2003 Chevrolet SSR
2003 Chevrolet SSR. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

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The Chevrolet SSR (super sport roadster) pickup truck introduced in 2003 was a reincarnation of the line of glamorous pickups inaugurated with the 1955 Cameo Carrier and continuing with the 1959 El Camino, a response to Ford’s ground breaking 1957 Ranchero.

The car-based El Camino and Ranchero sedan pickups were distinguished from pure trucks by having the driving characteristics of a car, and a fully integrated body instead of the separate cab-and-box configuration of normal pickup trucks.

After going through several iterations the El Camino finally disappeared in 1987. In reviving the idea and bringing it up to date the Chevrolet SSR deviated a little by using a shortened and stiffened Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT SUV chassis instead of the car frames of the original car-trucks. This made it not only more rugged than the originals, but at 2,161 kg (4,764 lb) also much heavier.

General Motors test marketed the SSR as a concept vehicle at the 2000 Detroit auto show. Public and media reaction were so positive that Chevrolet put it into production. It was built in the Lansing Craft Center, GM’s specialty assembly facility in Lansing, Michigan, and arrived as a 2003 model. Officials of the Indianapolis 500 mile race selected it as their 2003 pace car.

While Chevrolet called the SSR a two-passenger roadster and marketed it as that rather than a truck, it was obvious that it had such truck characteristics as a utility box and tailgate. Although it carried only 24 cubic feet of cargo and could tow just 1,134 kg (2,500 lb), it still qualified it as a truck, albeit one of somewhat limited capacity.

The somewhat retro look of the SSR was said to be inspired by Chevrolet pickups of the late 1940s and early ’50s in such features as the horizontal grille, prominent fenders and rounded hood. As a novelty feature the single grille bar extended out to bisect the headlamps. The tailgate swung down in normal pickup fashion and the cargo bed could be protected by optional wooden strips. It was covered by a forward-hinged lid.

There were, however, a couple of factors that set the SSR apart from other sedan-pickups. First, it was a convertible; second was its piece de resistance, a metal convertible top that ingeniously raised and lowered itself automatically. It folded in the middle, nestled its two halves together like clamshells, then stood up and slid vertically into a bin between the seats and the cargo box. A metal tonneau cover gave it a smooth and finished appearance. This slick and clever 30-second mechanical choreography never ceased to draw attention.

Under the round hood was a 300-horsepower, 5.3-litre overhead valve V8 with aluminum block and heads which fed power to the rear wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission and limited slip differential.

Suspension was independent in front by A-arms and coil springs; at the rear was a solid axle with trailing arms and coils. There were anti-roll bars front and rear, brakes were four-wheel disc with anti-lock, and steering was rack-and-pinion. Wheels were a very truck-like 19-inch in front and 20 at the rear.

Performance was spirited. Car and Driver (9/’03) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.0 seconds and zero to 161 (100) in 20.1 seconds, fast enough to paste your hay bales against the tailgate. Top speed was electronically governed at 203 km/h (126 mph).

In spite of its more than adequate acceleration and top speed, the hot shoes in the enthusiast media judged it as GM wanted, against sports roadsters rather than pickups. In this class Car and Driver declared its performance mediocre and its handling sloppy, pejoratively calling it “a cruiser,” rather than ” a curve carver.”

Chevrolet addressed the alleged power shortage for 2005 by giving it a 6.0-litre Corvette C6’s V8 pumping out a stout 390 horsepower backed up by an optional six-speed manual transmission. This gave the SSR’s performance more sparkle, dropping the zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time down to the 5.3 second range.

Unfortunately for Chevrolet, SSR sales did not meet expectations. No doubt one of the SSR’s main disadvantages was an initial price in the $70,000 (Cdn) range, perilously close to that of a Corvette. Chevrolet must have realized this was too high, and for 2005 it brought the price down to $60,000, and then for ’06 to $50,000. In spite of this, SSR sales continued to flag and production ceased in March, 2006 after some 24,000 had been built. GM then closed the Craft Center.

So the SSR faded away like other specialty cars such as the Plymouth Prowler and latest Ford Thunderbird. The SSR was neither a very good truck nor a genuine roadster, but it sure was an attention grabber, and that’s got to be worth a few grand in itself. Its low production and specialty nature bodes well for making it a great future collectible, with all the modern technology.

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