L5wolvesf Reader
7/13/20 1:00 p.m.

A possible candidate for a tow vehicle may be available to me – a 1987 Suburban. It fits some of my criteria; 2x4, 350 V8, half ton (6 bolt wheels), set up for towing. While 4x4, the bigger V8, and 3/4 ton may be nice I don’t really think I need the additional weight etc.


I’ve given it a quick visual once over and what bad there is (needs interior) can easily be replaced and possibly upgraded (later gen maybe). I’m told it drives really well (respectable source) but I didn’t have available time to drive it myself. That will happen at some point.


It is also within my price range as there is a possibility I could trade one of my projects and do some other haggling / trading.


So I would like to get some input about the 80s Suburban beasties because 80s GM products are a bit iffy as I recall. Are / were there any known gremlins I may encounter?


How well, or not, have Suburbans generally survived 30+ yrs?


A little research says they;

  • are 1st year of throttle body injection – were they good and or reliable, upgradable
  • should have the 700R4 trans – thoughts on this?


Thank you

solfly HalfDork
7/13/20 1:38 p.m.

yes on 1st year of tbi and it should have a 700r4

1988RedT2 MegaDork
7/13/20 1:39 p.m.

I've got no relevant experience other than owning a 1985 Chevy one-ton Duallie.  Old Suburbans are good trucks.  Rust probably claims most of them.  If the one you're looking at isn't all rusty and still runs and drives okay, well what else do you need to know?

If the price is right, I'd go for it.  It's gonna be thirsty, though.

buzzboy Dork
7/13/20 5:39 p.m.

We've been towing with an OBS TBI 3/4 ton. The steering was a bit light and touchy for my taste towing at speed, but otherwise it tows great. Plenty of power with 5000lbs behind and plenty of brakes(with a braked trailer). Expect single digit fuel economy towing.

ShawnG UltimaDork
7/13/20 6:09 p.m.

The brakes on the 1/2 ton suck. The ones on the 3/4 ton suck less.

You'll like good brakes when you tow.

drock25too New Reader
7/13/20 6:40 p.m.

I've had two Suburbans that I towed with and I really like them. Can carry five people or lay the back seat down and carry more parts.  And nothing gets wet when it rains.  I worked at a GMC dealership in the 80's and I don't remember that many problems with them. You will want trailer brakes with a 1/2 ton for sure. 

Patientzero HalfDork
7/13/20 6:49 p.m.

Are you just getting an insane good deal?  A 2000+ (insert brand) 1/2 ton truck(or suburban) will tow circles around that and get better fuel mileage in the process.

93gsxturbo SuperDork
7/13/20 7:06 p.m.

Considering you can get into a nice LS powered burb for under $4k, an 80s unit would have to be damn near free for me to want to consider towing with.  Been there done that, wasnt great.  

jimbbski SuperDork
7/13/20 7:45 p.m.

My experience was with a '88 2500 4X2 with the 454.  Not really the same thing.  It would tow whatever I loaded on my open trailer as though it wasn't there. MPG's were 11-12 MT and 9-10 towing.  No real downside there.  It was just big, heavy, rode like a truck and I hated it. I did get almost as much for it when I sold it than what I paid for it.

SuperDave New Reader
7/13/20 8:01 p.m.

I recently started towing an 18' pontoon (2750 pounds or there abouts) with an '88 Suburban R10.  Same powertrain as yours.  Check to see what rear end ratio yours has.  Mine is equipped with a 2.73 and it's not a great tow vehicle for this much weight.

I added another transmission cooler to supplement the one it came with and it helped but before I do any long distance trips towing the boat we will visit a transmission shop for a checkup and assessment.  It's happiest on the interstate running 60-65 MPH in 3rd gear.  For whatever reason it doesn't pull well at 50-55.

Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
7/13/20 8:27 p.m.

My 88 Silverado c20 has been a good back up for my daily and has served for occasional towing since 2009.

350, 700R4. The odometer quit in about 2000, with 243k miles on it. I was told it had at least 350k miles when I got it, I'm thinking that I've driven it another 50k miles in the following 11 years.

I've used it for a few road trips throughout the southeast, to Asheville and Atlanta as well as the Florida panhandle.

I had a problem with the distributor, that mimicked a fuel delivery issue over the winter, but once it was diagnosed it was a simple fix.

It runs well enough that the day after replacing the distributor I towed a youhaul car hauler with my miata at least 1800 miles over a four day weekend this year. So, they're real work horses, simple (in a good way) and durable.

I'd rather have a newer truck, but it's really hard to let go of something that runs so well. I wouldn't consider one under other circumstances, but I was broke and it was free from the grandson of the original owner, who maintained it like an airplane.

I still wouldn't recommend one. There's a lot of reasons, including the fact that there's no beams in the doors, it only has anti-lock brakes on the rear, no airbags, no under dashboard brace...

I hope I never get hit in it. I did T-Bone an F-150 that failed to yield, and it messed his truck up a lot more than it did mine.

Being a 3/4 ton, my brakes aren't bad.

Picture from February 22, 2020. You remember, back when we all lived in a different world.

KyAllroad (Jeremy) (Forum Supporter)
KyAllroad (Jeremy) (Forum Supporter) UltimaDork
7/14/20 7:58 a.m.

I had a 99 Suburban 1/2 ton with a 350 Vortec and 4L60 trans.  I did ok but three years ago I upgraded to a 2004 3/4 ton 'burb and it is light years better at towing.  Mileage is worse, but not dramatically worse and the chassis/brakes are orders of magnitude better.  And I actually trust the 4L80 to not puke its innards at random times.

ColoradoBob New Reader
7/14/20 12:32 p.m.

I towed for many years with a 1989 Suburban 2500 (454 with TH400), first with an open trailer at first and then an enclosed trailer.  It towed ok, although it was very noisy and the gas mileage wasn't great (12 not towing, about 7 when towing the enclosed trailer).  I never liked the high seating position and I always felt like I had no leg room, even with the seat all the way back.  It did make a great place to sleep at the track because the entire back folded flat.  We never had an issues with it from a reliability standpoint.

A couple of years ago we got a 2008 Suburban 2500 (6 liter LS, 6L90).  It tows better, fuel economy is better (15 without trailer, 9 to 10 with trailer), seating position is far more comfortable, it's much quieter and it stops much better.  Only downside is that with the seats folded the cargo area doesn't form a complete flat area due to how the second row folds.

L5wolvesf Reader
7/14/20 5:41 p.m.

In Reply To . . . all Y’all

First, thanks for all the replies.


Second, I do have a bit of experience with a friend’s Suburban. A 99 3/4 ton, 4x4, big block, towed an off road race car on a 1k miles r/t. Towing and comfort wise it was great. Gas wise not so much – overall got about 10 – 14 MPG if I kept it to about 60 MPH, which is why 1/2 ton, 2wd, and small block appeals to me.


Re rust: I’m in Arizona and my once over didn’t catch any. When I give it a good look that is on my look for list.


Re 1/2 ton brakes: Are there upgrade options? My trailer has good brakes.


Re the possible deal: “Insane deal” to me means free so not this one. But I’m 90% sure the price will come down and it is possible I can do a part trade for one of my projects that I’m not married to. So very likely under 1k for the Suburban. That would leave me with cash to; 1) still get the race car I’m looking for (est cost 2500 plus tow home $$), 2) clean it up some, 3) maybe do some upgrades (trans cooler, exhaust system, interior, etc) to make it better.


Re: rear end ratio: Which rear axle would this likely have?

L5wolvesf Reader
7/14/20 5:42 p.m.

In reply to Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) :

So, overall, you have a positive experience with your similar hauler as others have had too.


If I get this roughly 90% of its use would be towing or hauling. Not likely to do much daily except maybe to exercise it so it doesn’t die from lack of use. Safety-wise yeah not up to more current standards but it also is big I can live with that.


Ahhh, the Pre-COVID epoch, yes a fond memory now. I freely frolicked with other humans whose mouths I could see and maybe even enjoy. Oh crap now I’m getting all weepy

ShawnG UltimaDork
7/14/20 6:05 p.m.

I think that you will find, loaded down and towing, a smallblock be so close to the big block on fuel consumption that it won't matter.

That's been my experience with multiple tow rigs, Ford and Chevrolet over the years.

A 1/2 ton is also likely to have a taller rear axle ratio so less friendly for towing.


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