When did half-ton pickup trucks become so cool? Probably about the same time folks realized they offer the same level of style and rear wheel drive performance potential as traditional 2-door coupes, sedans and convertibles, but for a fraction of the buy-in cost. We get it, too. Who needs a numbers matching, 1965 Tri-Power GTO, Hemi Road Runner or Mustang Cobra Jet when a tenth of the cash will buy any number of desirable V8 powered late model half-tonners? Add a few bolt-on goodies and these LS (GM), Modular OHC (Ford) and Gen III Hemi (Ram) V8 powered pickups can be just as quick and nimble as any classic muscle car.
Okay, we lied. We’d love a vintage Goat, ‘Runner or ‘Stang, but you cannot deny that pickups are the budget Car Crafter’s best friend. Done right, they combine the best traits of a hot rod, daily driver and parts hauler, all in one (just ask Truck Norris). In this story, lets’ examine a pair of potent but stealthy LS powered GM pick ‘em ups assembled from loose parts by the guys at NextGen performance in Spencer, Massachusetts. The money man behind this pair of trucksters is Mike “Tarmac Daddy” Shea. As one of the principles at Palmer Paving – a giant New England road surface contractor – Shea insisted on daily-driver reliability, and he got it. He also got more than twice the power of a stock truck, thanks to a smart combination of refurbished stock and inexpensive add-on parts. Lets’ have a look.
The Orange Monster
2002 GMC Sierra 1500, turbo 6.0
452 hp / 473.8 lb/ft
With its’ Safety Orange paint, blinking roof-top orange safety beacon and spoof door insignias (they read Department of Turbocharging), this utilitarian Jimmy would look right at home on a construction site lugging plywood, bags of cement, and other tools of the trades. However, this is one Sierra that’s been reformulated especially for play time.
Under the hood rests a totally stock iron block 6.0 that’s been fitted with a home-brewed turbo kit that kicks 452 hp and 473.8 lb/ft to the rear tires. Originally built in Ft. Wayne, Indiana by GM Truck and Bus plant workers, the stock drivetrain consisted of a 5.3 V8 and 4L60E automatic. Hoping to offset any potential turbo lag, NextGen swapped in a few more cubes via a refreshed – but otherwise stone stock – 6.0 liter.
Best of all, the 5.3 and 6.0 motor mounts are identical so it was a drop-in maneuver. The central nervous system (wiring harness and ECU) from a 2001 one-ton 2500 HD Silverado pickup connect the truck’s heart and body. And while the 5.3’s 4L60E 4-speed automatic can be beefed, a freshly rebuilt 4L80E went under the cab instead to squash any doubts.
Since GM only installs the burly 4L80E in ¾-ton-and-larger pickups, which take a different transmission cross member, Buzzell adapted the 4L80E mount to the 4L60E cross member. Conveniently, GM designed the cab floor tunnel to clear either transmission, so the only remaining detail was shortening the driveshaft by 2 inches and upgrading from 1330 to 1350 U-joints and yokes. Driveshaft Dave from Fleet Pride in Millbury, MA handled the chore.
Out back, the stock 30-spline, 8.5 inch rear axle – which GM Truck and Bus delivered with a 3.42 ratio and centrifugal-type locking differential – is retained. Buzzell says: “As weird as this differential is, with its centrifugal weight and dog gear setup, I’ve never broken one in general high performance use. Naturally, if you mount sticky drag slicks chances of breakage go way up, but for this purpose the stock locker is up to the job”.
And while the empty cargo bed, live axle, and increased power can trigger axle hop in most modified pickup trucks, the stock Silverado / Sierra staggered rear shock absorber layout (the driver side is mounted behind the axle centerline, the passenger side shock ahead of it) does a fine job of keeping the tires planted. Did the original 396 big block Camaro use a similar staggered-shock setup for the same reason? Yes it did.
NextGen’s Eric Buzzell says, “About the most complicated detail was fabricating and welding the passenger side exhaust manifold out of 304 stainless steel materials, and plumbing the turbo and intercooler systems”. Behind the wheel, the odd thing is how quiet the Orange Monster is. As with any tuned-up Buick turbo V6, it is possible to run without a muffler since much of the exhaust sound is absorbed by the turbocharger. That allowed installation of a Doug Thorley electric exhaust cut-out. When open, the stock single exhaust system is bypassed and the turbo spins up a little bit quicker.
Hardly a show poodle, this daily driven truck’s cooling duties are handled by the stock 5.3 V8 radiator (re-cored) and electric fans from a 2002 LS1 Camaro donor. It surprised us to learn that GM employed mechanical cooling fans on pickups all the way up to 2005. Ridding the serpentine belt accessory drive from this task sent an extra 15 horsepower to the rear tires. Ahead of the radiator, an eBay sourced intercooler helps maintain maximum charge density. With its stock steel wheels, Safety Orange paint and austere vibe, more than a few ZO6 drivers have watched the Orange Monster pull away on the open highway.
2004 Chevrolet Silverado; The Red Herring
LSA supercharged 5.3
410.13 hp / 422 lb/ft.
Back in 2014, GM issued a factory service bulletin recalling nearly 20,000 2009-2013 CTS-V Cadillacs and 2012-2013 ZL1 Camaros. Though each was powered by the mighty Eaton-supercharged 6.2 liter LSA engine, a little item called the torsional isolator had a tendency to loosen up and rattle at idle. The affected superchargers didn’t stop working, they just made noise…more noise than a Caddy CTS-V owner wanted to hear while arriving at the country club valet parking station. The resulting warranty repair campaign (as described in GM Service Bulletin number 13313) put thousands of otherwise good superchargers on the used parts market.
The guys at NextGen Performance were ahead of the curve with a simple kit designed to allow fitment of these surplus belt-driven LSA blowers atop serviceable boneyard 5.3, 5.7 and 6.2 LS2 and LS3 V8’s. All it took was a quick drive coupler fix and these blowers were ready to breathe new life – and power – into LS engines on the cheap. (Read more information on that here)
The Red Herring Silverado was an early recipient of this NextGen LSA supercharger swap kit. Knowing the belt-driven LSA supercharger can produce boost sooner than an exhaust-driven turbocharger, the Red Herring’s stock displacement 5.3 liter LS was retained after some basic refurbishment. To bolster the crank-mounted pulley for the added duty of turning the Eaton supercharger, the crank snout and pulley were machined for a drive pin. Otherwise, the stock hydraulic roller cam (with LS6 valve springs added) and related bits were retained.
Another budget-motivated departure from the Orange Monster was keeping the stock 4L60E automatic transmission, but sending it to Maine Transmission Rebuilding where Eric Engel swapped in heftier bands, clutches, drums and a five-gear planetary from a 4L65E. This added a margin of safety without breaking the bank.
The stock 1,800 rpm stall speed torque converter – complete with functional lock-up feature – was retained as was the 8.5 inch rear axle. Still equipped with the centrifugal-type locker unit, a stroke of luck back in 2004 resulted in factory installation of somewhat uncommon 3.73 rear axle ratio. This helps the low end surge off the line but thanks to the overdrive top gear, doesn’t penalize the sedate highway manners of the LSA boosted 5.3.
Like the turbocharged Orange Monster, the supercharged Red Herring can fry the rear tires at will, but there’s a more obvious high performance mood on board. Much of it stems from the constant supercharger whine and burbling side-exit exhaust system. Both trucks carry factory-issue four wheel disc brakes with functional ABS. The subtly slammed Red Herring sits on Belltech spindles, shocks, springs and shackles. Just an inch lower than the Orange Monster, which received a two-inch lowering kit from McGaughy.
Either way, turbocharged or supercharged, an LS powered pickup truck represents a fantastic value for the performance seeker who also needs to get some work done. Plus, with their overdrive-equipped transmissions and stock cam timing, both examples depicted here can nudge 20-mpg when driven gently on the open road. Think it over, a fun truck might be your cure for the overpriced muscle car blues!