If you’ve been paying attention to the most recent trends in automotive enthusiasm and car collecting, you’ve likely noticed that vintage four-wheel-drive trucks are hot and getting hotter. We’d like to think we were ahead of the curve on this one, because about two-and-a-half years ago, we acquired a 1976 Chevrolet K5 Blazer as a project vehicle. Of course, like so many old car (and truck) projects, this one has taken a bit longer than anticipated, but now that it’s starting to really take shape, it’s time we began reporting on its progress.
Why a Blazer? Several of us at Hemmings are Chevy truck fans and have long appreciated the different approach the division took with its first sport utility vehicle back in the 1960s. By shifting from the original plan to produce a small 4×4 on par with the IH Scout or Ford Bronco and instead using the existing light-truck platform, Chevrolet effectively created a new genre of truck. The resulting Blazer had familiar looks, a rugged chassis, and plenty of room inside, despite having a shorter wheelbase than any other Chevy truck. By the time the next generation of Chevy trucks debuted for 1973, the Blazer’s popularity was really taking off and soon they were quite commonly seen on the roads coast to coast, even in areas that didn’t typically have lots of truck buyers.
So, when the idea of a vintage 4×4 project was raised in our offices, a Chevy seemed a natural choice. Then, when local friend and occasional accomplice Glen Sauer announced that he’d be selling his personal ’76 K5 project, we jumped on it.
Glen is a car enthusiast but also a metal fabricator, and he’s worked with us on projects in the past. He’d acquired this ’76 Blazer from California some years earlier and drove it in stock form for a time while planning his own project. The Blazer had an excellent body, seemingly with no rust and still wearing much of its factory paint. Glen’s intent had been to upgrade the truck’s mechanicals and leave the weathered paint, and initially we intended to just pick up where Glen had left off. Things have, of course, escalated since then.
Electronic ignition systems were just coming online as the original muscle car era was fading out. The electronic triggering replaced traditional breaker points, eliminating a maintenance item while providing both more consistency and the ability to run a more powerful spark.
General Motors had offered “transistorized” ignitions on some models in the ’60s, but those systems were notoriously troublesome. However, during the 1974 model year, a new electronic ignition debuted on select GM models called High Energy Ignition, which would quickly come to be known as simply “HEI.” The new system became standard on all GM passenger car and light truck V-8 engines for 1975, and soon proved to require very little maintenance. The coil was located inside, under a cover at the top of the distributor cap, and the control module was mounted in the base so that the entire ignition system was contained in the distributor itself —only a single power feed wire was required.
Thanks to the new HEI’s high-powered spark and reliable performance, in addition to its plug-and-play arrangement, some enthusiasts began swapping the units into older models. Another benefit of the HEI was expanding dwell, a feature built into the control module. This means that as rpm increases, the duration of the spark also increases. The feature helps to yield more complete combustion for cleaner emissions, but it can also provide a boost to power output.
One downside of the HEI was that, since it came into being during the depths of the “smog” era, it was common for the factory advance curve rates to be very conservative, and not necessarily conducive to performance. Fortunately, these distributors can be recurved just like earlier breaker-point units. As the HEI made its way further into performance applications, another shortcoming revealed itself: The HEI’s output often begins to trail off after around 5,500 rpm. That’s the point where most factory engines of the time were reaching their maximum rpm, but obviously well short of the levels racing engines typically see.
I was watching a documentary on the Beatles recently and it made me realize that I’ve been hearing their music for my entire life. It’s quite possible one of their songs may even have played on the car radio as my parents drove home from the hospital after I was born, given that it was New York City during the late ’60s; in that time and place, the sounds of the Fab Four were somewhat ubiquitous.
In a sort of similar way, I’ve been seeing Ford Mustangs my whole life — something else that was introduced to America in 1964 and an integral part of the landscape by the decade’s close. By the time I was old enough to be conscious of popular music and cars, both the Beatles and the Mustang felt like very familiar elements of the background of everyday life, even though by then the group had split and Ford’s original pony had morphed into the Mustang II —the early works were still everywhere you’d turn.
And just as the Beatles inspired the formation of many other bands, some that went on to be hugely popular in their own right, the Mustang triggered imitators from Ford’s competitors that became icons themselves. You can debate over whether we’d have had The Who without the Beatles, but there’s little doubt that without the Mustang, there’d have been no Camaro.
I’m certainly glad things played out the way they did, and that the resulting impact was lasting. I saw The Who live in 1989 and I’ve owned a ’69 Camaro since a few years prior to that. The Camaro was not my first car —that was a Chevelle —but once I’d experienced the first-generation F-body, I was hooked. It just seemed like the perfect size for a car —big enough to comfortably house a V-8 engine, hold at least four people, and with a trunk that was sized to be useful.
“This is the worst idea I’ve ever seen executed on this car.”
“Look, they turned Project X into a golf cart.”
That last comment about the golf cart seemed to offer some insight. It stemmed from the belief floating around early in the week that the ‘57’s new drivetrain only offered one-hundred-some-odd horsepower–that wouldn’t be enough to excite anyone when mounted to a vehicle that likely weighed around 4,000 lbs with the battery packs. Without the performance, enthusiasts aren’t interested. Clean air and efficient transport might be benefits they’d look for in a commuter, but not in a hot rod. So, even when it became clear that the motor was actually good for about 340 hp, attitudes weren’t swayed much. That’s on par with a garden-variety mild performance small-block these days–no need for alternate propulsion to achieve that.
Again, it is that potential for rapid acceleration that has made the electric motor option at least mildly palatable for many enthusiasts, if not intriguing. While electric cars have existed for nearly as long as cars themselves, for most of its history, the automobile has been motivated by combustion engines, and the electric variations that cropped up sporadically through the years usually seemed like compromised oddities. As such, the tried and true combustion engine had remained essentially unchallenged from a performance standpoint.
But something changed in the 1990s, when General Motors created a concept electric car it called the Impact. It was designed from the ground up to be electric, rather than using an electric drivetrain in a modified existing car. The experiment was interesting enough to garner the attention of the California Air Resources Board, which then mandated that major auto manufacturers produce zero emissions vehicles as a stipulation of continuing to sell conventional combustion engine vehicles in California. General Motors released the EV1, the production electric car that was based heavily on the Impact, and consumers in Southern California and Arizona were allowed to lease the new cars.
It’s a big, wide world out there, with lots to see and do, but not all of it can be reached via paved highways. The urge to explore has motivated humans for centuries and, even in our highly developed world, there are remote places left undisturbed. But how can you get there for some R&R, and then back to the rat race, inside of your little sliver of time off? The answer lies with “overlanding.
”Though the term isn’t new, in its current use, overlanding describes the growing trend of off-road exploration with motor vehicles where roads, trails, camping grounds, and any other developed facilities are not anticipated. Enthusiasts of this pursuit will tell you it’s all about self-reliance. When you head out into the boonies for an overland excursion, the expectation is that there will be no amenities to rely on where you’re headed. No place to plug in, no drinking water, no place to stock up on supplies—all necessities and provisions must come along for the ride
An overlanding vehicle needs to be able to traverse highways both legally and in relative comfort, yet it must also be ready to divert to untamed country at a moment’s notice. The suspension and powertrain must be capable of getting through rough terrain, and the vehicle must also provide suitable shelter, with accommodations for sleeping, preparing meals, and whatever else might be needed for extended stays off the grid. Part of what separates overlanding from other forms of camping is that there is no camper—no trailer or RV—just the vehicle you drove in. While many off-roaders set up a camp, overlanders typically use their rigs as the campsite—tents are often mounted to the vehicle, as is much of the needed gear. Setting up and breaking down a camp isn’t conducive to covering a lot of ground—overlanders tend to keep moving during their treks, rather than staying in one spot for several days. Overall, an overlanding vehicle is a versatile, nimble rig that is ready to roll on short notice.
There are certain tasks involved with auto restoration that tend to intimidate even the most “hands-on” enthusiasts, things that most consider the realm of professionals almost reflexively.
Gene Tasso of Gillin Custom Design prepares to install a new headliner in a ’67 Camaro by laying out the headliner material from an OER kit along with a fresh set of reproduction bows. A clean, flat workspace is recommended for this job.
Installing a bow-type headliner is certainly among those seemingly forbidden jobs that many of us wouldn’t dare attempt. It was a feeling we sensed yet again when we recently found ourselves in need of a fresh headliner after having repairs performed on the roof skin of a ’67 Camaro.
In this case, the procedure seemed particularly daunting because the old headliner had been removed and discarded a few years prior, leaving nothing for reference.The car was being worked on at Premier Restorations in Sloatsburg, New York, which sources Gillin Custom Designs for its upholstery and trim work.
Gillin operates out of its own shop in Middletown, New York, but travels to other facilities for installation work when necessary. For our headliner, Gillin boss Gil Monge brought along veteran trimmer Gene Tasso, who said he’d been doing this kind of work since around the time our Camaro was new
As the humble pickup truck’s place in American culture steadily evolved from simple-but-valued tool to modern fashion statement, it gained a huge fan base. While admiration grew and trucks aged, restorers began returning some of them to showroom shape.
Meanwhile, hot-rodders and customizers crafted their own interpretations of the classic pickup.
The years rolled on and certain models emerged as favorites, spawning a vast aftermarket blooming with reproduction and upgrade parts and kits. So widespread is this enthusiasm for classic pickups today that values of the most popular models have swelled substantially during the past decade or so. It’s good news if you already have one, but not so great for anyone on the hunt for a budget-friendly alternative to pony cars or muscle machines.
Consider the 1967-’72 Chevrolet trucks, popular from new and long adored by enthusiasts. Today, they’re nearly as sought after as the muscle cars of the same era, and values have followed suit, making them less accessible to the younger builders trying to get into a vintage project.
More recently, the following generation of Chevy trucks— the 1973-’87 “square-body” era—has been following the same trajectory, with values escalating rapidly.So, where does that leave the aspiring young builder on a budget? Or even the seasoned tinkerer looking to start a new project with a casual cash commitment? Fortunately, GM kept right on building pickups, and its next generation proved to be a winner.
With its brilliant melding of style and performance, this GM division left a lasting impact
In 1926, Pontiac was born from GM division Oakland to fill a niche, specifically the spot in the brand hierarchy above Chevrolet but below Oldsmobile. It thrived from the beginning by emphasizing value, soon rendering its parent division obsolete. Over the decades, Pontiac was associated with many things—style and reliability to name a few, but it wasn’t until Bunkie Knudsen began to rework the division’s image in 1956 that performance really came to the forefront. The 1957 Bonneville was intended to send a message to the world that Pontiac was a performance brand, and soon the division was promoting its Wide-Track stance, which delivered longer and lower looks and improved handling. The Pontiac V-8 continued to gain larger displacement variants and more power, and had developed a reputation on the street and on racetracks for its power production. Then, in 1964, John DeLorean snuck an A-body option package called “GTO” past company brass, installing a 389 V-8 in an intermediate chassis in direct conflict with corporate edicts. The muscle car era shifted into gear. For the next few decades, Pontiac was GM’s “Excitement” brand, delivering performance and style at an affordable price across a variety of segments. Sadly, the 2008 economic downturn hit GM hard, and one of the casualties was the shuttering of the Pontiac brand, even as it was offering the exciting V-8/rear-drive G8 sport sedan and sporty Solstice two-seater. Gone but never forgotten, Pontiac lives on through its memorable automobiles and ever-loyal fans, many of whom have shared their own Pontiac stories with us for our Special Section dedicated to this legendary marque.
While seeking a momentary reprieve the other day, I stole over to the Ford Motor Company website to see what the upcoming new Bronco was all about.
It’s been a hot topic among enthusiasts lately, and though I’ve generally been more of an on-road kind of guy, the prospect of a four-door Jeep alternative that could double as the family SUV seemed pretty appealing.Once I got into the “configurator” on the website so I could spec out my dream Bronco, I was able to verify one of the things I’d heard about the new truck: That among the broad spectrum of trim levels being offered, the lineup begins with one Ford actually tags simply as “Base.” I imagine a lot of excited would-be Bronco buyers skip right over that and on to the more elaborate packages, but that Base offering was the one that got my attention.
The concept of the à la carte option menu is one that seems nearly dead in today’s car market, where upgraded equipment is most often grouped into increasingly larger packages that require consumers to take lots of stuff they might not have wanted just to get the one or two items they did. Not only does this make the prospect of new car shopping more expensive, it also snuffs the buyer’s ability to tailor-make a vehicle expressly to his or her particular tastes.
I’ve lamented the passing of those days when you could go into a dealer and select each individual order code, in part because I’ve long been a fan of base models ordered with just enough extra bits to make them unique and interesting. So, while today that might mean a new Bronco “Base” with the Sasquatch off-road package, back in the day it could have been a Chevy Biscayne with a big-block, or a Ford Custom 300 with a factory four-speed.