Uncommon Performance: Chevrolet S-10 / GMC S-15 Pickup Trucks

Is there a more unassuming hot rod project than the lowly Chevrolet S-10 pickup? Never intended to light a fire in anyone’s heart when it was introduced as GM’s first-ever homegrown compact truck in the early 80s, the S-10 has grown past its task-minded origins and become a popular low-buck performance option for fans of its affordable rear-wheel drive, full-frame design. Although long-prized by mini-truck builders seeking ample space for their hydraulic pumps and air compressors, the Chevrolet S-10 (and its GMC S-15 cousin) has benefited from the appeal of its big engine bay and small, lightweight platform, characteristics that have long been the catnip of drag racers and street custom builders across the country.

With so many of these trucks littering the market at incredibly cheap prices, it’s no surprise that the S-10 and the S-15 are more popular now as off-beat performance vehicles than when they were originally on-sale. We tapped into the hive mind of the Roadkill Nation to get a feel for the different paths these trucks have taken on the way to shedding their dowdy, utilitarian image in favor of low ETs, smoky burnouts, rock crawling, and wash running.

From The Factory

1991GMCSyclone

There’s one factory hot rod that towers over the rest of the compact truck scene, and that’s the GMC Syclone. Built for the 1991 and 1992 model years (although only a handful in the latter), the Syclone took the S-15 and gave it all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6 engine capable of producing 280 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque – phenomenal numbers for any sports car of the era, let alone a pickup. With a 0-60-mph time of less than five seconds and a 13.4 second quarter mile, the Syclone wasn’t just the quickest pickup on the market, but it was also capable of besting semi-exotics like the Porsche 911 in a straight line. Less than 3,000 Syclones were produced, and even fewer of its single-model-year SUV cousin the GMC Typhoon, making them rare and collectible on today’s market. Highly tunable, they are drag machines par excellence, but you’ll pay a pretty penny for a driver-quality Syclone today.

GMC also built a Syclone look-alike for 92 called the Sonoma GT, which passed on the all-wheel drive system and turbo in favor of a 195 horsepower edition of its 4.3-liter V6 (that also generated 260 lb-ft of torque). Less than a thousand are known to exist. Chevrolet would build its own ‘Sonoma GT’ in the form of the S-10 SS from 94-98, featuring a very similar V6 (tuned to offer between 180 and 200 horsepower, depending on the year), replaced by the lowered Xtreme that lasted until 2004 when the S-10 left the North American market.

Still, when it comes to sticking with the Bowtie (or whatever GMC is wearing around its neck), you don’t see too many Syclone swaps out there for obvious reasons of price and supply. Likewise, not everyone is willing to pay a premium for a Sonoma GT or the S-10 SS because the 4.3-liter under the hood was fairly ubiquitous. What most in the Roadkill Nation end up doing is a simple LT1 / SBC / LS engine swap, with the latter typically taking the form of a 4.8-liter or 5.3-liter V8 from a newer Chevy SUV or pickup. It’s an easy and cheap way to add power to the compact truck while staying within the family, and it opens up a wide variety of both manual and automatic transmission choices. Cannibalizing swaybars and brakes from the taller Blazer is also a popular way to firm up handling and stopping power, with the Xtreme’s lowering suspension not far behind.

From The Aftermarket

Sure, it typically takes at least a little aftermarket help to swap a V8 into an S-10, but many in Roadkill Nation have moved past stock setups to build not just eight-cylinder rods but also hotter versions of the venerable 4.3-liter V6. There’s generous support available for the V6, and of course we don’t need to tell you how many parts are floating around out there to build the small block or LS of your dreams.

Wesley Fowler

Wesley Fowler’s S-10 was built by his late brother, and is the perfect example of what you’ll find lurking on many a drag strip during the summer months. It features an aluminum-headed 355 backed by a TH350 autobox and an 8.8-inch rear end to handle the extra power. To this list of popular mods you can add other options such as drops in the two to five-inch range, tubular upper and lower control arms, thicker third-party swaybars, and of course free-flowing exhausts of all descriptions and sizes. Nitrous kits aren’t uncommon either among the V8 S-10 crowd.

Rick Martinez

Building the 4.3-liter six-cylinder that came with so many of these trucks is a very viable path, especially when compared to how little is out there for the S-10/S-15’s contemporaries in the bolt-on department. Rick Martinez’s 1996 S-10 seen here has been dropped, given a G80 locking differential, upgraded sways, an X-pipe, Series 40 Flowmaster mufflers, and better cooling in the form of a 3-core rad with twin electric fans, making it a fun and affordable street machine.

Marc Hawkins Bravada grille

Want to go a step further? Hotter cams for the 4.3 – and even the 2.8-liter, ultra low-buck V6 base motor – can be had from brands like Lunati, Comp, and Edelbrock, with intakes, headers, and V8 throttle-body swaps also common. Marc Hawkins’ ’89 S10 features an Edelbrock intake, Flowtech headers, bored-over pistons, a manual valve body for its 700r4, and a positraction rear-end to go with its attention-grabbing Oldsmobile Bravada (think Olds Blazer) grille.

Of course, not everyone is interested in sticking to the pavement, and while the Chevy S10 and GMC S15 have been overshadowed as off-road rigs (despite the presence of the wider-track, lifted ZR2 model available on the second-generation S-10), that hasn’t stopped Roadkill fans (or Rough Country suspension kits) from stepping in to rectify the situation.

Keith Silva off-road S10

Keith Silva’s 1983 S-10 sticks with affordable Vortec power – an inexpensive find at any wrecking yard – but also features a 203/205 doubler transfer case matched with Dana 60/ Dana 80 axles, a Kingpin front end, Fox coilovers, and 40-inch tires on beadlock wheels. Stripped to the bone, it holds its own against any Jeep on the trail.

Rick Drinkwater 355 S10 Baja Lifted

Rick Drinkwater’s L82 355-powered D-10 is a bit more traditional in appearance, but it also offers Dana axles and 35-inch Mickey Thompsons.

Joe Pitts Lifted S10

Then there are the pre-runners like this one built by Joe Pitts, a second-generation ’97 S-10 that sticks with a 4.3 that shuttles its output back to a Detroit Truetrac locker running 4.11 gears. Up front the truck boasts a full 12 inches of suspension travel, with the rear featuring a long shackle spring setup for its 14-inch travel Deaver leaf springs.

Don’t think we’re forgetting about the traditional mini-truck crowd. The S10 is without a doubt the most dropped, bagged, and hydraulic-equipped pickup on the planet, with a myriad of well-developed kits available.

From Left Field

Full frame, rear-wheel drive platform….if that sounds like a recipe for over-the-top horsepower to you, you’re not alone. The Chevrolet S-10 and the GMC S-15 have each seen their share of full-drag and scary off-road monster builds, with a variety of big block, turbo, and supercharged options under the hood.

015Austin Hammett 1993 Chevy S10

You might remember the #Slow10 we recently featured, owned by Austin Hammet. Its LS1 engine sips from the bottle in 100 shot doses, giving it 530 horsepower and 550 lb-ft of torque to play with via a T56 gearbox. An 8.8-inch Ford rear end and Mickey Thompson ET Streets keeps the lines on the pavement parallel and black. Then there’s Zack Bartos, whose ’86 S10 goes the big block route by way of a nitrous-fed 565 cubic inch V8, stepping up to a 9-inch rear and a 12-point cage.

Robert Bosch Garret Turbo

Even sticking with the original drivetrain can pay dividends if you’re willing to think outside the box. Robert Bosch stepped up the fun in his daily-driven 1997 S-10 by way of a Garret turbo and intercooler, proving that you don’t need a Syclone badge to force-feed your truck.

Brandon Lickk Ford Lifted S10

Off-road builds get wild and wooly too, especially once other OEM transplants come into the picture. Solid front axle swaps are a good example of this kind of fun, with owners like Brandon Lickk forcing the suspension and locked 4.88 differentials from a 1979 Ford pickup under his S-10, along with Toyota-sourced leaf springs out back.

Finally, things start to get deliciously weird once you start to consider how many projects use S-10 frames as their starting points. It’s too deep a pool to dive into head-first for the purposes of this article, but mid-20s panel vans and completely-rebodied rods are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how creative S10 rods can get once you throw away the rulebook, as this compact dualie – aka ‘The Rooster’ – built by Kenny Perry clearly illustrates. Feel the urge to hurt some feelings? Then you’re also free to swap in a Honda motor like John Freeman did with a J32A2 V6 in his 1991 Chevy (seen below).

John Freeman Honda Powered S10

Where can you go to talk to other like-minded Chevrolet S-10 and GMC S-15 fans about customizing your truck? S10Forums.com is your best bet, although Facebook groups dedicated to these trucks are also an excellent source of accumulated knowledge. As for parts – well, open any Summit or Jegs catalog and you’ll be instantly immersed in the world of Chevy aftermarket gear, with thousands of choices available to you. Given the versatility of the S-10 platform, however, you might as well head down to your local scrap yard and investigate what you can pull for pennies and make part of your next build. That’s how accessible these trucks are to owners at any level of mechanical ability.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover