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1971 Chevy Blazer K5 - Blazin' Through Dixieland

Posted in Features on October 1, 2008
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This has nothing to do with the Mason-Dixon line or the South rising again. "Dixie" is the name Dan Barcroft chose to dub his '71 K5 Blazer. She's a tattered, well-traveled old girl, and one for whom Mr. Barcroft has great affection.

Dan found Dixie in a local private-party ad. Upon perusing his potential new prize, Dan found the lemon-yellow '71 in a mild state of build. Thirty-three-inch all-terrain tires spun at the Blazer's four corners, attached to the original Dana 44 front and GM 12-bolt rear axles. The factory hardtop was in place and intact. Under the hood was a swapped-in 400 small-block Chevy engine coupled to the original Turbo 350 tranny and NP205 transfer case. This list shows a solid base on which to build a capable trail rig, but Dan's favorite feature was what wasn't there: the need for a harrowing State of California smog inspection. The $2,600 asking price fit his college-kid income at the time. Dan forked over the greenbacks, and the seller forked over the keys and the title. Dan had his prize. But was it the start of a beautiful friendship or a multiyear nightmare?

The Chevy small-block 400 is more of a drag-race engine than an endurance engine, but this one has held up fine through repeated floggings. The 400 is topped with a Quadrajet carburetor and, as a result, runs well at off-camber angles. Dan decided it was a pain to check the tranny fluid with the stock dipstick, so he fitted one from a van that's much easier to reach (circled).

It's been a little of both. As soon as Dan had the keys, he and Dixie were off on numerous jaunts through the SoCal backroads. Parts began to break, thanks mostly to the Blazer's 3-ton curb weight and Dan's anxious right foot. Up front, the original Dana 44 used 260-X U-joints instead of the now-standard 297-X. The 260s lasted less than a month, whereupon the complete front axle was swapped for a 297-equipped unit plucked from a salvage yard. In time, the 33s were ditched for a set of 36-inch bias-ply mud tires. More parts breakage ensued, owing mostly to the new tires' aggressive tread and healthy diameter. Although the Dana 44 front axle was holding up decently, due mostly to an open front differential, the 12-bolt rearend was toast after Dan spun the centersection while attempting a short, steep, boulder-encrusted climb. While finding a replacement 12-bolt would have been easy and economical, it was clear that 1/2-ton axles weren't going to work out in the long run. Time to go big ... almost.

The "almost" comes from the pair of axles Dan found plucked from a 3/4-ton Chevy pickup truck. One was bulletproof, and the other was almost bulletproof. The rear axle is of legendary strength and longevity: the GM 14-bolt full-floater. The front axle was a late-'70s 3/4-ton Dana 44. How is a 3/4-ton Dana 44 different from a 1/2-ton Dana 44? The 3/4-ton version has bigger brakes and uses the 8-on-6-1/2 lug pattern that matches the 14-bolt rearend. The late-'70s 3/4-ton Dana 44 has larger inner wheel bearings than the 1/2-ton Dana 44. The 3/4-ton Dana 44 held up well for the next few years, but Dan still longed and lusted for the crown jewel of front axles: the Dana 60.

Dan kept an eye on the classified ads and pounced on a front Dana 60 when it appeared at the right price.

The 1-ton axles combined with the NP205 cast-iron, geardriven transfer case mean Dixie is prepared to go, sans breakage, wherever she's pointed ... at least in the running-gear department. Upstream from the 205, Dan has had zero troubles with the 400 small-block but had to rebuild the Turbo 350 tranny after the seals and clutches let go.

Dan decided early on that he wanted to experience the elements a little closer and more personally than the factory hardtop would allow, so he unbolted it and sold it to another K5 enthusiast. A Bestop soft top now folds down to keep said elements at bay and folds up and out of the way when the weather is nice.

At this point, the truck looks rough, and it is. In contrast, Dan's plans for Dixie are finely tuned and in progress. Dan plans to trim back the wrinkled sheetmetal in the front fenders and rear quarter panels to gain additional tire clearance and to make the truck look more trimmed and less tattered. The mashed rocker panels will be deleted and replaced with a set of integrated rock sliders. A rollcage will add strength and stiffness to the chassis, as well as protect the occupants. Better bumpers and a winch are also on the horizon.

The expected completion date? It doesn't matter. "I have no plans to sell any of my vehicles," Dan declares unblinkingly. Dixie is a work in progress that's a bit tattered yet rugged and functional in the meantime. The old girl has a heart of gold. Someday she'll have the looks to match.

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