Crucial Cars: GMC Sierra

1902 GMC truck

1902 GMC truck

Max and Morris Grabowsky may not be household names, but they cemented their place in automotive history nonetheless. In 1901 the Grabowsky duo built a truck prototype in Pontiac, Michigan, and went on to form their company – the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company – a year later. It didn’t take long for the brothers’ truck-building efforts and success to attract competitors’ attention, with General Motors buying them in 1909. Just three years later at the New York Auto Show, the name GMC Trucks would make its debut.

And so begins the story of GMC’s Sierra – a leader in the category of full-size pickups and a nearly identical twin to Chevy’s Silverado truck lineup. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that GMC would debut the name Sierra, using it to designate their trucks’ trim level, until 1987 when Sierra began serving as the permanent name for GMC’s full-size pickups.

1960 GMC Pickup

1960 GMC Pickup

The beginning

GMC’s early, 1960’s-era pickups – before the Sierra name change – were designated as either “wideside” or “fenderside” – the latter corresponding to what many drivers today refer to as “stepside” pickups with fenders that flare out over the rear wheels. GMC also was one of the first to use numbers to indicate its trucks’ hauling capacities using the “1000”, “1500”, and “2000” designations that are common today in one form or another among all the major truck manufacturers. A “K” attached to those numbers indicated a GMC truck with four-wheel drive, and there were just two trim levels available – base or custom. The standard engine was a 236-cubic-inch inline six delivering 135 horsepower.

Through the mid-1960’s, GMC trucks underwent a suspension change, additional engine options, and cosmetic changes to freshen the truck’s appearance. One of the most notable changes, and perhaps the start of pickups’ migration to becoming more than just work vehicles, was the debut of air conditioning in 1965.

1976 GMC 2500 Sierra Wideside

1976 GMC 2500 Sierra Wideside

The Sierra is born (officially)

1973 saw GM completely redesign its pickup truck line with longer wheelbases and the debut of a four-door crew cab, no officially named the Sierra. Engine choices ranged from a 100-horsepower, 250-cubic-inch inline six on the low end to a 240-horse 454 V8. The Sierra was built very similarly to its counterpart, the Silverado, except for the variations in the grilles and, of course, the nameplates.

Even with the worldwide fuel shortage in 1975, GMC remained tough and made it through. In 1976, GMC introduced, for the first time, a Crew Cab truck, as a solution to those who wanted to haul more than just equipment. In addition, they improved the interiors of the truck to be more people friendly, replacing the metal fittings along the surfaces with padded, softer materials.

Just one year later, in 1977, GMC would celebrate its 75th anniversary, but sadly, they didn't do much celebrating in the way of new and improved models. Like they say, if it's not broke, don't fix it. And since GMC trucks were in third place for truck sales, despite the fuel crises just a couple years earlier, it definitely wasn't broke.

1988 GMC C1500 Sierra Wideside

1988 GMC C1500 Sierra Wideside

Talk about a facelift

GM’s next complete overhaul of its Sierra truck line wouldn’t occur until the 1988 model year with trucks sporting a third more glass for improved visibility and a marked focus on more luxury items, such as upholstery and instrumentation. The exterior of the trucks changed, too with more of a rounded look as opposed to the sharper edges found on previous models. That 80’s-era “luxury” pales in comparison to today’s models, but was impressive for a truck in its time.

There were eight different versions of the C/K line for 1988: Fleetside Single Cab, Fleetside Extended Cab, Fleetside Crew Cab, and Stepside Single Cab, each in either 2WD (C) or 4WD (K) drivelines. Engines were a 4.3L V6, 5.0L V8, 5.7L V8 and a 6.2L V8 diesel. A 7.4L V8 was available in the ¾-ton and on-ton trucks.

1990 was a big year for GMC as they introduced, first a Work Truck (W/T), which featured a single cab long bed with Cheyenne trim and new grille with black bumpers. Second, the GMC 3500 EFI was introduced with an amazingly powerful 454 engine. This engine produced 230 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque making it quite the "get up and go" truck.

In 1991, GM introduced a 15,000 pound GVWR truck C3500HD under the GMC nameplate that was replaced by the 4500. It was marketed as a truck to bridge the gap between light duty trucks and medium duty trucks. Only offered as a standard chassis cab until 1996 when a crew chassis cab was also offered, the 3500HD came in three engine types: 5.7L, 7.4L and in 1996 both were dropped to be replaced by the 7.4L Vortec Big Block.

In '94 and '95, the Sierra saw few changes except for grille updates and updated audio systems/interiors. The truck remained basically the same until the end of the '90s.

1999 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT

1999 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT

A new generation: 1999-2007

For the 1999 model year, GM introduced the GMT800 Sierra 1500 SLT under a "classic" personality but with an upgrade. These trucks now featured a rear-hinged third door solving the issue of passengers having to climb through the truck to their seat. This truck was produced alongside newer models and the heavy-duty GMT 400 pickups were continued through 2000. Big news came in 2001 with the new GMT800 Sierra HD.

The 6.0L Vortec 6000 V8 was added for the 2001 HD models, rated at 300 hp, with the GMC Sierra C3 getting an updated 25 hp version of this engine. The C3 became the Denali for 2002, and Quadrasteer was added. GM made a reworked version of the Sierra in 2003, with a new front end, and a slightly updated rear end.

A first for GM, they introduced a hybrid version of the Silverado and Sierra in 2004. Calling it a "Parallel Hybrid" truck (PHT), the electric motor housed within the transmission flywheel housing served only to provide engine cranking/starting, battery charging, and powering accessories. As the truck came to a stop, the engine automatically shut down and used 42-volt electric power to the starter/generator unit to restart the engine as the brake pedal is released.

2007 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali

2007 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali

Modern truck for modern times

For 2007, the Sierra saw quite a few changes. Starting in this model year, the redesigned GMT900 Sierra came on the scene with completely updated interior, exterior, frame, and suspension, as well as power increases on select engines. This new Sierra offered improved aerodynamics including a steep windshield and tighter panel gaps that helped improve fuel economy.

Available in two or four-door regular, extended, and drew cabs, these Sierras were powered by the Generation IV small block V8 engine featuring upgrades such as increased power and Active Fuel Management on the 5.3L and 6.0L V8s. A new high-performance 6.2L V8 was later introduced with the GMC Denali line making the GMC Sierra the most powerful half-ton truck available at the time.

All Silverado and Sierra 1/2-ton models received a revised bumper and shortened front fascia midway through the 2009 model year and a full mid-cycle refresh followed with all 2010 models, including new interior door panels (which moved the handle forward and added an additional cup holder) and a six-speed automatic transmission on regular and extended cab models with 5.3L or larger V8's was also made standard. Two new exterior colors were added: Taupe Gray Metallic and Sheer Silver Metallic.

During this generation of Sierra, GMC maintained the ideal of a better performing truck with better fuel economy and upgraded features. The sharper edges and deeper groves were brought back to give the Sierra an upgraded, modern look.

2017 GMC Sierra interior

2017 GMC Sierra interior

2014 to now

The pickup’s evolution from being strictly a work vehicle to becoming a multi-purpose vehicle today is clearly evident on GMC’s site for Sierra, where a review of the vehicle’s interior receives precedence over its capabilities – something that would have been unheard of when trucks were meant solely for hauling and pulling. This old school Sierra’s transition into a show vehicle shows that there’s clearly a lot of life left for these pickups even when their days of doing hard work are over.

That’s not to say that new Sierra’s lack anything in the performance department. Its 6.2L V8 cranks out 420 horsepower, which GMC says is more than any other light-duty pickup. And, according to GM, the available EcoTec3 5.3L V8 engine delivers the best V8 fuel economy available among any full-size pickup. Balancing that power with control is Hill Descent Control, allowing for less nerve-wracking downhill journeys in rough terrain, and the Eaton Locker which automatically locks the rear wheels when slippage is detected.

As time has gone on, the Sierra, as with many trucks, has gotten more technologically advance in order to keep up with changing trends. Automatic technology features aimed at assisting drivers include the Lane Keep Assist which helps drivers avoid drifting out of their lane by automatically correcting steering, and IntelliBeam which activates or deactivates Sierra’s high beams based on traffic conditions have helped the Sierra maintain its modern title. Forward Collision Alert provides audible and visual alerts to help prevent collisions while the Safety Alert Seat vibrates as a warning signal to drivers.

Technology inside Sierra’s cab that’s aimed at driver convenience rather than strictly safety includes IntellilLink for customizing and organizing a variety of media, Apple CarPlay for syncing phones to the IntelliLink system, the previously mentioned 4G WiFi hotspot, and OnStar’s RemoteLink app to remotely start the vehicle, pinpoint its location on a map, and monitor the vehicle’s mechanical functions.

Available in four trim levels – Sierra Base Trim, SLE, SLT, and Denali, Sierra’s base MSRP is just under $30 grand, and heads much higher from there.

After decades of popularity among truck buyers and features that give drivers what they want, the Sierra’s popularity doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Are you a Sierra owner or a fan? Let us know in the comments. 

Last updated June 6, 2018