The year was 1999, and GM was preparing to ditch the legendary Camaro, which became a shadow of its former self that few would spend money on. Management didn’t want to lose performance-oriented buyers, so they turned their attention to the world of pickup trucks. These vehicles were as popular as ever in the U.S and, more importantly, weren’t subjected to the same draconian federal emission standards, which took the thrill out of performance cars like the Camaro.
Several design studios were tasked with drawing up sketches for a concept that the company wanted to reveal at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show to see how the market would react to an unconventional, performance-oriented truck, The go-to design was originally drawn by Andre Hudson of GM’s Advanced Portfolio Exploration Team. Once, Ed Welburn, director of the company’s Corporate Brand Character Center, saw the drawing of a retro-inspired sports truck. He immediately handed the task of building a fully functioning concept to Jon Moss and his team at the GM Specialty Vehicles Group in Detroit.
They took the new GMT 360 platform that was being developed for the company’s next-generation SUV offerings such as the Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, or Oldsmobile Bravada, and with help from the German design powerhouse, Karmann, they brought the outrageous design to life.
Inspired by Chevy’s iconic Advance Design pickup truck series of the 1950s, the final result was baptized Super Sport Roadster, which cost around $4 million to develop.
When the wraps were taken off at the aforementioned show, it instantly became the star attraction. Those in attendance were fascinated by its design, and when the hardtop came down, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
Even for a concept, the idea of a two-seat convertible performance truck was astonishing, so nobody was expecting the SSR or a similar vehicle based around it to ever make it into production. However, fueled by the positive reaction of both the public and the automotive press, GM president and CEO G. Richard Wagoner, Jr. made the shocking announcement that the SSR will be available in showrooms at some point in the near future.
Work on the project kicked off immediately and, in 2003, an early production version debuted as a pace car at the Indianapolis 500. It was officially released several months later as a 2004 model, with only minor modifications to the original concept design.
As standard, it came with many upscale features such as keyless entry, dual-zone manual air conditioning, leather-trimmed bucket seats, a power-operated body color-painted tonneau cover, and of course, the spectacular Karmann-designed power-retractable hardtop.
It could tow up to 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg), and its 4-foot bed offered 24 cu-ft. (680 liters) of cargo space. Sure, these were abysmal figures for a pickup truck, but they made it one of the most practical convertibles ever built. It’s all about perspective.
Initially, it was powered by a less than thrilling 5.3-liter aluminum block V8 known as Vortec 5300 LM4 that made 300 hp. The engine was linked to a four-speed automatic and propelled the RWD truck to 60 mph (97 kph) from a standstill in 7.7 seconds.
With a price tag of around $42,000 and mediocre performance figures, the SSR never lived up to the hype in terms of sales, with just under 10,000 units leaving Chevy dealerships in 2004. The losses were so significant that GM announced five weeks of layoffs at Lansing Craft Center in December of that year.
In an attempt to revitalize sales, the 2005 models were finally given some much-needed muscle thanks to a 390-hp 6.0-liter LS2 taken from the C6 Corvette. Along with the new engine, a six-speed Tremec manual was introduced, and performance improved significantly as the truck could now sprint from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) in 5.3 seconds.
Unfortunately, sales continued to plummet, which prompted the company to close the Lansing factory by the summer of 2006. The last of these unique machines rolled off the assembly line in March with a bespoke black and silver finish.
Some say it fell short because it wasn’t as practical as a traditional truck nor as capable tof shredding tires as a true sports car, while others love it because it was a unique and unlikely combination of the two. Either way, the SSR became a cult hero and established itself as one of the most outrageous factory-built pickup trucks of all time.
Hate it or love it, the Chevrolet SSR is a unique piece of automotive Americana that will live forever. The gutsy idea for such a crossover is something that the industry is missing today, and we wouldn’t mind if Chevy decided to build a successor in the future, even if it’s an all-electric one.
If you want to get a closer look at one of these beauties, we recommend watching Doug DeMuro’s 2017 review, which you can find below.