Guest Post: The Undergrad S10

(Please welcome Daniel, everybody — this is the first of two contributions! — JB)

Elliot and I grew up in the same hometown, but didn’t become friends until we both transferred to the same university, around my twentieth birthday. Elliot was the sort of stain-on-his-shirt awkward but consistently jovial soul you couldn’t help but root for – an encyclopedia of automotive knowledge, dreadful at talking to women, and a fiercely loyal friend. We hit it off quickly between our shared classes and the car projects we were building on shoestring budgets.

Elliot’s ’97 S10 pickup was slowly becoming a mirror of its owner, this boisterous riot machine in plain clothing. What started life as a lowly 4 cylinder work truck, was now a 5.3-swapped, lightweight street fighter with 4.11 gearing and a threatening exhaust note – following the crude but venerable formula of small car, big engine that hot rodders knew and loved. While I was trying to find a more sophisticated suspension setup to improve my RX-7, Elliot was just trying to build a big hammer.


Sometime after the truck was finished, tuned, and had finally left his grandmother’s garage under its own power, Elliot and I were both at a local gas station when a C5 Corvette rolled in for fuel. The Vette’s targa top was off, music blaring, and the platinum blonde in the passenger seat was probably 20 years younger than the driver, who was out looking for attention. He got nothing from me, as in my experience C5 drivers were typically the cargo shorts and white New Balance sneaker type – drive the car twice a week, never push the engine past 3k rpm, and never opt for the stick shift. Elliot, however, was hopeful.

Sure enough, the authoritative idle chop of the iron-block 5.3 and the mild shudder of the S10’s cowl caught the Corvette driver’s attention, and he followed us out of the station and onto the entrance ramp of the local freeway. Elliot pedaled the throttle a bit, the 275/40-series rear tires struggling for grip halfway through second gear, the shuddering of my seat rails indicating that the truck’s wheel hop issue wasn’t fully cured. As we got up to highway speed, it seemed our opponent had lost interest and would be content to just cruise behind us in the left lane. I was turned sideways in my seat, watching from the rear window of the truck’s cab, and was just about to give up hope when the Corvette’s nose lifted abruptly skyward upon acceleration. LET’S GO. LET’S GO. ELLIOT FUCKING GO. Elliot slammed the shifter from 4th to 3rd and hammered the throttle, the resulting acceleration could only be described as absolutely violent..

Car enthusiasts of my generation are quick to criticize the ancient and proletarian pushrod V8, favoring the dual cam Japanese JZ and SR engines that Gran Turismo taught us to desire. Although those engines are exciting in their own right, and I have a terrible weakness for the Mazda rotary, just to be in the cab of that truck in that moment, thrown into the seat by the manic acceleration, ears inundated with the thunderous roar of brute force displacement… To not be feel enraptured, emotionally moved, one’s childlike wonder and excitement for life must have died long ago.

The Corvette driver looked incredulous, repeatedly glancing over to the center lane and finding that he just could not leave us behind, that we were door to door at triple digit speed. Finally, at around 120 mph, I can only imagine that the C5’s slippery nose cheated the wind with advantage over our wheeled brick, and the car slowly pushed past us, both engines kindred souls, ripping a concussive boom through the stillness of the night.

The next day Elliot would put his uniform on after class and spend another afternoon selling brake rotors and plug wires to a thankless general public. I would toil through another economics class before spending the evening patching drywall in an office building. But tonight, that night, we were alive, and we were young. Best of all, we were fast.

20 Replies to “Guest Post: The Undergrad S10”

  1. Shrug

    A compact truck with a V8 swap has always been a bucket list vehicle for me. I’ve had a couple close rcalls with some, but for the myriad reasons life throws at you, I have yet to be able to pull the trigger. I’d love a Ranger with some sort of LS motor, for no other reason than it would be absurdly fast *and* piss off people who think mixing brands is a mortal sin. Perhaps some day….

    Reply
    • Danny

      The 5.3 expired not long after these events. After that, a 6.0 liter-based 408 was built and installed, the truck was absurdly fast and was happily driven up until the body became dangerously rusted.. it was parted out last year.

      Reply
  2. hank chinaski

    Enjoyed. A much older heavily modded S10, diesel IIRC, competed at the last Solo 2 I participated in. Damn noisy.

    Reply
  3. Patrick King

    Great story, Daniel, well written! Always liked the looks of that era S10.
    .
    The scene you described brings to mind a chase along a hilly stretch of the Mid-Cape Highway heading to Osterville late one night in my friend Mal’s year-old ’72 Z28 with a new Corvette as our prey. We weren’t catching him, exactly, but we weren’t far behind either, until we hit an indicated 130 mph and heard the most horrific clattering coming from what, from the grim look on Mal’s face behind the wheel, I took to be an expiring LT1. He backed off and a few minutes later we arrived at our destination only to discover that the stainless steel trim around the windshield had come adrift from aerodynamic forces and had been hitting the Camaro’s roof!
    .
    Not sure we’d have caught that ‘Vette but we had fun trying!

    Reply
  4. Mark D. Stroyer

    I’m still trying to get over being unfortunately stuck with a stripper S-10 for most of a shitbox decade. It taught me a lot of things about driving, including exactly how many horses the average person really needs in their life and how to go around a corner faster than anyone else dared simply because I had to. What it did not was incentivize the engine turning anywhere north of 3500 or making any kind of modification whatsoever. It was a good little horrible shitbox and I both miss it and loathe its existence.

    Reply
  5. -Nate

    Thank you for a well written story that takes me back to the 1960’s & 1970’s when there was ‘no replacement for cubic displacement !’ .

    I’m not a V8 fan but the sheer power of one slapping you back into the seat as it roars to life is a thing too many young folks don’t get to experience any more .

    -Nate

    Reply
  6. JMcG

    I think I made a mistake sharing this one with my 15 year old son. I still can’t get over the fact that my F-150 has a 350 horsepower V8. 30 years ago it seemed like Red Barchetta was our future.

    Reply
  7. DirtRoads

    I’ve been wanting to LSX my 1990 Chevy work truck, born with a 4.3. That would be a sleeper! I love sleepers.

    Reply
  8. "Elliot"

    I miss that old girl, she was parted out last year. I’ve upgraded to a Silverado that’s getting an LSA and 4L80. More stories to come I’m sure. Love being the visual underdog.

    Reply
  9. Patrick King

    Does anyone remember the road racing series (SCCA, I suppose) that ran as support to Trans Am events a couple of decades ago (probably longer, I’m really old) featuring small, 4-cylinder trucks like the S10? That was a blast to watch, particularly at the old version of the St. Pete, Florida circuit (all downtown, no airport).

    Reply
  10. George Denzinger (geozinger)

    “Car enthusiasts of my generation are quick to criticize the ancient and proletarian pushrod V8, favoring the dual cam Japanese JZ and SR engines that Gran Turismo taught us to desire. Although those engines are exciting in their own right, and I have a terrible weakness for the Mazda rotary, just to be in the cab of that truck in that moment, thrown into the seat by the manic acceleration, ears inundated with the thunderous roar of brute force displacement… ”

    No sh!t, Sherlock. This is the kind of thrill I’ve been seeking since I was a young child and the older teenage neighbors were swapping 350 Chevys into Vegas and 360 Mopars into Dusters. I can remember my first ride in a Porsche 914 back in the mid-70’s and thinking… so what? Where’s the acceleration, the shove in the back?

    The “ancient and proletarian pushrod V8” IMO is still one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Little is as small and powerful as one of these motors, properly tuned. On other sites, as soon as the FT-86 is mentioned, I chime in with “swap in a LS” as soon as I see the post; the LS/LT pushrod engine has lots of displacement (read: torque) in a very small, light package that tall, heavy OHC engines struggle to replicate, even with variable valve timing.

    Protip: Gran Turismo is not real life. Plant your ass in a V8 muscle car while you can and enjoy the ride. I’m old enough that I’m worried about retirement, but if I hit the Lotto, the first thing I’m buying: Hellcat.

    Reply
    • -Nate

      Just so George ;

      Few here understand how it felt to get their first ride in a well tuned bone stock 1955 Chevy with the 262 C.I. V8 ~ for the time it was a real eye opener, those cars were *very* light so that small little torquey engine launched it pretty well .

      They were cheap to buy too .

      -Nate

      Reply

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