My Pickup: 1990 Chevrolet K-1500 Stepside Silverado

1 Silverado II

By Ben Stewart

West Coast editor, Popular Mechanics; contributing editor, Road & Track

As a kid growing up in New York City, there just weren't many places to venture off pavement. OK, let's be honest, considering the entire city is pavement there were exactly zero places to go four-wheeling. But I was completely absorbed in four-wheel-drive magazines, reading about all the great trails and incredible rigs out West. I just had to hit the dirt someday.

So when I moved to Arizona in 1990 and saw all that open desert terrain to explore, I wanted — no I needed — a four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup truck. Chevrolet's radical GMT400 redesign that had arrived two years earlier and replaced the venerable C/K trucks was ground-breakingly cool. So I ordered a K-1500 Stepside in Silverado trim with a tan cloth bench seat interior, an EFI 350 cubic-inch-displacement V-8 and a five-speed manual transmission. The truck cost just shy of $18,000, which was nearly Camaro IROC-Z money back then. But before the Stepside even rolled a tire off the Courtesy Chevrolet lot, I had to make one change. The dorky flush-faced 16-inch wheels just didn't work for me. Every four-wheeler on the street as well as those in the magazines wore deep-dish 15-inch wheels. So the stock wheels were traded for some five-spoke 15-by-8-inch Prime wheels with 32-inch tires.

However, those great-looking wheels and flotation tires would hit the fenders at full suspension compression over desert whoops thanks to my heavy right foot. So before long, I ended up with a simple Rough Country 2-inch lift that replaced the upper control arms with longer ones and dual shocks. The pre-runner look was incredibly popular at the time, especially in Arizona. I tried to ape the style while still maintaining the usability of the truck as a daily driver. I had a race truck fabrication shop called Dirt Trix bend some pre-runner bumpers — a shop the truck would visit again years later. And thanks to a pair of wider fiberglass front fenders and custom-molded rear stepside fenders, I was not only able to clear those 32-inch tires, but easily fit even larger 33-inch tires.

But I yearned to explore more technical terrain and that required better gearing. So in 1993 I swapped out the stock close-ratio Getrag five-speed manual for a more durable NV4500 from a one-ton Chevy equipped with an ultra-low 6.34:1 1st gear. A 6-inch Superlift suspension and 35-inch tires soon followed, as did a citizens band radio and a Motorola car phone (lame yes, but what can I say, it was the early 1990s). Because I was attempting to four-wheel more serious terrain, parts began to break with frequency. Each of the front constant velocity joints exploded at different times, and the stock GM 10 bolt was bent and leaking. I bought quite a few spare parts and gained quite a bit of knowledge from my buddy Rick Péwé — yes, the same guy who's now the editor of Petersen's 4 Wheel & Off-Road magazine — at his shop, Republic Off-Road, in Tempe, Ariz. By the time I landed a gig at Four Wheeler magazine in 1995, I was far more educated in what parts and systems really worked in the dirt. And I craved more wheel travel, durability and, of course, locking differentials.

 

7 FW II

 

So for the truck's final incarnation, covered in the April-May 1997 issues of Four Wheeler, I contacted John Dyke at Dirt Trix again for his fabrication and design expertise. We ditched the independent front suspension for an ARB-locked Dana 44 solid axle suspended by a three-link Bilstein coil-over suspension and upgraded the rear axle to a Dynatrac 35-spline Dana 60 with an ARB and a custom leaf pack from National Spring with four more Bilsteins. We retained the 35-inch tires, but now used 4.56:1 gears to help turn them. The engine was largely left stock with the exception of some Doug Thorley headers and an Edelbrock intake.

In the mid-1990s solid-axle swaps on four-wheel-drive trucks were certainly not common — especially ones with 15 inches of wheel travel at each corner. The improved axle articulation and locking differentials allowed the truck to go crawl up (and down) trails I had never even attempted before. And at higher speeds it worked really well too. Perhaps a little too well, as I found out one night while four-wheeling with a group in the Truckhaven Hills area of the Southern California desert during the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari. After an evening trail ride, I decided to take a high-speed blast down a nearby wash. Locked in four-wheel-drive high range, with my foot to the floor in 3rd gear, I pointed the nose of the truck over a 3-foot-tall ledge that ran across the wash. The suspension soaked up the ledge so well that I decided to hit it from the other direction — like a jump.

The skidplate of the front bumper made first contact with that ledge at about 45 mph, and the impact was severe. It sent the truck skyward and pitched it so far over that when we did eventually land, most of the impact was absorbed solely through the driver's end of the front suspension. We hit so hard it split the 6-inch polyurethane bumpstop in half, bent the panhard bar and blasted out one of the off-road lights. It could have easily rolled, and there was no roll cage in the cab. So I'm fortunate that I didn't get hurt. The truck made a full recovery, and I decided not to abuse it (or my luck) anymore.

That was more than 15 years ago. In the time since, the truck has been relatively retired. I repainted it the original Flame Red in 2005. But the rest of the truck remained much as it was back in the late 1990s with the exception of a winch bumper built by famed rock racer Shannon Campbell. For some reason, my pal Péwé‚ decided to put it on the cover of 4 Wheel & Off-Road in 2006 (must have been slim pickins for cover trucks that month) with a nice story by Fred Williams. This truck has been through a lot during the last 23 years. It's been such a reliable and trustworthy companion and such a part of me; I can't imagine a day when it won't have a prime space in my garage.

 

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Comments

I'm out of my self imposed retirement just long enough to say thanks for this great story and photos. Beautiful truck!

Awesome truck. Too bad this was the truck and time Chevrolet decided to dump the SFA and go to a low slung frame-torsion bar set up. At least this guy fixed that. Only a few short years later Dodge pounced on the opportunity and came out with their swing arm with coil SFA 1500 in 1994. High rail frame and all. Just like all 87 and prior Chevrolets. Chevy hasn't been the same since.

Thanks for the story. Nice truck!!

Great story and interesting to see that he still owns it. Cool.

NICE TRUCK!

awesome truck, 10 times better then the dodge they wrote about. Even with IFS this truck would of put the poor dodge to shame offroad.

@Lou BC--It helps to have a hot dry climate, the body lasts much longer. Also I think that all that has been done to this truck it would be hard to part with it. A lot of modifications have been made to this truck and it is obvious that the owner really likes this truck.

This truck looks very nice. I've always liked step sides.

The size of the truck would make it good in the desert on the more open trails.

His intended use of the truck makes a gasoline engine okay.

I would like to see a the new diesel Ram in 4x4 tested off road.

Very nice truck!

@Jeff S - my 1990 F250 was rusting out pretty bad by the time I sold it in 2005.

So much for the updated rules of engagement.

@LJC, just more false promises from Mark Williams and Cars.com. I truly believe their goal is to run this site into the ground just to make Cars.com more prominent.

@Lou BC--That is what happens where I live with a humid climate and with the salt that is put on the roads during the winters. Those that live in the Southwest do not have that problem. You will see cars and trucks in the Southwest that are 60 plus years old with good bodies still running. I keep my vehicles cleaned and waxed and have any rust and body damage fixed but still I get rust. When I lived in Texas it was easy to keep the body of the vehicles from rusting. It is important to keep the exterior waxed and if you have a garage or covered car port that will not only protect the exterior but the interior. This is a really nice truck and it is in excellent shape for a 23 year old truck.

Just make sure its an unheated garage, better to leave your salt covered car/truck outside then park in a heated garage at least for the body as heat greatly speeds up the corrosiveness of salt.

@FYI: MW is only ruining his reputation. ML knows trucks and the passion--I'm being PC here--trucks owners have. That's why he would shut down threads and remove offending comments. That practice allowed meaningful and good information to bubble to the top.

@Ben Stewart: Great article and and equally great truck!
Thanks for the write up :)

Yup so much for new rules of engagement!

Big Daddy Ram is not following the new rules, PUTC are you watching?

@ whoever is supposed to be moderating,

I see the trolls are under control. Good job keeping the comments civil. You are defiantly on top of things.

Exactly why so many have gone elsewhere to discuss the story's.

On the April 1997 issue, just look at how close those rocks are to the front straight axle!

Nuff said!

@expedition it’s a SAS, not the factory GM suspension, so I do not understand what you are trying to prove with you comment. A SA Ford or Dodge wouldn't have better ground clearance if they all have the same size tires (since that is what determines your front ground clearance with a SA).


If it had the factory IFS, then I could understand your argument….

Nice Truck !
I agree with Wxman, ive seen a lot of those issues myself on friends Chebbies from the 80s & 90s! IMO 1960s to 1972 were some of the best trucks ever made by ford and GM. A lot of Straight Six bullet proof torquey engines, manual transmissions with a granny gear, good v-8s, solid frames, body panels and beds with steel in em, one could lean on and not put in a flex dent, nice heavy tailgates that no one stole ! they were too heavy to carry away ! I had a 1970 GMC from 1980-1991 when i sold it for a 10yr toyota, tried two dodges in the 2000s and had issues, wasnt impressed. That 5.9L was a monster engine though ! Back to a Toyota in Tundra and been Zero issues in 3yrs and 50K ANd i do work it sometimes and romp a bit in desert. NOt a lifted Poser truck at all .

Happy Holidays Everyone and Merry Christmas !
Look Forward to another Great YEar of PUTC !
Thanks Mark and Staff for a Great Site and Latest News.

I rarely compliment chevys, but brother you got a nice one ! Take it easy now !



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