History: Of GMC Truck at 90

by Bob Hagin

October 2, 2001

Not long ago I made what some readers considered a gaff in one of my features and as usual, a couple of sharp-eyed auto aficionados picked up on it immediately. I stated that as far as I knew, GMC, the truck- building arm of General Motors, never built a passenger car. These critics pointed out that the GMC Sprint was built from '71 until '79 and its successor, the Cabrillo, was produced from '78 until '87, and both were comfortable highway cruisers, albeit with large trunks.

And they're right -in a way. The vehicles in question were, in effect, Chevy Chevelle and Malibu station wagons with their tops chopped off at the beltline from behind the front doors, and a cargo-carrying section put in its place. But I will stand firm and point out that Uncle Sam, the entity that has the absolute final word on such matters, says that if it's designed to carry cargo, it's a truck.

This question started me thinking about the background and history of GMC trucks and how it has managed to outlive so many of its competitors in the truck-making business. As a brand, it's 90 years old this year, an unusual feat of longevity in the century-long battle for survival in a very cutthroat automotive world.

Like so many other self-propelled vehicles, the first trucks were simply motorized horse-drawn wagons. In 1902, the brothers Max and Morris Grabowsky opened the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company in Detroit to produce copies of a one cylinder, chain-driven dray machine they'd designed and built the year before. It's name, Rapid, alluded to the fact that the hulking brute could be coaxed to speed of almost 10 miles per hour but it took a brave man to do it, perched, as he was, up high and forward of the truck bed.

During that same year, the Reliance Motor Company, also of Detroit, ostensibly gave up the production of its five-seater, side-entrance tonneau for the less-crowded field of truck making.

Both companies flourished. Rapid in particular was a great success and by 1906, its new factory in Pontiac, Mich. was the world's largest truck-building plant. It only produced 200 units that first year, since oat-burning horse power was still the preferred motivation source for practicing teamsters, but it was still the largest.

The first years of the new century was a period of corporate conglomeration and the irrepressible William C. Durant was putting together his embryonic General Motors organization. Durant had started with Buick (skating originator David Buick out the back door along the way), added Oldsmobile and Oakland (the predecessor of the Pontiac) and was in the process of enveloping Cadillac when it occurred to him that he needed a truck line to round out his vehicular menagerie. Since there were two truck makers in the neighborhood and he couldn't make up his mind which showed the most promise, the bought both of them, Reliance in 1908 and Rapid a year later.

Durant and his General Motors Company marketed the brands separately for a while but in 1913, the two were merged and that same year the organization was renamed the General Motors Truck Company. All production was shifted over to the Rapid plant in Pontiac.

Both the Reliance and the Rapid were big gas-powered bruisers built to replace wagons drawn by teams of horses (hence the occupational title "teamster" for a truck driver), but light-duty delivery jobs were done by GMC electric vehicles. That changed in 1916 and everything that wore the stylized GMC truck logo after that utilized gasoline.

But an intra-corporate rival appeared on the scene in 1918 in the form of a couple of relatively light Chevrolet trucks for urban delivery service. GMC got into the light-weight side of the business when the just-introduced Pontiac passenger car of 1926 was followed by a Pontiac pickup later that year. But rather than have three different General Motors entities marketing trucks, the Pontiac half-ton pickup was branded a GMC vehicle.

The similarities and differences between the GMC line of trucks and those that wore the Chevy "bow-tie" logo over the years are too complex and complicated to elaborate upon. During all our 20th century wars, GMC trucks (usually of fairly large capacity) saw use in olive drab paint, including duty as the chief conveyance of General Patton's famous World War II Red Ball Express, the subject of a 1952 movie by the same name. I myself spent considerable time in the cockpit of GMC 2 1/2-ton trucks in Korea in 1954.

The GMC people now promote the brand as "Professional Grade" in their print ads and televisions spots. If the Grabowsky brothers could reappear and take a ride in the new luxurious GMC Yukon SUV, they'd be amazed at the metamorphosis the term "truck" has undergone during the preceding 100 years. For a look at these early GMC trucks, readers can log onto the GMC site at www.gmc.com and go to the history section.

 

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