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Classic Drive: Hunting Bookshelves in a 1983 GMC Suburban Diesel

Welcome to one of the more stressful IKEA runs we’ve ever made.

Conner GoldencontributorBrandon Limcontributor

LOS ANGELES—Back in October, amidst my rolling mental breakdown about hitting the big Three-Zero in January, I took it upon myself to indulge a third-life crisis in the form of total redecoration of my apartment's bedroom. All it took was the first morning back in my bland, beige-over-beige dump of a room after a recent stay at my very tidy and well-appointed family home in Dallas to trigger a flurry of online orders, outlet visits, and general decorative mayhem that culminated in the search for an affordable—and stylish—bookshelf.

Lucky me, I picked the worst possible time to seek affordable furniture. With a significant increase in professionals now working from home, the amount of people competing for a single end table or corner chair quintupled, giving rise to a décor shortage that invariably extended to the IKEA catalog. My target? The "BILLY" bookshelf from the Swedish furniture mega-outlet.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: Space Jam

After an inventory search through the greater Los Angeles metroplex, the only IKEA with my  bookcase in stock was roughly 35 miles south in Costa Mesa—and it only had one on the floor, apparently. I had the time and the will to drive there, but there was one hurdle: the only car keys in my possession were those of the Automobile Four Seasons Lexus LS500; a sizeable superluxe sled to be sure, but hardly something capable of swallowing an entire deconstructed bookshelf. I needed to find something with the capacity to host a collegiate water polo team, and fast.

A canvass of my coworkers returned no significant leads other than a Toyota Sienna arriving two weeks from that moment, far too late to snag ostensibly the only "BILLY" bookshelf in the SoCal region. One colleague suggested I reach out to Automobile senior editor Aaron Gold, whose 1983 GMC Suburban diesel sat semi-abandoned under a thick layer of dust at our office garage. Desperate for anything larger than a VW Golf, I reached out to Gold. He graciously offered up his Suburban for my hauling duties, provided I was willing to make the trip over to Sherman Oaks to pick up the keys and siphon a few gallons of diesel into its dual fuel tanks that sucked down a combined 40 gallons.

An-hour-and-a-half later, the Lexus floated into Gold's neighborhood, and he cheerfully—he's almost always suspiciously cheerful—handed over the jingling keys and a laundry list of procedural checks to perform when it came time to roust the GMC's 6.2-liter diesel V-8 to life. First step was to let the glow plugs cycle twice—no surprises there. After the orange glow-plug light clicks on and off twice, crank the engine and it should thrum to life immediately. If it doesn't, the dual batteries only give around 30 seconds of cranking power before they go flat as a board. "Don't let them," Gold warned somberly.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: Start-Up Procedure

Thankfully, the old oil-burner sputtered to life as Aaron predicted it would despite the truck's extended slumber. Even with successful ignition, I couldn't set off for my Schrodinger's bookshelf just yet. As part of the warmup procedure, the 6.2-liter lump gradually builds revs until it's legitimately concerning; "If it sounds like it's running away, it's right where it needs to be," Gold advised. For roughly four minutes, the diesel workhorse surged toward its low redline, spitting out a mechanical cacophony that in the confines of the parking garage sounded like a small skirmish between Greek hoplites. Gold warned me to be patient; put the GMC Suburban into gear before the revs drop down to normal idle, and you risk the engine overpowering the tired brakes at the first red light.

This mandatory wait gave me time to inspect the weathered GMC, circling the roaring blue-and-silver four-wheeled rectangle like some sort of dog-show judge. Even by 1983 standards, this big slab is a bit of an artifact; when this brick sat glistening on the showroom floor with zero miles on the odo, the seventh-generation Suburban entered its 10th year of production, unbelievably sticking around with only minor aesthetic massaging until 1991 when GM launched a new Suburban family.

It's quite the lumbering brute. If it could talk, it would cough out words with a smoker's rasp while guzzling bottom-shelf liquor at an alarming rate as it visits more than a few of its exes circulating through the penal system. Driving—or even riding—in a temporal touchstone like this is a necessary reminder of how the good old days weren't really anything other than "days," no matter how deeply tinted your rose-colored glasses get.

Proportionally, it's not as outlandish as you might think. Cars have mostly shrunk compared to the Galaxie 500s and Impalas of yore, but SUVs and trucks have only grown when you compare segment over segment. Parked next to its modern progeny, the old Suburban is down some 6 inches in length, and around 3 inches in height, depending on spec.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: Let's Hit the Road

Finally, the diesel settled into a rattly, oily chuga-chuga-chuga cadence that's closer to an old semi-truck than a modern heavy-duty pickup. Careful—don't slam that column shifter just yet. The PRNDL indicator in the center of the cluster is drastically off-kilter, meaning I had to carefully count "reverse … neutral … drive" before tenderly letting off the brake pedal and hoping it crept forward.

Time to take stock of the wide array of gauges shotgunned across the faux-wood dash. The vast majority of these thin-needled readouts were non-functional or wildly out of calibration; aside from a working transmission-temp gauge on the steering column, the fuel gauge was the only other semi-accurate readout. Of course, even that came with one of Gold's dissertations of caution. "If it's at a quarter tank, it's full," he explained with more cheer. "If it's at 1/8th, it's half. I usually fill it up when it almost hits the empty peg."

Speaking of that transmission-temp gauge, it was the only way I'd know if the engine was overheating, as the gear-oil temp is tied to the viscous brown stuff sloshing around the 6.2-liter up front. I pushed this to the back of my mind as I slowly pulled out of the garage, the remainder of Gold's warnings ping-ponging around my skull and turning my confidence about this whole endeavor to swiss cheese. But I really needed those shelves.

As Gold puts it, the transmission carries the governor from a gasoline Suburban of the same vintage, which presents its own attaché case of problems. He explains it best: "If you floor the accelerator, it'll never get past an indicated 47 mph [because the engine hits its rev limiter but the transmission doesn't force the upshift]. Likewise, if you floor the pedal at around 50, it'll downshift, hit the limiter and decelerate to 47. Solution: Never floor the accelerator. You're driving a three-ton car with a 135-hp engine, and flooring it isn't going to make an appreciable difference."

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: Highway Hero

Somewhat counterintuitively, I was relieved to start this 60-mile round-trip journey just as L.A. rush hour kicked off, thus reducing the need for high-speed merging. Not that this brick is capable of any rate of acceleration beyond a slow ooze; there's a brief initial shove from the 240 lb-ft of torque before it peters off into the 135-hp crawl as the speedo slowly creeps upward toward highway speeds.

Traffic loosened as I rumbled closer to Costa Mesa. Before sundown, the Suburban was happy to cruise along at 70-ish mph with a judicious right foot, but a lack of functioning dash lights in the quickly darkening dusk turned actual velocity into a vague estimation based on the traffic flow. A GPS speedo app on my phone was handy, but only for brief bursts, as I still relied on Google Maps for navigation.

Compounding this interior darkness was a wonky and wildly misaligned front headlight, leaving the right bulb to handle all lighting, slowing me down to around 60 mph during stretches of unlit road. Despite fighting poor forward vision and the nagging threat of broken gauges, driving the GMC behemoth was surprisingly low-stress; slow, light steering with a laughable level of play made plodding along the freeway a one-finger affair, as did the massive, pencil-thin steering wheel. In contrast to the trio of modern Suburban/Yukon/Escalades that drive more like massive minivans than they do Silverados, Gold's Suburban rides and drives like someone welded a metal shell to a 1983 Chevy truck with extended bed and bolted in a third row, with copious body-on-frame judder over bumps and through tighter corners.

The brakes were the most welcome surprise. Weak, stiff, and fade-prone brakes are usually the most nerve-wracking aspect of driving an old car or truck, but the Suburban's front discs and rear drums were uncharacteristically strong, sloughing off freeway speeds with little issue. I'm not sure I'd want to perform a panic stop in this 5,000-pound bulkster, but for regular operation, braking was at the bottom of my list of concerns.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: IKEA Itch

Finally, I rolled into the IKEA parking lot amidst a cloud of rich diesel exhaust. After triple-checking to make sure the lights were off—according to Gold, jumpstarting the Suburban is a massive pain in the ass—I rushed inside to hopefully find the "BILLY" bookcase waiting patiently in the warehouse section.

The bay where the packaged bookcases usually sit was empty. Barren. Devoid. Vacant. Hollow. If I had listened closely, I might have caught the sound of softly howling wind, and seen small eddies of dust rousted by a passing tumbleweed. Despite calling ahead and being assured there was a sole BILLY in stock, the Swedish mega-retailer sold the last BILLY bookcase in SoCal likely minutes prior to my arrival.

All this hassle, all this time invested—for nothing. I returned to the still-ticking Suburban, frustrated and crestfallen. I sat in the silent truck, dreading the idea of cycling once again through all of the 1983 GMC Suburban's draconian start-up procedures. After priming the ignition and a single cycle of the glow plugs, the 6.2-liter happily chuffed to life, settling into a low burble. Pleased, I turned out of the sprawling parking complex and nosed my way back onto the freeway, where I lazily joined the mostly dissipated traffic.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel: Palate Cleanser

A few miles down the road, an unfamiliar sense of serenity washed over me. In the inky darkness of the unlit cabin, prior frustration morphed to zen as I played a rock in a stream of zig-zagging cars. It was a Friday night, and I had nowhere to be but home. The diesel's low grumble cranked away up front, the preternaturally light steering was an afterthought, and the windows were rolled down to let in the cool night air. In a city as over-caffeinated and emotionally cold as L.A., I found peace in marching to my own slow beat, carefree and relaxed for a precious moment.

Back at the office garage, I parked the diesel GMC Suburban back in the spot I originally coaxed it from, the rattly V-8 shuddering to a stop for the final part of my small adventure. Eventually back in the Lexus, I blinked against the light emanating from the myriad screens, buttons, and backlit surfaces, and marveled at how quickly and drama-free the 3.4-liter, twin-turbo V-6 bumped to life. The Suburban was an emotional and spiritual reset I didn't know I needed, regardless of the empty bookshelf space in my room.

Thanks for the keys, Mr. Gold. Next time, I'll leave some Swedish meatballs in the center console.

1983 GMC Suburban Diesel Highlights

  • Loud, smelly, slow, charming
  • Brutishly handsome
  • 2-liter diesel V-8 gets the job done
  • Reminds us of how the world used to be
1983 GMC Suburban Diesel
ON SALE 1982-1992
PRICE $10,187 (base)
ENGINE 6.2L SOHC 16-valve diesel V-8/135 hp @ 3,600 rpm, 240 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION Three-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, RWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE  N/A
L x W x H 219.1 x 79.6 x 74.3 in
WHEELBASE 129.5 in
WEIGHT 5,000-plus lb (est)
0-60 MPH Occasionally
TOP SPEED N/A