14 May 2016

Big & Tall

In the 1970s, full-size SUVs were the personal luxury coupes of the truck world.

Today’s SUVs come in all shapes and sizes, but that wasn’t always the case. The concept of a two-door, four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle was rooted in the Willys Jeep Station Wagon. Launched in 1946, the Jeep wagon sold in respectable numbers through 1965, two years after Jeep introduced the Wagoneer. Ford launched the Jeep CJ- and International Scout-fighting Bronco in 1966, while GM’s station-wagon-on-a-truck-chassis Suburban — in both three-door and four-door form — had been around since 1935.

BLAZING THE TRAIL
CJs, Scouts and Broncos were successful to a degree, but the audience for square, Spartan, purpose-built, open-top, four-wheel-drive runabouts was pretty thin. There’s at least one grainy photo on the Internet of Chevrolet’s attempt to build a Bronco/CJ/Scout competitor. Like those three, it’s small, with a short, open bed that passed through to the passenger compartment, and it has sculpted door openings in place of actual hard doors.

But the genius of the new Blazer was its break from the sportiest of sport-utility vehicles. Instead of heavy investment in a bespoke chassis and body panels, for the 1969 model year (and in 1970 for the GMC Jimmy), Chevrolet opted to build the Blazer the same way it did the Suburban, straight off of the C/K line of pickups. The only concession to the design of the CJ and Scout was the fully removable top. It shared almost all of its panels with the C/K pickups or the Suburban, making the higher-priced Blazer a cash cow.

Chevrolet and GMC updated the C/K pickups drastically in 1973, and the Blazer and Jimmy were ready right out of the gate. Along with the boxier styling on the exterior, the inside was transformed into a much more modern truck. The flat steel dash and suggestion of a dash pad went away, in favor of a full foam dash and smaller gauges in a black plastic panel. Earlier Blazers had essentially the same seats and console as the 1969 to ’72 Blazers, but as the years rolled on, the interiors got more sophisticated, with high-back bucket seats and consoles with cupholders.

Americans got it almost immediately. In the first two years of the redesign, Chevy sold 178,000 Blazers alone. Compare that with Ford’s Bronco, which only managed to sell 22,000 units in its best year between 1966 and 1977. Chevrolet hit on a design that would carry on virtually unchanged for the next 19 years. And while GM transformed its pickup line in 1988, the Blazer would carry on until 1992, before finally giving way to the new styling and, three years later, Tahoe badging.

It may not have looked like it from the outside, but the Blazer went through continuous evolution, mostly to maximize fuel economy and convenience. Equipped with a 5.0-liter V-8 and electronic spark control, the Blazer was turning in fuel economy numbers identical to the 4.1-liter six-cylinder version, and beating Ford’s V-8 by 2 mpg city, and 1 mpg highway. In 1981, the Blazer received a new part-time transfer case that was 50 pounds lighter than the original. Automatic locking hubs became standard, too, meaning that you could shift from 2WD to 4WD on the fly at up to 25 mph, thanks to a synchronized transfer case, all without getting out to switch the hubs. Bronco drivers still had to stop to engage 4WD and lock the hubs.

Blazers built from 1969 to 1972, and then from 1973 to 1975, featured fully removable fiberglass tops that left just the windshield header in place. Beginning in 1976, Blazer roofs were still removable, but only behind the front passenger compartment. Chevrolet also re-worked the floor in the rear passenger compartment, allowing a rear passenger footwell.

THE BRONCO GROWS UP
Ford had a similar idea to use the F-Series pickups as the basis for the Bronco in 1972, when Richard Nesbitt was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor studio at Ford Design. According to Nesbitt, “Ford Product Planning wanted a direct competitor — code named ‘Shorthorn’ — for the Chevrolet Blazer based on pickup truck components.”

Chevrolet’s issue with the 1973 and 1974 Blazer was at the forefront of the design directive Nesbitt was given. “Chevrolet trimmed the window frames off for the Blazer for an unobstructed view with the top off. Severe leakage resulted with the top on, and Ford insisted on using the F-Series doors with uncut window frames,” he says. Rather than just scribing a vertical line where the roof and the fiberglass top met, Nesbitt suggested something more stylish: “My design proposals… incorporated a fixed metal top for the front roof with a wrapover roof band to visually separate the fixed roof and the removable fiberglass top.”

The approved design — especially when you see Nesbitt’s original sketches — almost gave the Bronco a targa-like appearance. “The F-Series Bronco became a very iconic design, with the trademark roof band feature, which continued all the way to 1996,” Nesbitt says. “I’m very proud it is so well liked and lasted so long.”

The trouble for Ford was that it couldn’t get the design off the ground for years. The Blazer sold well from 1969 to 1972, and Ford had its eyes on launching its own F-Series-based sport utility long before the truck actually hit the market. “The F-Series Bronco was planned for 1974–75,” says Nesbitt, “but the oil embargo delayed introduction to 1978.”

Nesbitt left Ford Design before the Bronco was launched in 1978, but by that point, an all-new Ford F-Series was on the way for 1980. That only left two years before the Bronco would have to be redesigned, but with Chevrolet and GMC selling Blazers and Jimmys by the trainload, Ford needed a product, and fast.

In 1977 — the last year of original Bronco production — Ford barely managed to sell 14,500 of them. But the new-for-’78 Bronco was an immediate success, and sales shot up to more than 77,000, with 104,000 the second year, which would be a high-water mark for Bronco sales. Ford would never come within 35,000 sales of its 1979 record.

In 1980, Nesbitt’s roof design continued as a Bronco hallmark, but the new version of the truck was more chiseled, sleeker, lighter and seemed more at home with the rectangular headlamps that always looked like an afterthought in the original Bronco. Broncos built in 1978 and ’79 used a solid front axle and leaf springs, just like the Blazer. But in 1980, Ford opted for the unique Dana 44 Twin Traction Beam (TTB) front independent suspension on coil springs. The TTB offers a higher degree of control both on- and off-road, but it severely limits tire sizes. Increasing the size of the stock tires makes the Bronco difficult to align properly.

When the 1980 Bronco appeared, it was 300 pounds lighter and powered by the standard workhorse 300-cid inline-six. Optional engines included the 302-cid V-8 (with about the same torque as the six) and the last remaining stock of 351M V-8s until 1982, when Ford made the switch to the 351W.

Ford made two significant updates to the 1980s-era Bronco. In 1987, the body was made smoother and more aero-friendly, such as it is, with massive composite headlamps, and the interior was significantly revised to be more modern. The body changed again in 1992 and would carry through unchanged to the end of the line in 1996.

RAM TOUGH
The earliest Dodge Ramchargers — and their rare Plymouth Trail Duster cousins — put the “utility” in “sport utility.” In 1974, the standard seating configuration was a single driver’s seat. Passenger seats were optional, putting the Ramcharger at the bottom of the price ladder among full-sized SUVs.

Like the Blazer and Bronco, the Ramcharger was based on the brand’s full-size pickup entry. The short wheelbase D-Series trucks provided the mechanicals and design. To stack up against the Chevrolet, GMC and Ford competitors, the Ramcharger also had a fully removable roof, but unlike the early Blazer, the Ramcharger used full D-Series doors that left the window frames in place when the top was off.

That top was different from those of the Blazer and Bronco, too, primarily because it was optional; the base Ramcharger came with a soft top only. Dodge marketing called out the optional steel top as an advantage in its marketing to dealers. Unlike the Blazer and Bronco, which were only available with black or white fiberglass tops, buyers could order a Ramcharger or Trail Duster with body-colored tops, or painted and textured finishes in black or white.

To keep costs down, the Ramcharger shared many parts with the D-Series, including double-walled construction in the bed, which the Blazer and the Bronco lacked.

Dodge also positioned the Ramcharger’s engine choices as an advantage, at least for the earliest trucks. By 1978, Ford only built the Bronco with the 351-cid and 400-cid V-8s. Chevrolet and GMC SUVs had the 250-cid six-cylinder and three V-8 choices. Dodge, however, offered six engines, from the 225-cid six-cylinder all the way up to the 440-cid V-8 on four-wheel-drive Ramchargers.

Similarly, Dodge applied the range of D-Series transmissions to the Ramcharger: Choices included a three-speed manual, a wide- or close-ratio four-speed manual, and the LoadFlite three-speed automatic in the Dodge, versus a three-speed manual, four-speed manual and three-speed auto in the Blazer, and just a four-speed manual and three-speed auto in the Bronco.

In 1980, Dodge redesigned the D-Series and the Ramcharger with it. Given that few people removed the tops, beginning with the 1981 model year, Dodge and Plymouth opted to build the Ramcharger/Trail Duster with a fixed steel roof. If a buyer planned on using the fiberglass tailgate the way one would at a football game, the Ramcharger’s hatch offered the advantage of weather protection. The Trail Duster would only make it one year with the new DSeries design before it was dropped completely.

Like the Blazer, the Ramcharger also offered a 2WD version, while the Bronco was only available with 4WD. Meanwhile, sales figures showed that the rear-drive Blazer and Ramcharger weren’t favored by anyone except for fleet managers in the Southwest.

FULL-SIZE SWAN SONG
Throughout their run, Broncos, Blazers and Ramchargers were a part of the fabric of American culture, especially as city dwellers decamped for the suburbs. From Chief Brody’s squad car in Jaws and Texas Ranger Lone Wolf McQuade’s patrol unit to O.J. Simpson’s “escape” vehicle, full-size, two-door SUVs became the symbol of individualism straight through the 1970s and deep into the 1990s.

By the early 1980s, though — just 10 years after they were introduced — full-size, two-door SUVs became victims of their own success. Buyers loved the utility and the rugged looks, but all three trucks were among the most expensive vehicles in their respective manufacturers’ lines. In 1983, Chevrolet launched the smaller S10 Blazer, and immediately, full-size Blazer sales took a major hit. Within a year, S10 Blazers were selling at a rate of 88,000 units a year, while full-size Blazers were stuck around 26,000. Ford introduced the Bronco II the same year, and the story was identical. In 1985, Ford sold more than 105,000 Bronco IIs, while the full-size Bronco couldn’t break 50,000. By 1988, the Bronco II was outselling the Bronco three to one.

A 1993 Ford Bronco sales training video tells the full story: At that time, Ford Bronco owned 59.5 percent of the full-size SUV market, but the market had dwindled to fewer than 75,000 trucks for Ford, GM and Dodge combined. Ford had already added the Explorer to its lineup to replace the Bronco II, and it appealed to a completely different consumer — younger, family oriented, female. According to the video: “Bronco buyers are generally older males who need a durable, contemporary utility vehicle to support their macho self-image.” Talk about the kiss of death.

Chevy made one final attempt with a full-size, two-door Blazer in the GMT400 platform, which gave way to the Tahoe and GMC Yukon in 1995. They lasted until the GMT800 platform arrived in 2001, when Chevrolet built a two-door prototype, but never marketed it. Ford exited the full-size, two-door SUV market in 1996, with final-year Bronco sales at just over 34,000 units. Dodge left the segment in 1994, as it was set to launch the new generation Ram pickups. The Ramcharger sold just 3,687 units that year.

Today, their legacy may still be viewed as described by the Ford sales training video: Macho. But their rugged, no-frills looks and go-anywhere functionality will support nearly any endeavor you can throw at them.

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