TRUCK TRACKS

'Big trucks' to drive GM comeback

Ken Kelley / December 28, 2000

General Motors (GM), which has been absent from its role as a giant in the
big vehicle business, has launched an ambitious comeback campaign.


The comeback will be driven by new-model big trucks, with a long list of
attractive improvements; high expectations for future sales gains; a new
factory-management system; extensive moves in cooperation with GM's Japanese
partner, Isuzu; and a price rollback of 3% to 6% on medium-duty conventional
models. However, the company has a long way to go before its truck lines-Chevrolet
and GMC-are once again major suppliers of big trucks, particularly to the
construction trades.


"Let me say, right now, that we're in this business with both feet
and for the long haul," declared Bill Middlekauff, GMC assistant general
sales manager-commercial, as he unveiled the company's new models for the
big-truck field and discussed comeback plans.


With the automotive industry celebrating its 100th anniversary this year,
established firms in the business are taking a look at their roots. Middlekauff
said, "Our roots go all the way back to 1902 when two inventors named
Max and Morris Grabowsky built and sold their first truck to a Detroit dry-cleaning
establishment." (There are truck veterans in the Detroit area who insist
that the inventors supplied the G in the GMC name.)


Clearly the most dramatic recent move in the GM truck operation was the
unveiling of new families of conventional trucks and lowcab-forward (LCF)
or low-cabover (LCO) models. The former will be known as the C series and
will replace TopKick and Kodiak models from Chevrolet and GMC. The latter
will be the T family and will replace Forward and Tiltmaster models.


The new models, like those they replace, will be called medium-duty models.
Despite that designation, some of the trucks will be built to do the work
of heavy-duty trucks.


Some of the components available in the new GM models include: tandem-rear
axles with capacity ratings to 40,000 lb, 14,600 lb front axles, diesel
engines delivering up to 275 hp and manual transmissions with 10 forward
speeds.


General Motors' participation in the big-vehicle business declined in the
1970s and 1980s as it became a minority partner in a joint heavy-truck business
with Volvo of Sweden and a minority owner of what had been its Detroit Diesel
division. In effect, Volvo took over what had been GM's heavy-truck effort
and GM was left with lighter, medium-duty trucks, although some were beefed
up to heavy-duty strength.


Before the new models were introduced, GM's "medium-duty" straight
trucks had gross-vehicle-weight (GVW) ratings of 61,000 lb and tractors
with gross-combination-weight (GCW) ratings of 110,000 lb; both well into
the heavy-duty range.


Initially, the new T models will offer GVW ratings to 54,600 lb and the
new C models will go up to 61,000 lb on the GVW scale. Building up units
for specialized applications could increase those figures.


General Motors' partner, Isuzu, was praised for helping the U.S. firm with
its comeback effort, particularly in the area of developing a "new
world-class cab" for the T models. Tiltcab models, of that type, are
popular through much of the world, beyond the U.S., because of its outstanding
driver visibility and top maneuverability.


These new trucks and diesels feature daytime running lights, four-wheel
hydraulic or air-antilock brakes, a wide availability of automatic transmissions
from GM's Allison division and a large selection of gasoline, liquid-propane
gas and compressed-natural-gas engines. These trucks will rely heavily on
components produced in North America.


Long-life products that reduce maintenance and the down-time needed to get
the repairs done, are being added with growing frequency to many GM vehicles.
Along this line, the new family of C trucks will have manual transmissions
and rear axles that have synthetic lubricants, which move up extended-change
intervals to three years or 250,000 miles.


Their engines will have long-life coolant with a change interval of five
years or 150,000 miles for gasoline power plants and three years or 150,000
miles for the Caterpillar 3116 diesel engine. The addition of an "extender"
at 150,000 miles lengthens the change interval to five years or 300,000
miles, the truck maker said.


GM-Isuzu cooperation is not a one-way street. The Japanese firm markets
a line of its own trucks here. One popular offering has been a light-duty
pickup fitted with a GM-designed V-8 gasoline engine, a type of power seldom
seen in foreign trucks. Both the pickup and the new T and C models in the
GM lines are produced by the GM factory in Janesville, Wis.


In addition to the gas-powered light-duty pickup, Isuzu offers Class 3 and
4 models with gross-weight ratings in the 10,000 to 16,000 lb range, all
diesel powered and all competing with Chevrolet and GMC models of like size.
The import line also includes trucks with a Class 5 gross-weight rating
of 19,500 lb. Isuzu trucks sold in the U.S. topped out with the Class 6
and 7 models. The latter offer an all-new cab, which is much like that seen
on the new T family from GM. Also featured on the heavier Isuzus are U.S.-built
chassis components and domestic-final assembly.


Middlekauff assessed the prospects of the GM comeback, "We have built
one of the finest commercial-truck operations in the industry. We have made
sizable investments to ensure its future growth. And we are totally committed
to our goals. Our growth opportunities in the medium-duty segment have never
been better."

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