Occasionally, when freed from the constraints that come with designing modern family sedans or SUVs, mainstream carmakers can surprise us with startling vehicles. Sometimes, such efforts score a hit that becomes an icon, like the Dodge Viper. Even when niche models fail to turn auto-show excitement into showroom successes, though, we still admire them for keeping the enthusiast flame burning.
The 2004-06 Chevrolet SSR is a perfect example of the latter.
Carmakers went on a California car culture-inspired nostalgia bender starting in the late 1990s that produced the 1997 Plymouth Prowler, ‘98 Audi TT, 2001 two-seat Ford Thunderbird and the SSR. The Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR brought the trend to volume-production models.
The Prowler and SSR stand apart for attempting to bring the hot rod aesthetic to low-volume production. The results, however, came with compromises that fated both vehicles to cult status.
The Chevy SSR stole the spotlight when it debuted as a concept vehicle at the Detroit Auto Show in 2000. The SEMA Show might have been a more appropriate venue for a vehicle that looked like a high-end, one-of-a-kind custom hot rod that could have sprung from the late Boyd Coddington’s shop.
But instead, the 1940s-inspired custom pickup with bulging fenders and retractable hardtop roof sprang from Chevy’s own design studio. The overwhelmingly positive public response convinced Chevy that a production version could make a successful niche product. Assembly would go to GM’s Lansing Craft Center, which had also produced the 1988-91 Buick Reatta and later, the EV1 electric car.
Imagine a high-end hot rod builder making a wild custom truck inspired by the 1947-1955 Chevy pickup, but with modern performance technology and luxury amenities, plus a trick roof. As a one-of-a-kind custom, that might have cost you a quarter-million or more. In that context, the $42,000 starting price for the 2004 SSR seems quite reasonable. Heated, power-adjustable leather seats and keyless entry were standard, and no custom build was going to give you modern safety with dual air bags and ABS.
The SSR launched with a “Signature Series” of the first 25 saleable vehicles. All were painted Ultra Violet and were used as promotional models attached to concert tours and other events. Each truck, when sold, came with a scrapbook filled with memorabilia from its event. (GM kept VIN #1.)
Chevy deserves kudos for translating the SSR concept’s muscled-up look into production essentially intact. Making those bulging fenders from steel required a special process called “inverted toggle draw.”
As happened with the Plymouth Prowler, however, critical compromises dampened the SSR’s initial spark. Built on a shortened chassis from the Chevy Trailblazer sport-utility, the SSR turned out to be quite heavy at about 4,800 pounds. If the two-seat layout and convertible roof somehow suggested “sporty,” the Trailblazer chassis, complete with its five-link solid rear axle, squashed any ideas about that.
The bulky underpinnings, however, were fine for the SSR’s real purpose, which was cruising Main Street. Car and Driver, testing a first-year SSR, complained that the weak structure caused the shaking and shimmying over bumps, but less so than the Thunderbird.
While the SSR concept had the Corvette’s 400-horse 6.0-liter LS2 under the hood, the first-year production SSR got the 300-horse 5.3-liter engine, teamed with a four-speed automatic. Performance was leisurely for a hot rod, trailing even the V-6-powered Prowler. Car and Driver recorded 0-60 in 7 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15.4 sec. at 89 mph.
Disappointing speed wasn’t the only complaint against the first-year SSR. Car and Driver cited a leaky roof and shaky structure. The magazine at least understood the SSR’s main appeal: “A Ferrari 360 Spider is more exotic, but it can't touch the SSR's ‘What the heck is that?’ magnetism.”
Chevy got the SSR’s performance into gear for 2005 – as in six gears with an available manual tranny to harness the added oomph of the newly standard 6.0-liter LS2, rated at 390 horses and 405 lb.-ft. of torque in the SSR. In the newly fortified SSR, Car and Driver ran the 0-60 sprint in just 5.5 seconds (down from 7 in the 2004 model) and the quarter-mile in 14 (down from 15.4).
The 2005 $43,000 base price could easily cruise past $47,000 with options, right up with the C6 Vette that was new that year. The four major SSR options that year were chrome wheels, a fully carpeted bed with wood slats, running boards and an auxiliary gauge package. Chevy dealers went from adding hefty markups on the SSR to seeing inventory pile up. GM announced in 2005 that it would end the SSR the following year and close the Lansing Craft Center. Ultimately, 24,180 SSRs were built, a bit more than double Prowler production.
Today, about 30 grand can put you in a very nice SSR. Want a tip on where to find a good one? Would you believe a Hyundai dealer near Houston? North Freeway Hyundai owner and president Paul Peebles has made the dealership’s used car operation a hub of SSR activity, which in turn has drawn trade-ins of other high-end and exotic cars, including the occasional Ferrari. Over the past six years, Freeway has brokered more than 500 SSR sales, enjoying far greater sales success than any Chevy dealer ever did with the vehicle.