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A Short History of the Chevrolet C/K Truck: 1988-1998 – “Like a Rock”

24065 back coverWhen you think of Chevrolet trucks, what comes to mind? For many, it is thoughts of Bob Seger and the popular “Like a Rock” TV commercials. This generation of C/K Chevy trucks were the first shown proving their worth amid images of hard-working Americans, while Seger sang about their rock hard durability.

Thanks to an advertising campaign that matched the pulse of the heartbeat of America, the Chevrolet C/K pickups become part of American culture. While the F150 may sell more units, Chevy trucks and their GMC brethren have a larger following among enthusiasts building and modifying them.

Here’s the history of the Chevy truck that invented modern pickup trucks, covering 1988 through 1998, and found in Chilton manual 28624.

Stood there boldly, sweatin’ in the sun…

28624 CoverThe fourth and final generation Chevy C/K 1500, 2500, and 3500 pickup truck (before it would become the Silverado) began development in the early 1980s when the square-body C/K was already a decade old. Once the new platform (called GMT400) and design were solidified in 1984, production development began, and they were introduced to showrooms in April 1987, for the 1988 model year. Because dealers sold both trucks in 1987, the earlier generation is officially the R/V to avoid confusion, a designation that continued on old style crew cab trucks through 1991, and chassis cabs through 1989.

The truck’s new look took some styling cues from the smaller GMT325 Chevrolet S10, but with clean, rounded-off contours. This new body gave the C/K pickup a modern appearance compared to the 1970s design of the third-generation Chevrolet full sized truck, and every other pickup on the road. Three trims were available: Cheyenne, Scottsdale, and Silverado, the latter of which became the name of the C/K’s successor in 1999.

 

Power for the new pickups came from carryover engines, including the 4.3-liter V6, 5.0-liter V8, and 5.7-liter V8 (which all got throttle body fuel injection for their last year in the square-body trucks), and the 6.2-liter diesel V8 (in the C/K 2500 and C/K 3500 models). New engines arrived within the first couple of years, too, like the 7.4-liter V8 used in the 1990-1993 454SS model and 3/4 and 1-ton trucks, and 6.5-liter diesel and turbodiesel V8s, which replaced the 6.2-liter diesel in 1994. A range of transmissions carried the power to the rear or all four corners, including the venerable TH400 (in larger trucks and the 454SS) three-speed automatic, 4L60 and 4L80 four-speed automatics, heavy-duty SM465 four-speed manuals, and various Getrag, and New Venture five-speed manuals.

If Chevy truck owners thought the C/K was durable before, the fourth-gen pickup took things to a whole new level with extensive use of galvanized steel for better resistance to rust. A fully welded frame with boxed front section added rock-like strength, and carried a new independent suspension up front, even in four-wheel drive models. Various cab/bed combos were offered, including the first extended cab pickup from GM, all in a style ready for the decade to come.

And it would be seen by all, with a little help from one of Detroit’s music heroes.

Felt like a million, felt like number one…

The “Like a Rock” ad campaign didn’t begin until 1991. Chevrolet Marketing Director Jeff Hurlbert, spent months researching the virtues of Chevy trucks with General Manager Kurt Ritter and ad director Mac Whisner, looking for a way to imply they were durable in a way other trucks weren’t. Mr. Hurlbert told AdAge the goal was to “clean the slate and look at how we could move into a new theme line.”

Chevy’s longtime ad agency Campbell-Ewald struck gold when truck creative director Don Gould heard Bob Seger’s 1986 hit “Like a Rock.” Gould felt Seger’s song fit the tough, enduring image Chevy wanted for its trucks perfectly. The only problem was convincing Seger to allow Chevrolet to use it.

As noted in Rolling Stone, Seger has never felt comfortable using his music to sell anything. Even Coors, whose light beer shares a nickname with his Silver Bullet Band, offered him “ten times as much money” (as Chevy) but couldn’t get him to say yes.

For a while, that was the answer Chevy got—despite Seger having once worked for General Motors in the Ypsilanti plant—until one night in a Detroit bar, a factory worker asked him, “How come you never do any commercials for the auto companies and help us out a little bit?”

Standin’ arrow straight, chargin’ from the gate…

The commercials launched with a focus on televised sports events in the Midwest, and soon were a staple during NFL broadcasts. For more than 12 years, the song and Chevy’s trucks were inseparable and unavoidable.

The campaign had a significant impact on sales too. Though nearly 500,000 fourth-gen C/Ks were sold each year in the first two model years, sales were down more than 20% when the campaign was launched. Sales picked up quickly, and peaked in 1994 with 580,445 trucks, and were still at 538,254 units when the the fourth-generation C/K ended its run in 1998. When the campaign ended in 2004, Chevy was selling 680,768 trucks each year.

As the Chevrolet C/K trucks gave way to the Silverado, Chevy trucks became America personified, draped in red, white and blue. Listen to the soaring strains of Bob Seger, and he could be proclaiming the virtues of the Chevrolet C/K pickup truck, or America, both standing up to the test of time, “like a rock”.

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