The Chevrolet SSR: What On Earth Were They Thinking?
Some things are best left to the imagination. And a hardtop convertible Pickup Truck is one of them.
It probably seemed like a very good idea at the time...
I mean, I'm sure in that fateful General Motors marketing meeting almost twenty years ago, when a smarmy executive stood up and floated the prospect of producing a convertible Pickup Roadster, a lot of people in said meeting were less than convinced by the idea.
As we all know, the Pickup Truck sells exceptionally well in the States. It's been a staple of American culture for over a century. A simple beast, capable of driving round town in semi-comfort whilst simultaneously lugging around in the back, all manner of needless tat that would never fit in a conventional boot.
Trouble is, once you've done that, there's not much else you can do with the Pickup. It's like good old fashioned beans on toast, it's good when you don't muck around with the formula, once you start to add different sauces to it, you start to ruin it. The old tenth generation Ford F-150 was a bestseller for years in the US, despite being armed with all the creature comforts of a medieval dungeon and being appalling to drive in every conceivable way. But it was popular, because it was a well built and simple product that satisfied the needs and wants of most of the general population.
At no point has anyone who has owned a Pickup truck thought, wow this is great, but I wish this was a convertible and I wish it was styled on something made 50 years ago.
Example 3001 as to why flames should be illegal on all cars
Which is why it's absolutely baffling that the executive who suggested this preposterous idea wasn't laughed out of the building as soon as the word 'convertible' and 'pickup' were spouted in the same sentence. Instead, the bosses listened. They must've seen a gap in the market, after all, no one had developed a convertible Pickup truck before. And there's a good reason for that, and it's because no one in their right mind would buy such a thing!
They're two things that are not destined to be together, chalk and cheese. What General Motors had created was a mutation in the truest sense. It was christened the Chevrolet SSR. Designed to harken back to the old Advance Design Chevy's of the 40's and 50's, it was powered by a 5.3 Litre V8 and featured, as you can see, a hardtop folding roof. Costing around $40,000 when new, I think its pretty clear why sales were so cataclysmically poor in its first year.
First things first, I have no idea why the designers felt it was a wise idea to go for a retro look. The SSR came out at a time when companies were starting to explore the potential of reigniting classic designs for a modern audience. A few years prior, Volkswagen had released the New Beetle, and the BMW influenced Mini marque had put out the new Mini Cooper. So in a way, one must imagine that General Motors were attempting to appeal to the same audiences with the SSR. However, the original Mini and Beetle are iconic in a way that the Trucks the SSR was based on, were not. Show anyone a Mini or a Beetle and they will be able to tell you exactly what it is without fail, however, if you show them a 1949 Advance Pickup I'm sure the majority wouldn't have a scooby as to what it is. So already, the retro styling hits a stumbling block.
The design itself is completely mental but unconventionally good looking, those massively widened arches and the almost parrot billed front absolutely catches the eye, although, in some respects, not necessarily for the right reasons. And if you opted for a nasty shade of yellow as the colour scheme, you'd be sure to stand out more than a Zebra in a Horserace. When the concept was shown at the 2000 Detroit Motor Show, the American press lapped it up in spades, probably thinking like most rationally minded folk, 'it's a quirky looking concept, but that'll never make it into production!' Only to be mightily surprised when three years later, it did.
Well equipped but little else when you get going
So you can imagine once these same press men and women got their hands on the production model, they'd be highly complimentary of the 'quirky concept'. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
The production model came fully endowed with a smorgasbord of luxuries as standard. Keyless entry, luxury leather-trimmed bucket seats, driver infotainment system, and much more besides, so for 2003 this was very well equipped indeed. However, all this was coupled with an outer shell constructed to be the antithesis of lightweight not to mention, a complicated metal folding roof and mechanism, combine these factors together and it resulted in a car that weighed in on the wrong side of two tonnes.
Fortunately, it was powered by a 5.3L V8, now that should provide enough power to get this two tonne mammoth going, right? Absolutely not... They were only able to extract a paltry 290bhp from this massive engine block, which beggars the inevitable question, how on earth did they manage to extract such little power from a V8 motor? I've seen 1.6L Diesels produce more poke! The result was a car with all the speed and acceleration of continental drift. In fact I think that tectonic plates move a lot faster than this heap of tat. The overarching opinion both then and now is that the SSR is all show and no go, and considering it was only available in a 4 speed manual transmission at the time of release, I can see what they mean.
Then we get to the SSR's party piece, the folding roof. As we've established, the idea of mating a convertible roadster with a pickup is a vision best left to the imagination, and the SSR is proof of that. People who buy Pickup trucks do so for one reason, they want a lot of space in the back to stick all manner of junk in. By transforming it into a convertible and adding in a complex folding roof mechanism, you sacrifice a lot of the rear practicality that Pickup trucks thrive on, and that instantly compromised the SSR against its rivals.
The result was a car that outwardly was completely juxtaposed to its rivals but useless in every other way. Priced at upwards of $40,000, Chevrolet threw the kitchen sink at it's marketing, the most bizarre of which involved an appearance as the pace car for the 2003 Indianapolis 500. However, this was not enough to convince the buying public, with under 9,000 sales in its first year, the SSR bombed on launch, and it's not hard to see why.
Even a spell as the Pace Car in the Indianapolis 500 couldn't convince people to buy the SSR
The Ford F-150 was almost half the price of the SSR and was far more practical, faster and an all round superior model to Chevrolet's quirky little entry. And this is where my confusion peaks, because Chevrolet already made a pickup truck at the time of the SSR's release, the Silverado. So what on earth were Chevrolet thinking? Did those smarmy Exec's genuinely believe that people would opt for the more expensive less practical model?
The result was shambolic. In December of 2003, GM and Chevrolet announced redundancies at the factory where the SSR was produced. By Autumn 2005, the factory had closed for good and as a result the SSR was culled. Chevrolet had overestimated demand and it cost them.
In retrospect, the truth is, there was never a market for the SSR. It was a quirky concept in 2000 and that's what it should have remained, as it had no place in the real world. And that's a shame, because sometimes you can tinker with the Pickup formula and get results. Ute's being a prime example, the Holden Maloo is a fast and interesting take on the Pickup recipe. Perhaps best known however, is the little car that would go on to inspire the Ute, which was developed in the 60's by an American company called Chevrolet, the El Camino. A Pickup coupe which has gone on to become a bonafide classic in the way the SSR could never.
It's a shame the GM Execs in that fateful meeting twenty years ago didn't apply the same thought their predecessors had 40 years prior when the El Camino was touted. Instead, twenty years on, the SSR serves as a reminder that a quirky concept with a unique selling point doesn't always guarantee success, especially when it's worse in every way imaginable compared to its rivals. Despite being a failed chapter in the history of Chevrolet, it will forever be remembered as the first and to my knowledge only, Convertible Pickup Roadster ever to be produced, and that must stand for something, right?