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Half a century ago, the Chevrolet Blazer took the first step in suburbanizing the SUV

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer. Photo courtesy GM Media.

Sure, the Chevrolet Blazer heavily influenced sport utility vehicles by using a shortened version of GM’s standard pickup chassis, as many histories of the K-5 will repeat. More important, however, was the role it played in transitioning four-wheel-drive vehicles from niche workhorses to everyday commuters, starting with its introduction 50 years ago.

The SUVs that existed up until the Blazer’s introduction in the fall of 1969 as a 1969 model-year vehicle might have had capability in spades, but were typically devoid of creature comforts and reserved for farm and utility work or for camping and other off-road adventures.

GM certainly intended the Blazer to fill those roles. Chevrolet’s first brochure for the SUV showed it configured as a snowplow, towing canned-ham trailers, and climbing rocky trails – all activities Jeep CJs, Ford Broncos, and International Scouts had excelled at for years, if not decades, prior to the Blazer’s introduction. And while the inclusion of an optional removable hardtop shows that GM obviously benchmarked the earlier SUVs (indeed, early clays for the Blazer show that Chevrolet had considered a CJ/Scout-sized four-wheel-drive runabout with door cutouts and a half cab), the decision to place it on the C/K-series pickup’s chassis set it apart from the competition.

“It’s like nothing else on wheels… with the sure stance and stability you’d never expect in a short-wheelbase vehicle,” the brochure read. “The reason is Blazer’s unique wide-track design. Wheels are set far apart like those on a passenger car or full-sized truck.”

That same brochure, however, also described the Blazer as “a second car, pickup truck and go-anywhere runabout, all rolled into one,” depicted the Blazer in suburban parking lots alongside those more adventurous locations, and touted optional air-conditioning along with double-acting shock absorbers for “smooth ride and precise handling.” Chevrolet also apparently had a two-wheel-drive version of the Blazer planned for 1969, but didn’t end up marketing it.

First-year sales totaled just 4,935, nowhere near the 20,000-plus Broncos or the 30,000-plus civilian Jeeps sold that year. However, in 1970, sales more than doubled, bolstered in part by the introduction of that two-wheel-drive Blazer and the GMC Jimmy. By 1972, Chevrolet recorded nearly 50,000 sales of the Blazer alone.

Chevrolet repeated the Blazer’s formula – shortened, fully convertible version of the C/K pickups – with the new generation of trucks it introduced in 1973, adding the full-time four-wheel-drive NP203 transfer case to its list of drivetrain options. Aside from dropping the fully removable hardtop for a half-cab version after the 1975 model year – right around the same time Cadillac was prepping its end-of-the-line Eldorado convertibles – the Blazer rode out the Seventies with little more than sheetmetal variations and drivetrain changes, though it did get a nifty Chalet camper version in 1976 and 1977.

Despite the lack of significant changes through this period, the Blazer proved rather influential: In 1974, Jeep – which already had its Wagoneer sharing sheetmetal and a chassis with its J-series pickups – introduced the two-door Cherokee, then in 1978, Ford upsized its Bronco to a chassis and sheetmetal shared with its full-size pickups. While Jeep still offered the compact CJ series (though it, too, went larger with the introduction of the CJ-7 in 1976), the days of the diminutive off-roader seemed numbered.

1983 Chevrolet Blazer S-10.

Or, at least, they did until the oil crisis of 1979. While it sent American automakers scrambling to introduce more fuel-efficient cars, truck studios also began to re-examine their lineups. Chevrolet and GMC introduced their S-10 and S-15 pickups in 1982 and then a year later added four-wheel-drive SUV versions that cribbed the Blazer and Jimmy names. While V-8s dominated the full-size Blazer’s engine lineup, the S-10 Blazer used a 2.0-liter four-cylinder as its base engine with an optional V-6.

If the original Blazer set in motion the suburbanization of the SUV, the S-10 Blazer (along with the 1984 Jeep XJ Cherokee) helped accelerate that process. Chevrolet sold more than 100,000 S-10 Blazers in its first year and in 1985 sold nearly 190,000 of the SUVs. While some undoubtedly made it off-road, most likely only shifted into four-wheel drive for snowy commutes to work or the mall: GM’s marketing materials for the S-series SUVs pitched their comfort and convenience more than their hardware.

The Nineties saw a further shift toward on-road livability and away from off-road prowess. A four-door S-10 Blazer came along in 1991, and a year later the fullsize Blazer finally joined its pickup brethren on the new independent GMT400 platform. At the same time, Chevrolet gave the Blazer a four-door version named Tahoe, which would replace the full-size Blazer altogether by 1995. From then until 2005, the S-10 Blazer carried the Blazer name without the S-10 prefix.

While Chevrolet certainly timed the release of its 2019 Blazer mid-size crossover – a category that, one can argue, the original Blazer’s suburbanization heavily influenced – to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its ancestor, the only event we see celebrating the original K-5 Blazer’s half-century seems to be a showcase for the Blazer at Carlisle’s 2019 Chevrolet Nationals, scheduled for June 21-22.