Story and photos by Denise Clumpner
Pickup trucks are rising in popularity and value. It seems more and more vintage pickups are also popping up at car shows and cruises across the nation as they gain appreciation by restorers and buyers alike. Although the “Square Body” Chevrolet pickups produced by General Motors from 1973-1987 have become quite common at such events, it is still unusual to find examples of their upscale GMC counterparts. One rare GMC example that makes the car show rounds is Dawn Nelson’s 1978 Sierra Classic K-15 featured here.
In 1978, GMC pickups were regularly in the spotlight through weekly appearances on TV shows such as “The Rockford Files” and “CHiPs.” Burt Reynolds added to the notoriety with a scene from the movie “Hooper” in which he drove a jazzed-up red 1978 GMC K-15 in his portrayal of fictional daredevil Sonny Hooper, referred to in the film as “The Greatest Stuntman Alive.” GMC brochures advised potential customers to “Go Truckin’ in a GMC” because it built “whatever suits your needs.”
The customer who wanted a regular cab pickup truck that had it all could check the box that would upgrade the already fancy High Sierra (RPO Z84) to a luxurious Sierra Classic (RPO YE9). The top-of-the-line Sierra Classic added even more options inside such as bright, brush-finished appliques; carpet trim; storage pockets and assist straps on the door panels; bright, brush-finished trim on the instrument cluster and instrument panel pad; full instrumentation including voltmeter, oil pressure and coolant temperature; and a “Sierra Classic” nameplate on the instrument panel. Exterior additions to the Sierra Classic included bright lower body-side moldings; bright wheel opening moldings; “Sierra Classic” fender badges; and a bright brush-finished tailgate applique for long- and short-bed Wideside models (the Sierra Classic option was also available on Fenderside, aka stepside, models).
Nelson, a resident of Ogdensburg, Wis., was still in high school when the 1978 Sierra Classic was introduced, but she knew someday she had to own one. That day came in 1988 when Nelson’s father spotted a classy blue-and-white GMC at Fox Valley GMC in Appleton, Wis. Upon spotting the truck, her father immediately called her. The original owner had just traded in the GMC with only 24,000 miles on the odometer. The truck stole Nelson’s heart and she wasted no time in becoming its happy new owner.
The following year, Nelson married and continued her teaching career at a new school. She drove the GMC to work each day, but tirelessly maintained it inside and out. The truck was not only a looker, it was a dependable performer that she loved owning and driving.
It almost all came to an end one night when the truck was stolen and stripped of its driveshaft, several engine parts and some interior pieces. The thieves punctured both fuel tanks to empty the gasoline, then pushed the truck into a swamp with the doors wide open. It was found abandoned and filthy the next day, but luckily had not suffered body, frame or electrical damage.
Insurance covered most of the repairs, and a few months later Nelson’s GMC was back on the road. It would continue to serve as her daily driver for nearly 11 years.
In 1999, Nelson realized that the Wisconsin winters were taking a toll on the truck and decided it would see no more winter driving. She began the process of sourcing and purchasing what was needed to restore the GMC to show condition. She soon discovered how frustrating the journey to find correct pieces for an unusual vehicle can be. Parts for Chevrolet pickup trucks were everywhere, and many of those parts also fit GMC models, but those that were unique to the GMC were nearly impossible to find. Many vendors had never even heard of a Sierra Classic and tried to convince Nelson to buy parts that would “fit” even though they were not correct.
Unwilling to compromise the quality and authenticity of the truck’s restoration, Nelson eventually found much of what she needed by networking with others. In searching for parts, she went to swap meets, scoured the internet, connected with a group of GMC truck owners on Facebook, followed leads and joined the GMC Chapter of the Pontiac-Oakland Club International.
The only changes to the truck were made for the sake of safety and visibility early in Nelson’s ownership: the small, car-like original side mirrors were switched out for larger standard truck mirrors, and a visor was installed over the windshield. All other options are correct and original to this half-ton truck. They include: the unusual PA6 white wheels with the chrome 4x4 centers (only available on C-1500 and K-1500 models); custom cloth and vinyl interior with tilting seat; air conditioning; power steering and brakes; tilt wheel; cab lights; cruise control; two-section sliding rear cab window; auxiliary fuel tank; two-tone paint; automatic transmission; and the 165-hp 400-cid four-barrel V-8 engine.
The result of Nelson’s efforts earned her GMC the “Most Outstanding in Class Award” at the POCI convention held at Wisconsin Dells in June 2018, as well as numerous trophies throughout area shows. The truck draws a crowd the moment it pulls into an event, and Nelson’s family has nicknamed it “The Man Magnet,” although gender does not seem to be a genuine factor in determining who admires the lovely blue-and-white pickup.
Nelson had always hoped to meet the original owners of her Sierra Classic and in September 2018, fate intervened. A couple from Oshkosh stopped by a Shawano car show and recognized the GMC as the Sierra Classic they had purchased new. It was a happy reunion, and a new friendship was formed while both shared memories of good (and bad) times with the GMC pickup.
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