Chevrolet’s SSR concept was a bold design for the new millennium, but what was it supposed to be? Was it a sporty roadster with a retractable hardtop? A cool retro-styled pickup? A powerful muscle car? The correct answer was, “All of the above.” Chevrolet called it a “Corvette Truck” and touted the Corvette-powered SSR concept as its halo vehicle alongside the Corvette. Car and Driver said it was, “Part roadster, part truck and part Van Halen.” Whatever it was, the public clamor for the SSR at car shows across the country was so great that it was in production by 2003.
A Bold Design Concept for the New Century
The 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit was the first auto show of the twenty-first century and if the show audience wanted to see something out of this world, Chevrolet had it ready for them. Retro car designs were then running rampant in the auto world, but Chevy had a surprise up its corporate sleeve. Once they pulled the wraps off of the new SSR, the audience’s reaction was instant – they loved it! Chevrolet had created the first retro-themed pickup truck with a retractable hardtop and muscle car performance.
The lineage of the SSR can be traced back to the late nineties when Wayne Cherry, then GM’s Vice President of Design, wanted to explore heritage design themes for trucks. Ed Welburn, then leader of GM’s Brand Character Center, thought that the Chevrolet brand was the perfect fit for such a heritage-inspired truck and led the effort to develop design options. In the summer of 1999, Welburn’s team selected a design celebrating Chevy’s Advance Design pickups of the late forties and early fifties, paying particular attention to the vehicle’s large flared fenders and sculpted hood. Welburn said, “We were able to design the vehicle in a way that enhances the current and future Chevrolet brand character, rather than simply paying homage to the past.”
A Retro-styled Muscle Car Convertible Pickup for the Masses
Production of the SSR was announced in the fall of 2000 and, remarkably, production of the world’s only folding hardtop muscle pickup began at Lansing’s Craft Center in early 2003. The SSR had a wheelbase of 116 inches, a maximum payload of 1,350 pounds, and a maximum towing capacity of 2,500 pounds. The pickup box gave the SSR a cargo capacity of 22.5 cubic feet. The box had a lockable cover that could be opened by pushing a button on the key fob and an openable tailgate to give additional access.
A modified hydroformed Trailblazer frame provided a stiff platform for the unequal-length control arms of the coil spring front suspension and the five-link rear suspension supporting the solid axle. The SSR rode on 20-inch diameter x 10-inch wide rear wheels and 19-inch diameter x 8-inch wide wheels up front, all with Goodyear Eagle GS-A tires. Four-wheel disc brakes provided the stopping power.
The SSR came fully equipped. Among the standard equipment were luxury leather-trimmed bucket seats, leather-wrapped and tilt-adjustable steering wheel, air conditioning, dual front airbags and the SSR’s pièce de résistance, a power-retractable convertible hardtop roof. “We were intrigued by the more contemporary and fun attributes of this type of vehicle,” Ed Welburn said. “So, the idea of a pickup truck that was also a modern convertible roadster held great promise.”
Model Years 2003 and 2004
Calendar year 2003 saw only 2,500 2003 model SSRs made along with 5,000 units designated as 2004 models. The production car’s appearance was true to the concept car except for larger headlights, smaller turn signals, and small changes to the fenders and grille. Other differences were on the inside, where the production SSR had bucket seats and a center console that were not shown in the concept, and under the hood where the six-liter Corvette engine had been swapped for Chevrolet’s 5.3-liter Vortec V8. The Vortec V8 made 300 horsepower at 5200 rpm and produced 331 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. The only transmission available was GM’s 4L6E automatic.
Unfortunately, the SSR hit the road heavier than predicted, putting an immediate crimp in its claim to be a muscle car. Moving the SSR’s 4,760-pound weight with the 300-horsepower Vortec engine resulted in mediocre performance: Zero to sixty took 7.7 seconds; the standing quarter mile took 15.9 seconds with a terminal velocity of 86 mph; and the top speed was 134 mph. Not muscle car standards in anyone’s book. Using the lesser V8 instead of the LS2 from the Corvette would continue to haunt the SSR program.
Lagging Sales Prompt Increase in Power
Despite the overwhelming reception of the public to the concept SSR, sales of the production SSR languished. Chevrolet encountered two major points of resistance: 1) The performance of the SSR was totally underwhelming with the 5.3-liter engine; and 2) Potential buyers thought the asking price somewhere north of $42,000 was too high, especially when dealers tacked on their additional markups. The SSR was facing the same problems as the retro-themed Plymouth Prowler and the new Ford Thunderbird: performance that didn’t match their image and prices that consumers felt were too high. It was clear that if Chevrolet didn’t do something and do it fast, the SSR was headed toward the same fate as the Prowler – cancellation.
Chevrolet tossed out the 5.3-liter V8 and substituted the six-liter LS2 V8 from the C6 Corvette for the model year 2005 and gave buyers a choice of a Tremec six-speed manual transmission along with the 4L65-E automatic transmission. They also retuned the steering system to give the driver a better on-center feel. The LS2 produced 390 horsepower and 405 pound-feet of torque giving the SSR more get up and go. Zero to sixty time dropped from 7.7 seconds to 5.3 seconds for the new stick shift and to 5.5 seconds for the automatic, and the standing quarter mile time was now around 14 seconds.
But Chevrolet was not done. For 2006, they upped the horsepower output of the LS2 to 395 horsepower with the automatic and 400 horsepower with the manual transmission, knocking a little off the zero-to-sixty time and increasing the top speed to 152 mph. But it was all for naught. After a total production of 24,150 units over a four-year span, Chevrolet announced in November of 2005 that they were closing the Lansing Craft Center and ending SSR production. The last SSR rolled off the assembly line on March 17, 2006. GM’s great retro-truck experiment was finished.
What if …?
In what seems to be a recurring sequence of events for GM (think Chevrolet Corvair for 1969 and Pontiac Fiero for 1988) the SSR was cancelled shortly after a series of improvements made the SSR the super vehicle that it should have been in the first place. What would have happened if all those enthusiastic potential buyers in 2003 could have had an SSR like it was in 2006? It could have been a totally unique high-performance halo vehicle that complemented the Corvette. Remember, at the time the Camaro was out of production leaving the Corvette without a lesser-priced performance sidekick. The SSR could have filled that niche and been a Corvette for truck lovers.
Reviewers who tested the Corvette-powered SSR generally had positive things to say. AutoWeek said: “Our first test drive proved the SSR to be the people-magnet Chevy sought, as passing motorists shot us the thumbs-up and flocks of humanity gathered any time it stopped. The V8 propels this 4760-pound vehicle easily, and gives the exhaust note, which is tuned to match the last-generation Camaro SS, a muscle-car sound.”
DrivingLine.com said: “It will surely go down in history as one of the most unique vehicles GM has ever built.”
CarPlace.com loved the SSR: “On the whole, the SSR is a remarkably fun car, and not just because of the 390 horsepower LS2 engine.”
The National Corvette Museum is Looking for an SSR
If you have a Corvette-powered SSR in your stable, the National Corvette Museum, winner of top honors in USA Today’s travel awards contest for Best Attraction for Car Lovers for 2020, wants to talk to you. The Museum is looking to add to their collection cars that were influenced by the Corvette, a category that certainly includes the Corvette-powered 2005 and 2006 SSRs. If you’d like to donate your SSR to a good home where it gets lots of TLC and can show off for visitors, please contact Derek Moore the Museum’s Director of Collections/Curator.
CAR and DRIVER: https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15136694/chevrolet-ssr-first-drive-review/
A CAR PLACE: https://www.acarplace.com/2003/11/index-2/
DRIVING LINE: https://www.drivingline.com/articles/part-truck-part-sports-car-the-chevy-ssr-is-an-icon-of-the-2000s/
DRIVE TRIBE: https://drivetribe.com/p/the-chevrolet-ssr-was-a-brilliant-MUPEX064T9OgHsEblf62Dg?iid=BwhWcH2URmWA4iq5kcuNcA
SSR FANATIC: https://www.ssrfanatic.com/
Bruce Troxell Bio
“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.” Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com
Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.
Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.
An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.