Chevy trucks celebrate 100 years of shaping how Americans drive

  • Mark Phelan
  • Detroit Free Press
3:22 p.m Monday, Oct. 30, 2017 Cars
1918 One-TonMSRP: $1,325 (Chassis), $1,460 (Express)Engine: 3.67-liter OHV 4-cylinder (224 cubic inches)Horsepower: 36U.S. population: 103.2 millionPrice of a gallon of gas: $0.25Price of a gallon of milk: $0.29Average household income: $1,518 per yearPrice of a new home: $6,187

DETROIT — 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.

Chevy has provided its own list of iconic pickups from 1918 to the current Silverado:

It’s hard arguing with any of those, but there’s one glaring omission: the underappreciated 2002-13 Avalanche, which reshaped the pickup market by making four-door crew cabs the dominant body style.

Before the Avalanche, four-door crew cab pickups were limited to heavy-duty pickups carrying grimy work crews. Based on the Silverado 1500, the Avalanche’s roomy interior introduced families to a pickup that could carry as many as six people in more comfort than many contemporary sedans.

Wise guys make fun of the Avalanche’s goofy “midgate,” which opened the rear of the cab onto the bed to make room for long loads. That feature tanked, but the ‘Lanche was the predecessor of the $50,000-plus luxury trucks that have become some of the auto industry’s most popular and profitable vehicles.

It was the most recent step in Chevy trucks’ 100-year evolution from a doorless buckboard that just happened to have an engine instead of a horse.



1918 One-Ton


1929 International Series Light Duty


1938 Half-Ton


1947 3100 Series


1955 3124 Series Cameo Carrier


1967 C10 Fleetside


1973 C30 One-Ton Dually


1988 K1500 Sportside Silverado


1999 Silverado 1500 LT Z71


2007 Silverado 1500 LTZ

Chevy trucks: Surprising numbers behind powerhouse brand

Chevy trucks outsold the whole Hyundai and VW brands in the U.S. last year, and they’re on track to do better in 2017.

That’s just one of the surprising numbers behind the powerhouse sub brand:

Chevrolet has sold just over 1.5 trucks a minute since the first rolled off an assembly line in Flint, Mich., a century ago. That’s 86,246,571 trucks — pickups, SUVs and vans — sold as of the second quarter of this year.

Trucks accounted for 65 percent of Chevy’s U.S. sales last year. Chevrolet sold 1,359,929 trucks, compared to 736,581 cars. Chevy trucks were 44.7 percent of GM’s total U.S. sales.

Chevrolet will introduce a family of pickups and SUVs based on a new architecture in 2018. They are expected to use a mixture of aluminum and steel to reduce weight at a lower cost than the Ford F-150, which has an all-aluminum body.

Chevrolet is expected to add a highly styled midsize SUV that is sized between the big three-row Traverse and compact Equinox. It will compete with vehicles such as the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.

Chevrolet added High Country as its top truck trim level last year to give the brand feature-laden models to compete with Ford, Toyota and Ram’s most expensive trucks.

Chevrolet and GMC had separate design and engineering until 1931. After that, the brands’ model lines were virtually identical for decades, until GMC recently began to diverge to support an upscale image.