This look back through the years of Chevy heavy duty trucks shows a continual advancement of capability, technology, luxury, and comfort.
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The phrase “heavy duty trucks” calls to mind epic feats of power, hauling, and just plain brawny pickup truck brutes. A uniquely American segment, occasional exports excepted, these big pickups are also uniquely American made. Toyota and Nissan, the only foreign automakers to even offer a full-size pickup truck, have dabbled in this arena, but it is Detroit’s Big Three that owns it.
Today, we’re focusing on Chevy heavy duty trucks and how they’ve evolved through the years. While the Bowtie brand has been producing ¾- and 1-ton pickups since World War II, most consider the 1973 C30 as the granddaddy of the modern heavy-duty truck. Reason being, it was the first to sport dual rear axles with an extended cab that could fit six people. Part of the C/K series that would run until 2002, these early Chevy heavy duty trucks were no-nonsense utilitarian workhorses.
Dating to 1960, this C/K series was initially sold as the C10, C20, and C30, with the C20 being the ¾-ton variant and the C30 slotting into the 1-ton category. By the time the fourth generation Chevy C/K arrived in 1988, the heavy-duty models wore C and K 2500 or 3500 monikers.
In Chevy-speak, C stands for rear- or two-wheel-drive, while K marks the 4×4 versions. These final C/K trucks were the first to feature an extended cab configuration, the first to be built with an independent front suspension, and the first to see wide application of driver-side airbags.
The C/K 2500 and 3500 heavy-duty models came standard with a 5.7L V8, but could be optioned with a 6.2L diesel V8 or thumping 7.4L gas-powered V8, the latter boasting 410 lb-ft of torque in its final iteration. Another noteworthy aspect to this final C/K generation was the aforementioned “Big Dooley” heavy duty, otherwise known as the dual rear axle model.
Towards the end of production, the C/K was rebranded as the Silverado Classic and sold alongside the all-new Silverado lineup as a way to use up leftover parts.
It wasn’t until this new Silverado became a standalone vehicle in 1999 that the heavy-duty models – 2500 and 3500 – would kick off the power wars that continue to rage between Chevy, Ford, and Dodge. Have a look at the history of Ford’s Super Duty to see how the Blue Oval has kept the competition fierce over the years. Part of the GMT800 platform, these first-generation Silverado heavies hit the ground running with a host of industry firsts.
For starters, there was an all-new 6.6L diesel V8 that was born from a collaboration between GM and Isuzu. Dubbed the “Duramax”, this engine featured the first use of high-pressure common-rail direct injection courtesy of Bosch. This engine, rated for a then-crazy 520 lb-ft of torque, paired with an Allison 1000 5-speed automatic transmission. Other aspects unique to these first-gen Chevy heavy duty trucks were the availability of a 1500-series model and 5- or 6-speed manual transmissions.
Along with the available Duramax powerplant, there was the standard 6.0L gas-powered V8 making 300 hp and an 8.1L big-block Vortec V8 rated for 340 horses and 455 torques. Capable of towing up to 12,500 pounds via conventional trailer hitch methods, the GMT800 2500HD was a highly rated Chevy heavy duty truck when new, and today. In 2001, it was named Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year and in 2016, it placed second in a study by iSeeCars.com ranking the top 10 longest-lasting vehicles.
When the second-generation Chevy Silverado platform, codenamed GMT900, arrived in 2007, the sleeker bodywork and tighter panel gaps delivered improved fuel economy. Anti-lock brakes, at all four corners, became standard equipment and the lineup earned the North American Truck of the Year award. A host of towing upgrades showed up at this point including an integrated trailer brake controller and trailer sway control, which are key aspects when it comes to learning about trailering.
Specific to Chevy heavy duty trucks riding on the GMT900 platform was an upgraded 6.0L Vortec V8 now making 380 torques with a standard 6-speed automatic. There was also a corresponding power bump on the big diesel, now rated for 765 torques. This represented a relatively huge increase in output so that Chevy could compete in the Detroit heavy duty power wars, which were started when Chevy cracked the 500 lb-ft mark with their earlier Duramax mill.
For those in the market for a second-gen Chevy heavy-duty truck, set your sights on the 2011-2014 models. In 2011, the heavy-duty lineup was comprehensively upgraded. The frame was fully boxed and constructed from high-strength steel with no more C-channel sections. Larger engine and transmission mounts were fitted, while the body mounts were now of the hydraulic variety to improve the ride. The front suspension was revamped with forged steel upper control arms and cast-iron lowers, new torsion bars were engineered, while the rear suspension received beefier coil springs and asymmetrical leaf springs to reduce axle hop.
Another part of the 2011 Chevy heavy duty trucks upgrade was the aforementioned power increase on the 6.6L Duramax diesel V8 that brought with it a reduction in emissions. As well, an overhauled Allison 1000 transmission was newly integrated with an exhaust braking function. The brakes themselves were enlarged, with front rotors measuring 14 inches in diameter and conventional towing capability on the 2500HD increased to 13,000 pounds.
For the model year 2014, Chevy released their third-gen Silverado lineup, the K2XXX series that would follow suit with its predecessors by taking home North American Truck of the Year honors. Technology improvements included an available 8-inch touchscreen interface running Chevy’s MyLink infotainment software, available Bluetooth connectivity, up to six USB ports, and largely standard OnStar telematics. This new generation also marked the arrival of the High Country trim, Chevy’s first entry into the luxury pickup market with such niceties as saddle brown leather upholstery, a power-operated sliding rear window, and body-color bumpers.
Advanced driver-assistance aids also began to show up on the K2XXX Chevy heavy duty trucks in the form of Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Forward Collision Warning, and Lane Departure Warning. By 2016, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were added to the features roster as well as wireless phone charging and IntelliBeam automatic high beams. However, the biggest news was the latest 6.6L Duramax diesel. Known internally as the L5P, this venerable motor was now rated for 445 horsepower and a heady 910 lb-ft of torque. This helped push the max tow rating, via conventional methods, to a stout 20,000 pounds for the 2500-series.
Only a few years old now, the current Chevy Silverado series hit the scene with a splash in 2019. Riding on the T1XXX platform, this fourth-generation model landed at the Texas Motor Speedway with the help of a helicopter. Part of the automaker’s 100-year celebration, the new Silverado was a surprise, arriving earlier than expected with none other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on hand to talk it up.
Sporting more aggressive styling, highlighted by the front end with headlights integrated into the grille, the current Silverado HD is an impressive truck. Apple and Android smartphone mirroring is standard, fancy features like ventilated front seats and heated rears are more widely available, and tech-focused trailering systems are on hand. They include such tricks as a transparent trailer view that utilizes eight cameras mounted around the truck to allow drivers a clear look at what’s behind their trailer.
Under the hood, a new 6.6L gas-powered V8, specific to the heavy-duty lineup, replaced the old 6.0L Vortec model. Making 401 hp and 464 lb-ft of torque, it was paired with a 6-speed automatic. The L5P Duramax, still making the same power, was improved with a 10-speed version of the Allison automatic, featured an updated cooling system, and a new variable-geometry turbocharger. 2020 models, with this powertrain, were rated for a whopping 30,000 pounds of towing, via trailer hitch, on the 2500 series.
2021 models added wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, while the 2022 Silverado lineup offers the trick Multi-Flex tailgate. Looking ahead, the 2024 Chevy heavy duty trucks will bring an even more impressive 6.6L Duramax diesel powerplant. Thanks to a new turbocharger, updated cylinder heads, next-generation fuel injection, and more, it will produce 975 lb-ft of pavement twisting torque.
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More technology will come in the form of a 13.4-inch infotainment screen and head-up display, while the driver-aid systems advance further with features like ACC capable of working with a trailer and a blind-spot monitor that will also account for what is being towed.
Chevy heavy duty trucks are an impressive breed of pickup that has continually transformed over the years from basic workhorses to luxury and technology-laden vehicles that continue the tradition of getting serious work done. These 2500- and 3500-series heavy duties are a natural fit for our Top 10 Heavy Duty Trucks list. For more information on the upcoming 2024 Silverado HD, check out our preview here.