What Motivated GMC and Chevy to Make a Compact Truck?
The second oil embargo (or oil shock) in 1979 forced American consumers to wait in long lines for gasoline that was increasing in price every day. While the oil embargo of the time only affected about 4% of the supply, oil companies took advantage of the situation to almost double the oil price, creating a real bite in American wallets. In addition, the revolution in Iran and the subsequent war with its neighbor Iraq created a great deal of instability in the oil-affluent areas of the Middle East. OPEC saw an advantage to make up the difference, and the price of crude oil rose from around $15 a barrel to $39.50 in less than a year.
There was so much uncertainty about energy costs that it sent the world into a global recession. For Americans, many began to panic buy and wait in lines wrapped around the block just to get gasoline. One study estimated that Americans wasted about 150,000 barrels of oil a day just idling their cars at local gas stations while they waited.
The big three automakers were struggling to compete against the growing loyalty that imported cars produced by Toyota and other foreign car makers. These smaller cars were cheaper to build, drove further on a tank of gas, and were more reliable in many ways than the offerings of US builders. Even though domestic automakers tried to compensate, they just couldn’t compete. Chevrolet and Ford were hemorrhaging money, and Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy. The entire domestic auto market (including truck sales) was in free fall, and the ship needed to be righted and fast. Hence, the introduction of the Chevy S10 and the GMC S15 (later renamed the Sonoma).
What are the Features of the GMC S15 Classic?
Let’s review some of the features and specs of both the S10 and GMC S15.
The GMC S15 had an Imported Four Cylinder
The GMC S15 featured a four-cylinder engine producing 94 horsepower and 130 lb/ft torque, with a 2.8L v6 engine should consumers wish to upgrade. The engine was made in Japan and imported to the US for installation. The 1.9 Isuzu had been used in the Chevy LUV and Isuzu P’up, which sold in North America during the 70s. (Datsun and Toyota were dominating the truck market during this time, and GM found itself playing catch up.) Eventually, in 1983, the engine was upgraded to a 2.0 four-cylinder and even a 2.2L four-cylinder diesel engine (which didn’t amount to much). Toward the end of the run, GM was putting a 2.5 four as standard on 2wd models and encouraging consumers to upgrade the 4.3 V6 Vortec engine producing 160 horsepower. A 2.8 L V6 was the standard engine on 4x4 models.
Consumers had options with the S15
The compact truck was offered a couple of ways, 2wd and 4wd, and as a regular cab or an extended cab (GMC dubbed it the Club Coupe), which was a full-sized driver's door with a half suicide door to enter into the back. There was virtually no seating since the jump seats did not face front but were positioned sideways so that back passengers were seated facing one another). Yet, the seats could be folded down, and the rear doors made shoving stuff into the back much more manageable. You could get a short bed with a wheelbase of 108.3 inches or a long bed extending about a foot more on either cab configuration.
GMC S15 Boasted the Highest Towing Capacity
The sales brochures highlighting the S15 boasted that this little compact could out tow up to 6,000 lbs of any compact pickup. Now, with a payload pushing 2.000 lbs (back then, that was a number you might expect from a larger half-ton), you can see why a boast like that could get some attention.
The Insta-Trak 4WD system was Something
One of the areas that this little compact truck made a name for itself was the ability to pull a lever and shift the truck into 4wd. This kind of “on-the-fly” shifting made believers out of many consumers, even though there were several skeptics at the time). Gone were the days of having to get out of the truck, manually lock and unlock the hubs, and even better, drivers didn’t need to shift into reverse to get the truck to respond to the changes. A new electronic transfer case made the shifting off-road much smoother, quieter, and more manageable.
The Sierra S15 had a Distinctive Look
Borrowing from its square boxed look of the C/K models, the Sierra boasted a “street-smart” elegance. The truck came in ten exterior colors, from Aspen Blue to Frost White to Woodland Brown. Customers could choose from one of three paint schemes, including an attractive two-tone. With a black accent strip running down the sides of the truck and its undersized chrome bumper, the S15 exhibited a bit of class against the plain jane imports of the day.
The Interior was Nice but not Overdone
There was a three-person bench seat in the front of the regular cab S15, which came in cloth or vinyl, with leather as an upgrade option on the trim package High Sierra. Some extended cabs came with highback bucket seats, but most current S15s have a simple bench. The instrument panel was a primary needle speedometer on the left and gas gauge on the right, designed in the shape of a flattened-down half-circle. Climate controls were manual and positioned just to the right of the steering wheel, while an AM/FM Delco radio was set into the middle of the dash. Power windows and locks could be an option as part of the operating convenience package, and a moon roof was available.
What became of the S15?
Eventually, the S15 compact faded from memory, replaced by the decision to adopt the Sierra nameplate to full-sized pickup trucks in 1988. While the S10 and the S15 were decent trucks, they were not without problems. Some owners complained of oil leaks, distributor problems, and leaky interiors with wind noise.
By the time 1990 rolled around, the import market had taken hold, and American clients were embracing foreign-built cars and trucks rather than the domestics. Deciding to leave the compact versions to others, GM emphasized full-sized trucks, where it knew it could compete directly for the hard-working American dollar.
This is not to say that the S15 Classic didn’t pave the way for small trucks like the Colorado or GMC Canyon (both stinkers) in 2003. While the sales for the first year or two were good, many people quickly abandoned the truck and switched back to the small truck leader of the pack, the Toyota Tacoma. A reasonably poor safety rating by the IIHSA on side impact (acceptable on the front) didn’t help matters. Consumer Reports rated Colorado as having a 1 out of 5 customer satisfaction rating, which is extremely poor).
This is not to say that many current owners have good luck using the GMC S15 as their daily drivers. The truck is versatile and can be an excellent asset to someone who runs a small business or needs a truck to handle light-duty work.
About THE AUTHOR
My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.Read More About Matt Lane