The origins of GMC automobiles go back to before the founding of General Motors itself.
While William C. Durant is credited with founding General Motors in 1908, both of the companies from which GMC vehicles evolved were founded well before then. One, the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company (known for building electric trucks), was founded in 1901. The other, the Reliance Motor Car Company (later known as the Reliance Motor Truck Company), was formed in 1905.
Durant purchased both Rapid and Reliance in 1909 and used them to form the basis of the General Motors Truck Company, later known as GMC Truck. The two were formally merged in 1911, the first GMC Truck automobiles appeared in 1912—at the New York Auto Show. Thanks to the Rapid connection, GMC built both gasoline-powered and electric trucks between 1912 and 1917. Noted for their rugged durability, this reputation was gained as the result of a couple of highly publicized cross-country treks.
In 1916, a GMC truck was driven 3,460 miles by a husband and wife duo from Seattle to New York City in 30 days—carrying a one-ton load of Carnation canned milk. They drove back using a southerly route, climbing Pike’s Peak just for grins along the way. Keep in mind; paved roads were the exception—rather than the rule—back then. Also, in most places “roads” were little more than glorified trails. Further, there was no GPS to help with mapping, much of the navigation was done based on local knowledge.
In other words, reliability of the vehicle aside, this was a momentous feat.
That said, their total mileage was 9,513—with no mechanical difficulties from the truck.
In September 1927, “Cannon Ball” Baker drove a GMC model T-40 tank truck—loaded with 550 gallons of water from the Atlantic Ocean—across the U.S. from New York City to San Francisco, averaging 27 mph. He covered 3,693 miles in 5 days, 17 hours and 36 minutes without a single mishap, mechanical failure, or tire change. Sponsored by GMC Truck Sales, the trip was conceived to demonstrate the reliability of the Buick engines GMC autos introduced that year.
To broaden the market for the brand, GM bought into a bus manufacturing concern in 1925 called Yellow Truck & Coach. GM acquired controlling interest in Yellow in 1943 and renamed the company the GM Truck & Coach Division. Most U.S. cities ran GMC buses well into the 1980s. Over its history, GMC has also manufactured ambulances, fire trucks, motor homes, heavy-duty trucks, and military vehicles.
In addition to reliability, GMC trucks were noted for their speed, making them choice for military uses. In World War I, the GMC ¾ ton Model 16 served primarily as a battlefield ambulance. During World War II, GMC produced some 600,000 vehicles for the U.S. military. The majority of these vehicles were the GMC CCKW automobiles. A two and half ton 6x6 truck, it became affectionately referred to as the “Jimmy Deuce and a Half” by the soldiers.
In GM-speak C-C-K-W signifies the following:
C= a vehicle designed in 1941
C = a conventional cab
K = all-wheel drive
W = tandem rear axles
In military parlance, acronyms have a way of morphing into words. In much the same way as the soldier’s utilitarian General Purpose (GP) vehicle became known as a Jeep, the troops started calling GMC trucks “Jimmys”.
GM = Jim, just as GP = Jeep.
This vehicle was the mainstay of the legendary Red Ball Express, the African-American logistics unit noted for carrying supplies for some of the most significant engagements of the war. Red Ball Express CCKW350s hauled supplies for the Normandy invasion, including the fuel that kept U.S. tanks running while the Germans ran out. The company’s most notable accomplishment during the war was the transfer of some 400,000 tons of supplies over a single 81-day period.
In 1942, GMC developed an amphibious version of the CCKW labeled the DUKW. Perhaps predictably, the soldiers nicknamed that one the “Duck”.
D = a vehicle designed in 1942
U = utility (amphibious)
K = all-wheel drive
W = tandem rear axles
Prior to the war, GMC trucks were primarily commercial-oriented. After the war, GMC started producing more consumer-oriented vehicles as well. Additionally, more effort was put into making the models more carlike in terms of their comfort and convenience features. Interestingly, the first V8 engines in GMC trucks appeared in 1955—as did tubeless tires. The company did its first four-wheel drive vehicle with a two-speed transfer case in 1957.
In 1970, GMC introduced its first sport utility vehicle, reviving the “Jimmy” name for it. The model, much like its Chevrolet Blazer counterpart, had a full convertible removable top — a signature element of the offering until 1975.
In 1973, GMC became the first mainstream auto manufacturer to produce a motorhome. GMC built the motorhomes from the ground up, designing the front-wheel drive powertrains, chassis, bodies and interiors. However, they did provide empty shells to other motorhome manufacturers to outfit them more luxuriously if a customer desired. The six-wheeled vehicle remained in production until 1978.
For the most part, GMC automobiles and Chevrolet trucks have been identical over the years, although GMC vehicles were generally outfitted more luxuriously. Nevertheless, from the outside looking in, GMC and Chevrolet trucks looked just alike, aside from badging and model names.
That said, there were a couple of truly distinctive high performance automobiles unique to the GMC brand in the early 1990s. For model years 1992 and 1993, GMC vehicles offered the Typhoon two-door SUV with a 4.3-liter turbocharged V6, a self-leveling air suspension system, and all-wheel drive. The Typhoon’s pickup truck counterpart was known as the Syclone. Both were rated at 280 horsepower and 360 ft-lbs of torque. The Typhoon was clocked at 5.3 seconds from 0 to 60 and 14.1 seconds in the quarter mile. While this is a simialr strategy pursued by Buick with the Regal Grand National automobiles, the the vehicles are not related. However, today’s GMC offers its trucks, vans and SUVs in dealerships that are typically paired with Buick’s to give those showrooms a truck presence.