What I Wish I Knew Before I Bought a Chevy K5 Blazer
Kyle Cheromcha, editor-in-chief of The Drive, schools us on the ins and outs of his classic SUV
The Chevrolet K5 Blazer dates all the way back to the late 1960s, but it’s the 1973-1991 square body model that most people think of when picturing this classic SUV. Featuring a short wheelbase, rectangular styling and the ability to pop the top for some fun in the sun, the Blazer provided decent off-road chops and respectable practicality for towing and hauling, as it shared its bones with Chevy’s same-era full-size pickup.
With huge numbers produced, K5 Blazers have largely flown under the collector radar, although prices are starting to climb on early examples. For those built in the 1980s, however, there are still deals to be found, with prices hovering between $10,000 and $18,000 for a solid driver, and trailer queens approaching $35,000. These trucks offer a little more comfort and convenience than their ’70s predecessors, along with a somewhat more modern drivetrain that includes early throttle-body fuel injection, improving their reliability.
Wanting to find out more about what it’s like to own a Chevrolet K5 Blazer from its best decade, we reached out to Kyle Cheromcha, editor-in-chief of The Drive. His Blazer tale is one of fate, frustration and ultimately love as he took the hard road to building what is now a reliable driver that has been in the family since it was new.
InsideHook: What year and trim level is your Blazer?
Kyle Cheromcha: It’s an ’88 Silverado, but it was de-badged several years ago.
What made you seek out a Blazer? Had you always been a fan?
Not really, this one was kind of happenstance. I started visiting my wife’s family, then my girlfriend, about 10 years ago here in L.A. My father-in-law had bought this particular Blazer new in 1988 and owned it ever since, using it as a daily driver until about 2005. By the time I came around in 2011, it had been mostly sitting for the past five years. I remember I pulled up to the house and saw this Blazer parked in the driveway, and I was like, “What is that?” And my (now) wife was like, “Oh, that’s the truck.” That’s what they called it: “the truck.” “Whatever, it’s a piece of junk. No one drives it anymore. It just kind of sits there.” And I was like, “This thing is so cool. I want to drive this.”
What kind of shape was it in?
It was still running. My father-in-law had been dutifully getting it smogged and it was still registered. It was not clean, though, and it had a rough idle. It shifted really hard into second gear and it hadn’t been put into four-wheel drive since the mid ‘90s. The interior had been swapped out at some point, and it had had this weird aftermarket black carpeting and front power seats from a Mercedes ML that he had put in there at some point. I don’t know what happened to the original seats. None of the fluids had been changed in a long time, the brakes were very spongy, and the rear axle made this awful, whining, howling noise once you got above 35 miles an hour.
But L.A. is a land of Priuses and electric cars and whatnot, and so coming there from New York and seeing this car in the driveway, and hearing, “Yeah, sure, you can drive it. Whatever. No one drives it anyway. So go for it. Knock yourself out …” I was just like, oh my God. This is the car I want to drive around L.A. for a week. And it didn’t have to go very far, fortunately, because at that point it probably wouldn’t have made it.
That’s the moment you knew you had to have it?
After that first week I loved it enough, especially the feeling of sitting behind the wheel. You’re up high with those super-thin A-pillars. It has the full rear windows, not the sliders, so it’s just glass all around, 360 degrees. It was just so much fun. So I told him, “Hey, I can’t buy this right now because I live in New York City and I have no money. But if you hold onto this, I will shepherd it into the future one day. I will take ownership of it and not sell it and keep it in the family.” And he was like, “Yeah, okay, sure,” not really considering it, I think.
I know for a fact a few years after that he started really thinking about selling it again, even though he had tried previously and no one was really interested. I mean, that’s amazing to me now. It’s the same story as any collector car, right? He wanted five grand for it and he couldn’t get anywhere close to that. People were lowballing him left and right and he was just getting very frustrated by it. When he went to sell it again, the same thing happened, so he just decided to hang onto it.
Then in 2015 I got married and he decided to gift it to me as a wedding present. He gave me a card that said something like, “Come to L.A. and pick up your new Blazer.” It was another two and a half years before I actually moved out to the West Coast and was able to take possession of it. That was the path to my ownership. I saw it and I loved it, never really knowing anything about Blazers other than that they’re big SUVs with a removable top and a small-block.
What repairs did you have to make right away after it had sat for so long?
It was still legal to drive, but it had those problems I mentioned earlier, plus a tired engine and a transmission that was slipping and needed to be rebuilt. At one point I put it in reverse and discovered that no longer worked. Then when I transferred the registration it failed smog as it was idling too high.
Something that I didn’t realize about these trucks is that, yes, 350 [cubic inch] small-blocks are a very straightforward, basic engine they made for four decades. But if they sit for a long time there are so many connections that can start to falter, and particularly the vacuum lines. You can spend days tracing a leak.
I was very busy with work at the time, so it sat and sat and sat. When I finally moved it over to our new home with a reasonably sized driveway to work on it, all the transmission fluid had leaked out over the last year and a half from the front seal. So I put in a bunch of ATF, charged up the battery and it started right up. I was like, great, this is no problem. This car is tough as hell. It’ll be a pain in the ass to fix it, but I’ll just take it step by step and this thing will be registered in no time.
Unfortunately, it turned out once I got it home that the condition of it underneath was really rough. Even though it’s a California car, it was sitting in Santa Monica near the beach for its entire life, and the salt air, while it wasn’t like a Northeast rust situation, there were a lot of parts underneath that needed to be replaced — almost the entire running gear, from just sitting in the salt air for so long and dealing with the heat, too. That beach climate is kind of the worst of both worlds for a car sitting outside.
Reviving this thing was not going to be a matter of just swapping out some bushings, patching up some leaks and hitting the road. It ended up being a much more complicated project than that. And I wish I knew that going in because I would’ve done it on a much different timeline than thinking that I could just put it on hold for a couple of years and then get to it while teaching myself how to do all this stuff at the same time.
This is when you decided to take a more comprehensive approach to restoring the truck?
I ended up tagging a shop, and we settled on doing what they call a “frame down” restoration, which was essentially replacing or rebuilding every single part below the frame. So brakes, axles, suspension, transmission, transfer case — every single component in there, including new leaf springs and new shocks. They also strengthened the frame in a few places where it was starting to look a little tired, and they painted the entire bottom for rust prevention.
Because the engine was rough but still working, I only had the transmission rebuilt. I figured that that would be it to get it on the road. They changed out the spark plugs and patched up a vacuum leak, and it seemed to be idling lower in the acceptable range for smog testing. I figured, if we need to tear apart this engine, we can just deal with that down the road. I just want to get the truck registered and start driving it.
Two weeks after the truck had spent a few months at the shop, my engine issues started up again. I brought it back and discovered that one of the cylinders had no compression at all. The shop recommended against repairing the motor because it was so old and worn out, and instead suggested a new one. I was tapped out after having just done the frame-down work, so I was prepared to just let it sit until I could figure out a new plan. Then about another week later they called me and they said, “Hey, this guy just brought in another ’88 Blazer that he wants to LS swap. The old engine’s fine. If you want that small-block, we can cut you a really good deal and just charge you the labor for installation. You don’t have to pay for the engine.”
That engine swap was another month, and then once it was in, I ended up with another idle problem where the truck was running super rich. The shop, which had been doing great work, tracked down a pair of sensors on the replacement engine that needed to be replaced, and I was able to pass smog with it this past June. I’ve been driving it since then.
Now that you’ve gone through hell and back reviving the truck, and have had a chance to drive it more extensively, what do you think are some of the most underrated aspects of the K5 Blazer experience?
I would have to say one is the torque. Those small-blocks, they only put out 210 horsepower, but there’s 300 lb.-ft. of torque, which for back then is pretty good, especially for something as small and relatively light as it is. People always talk about how these are very slow vehicles, and they absolutely are, but this thing builds a head of steam and just wants to keep going. I mean, it’ll idle down the street at 15 mph without touching the gas on a flat road.
It has a lot of power on tap, even though it is a 30-year-old engine with very, very primitive fuel injection and a lot of inefficiencies built into it. The passing power is there, and driving around town you can keep it under a quarter throttle. You rarely need to go more than that, which makes for a relaxed driving experience that I really enjoy.
I would also say the classiness of a stock model is underrated. It’s becoming more appreciated now, I think, because a lot of people have made very questionable modifications to Blazers through the aftermarket. When I went into the shop last year, they were like, “Okay, do you want to put a lift kit on it?” I said, “No, I want the original ride height. I want this thing to look as survivor as possible and original as possible.” It’s all black, it’s got tinted rear windows and it doesn’t have any of the fancy trim on it, like the wheel arch trim or the side stripe trim. As a result, it just looks really respectable, and kind of counter to how I think people typically imagine a Blazer carrying itself through the world. Generally, these trucks are jacked up, completely beat-up or really rusty.
It’s really a timeless shape — there’s a reason they built it for nearly 30 years. Park it next to a modern Ford Bronco and it’s surprising to see that they’re nearly the same size, but the design of the K5 just looks so much classier, well thought out and more realistic than the Bronco. The Bronco, frankly, looks like a SEMA build in comparison, like “we turned this into a retro Bronco” kind of deal. I was really surprised to see that because in isolation, it’s very straightforward, right? It’s a utilitarian truck. But then you see what is passing for a basic SUV nowadays, and you look at the Blazer again, and it’s like, wow — this is a really good design. This has staying power for sure.
What would you say is the most overrated part of owning a Blazer?
I don’t know that anyone’s rating this necessarily, but the ride quality is terrible. It’s really, really terrible. And I think that anyone who would try to buy in at that top end of the price range right now, spending $30,000 on a mostly complete survivor Blazer or something like that, would be disappointed by it. Yes, it’s a fun SUV. Yes, it does everything that you want driving an old truck to do for you, if that’s what you want out of your vehicle. But it is not comfortable by any means.
I think it’s partly because of the short wheelbase and partly because it’s still leaf sprung in the front. And so between that solid axle and the short wheelbase, bumps are rough. Upsizing tires with more sidewall could possibly help that, but I think it’s more the suspension because it’s not so much unstable as it is you really feel every bump when you hit it — it’ll shake the entire cabin. Being an older car, lots of noises are generated when that happens, so it’s not like you hit a bump and it’s just a hard hit while the suspension does its job and you just continue on. Hitting a big bump is kind of an event in this thing.
Are there other aspects of the driving experience that stand out as compared to a modern SUV?
With the solid front axle, the steering is very vague. You can go about 40 degrees in either direction before feeling it move along with the input. You need to focus on the freeway in a way that a modern SUV doesn’t require you to. But around town, I find it to be more relaxed than a normal SUV because you’re just kind of floating down the road in that old-school way. You’re feeling the bumps, like I said, but in terms of controlling the car it does feel more like steering a ship than steering a truck. You shouldn’t be driving this thing like a sports car, so if you are, and the steering is failing you as a result, that’s your choice. But for how it should be driven around town, the steering makes for a very relaxed riding experience that definitely stands in contrast to a modern SUV.
How do people react to the Blazer when you’re out and about?
It gets a lot of thumbs up, a lot of waves. I think it would more so in other parts of the country, just because in L.A. there are tons of survivor cars out here and people drive them daily. You do see cars that are even older that are clearly daily driven and clearly owned by people who love them, and you just kind of let them go about their business. So I think it would be even more popular elsewhere in the country. But at least one person, if I’m driving a few miles down the road to Target or whatever, will give me a thumbs up or something, say, “That’s a cool truck,” or wave to me in the parking lot, things like that.
Who should not own a classic SUV like this one?
I think that unless a casual owner wants to plunk down more than $30,000 for one that’s been perfectly restored to factory fresh, with everything functional and refurbished, they should stay away. I don’t think this is a great choice for people who are just like, “I want a cool truck,” because it’s not the most practical vehicle, first of all. It is a pickup in a manner of speaking, but the bed is carpeted and has a bench seat in it, right? It does fold up, but it’s still much more limited in its functionality than an actual pickup.
Second, it gets very hot in there in the summer. The original AC systems on those were crappy anyways, and mine isn’t even hooked up right now. Unless you have one that has been swapped out for a Vintage Air kit, it’s not going to be the most comfortable thing to drive around from a climate standpoint. It also gets between seven and eight miles to the gallon. It is expensive to drive.
A Blazer of this vintage really doesn’t make sense if someone’s just looking for a good time. But if you are passionate about the form, if you’re passionate about convertible SUVs, there are only a few to choose from. It’s also probably one of the cooler Chevys from that era. If you’re an enthusiast in general and you’re comfortable working on stuff, then it makes sense. If you get it running right, it’s really solid. I don’t want to say bulletproof because I would jinx myself by saying that, but it is relatively simple. There’s only so much that can go wrong with it.
I think that the K5 is still underappreciated as a whole, despite the recent uplift in values. So I would love to see more people understanding that it’s cool and that there are not many stock models left. So many of them have rusted away, or been crushed, or been modified past the point of no return. For anyone who appreciates the stock survivor-type truck and is willing to put in the work to keep it on the road, I think it’s a great choice.
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