|As performance emerged from its slumber in the late '80s and early '90s, it took on many forms. Cheap gas meant that the legendary V-8 was but one option of many. Technology developed in darker times meant that computer controls and turbocharging were out of their infancy and well into their adolescence. Front-wheel-drive performance was available, as was rear-wheel drive. Japan even offered turbocharged all-wheel-drive options a full 15 years before the Subaru WRX arrived on the scene, but performance all-wheel-drive didn't really impact the American scene at that time.
Or did it?
In the early 1990s, GMC teased horsepower-hungry consumers with a pair of turbocharged all-wheel-drive compact sport trucks dubbed the Syclone and the Typhoon. The Syclone pickup was a '91-'92 proposition only, while the Typhoon SUV was around from '92-'93. The ho-hum S-15 pickup and S-15 Jimmy sheetmetal had been around since the early '80s, but what was lurking under the skin of these super trucks was exciting.
A Mitsubishi turbocharger huffed 14.7 psi of boost through a Garret intercooler and into the throttle body of a fuel-injected 4.3-liter V-6, pumping up 280hp and 360-lbs.ft. of torque. To give the Syclone and Typhoon all-wheel drive, GMC used a 700R-4 (4L60) four-speed automatic transmission, coupled to a Borg-Warner transfer case. But like any good performance all-wheel-driver, the Typhoon and Syclone had a heavy rear-wheel bias with 35 percent of the power sent to the front wheels and 65 percent to the back.
Between the turbo's inherent tweakability and the insane number of parts available for the 4.3-liter V-6, the sky seemed the limit. (In fact, stock Syclones and Typhoons are said to have more guts than a lighter 300hp Corvette, but an unwritten GM mandate that Corvette would remain performance king was in place.) There are AWD Syclones running 9-second quarter-miles now and rear-drive Syclones (with their transmissions swapped and transfer cases removed) have been there for years.
The sticker for the Syclone was around $25,000, creeping up closer to $30,000 for a Typhoon. Twenty-five grand was pretty heady money in the early '90s, but access to Corvette-like performance for between $5,000 and $10,000 less than the all-American plastic fantastic sports car got GM performance fans thinking beyond passenger cars. (Syclone's silly spelling was courtesy of Mercury, which retained rights to the legendary Cyclone soundalike tag.) No faux hood scoops were added, and no payload capacity worth mentioning was available, but chunky ground effects, 16-inch alloy wheels and tires, and a color choice limited to black sent an ominous visual message to those in the know.
But not all Syclones were black. There were, in fact, a handful of red ones. And they didn't cost their owners a penny. This is the story of the Marlboro Syclones.
In 1991, Philip Morris gave away 10 Corvettes, with special wheels and Marlboro striping, as part of a promotional program. They liked that they got three million entries for that particular promotion, so they repeated it a year later. While Philip Morris had initially wanted to give away Dodge Viper sports cars, that vehicle's protracted development program ensured that none were available when the time came. Rather than do another variation of a Corvette, they chose a vehicle that got excellent word of mouth and instant cult status and street cred-the GMC Syclone pickup.
The legendary Larry Shinoda, he of Corvette Sting Ray and Boss Mustang fame, handled the design aspects of the project, as he did with the Corvette. American Sunroof Corporation contributed the most significant physical alteration: making the Syclone's cab a T-roof affair with a fully removable targa panel, which stows and locks into a specific frame that is itself bolted into the bed. Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires rolled on Boyd Coddington "Cobra" billet wheels with black centers, polished lips and a small red and white Marlboro Racing logo in each wheel center. PPG supplied the "Hot Licks" DBC Concept 2000 paint (a hue that looks suspiciously like Marlboro red) and Concept 2020 clear. The C.R. Laurence company provided the PowerLite retractable backlight, and Guidon provided the lockable hard tonneau cover, which replaced the standard Syclone's soft bed cover.
Graphik Concepts Inc. contributed the striking white strobe-stripe graphics and lettering. A stainless Borla exhaust, a BellTech 3-inch-drop kit, and a Prompaq Adaptive Technologies security and performance computer system (visible on the passenger's side kick panel) were the extent of the mechanical modifications. Inside, a Momo Evolution steering wheel, leather Recaro seats, five-point Simpson racing harnesses, and a Sony sound system installed by Pacific Audio and Alarm round out the mods to an otherwise stock Syclone.
Just 10 were built as a Marlboro giveaway for 1992; the trucks were technically part of the 2,998-unit run built in 1991, but the Marlboro contest was held in mid-1992, with winners informed in September of that year. Letters sent to the winners claimed that more than 85,000 entries were sent in-a far cry from the three million the year before. All 10 Syclones were claimed, and happily all 10 still survive today; probably thanks in part to a drop in entries, the promotion was not repeated.
Our photo beauty is the first of the 10 Marlboro Syclones built. As the first, the one that was used for marketing and promotional artwork, Philip Morris USA was technically the first owner; the other nine winning vehicles came straight from GMC. (Owner Lou Robert retains a binder full of documentation to this effect.) Lou has been told that this first model cost $120,000 to be built, though he can't get anyone at Philip Morris to confirm that. Additionally, Rick Mears drove it as the parade-lap pace vehicle at the Marlboro Challenge CART Indy Car race in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in October 1992-and was kind enough to autograph the dashboard afterward.
Lou knows the lure of the Syclone well: his black daily driver has a license plate that reads "0-60 IN 4.2," so it's not his first SyTy barbecue, by any means.
When this one came up for sale in an AutoWeek classified back in 1997, Lou just had to have it.
"The original owner was afraid to drive it," says Lou, laughing.
He bought it with 700 miles on the clock; it now has more than 7,000-good for about 1,000 miles a year since he took possession. In that seven years of use, things happened. He paid $370 to have the original, correct (aftermarket), long-discontinued Sony radio rebuilt, rather than get a cheaper, better-sounding modern system, since it wouldn't be original. There are, on close examination, signs of use: the odd stone chip, the occasional puddle splash on the quarters. All easily cleaned, fixed, or hidden. Also, the amber light bar that was used for pacing the Nazareth race was not included in the deal. Otherwise, only the battery, a later-model Delco, appears any different than it did at delivery.
With just 10 built, you're not likely to find a Marlboro Syclone at a SyTy-specific event, much less at a local car show, so it's not surprising that this is the first one of these we've seen-much less driven.
Though it looks low, you're still in a truck, and the leather Recaro is mounted higher up than you'd imagine-you slide in more than drop down. Still, there is less of an inclination to duck since the targa top is locked-down and stowed safely in the tonneau-lidded bed.
The Recaro seat installed here is not a tight, meant-for-racing-only hip-hugger, and is plenty comfortable for the straight-ahead, though the smooth leather seating surfaces and bolsters look ready, willing and able to let you slide in the turns. The five-point Simpson harnesses, in the same shade of red as the exterior, seem like overkill on first blush and are a bit of a pain for clunking around town-but they get the point across.
Shut the door and things get a touch clanky, and the door panel shudders visibly on impact. Hmmm. GM plastics have been hit or miss over the years; 1991 was one of their miss years, with brittle-feeling surfaces and style by Legoland. (Luckily nothing comes apart in bricks or is molded in primary colors-it's only gray inside.) Inside is surprisingly tight; pity the S-15 buyer who plumped for a bench seat hoping that he could fit three across. It's equally unlikely that your 6-foot 1-inch tester would fit inside the cabin without scrunching down, which makes it all the more refreshing to take the roof panel out for our drive.
Turn the key, and a mellow exhaust gurgle presents itself: sporty, not snotty. The idle bounces between 700 and 800 rpm, and the exhaust note gently rises and falls with it. The gauges draw your attention to the central speedo and the right-mounted tach/boost gauge combo. The multi-needle gauge pod on the left is distracting enough that you'll want to ignore it during anything but the most severe street or strip beatings. Press the brake, shift into D, and the idle dips down to 500 rpm, sending a tentative shudder through the cabin.
That said, even the mildest throttle application will give the Syclone get-up-and-go.
A 4.3-liter V-6 is three-quarters of a small-block Chevy, so there's some torque to be had off the line even before the Mitsubishi turbo spools up-but then boost arrives at an absurdly low 1,800 rpm. Move slowly onto the gas and yeeeeeeeeeGADS! There's almost too much acceleration from a given throttle input on the low end; *****foot it into traffic and you could end up yards ahead of where you were aiming. A little higher in the revs and things seem to even out, almost go in the other direction. Power-brake it to somewhere around 2,000 rpm, load the plenum with air and get the boost online, and you're simply gone. The performance numbers are equivalent to a contemporary V-8, but the feel is very different. It isn't the sudden violent throwback in the seat that the two extra cylinders provide-it's more a gentle build-up, a suggestion that you'd probably be more comfortable if you just sat back. By the time nearly 15 psi of boost rolls around at the top of the rev range, you're back as far in your chair as a V-8 would have put you, but without the undue jolt. The turbo itself, with its infamous "hair-dryer" whoosh, is plenty chatty and adds to the mechanical atmosphere.
You can feel the front-end pulling, even in part-throttle boost, a function of the 35/65 torque split. It's not distracting, and you get excellent communication through the chubby Momo wheel, though turn-in is a little on the heavy side. On the straight-ahead, the ride was plenty stiff-not quite aftermarket springs and shocks stiff, despite the two-inch drop, but certainly a couple of degrees harsher than most sporting vehicles provide these days, allowing our test vehicle opportunity to flex. On our test ride, the slide-down back window (which was up during our brief drive) proved extraordinarily creaky, a situation not helped by the missing roof panel. Doubtless the extra structure would have tightened things up considerably and quieted the mice that resided somewhere behind me in the cab.
Despite its performance-oriented AWD leanings, corners are not the Syclone's strongest point. The deceptively tall seating is disarming, and though the equal-sized Eagle GS-Cs grip admirably, there is enough chassis flex and body shudder through the corner that it's not an exercise you'll want to repeat with any regularity. The tough suspension settings and solid rear axle only transmit additional harshness through the cabin. It's not a fear of bouncing clean off the pavement and into the bushes that prevents more aggressive cornering-the traction of all four wheels pulling you through won't allow that to happen, unless you're being completely careless-but feeling everything get all wiggly doesn't advance your confidence in its admittedly ample abilities.
In truth, how the Marlboro Syclone drives is almost beside the point. The fact that it exists at all, the fact that it is a living, breathing animal, one separated from an already rarified pack, is only the start of the story. But such a beast being driven everywhere, never trailered? Why, this is the best tale of all.