Segment Ten: 1981-1987 Rebuilding Era Pickups

Author: Don Bunn

The late 1970s and early 1980s were dark days in the history of pickups. The nation's second energy crises affected the entire economy. Pickup and large car sales were hit especially hard. Pickup sales in 1980 fell more than 50 percent from the industry's best year of 1978. Sales began to recover in 1981 with a tiny increase over 1980 and continuously rose every succeeding year.

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The bad news for Chevrolet was that it was during the late 1970s when Ford began to sell more trucks than Chevrolet. One wonders if the lack of an extended cab pickup had anything to do with this. I spoke to a manager who was with Chevrolet Truck at that time and he said the reason they didn't add an extended cab model was because they did not have the necessary plant capacity in which to build them. Maybe so, but it still strikes me as a major marketing error to not find some way to get the job done!

Chevrolet Truck's management said that their new 1981 pickups featured more changes than any year since 1973, the first year of this series. Truck engineers in those days were faced with some tough problems. They had to figure out how to increase fuel economy without diminishing the truck's ability to carry a load and without reducing the size of their pickups. They accomplished this in three ways: Through better aerodynamics, more efficient engines and by dropping excess weight.

Chevrolet engineers, using a wind tunnel, reshaped their pickups from the firewall forward to make them more slippery.

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As a means to improve fuel economy, Chevrolet engineers made a version of their small block-the 5.0-liter V-8 available with a 9.2:1 compression ratio. This was the highest compression ratio in a Chevrolet truck engine in ten years. This engine was offered in pickups and throughout Chevrolet's light truck model line. The 5.0-liter engine also had Electronic Spark Control and a four-barrel carburetor to deliver the greatest possible performance while retaining good fuel economy. The ESC system continually adjusted distributor timing so that the fuel mixture ignited at the precisely correct instant. The combination of high compression with ESC protected against engine knock and produced a significant boost in power. The engine required only regular unleaded gasoline.

The 1981 Chevrolet pickups shed between 115 and 309 pounds depending on model and equipment. Two examples are lighter rear bumpers and a new aluminum transfer case for 4WD pickups.

In addition to the above changes, Chevrolet pickups for 1981 had a new instrument panel with international symbol-controlled switches and new trim and upholstery options.

Chevrolet's pickup line was unchanged in 1981; the same was also true for the rest of its light-duty truck line.

Its engine offerings included the 4. 1 and 4.8-liter sixes and 5.0-, 5.7- and 7.4-liter V-8 gas engines and the 5.7-liter (350 ci) diesel V-8. The diesel was still limited to C 10 models only.

Chevrolet's new 4WD system for K 10 and K20 models featured automatic locking front hubs. When shifting from 2WD to 4WD, the front hubs automatically locked up, eliminating the need to get out of the cab to set them. To revert to 2", the driver simply stopped the vehicle, shifted into 2WD reversed direction slowly about ten feet and off he went. The new aluminum transfer case with synchronized gears allowed the driver to shift from 2WD to 4WD at speeds under 25 mph.

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Chevrolet was the first domestic pickup manufacturer to introduce a compact pickup when it added the new S-10 pickups in 1982. Chevrolet's short wheelbase compact S- 10 when equipped with the standard 1.9-liter, 82 horsepower four cylinder engine and four-speed manual transmission had an EPA rating of 28 MPG in the city and 39 on the highway. A long-wheelbase,, long box was an option. A I 10 horsepower V-6 was the optional engine. It was the first V-6 in the small truck field. Wheelbase lengths were 108- and I I 8-inches. They carried cargo boxes of 73 and 89 inches. Payload ratings of the S-10 pickups were 1,000 and 1,5001b.

Chevrolet's other interesting new offering in 1982 was the new 6.2-liter diesel V-8. It was no longer limited to C-10 pickups but was available on all pickups.

Phase-two of the S-10's development in 1983 consisted of adding 4WD and Extended-Cab models. The Extended-Cab added 14.5-inches to the regular cab. Another addition was the 2.0-liter 83 horsepower four-cylinder engine. The 1.9-liter four was also carried over.

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A 2.2-liter four-cylinder diesel was offered as an option for 2WD S-10s in the 1984 model year. This was the Isuzu diesel formerly installed in LUV pickups. An exciting new S-10 option was a sport suspension for the S-10 pickups. The heart of the package consisted of special Bilstein gas pressure shocks at all four wheels tailored for the S-10s.

Chevrolet pickups carried over without significant change for 1985 except this was the first year for the famous 4.3-liter V-6 in pickups. Full-size pickups had a new grille for a fresh new appearance. Other changes to fullsize and S-10 pickups are too minor to merit mention.

Full-size 1986 Chevrolet pickups came in for only minor styling changes and technological improvements. The S-10's optional 2.8-liter V-6 engine was given a throttle body fuel injection system.

The S-10's four-cylinder engine was given electronic fuel injection for 1987. Other than that S-10s remained basically unchanged for 1987. Because this was the last year for Chevrolet's full-size pickups they carried over without change.

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Next Segment:
1988-1998, GMT-400 Pickups


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The new aerodynamically designed front-end sheet metal gave the 1981 pickups less wind drag and thus better gas mileage. The new optional 5.0-liter V-8 engine with Electronic Spark Control delivered better performance and fuel economy. A 1981 Chevrolet C-10 Fleetside pickup is shown. AAMA

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On the left is a 1982 Chevrolet pickup powered by the optional 6.2liter diesel engine built by GM at the Chevrolet engine plant in Moraine, OR On the right is the new 1982 S-10 pickup. It was available in two wheelbases (108 and 118 inches), with two payload capacities (1,000 and 1,500lbs) and with two gasoline engines-the base 1.9 four and the optional 2.8-liter V-6. AAMA

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Chevrolet's first Extended Cab pickup was the 1983 S-10. It was available in either 2WD or 4WD for 1983. It added 14 1/2 inches to cab length, room enough for two side-mounted jump seats or 18.8 cubic feet of extra cargo. It rode on a 122.9-inch wheelbase and carried a 73. 1 -inch box. AAMA

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A top-of-the-line 1985 Chevrolet C-10 Silverado half-ton Fleetside pickup is shown. The grille shown here was new for 1985. It was shared with Suburbans and Blazers. This pickup was powered by the 5.0-liter V-8. AAMA

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The was the end of the line for this Series of Chevrolet pickups. A 1987 C-10 half-ton short box Silverado Stepside pickup is shown. Note its optional steel spoke wheels with white sidewall tires. AAMA

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