners by way of a Borg Warner all-wheel drive transfer case, which sent 35 percent of the grunt to the front wheels and 65 percent to the rear.
With sport tuned brakes and suspension, along with the gauge cluster from the recently deceased turbocharged Pontiac Sunbird rounding out the mechanical upgrades, and a Grand National-esque monochromatic aesthetic providing a visual cue that this was something more than your typical GMC Sonoma, when the Syclone debuted for the 1991 model year the package proved to be nothing sort of stunning – particularly from a performance standpoint.
The AWD Syclone was shown to be capable of hitting well above its weight class, posting 0-60 mph sprints that were conservatively listed in the low five-second range and quarter mile times in the low 14s. While not mind blowing acceleration by today’s standards, it was fast enough to convince Car and Driver to pit the Syclone against Maranello’s finest offering of the day, the Ferrari 348, which the Syclone promptly dusted in a drag race. Subsequent testing by various publications would go on to prove that the GMC Syclone was not only the fastest production pickup truck ever produced, but one of the fastest production vehicles of any kind that you could buy in 1991.
Expanding The Stable
While the Syclone was an instant hit with enthusiasts and a relative bargain when compared to some of its exotic rivals, it had an understandably limited audience.
The $25,000 price tag put the Syclone in sports car territory while the modifications done to the Sonoma chassis meant that both towing and off roading were strictly verboten, severely limiting the Syclone’s appeal as an all-in-one sport-and-utility solution.
To combat this, General Motors quickly pivoted to apply the Syclone’s performance make-over to the GMC Jimmy, resulting in the GMC Typhoon.
Although heavier than the Syclone and not nearly as capable of a performer as a result, the Typhoon’s additional seating, enclosed cargo space and multiple color configurations resonated with the buying public, and GMC would go on to sell almost twice as many Typhoons as they did Syclone pickups during the SUV’s two-year production run.
Production of the Syclone would last just one year, and by the end of 1991, a total of 2,995 examples of the sport truck had been produced. Due in part to its additional utility and aesthetic options, the SUV iteration would prove more popular with the buying public and saw two years of production, with GMC building a total of 4,697 Typhoons (2,497 for 1992 and 2,200 for 1993) before it, too, would bow out at the end of the 1993 model year.
Twenty five years on, the Syclone and Typhoon currently exist in something of a collector car limbo where they’re not new enough to be truly “modern”, and yet they’re also not old enough to be truly “vintage”. Their desirability on the second hand market reflects that to some degree.
As a result, either model can still be had for a reasonable sum, but pristine examples are beginning to prove that interest in these rare and unusual offerings from an otherwise largely forgotten era in domestic performance is already beginning to rise.