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Because so many GMC trucks in recent years have had Chevrolet counterparts, it's easy to forget that the two companies developed differently. Both are General Motors divisions, but Chevrolet emerged in 1911, destined to become a star of mainstream passenger-car manufacturing. Trucks, while helping to fill Chevrolet's coffers, were invariably an auxiliary endeavor. In contrast, GMC has never been anything but a truck-maker.
GMC history began earlier, in 1902, when the Grabowsky brothers sold their first Rapid truck, a one-tonner with a two-cylinder engine. They formed Rapid Motor Vehicle Company, the first GMC forerunner. A second ancestor, Reliance Motor Company, issued its first truck in 1903.
In 1906, Rapid began building trucks at a new plant in Pontiac, Michigan. William Durant bought the Reliance firm in 1908, adding it to his newly-formed General Motors corporation.
Memorable feats were popular ways to publicize vehicles. So in 1909, a one-ton Rapid six-passenger vehicle climbed Pike's Peak. In 1911, the GMC logo was first used by the new General Motors Truck Co. A year later, GM trucks appeared at the New York Auto Show, but they were actually Rapid and Reliance models with GM badges.
All truck models were officially from GMC in 1913, when Reliance consolidated with Rapid and GMC. Soon, GMC engineers were designing their first trucks.
Military sales have long provided substantial revenues. In 1916, the U.S. Army used 3/4-ton GMC trucks to pursue Pancho Villa through Mexico. In that same year, a loaded GMC was the first truck to cross the U.S. in less than 32 days. During World War One, GMC provided 8,500 trucks to the Army, mostly 3/4-ton ambulances and one-ton troop carriers.
New technical features typically took longer to appear on trucks than on cars. In 1920, pneumatic tires replaced solid rubber. Then, electric lights replaced oil lamps. In 1923, GMC was producing heavy-duty truck trailers.
In 1927, "Cannon Ball" Baker drove a Buick-engined two-ton GMC tank truck, filled with ocean water, from New York to San Francisco in under six days. The first cab-over-engine trucks emerged in 1934, with engines that could roll out for servicing. Meanwhile, some GMC trucks began using Chevrolet cabs.
GMC issued a Suburban Carryall in 1937, with two doors and three bench seats, cousin to Chevrolet's Suburban. Hydraulic brakes began to appear in some 1937 GMCs. As part of the war effort, GMC supplied more than 21,000 amphibious 6x6 "ducks" to the military.
Technical innovations in the mid-1950s included a Hydra-Matic transmission, power steering, tubeless tires, and the first factory-installed four-wheel-drive system. By 1968, Chevrolet was building all of GMC's medium and HD models, while light trucks held Chevrolet engines. GMC's 1970 Jimmy short-wheelbase SUV featured a removable fiberglass top.
In modern times, GMC has been considered the premium brand, the Professional Grade, compared to Chevrolet, typically priced a little higher and attracting more commercial customers. Chevrolet has regularly sold far more light trucks than GMC.
A midsize Envoy SUV replaced the Jimmy for 2002, related to the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. For 2005, GMC introduced a Canyon compact pickup, kin to Chevrolet's also-new Colorado. GMC's Sierra pickups are comparable to the Chevrolet Silverado (formerly C/K). GMC has called its big full-size van the Savana, versus Chevrolet's Express.
GMC offered a rear-drive Safari van in 1985-2005, equivalent to Chevrolet's Astro. Several crossover SUVs have joined the GMC fold in recent years, including the Acadia and Terrain, comparable to Chevrolet's Traverse and Equinox, respectively.
Chevrolet had no equivalent to the Envoy XUV of 2004, with what was billed as the world's first vehicle with a power-sliding rear roof, a drop or swing tailgate, and a QuickDrain water system. Actually, Studebaker had the sliding rear roof idea in the early 1960s.
Though Chevrolet and GMC lineups have been similar, GMC has usually tried to offer some distinct models to differentiate the two brands, such as luxurious Denali versions of Yukon and Yukon XL-which replaced the Suburban in 2000. Following GM's bailout and bankruptcy in 2009, GMC was one of only four brands that survived.