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GM’s Better Idea, The 1969 Blazer

Backward Glances

The early and middle 1960s brought some of the most iconic four-wheel-drive sport utilities known to history. Not that we knew they were icons at the time. Nor did we know the name "sport utility" just yet, but the market was definitely broadening past bare-bones utility rigs. As people had more disposable income for outdoor recreation or a second car, there was a place for a recreational vehicle that was second-car friendly. This became the vital part of the successful sport utility equation.

The market for passenger-carrying 4x4s in the '50s and '60s was small and had long been served mainly by a relatively small company: Jeep. Jeeps were joined by a few imports from Land Rover, Toyota, and Nissan, but the Big Three in the American auto industry had largely ignored them as a niche market not worthy of pursuit. They took notice when International Harvester (IH) came out of left field with the Scout for 1961 and sold more than 28,000 of them the first year. Yep, the writing on the wall was billboard-sized, and no marketing person worth his paycheck could miss it!

We haven't seen the exact dates when General Motors and Ford started on their responses to the Scout. We know International got word of the upcoming Ford Bronco in 1964, so it obviously started sooner. Interviews with GM stylist Harry Bradley published over the years indicate GM was noodling the idea as early as 1963. Thus far, we haven't seen anything to indicate Chrysler was taking serious steps in that direction until much later.

According to Bradley, GM invested a serious amount of development money on a very stylish rig to be called the Blazer. In fact, Bradley said it was only a couple of steps away from production when GM execs pulled the plug early in 1966. Reportedly, after reviewing tooling costs for a 1967 intro, the number crunchers at GM didn't see a market big enough to justify the expense of a very unique, low-production specialty rig. Management did see a need to be in the game, but at an economically feasible level. The call for ideas remained in circulation, even as the introduction of the all-new '67 trucks loomed. Enter Paul Hitch, Chief Engineer for Chevy trucks.

Hitch's idea was one of those magnificently simple ones that make people go quiet for a minute. He suggested shortening the 1/2-ton truck into a two-door wagon-type body without a bulkhead. Based on that idea, Chevy engineering hit the ground running and had test rigs out in 1968. Not to downplay the engineering work, making the Blazer was a breeze by normal new-vehicle development standards, and that was the genius of it! With the hard chassis engineering already done for the truck platform, it was just a matter of whittling the 115-inch wheelbase Fleetline pickup down to 104 inches. The removable composite top was less a deliberate part of the design and more a production expedient—with benefits that could be exploited by the sales department.

The K5 Blazer got off to a very slow start in the media. Brock Yates at Car and Driver described the Blazer intro as "the first undercover sales campaign in history." Blazers weren't introduced in the September '68 hoopla for the new '69 trucks. They didn't even appear in the first printing of the 1969 Chevy dealer's data book, and still didn't until the April 1 update, along with the tech manual addendums. The first brochures are dated March 1969. Why so late? Some say it was a strike at the St. Louis GM plant that slowed the Blazer. The end result was that only 4,935 Blazers were built for the '69 model year.

Magazines didn't see prototypes for tests and long-lead stories until January 1969, and dealers didn't start getting them until April and May. The early magazine reviews were mixed, though none were really bad. Being accustomed to (and biased toward) the smaller bobtails, some of the 4x4 mags' first impressions were critical of the Blazer. "Look at the size of that mutha," was one of Four Wheeler magazine's Ed Orr lines. Once the Blazer's attributes were fully explored, those attitudes changed. Certainly, the end users loved them and saw the Blazer as a "three-bears-just-right" daily driver/RV.

The biggest news on options was the availability of the High Torque, 255hp truck version of the four-barrel 350ci small-block. With this engine and an automatic, a '69 Blazer could get to 60 mph in as few as 11 seconds with optional 3.73 gears and in about 14 seconds with the standard 3.07 cogs. For comparison, the lighter Ford Bronco of the same era was tested at 14.5 seconds with a 302ci V-8/automatic and 3.50 gears. The 350 Blazer became the quickest 4x4 out of the box in its era.

The '69 Blazer came in two basic models, the KS six-cylinder and the KE V-8. The KS models mounted the legendary 250ci Chevy six. No other engines were optional, but you could retain the standard Saginaw three-speed manual or order the optional four-speed CH-465 (aka SM-465) or the TH350 automatic. If you stuck with the three-speed column shift, you got a Dana 20 transfer case. The four-speed and TH350 automatic six-cylinder rigs got you an NP205 T-case.

The KE V-8 Blazers came standard with a 307ci two-barrel small-block that cranked out 200 gross horsepower. It came standard with the same three-speed/Dana 20 setup as the six, but when you ordered the CH465 or TH350, you got the NP205. You couldn't get a three-speed manual with the 350. A 4x2 is sometimes listed for the '69s, but the records do not verify any were built. From '70 through '72, only small numbers of 4x2 first-gen Blazers were built.

The axles were standard low-GVW 1/2-ton stuff—the truck version of the 12-bolt in back and the open-knuckle Dana 44 with small U-joints (Spicer 5-260) up front. The six and the 307ci V-8 came standard with 3.73:1 ratios; the 350 came with 3.07:1. The 3.73s could be ordered with the 350. Chevrolet's clutch-type limited slip, Positraction, was an option for the rear.

A bare-bones KS or KE Blazer was sold with only a driver seat and no top. A fiberglass top (in white or black) was optional and dealers could sell you a soft top. Seating options included front buckets and a removable rear seat. The CST (Custom Sport Truck) offered a few modest extras to increase the comfort level. Power steering, power drum brakes, and air conditioning were optional. In fact, one thing all the magazine testers agreed upon was that the Blazer had a fine heater and great A/C.

The modest production of the 1969 Blazers would open the floodgates to tripling production to 12,512 in 1970, and by the time the last year for the '67 body style came in 1972, it was up to 47,263 easy-to-build units. Annual Blazer production would peak in 1978 at 88,858 units for the second-gen models, but that's another story for another time.

Typical Specifications
Vehicle: '69 Chevrolet Blazer
Engine:

  • KS Standard- 250ci I-6
  • KE Standard- 307ci V-8
  • KE Optional- 350ci V-8
    Power (hp @ rpm):
  • 250ci - 155 @ 4,200 (125 @ 3,800 net)
  • 307ci - 200 @ 4,600 (157 @ 4,000 net)
  • 350ci - 255 @ 4,600 (200 @ 4,000 net)
    Torque (lb-ft @ rpm):
  • 250ci - 235 @ 1,600 (210 @ 2,000 net)
  • 307ci - 300 @ 2,400 (260 @ 2,000 net)
  • 350ci - 355 @ 3,000 (310 @ 2,400 net)
    Comp. Ratio (:1): 250ci - 8.5; 307ci & 350ci - 9.0
    Transmission:
  • Std. 250ci & 307ci, three-spd Saginaw SM326
  • Opt. 250ci & 307ci, four-spd Saginaw SM465, three-spd auto TH350
  • Std. 350ci, three-spd auto TH350
  • Opt. 350ci, four-spd manual Saginaw SM465
    Transfer case: Dana 20 (w/three-spd manual transmission), NP205 (w/four-spd manual, automatic transmission)
    Front axle: Dana 44
    Rear axle: Saginaw 12-bolt
    Axle ratios (:1): 3.73 (250ci & 307ci); 3.07 (350ci, 3.73 opt. )
    Wheelbase (in): 104
    GVW (lb): 4,600 std. (5,000 opt. )
    Base curb weight (lb): 3,595 (KS); 3,690 (KE)
    Fuel capacity (gal. ): 23.5
    Top speed (mph): 90-plus (350ci, 3.73:1 ratio)
    Approach angle (deg. ): 35.2 (std. tires)
    Departure angle (deg. ): 25 (std. tires)
    Ground clearance (in. ): 8.1 (std. tires)
    Base MSRP: $2,852 (KS); $2,947 (KE)