The next time you are in the desert, take a look around and make note of the makes and models of trucks that surround you. We would bet that you would not find very many, if any, Chevrolet S-10 pickups lurking around. Although the S-10 has its advantages and disadvantages, it just isn't that popular of a vehicle for high-speed off-road driving. Why? Well, we don't claim to be S-10 experts, so we headed down to G-Machine Racing (GMR) located in Signal Hill, California, to speak with lead fabricator Jason Heard. Jason has owned, modified, custom-built, and raced S-10 trucks for a number of years and is a wealth of information.
Off-Road:Jason, can you tell us about some of the advantages of owning a Chevy S-10?
Jason:The S-10 has a great 4.3L V-6 engine. It's a stout powerplant that offers a great power-to-weight ratio with Chevy reliability. There is a great deal of performance enhancements that can be made easily, including cold-air intakes, programmers, headers, exhaust systems, and more. Also, with the addition of a 180-degree F thermostat and dual electric fans, the stock radiator is capable of cooling the 4.3L engine in all off-road conditions.
Off-Road:What do you think about the truck's tranny?
Jason:The stock automatic and manual transmissions are not the strongest compared to its competition, but they will take a good beating. With stronger gearing to compensate for the oversize tires, the transmission will be very reliable. We have found that during high-speed driving in the desert, the transmission locks up well and puts the power to the ground.
Off-Road:If the S-10 has so much going for it, why do you think they are not popular in the desert?
Jason:The S-10 is a rare sight in the dirt. The majority of builders will prefer to build other makes and models either because of the ease of building or due to less aftermarket suspension systems available. GMR feels that because there are so few S-10s out there, it adds a cool factor to having a well-built S-10. That is why we specialize in fabricating them.
Off-Road:OK, so you told us about why you like the truck, but let's talk about its disadvantages.
Jason:First, the truck has some inherent frame-weakness issues. There are a few critical areas on the S-10 that have a tendency to bend and flex when being pushed hard off-road. Under the firewall, there is a small 8-inch section of the frame where the majority of flexing and failure occurs. During testing, we have noticed that after a hard day in the dirt, the engine had moved quite a bit, as well as this section of the chassis. Another weak point in the chassis is just behind the cab. There is a C-channel section that tends to flex during hard abuse, which causes nothing but problems.
Off-Road:If you wanted to address these issues and resolve them, what would you recommend?
Jason:A solid cage that is properly designed and goes through the firewall connecting to the chassis will solve the front-end flex problems. In the rear, you can either go fully custom and chop off the rear half of the truck and custom-build a new rear half or have the rear framerails boxed in.
Off-Road:We have heard a lot of people having problems with their control arms. Is this common?
Jason:Yes. The stock upper arm chassis mounts are a constant problem with any S-10 that sees even moderate abuse. The mount tends to tear from the frame due to abuse during full droop and bump. We feel the stock cross-shaft is weak and does not provide enough strength for an off-road suspension. This is more than likely one of the chief reasons you don't find as many aftermarket suspension systems for the S-10 compared to other small-body trucks.
Off-Road:Can you gusset the shaft or increase its strength somehow?
Jason:Plating in the upper control arm mounts can help the issue, or you can remove them entirely and fabricate new mounts. Either way you fix the mount, leaving it in the stock location is only a temporary fix. The proper way of solving this issue is to move the entire mount for better travel geometry. We have a J-arm S-10 suspension that relocates the mount to the frame and uses GMR Heim joints for the pivots on 5/8-inch Grade 8 bolts that will kill any strength issues.
Off-Road:We have noticed on a few S-10 trucks that the steering often becomes a problem off-road as well. Your thoughts?
Jason:We have found the idler arm often can become loose after mild off-road abuse. We have actually broke a few of them during testing. The stock steering geometry induces bumpsteer after about 6 inches of wheel travel. To solve this, you can gusset the idler arm or build a custom swing-arm setup. Using Heim joints for the steering arms will also increase the strength and add to the longevity of the steering linkage.
Off-Road:Not everyone can afford a custom-built truck. Considering you have installed every bolt-on kit out there for the truck, why don't you share with our readers your thoughts on a few of the more popular suspension systems you have seen.
Jason:This is one of the first bolt-on long-travel kits available. This kit has become a standard for the S-10 prerunner. With good design, welding, and powdercoat, the CST kit is one of the best on the market. It uses 1-inch uniballs for the upper arms with Delrin bushings. The lower arms accept a CST coil spring and new performance shock. The spindle is replaced with a 3.5-inch CST spindle that uses the stock wheel bearings and brakes. The kit adds roughly 6 inches of lift and increases the track width by 5 inches. This kit will hold up to punishment, and the only weak points are that of the stock chassis. We have seen the upper control arm mounts tearing away from the frame during hard abuse. This is due to the stock design, not the design of the CST setup. The arms are very strong, and I have never seen or heard of anyone breaking a CST arm or spindle.
Jason:The only kit that Fabtech currently offers is a simple 3.5-inch spindle lift that includes new shocks for the front and rear. This is a great, simple upgrade for the daily-driver truck. The spindle itself is very strong and has been used on several long-travel setups with great success.
Jason:Superlift makes great 4wd kits in both 2- and 6-inch options. If you have a 4wd S-10, these are some of the best kits on the market today. They are solid kits that keep a great ride quality on the road and on the trail. They are not built with high-speed desert driving in mind though, so I would not recommend hucking one of these kits off a sand dune.
Jason:We have our own long-travel suspension, but it is not bolt-on and needs to be installed by a professional. This setup uses a new mount for the upper J-arm that pivots with the use of chrome-moly Heims. The kit clears room for the use of a coilover shock, bypass shock, and a hydraulic bumpstop. It also uses 1-inch uniballs for both the lower and upper mounts that provide 14 inches of reliable travel. The kit was designed for the CST or Fabtech spindle and has special spacers to improve the suspension geometry. It also uses F-911 bolts for the connection between the uniballs and spindle. The steering uses all new extended tie rods with Heims for the inner and outer pivots. This adds to the strength and helps with bind through travel. The coil bucket needs to be removed, and shock hoops fabricated. This kit will work with either an 8- or 10-inch coilover.
So, is the S-10 your next project truck? We came out knowing a great deal more than we did when we went into this article about the Chevy truck. A few things we had heard about the truck were confirmed, and some were squashed. The truck definitely presents a fair amount of both advantages and disadvantages. With a little help, the S-10 can make you a happy off-road driver and should be considered before your next purchase.
For more information on what GMR is working on, including new S-10 spindles, steering, and rear floating 9-inch housing, visit www.gmachineracing.com.