47 years ago, we called these primitive utes RVs
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On the occasion of our latest Big Test, wherein we take five jumbo-utes out into the desert scrub for some recreational off-roading, let’s also look back almost 47 years to a similar adventure that rounded up what were then the three leading progenitors of the yet to be named “sport-utility” class—the Chevy K5 Blazer, Ford Bronco, and AMC Jeepster Commando—to examine what we referred to then as “The Great RV Binge.” “Muscle Cars are out and Recreational Vehicles are in,” proclaimed author Chuck Koch. In support of this assertion he cited a 700 percent increase in sales of these off-road “RVs” since 1961, which he attributed to the fact that “it is simply no longer fun to drive in most metropolitan areas throughout the country.” His muscle car death rumor turned out to be highly exaggerated, and the SUV craze wouldn’t hit in earnest for another quarter century, but let’s have a look back at the state of this vehicular art circa 1971.
The Over/Under on Leaf Springs
Every one of these “RVs” sports a good ol’ fashioned live axle at both ends—a concept unimaginable today in anything short of the heaviest-duty pickups. Two of them also use primitive but sturdy ox-cart-proven leaf springs at both ends—an approach even the HD pickups have abandoned. Note that the Chevy Blazer’s front leaves are mounted above the axle, affording far greater ground clearance than in the Jeepster, which features “underslung” leaves mounted below the axle. From these shots we can also see that the Jeepster steers from the front, but the Blazer has a rear-steer setup with a drag link in front. Interestingly, although I can’t see it in this shot, Koch says the Jeepster uses an anti-roll bar in front—a rarity with leaf springs.
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Bronco Bucks Trend with Front Coils
Ford’s Bronco fitted far more modern coil springs to the front of the Bronco, located by leading arms with a Panhard rod providing lateral location. Note that the front steering setup involves a steering damper—perhaps useful for preventing thumb sprains during rock crawling—and a steering link paralleling the Panhard rod.
Recreational Vehicles In/On RVs
Our modern-day evaluation crew stayed in hotels during their “adventure,” but our predecessors “roughed it” in the desert and enjoyed some two-wheeled off-roading, as well. “To go off-roading you need certain logistical support equipment. Sleeping bags, stoves, coolers, gasoline cans, and bikes—two from American Honda and one from Yamaha International. By the time we hat hit a few rocks and ruts, it became apparent that if you plan to take bikes, you better take bumper racks on which to mount them. We put the Hondas inside the Blazer, and then watched helplessly as the bikes quickly battered themselves and the vehicle every time any roughness was encountered.”
An All-Out Off-Roader—Chevy!?
“The Blazer was an all-out off-roader, equipped to go anywhere with skid plates, huge 10.00 x 16.5 six-ply tires, heavy-duty suspension and generator, power steering, disc brakes, auxiliary battery, a 3.73:1 axle, tow hooks, and free running front hubs. It cost more than the other cars [$5,560.10] and really must be considered apart from the others. The Blazer was so well adapted to its purpose that we spent most of the time in two-wheel high with an occasional stint into four-wheel high and a very short period while descending a rather precipitous trail when we shifted to four-wheel-low for safety. It was a most impressive experience.”
A Pioneer—the Bronco
“Perhaps best known among 4WD vehicles, for its record-setting performances in the Baja, is Ford’s Bronco. In its way, the Bronco is a pioneer among 4WD vehicles in that it introduced V-8 power to the species and our test car was equipped with the 302 2-bbl engine. The car also had free-running front hubs, limited slip front axle and a traction-lok rear axle. Other specialized off-road items included skid plates, auxiliary gas tank, a heavy-duty cooling package, and tube-type 6.50 x 16.6 ply rated tires. In test form, the Bronco priced out at $4,125.13.” For you young ’uns, the free-running hubs of which he speaks were a means of disconnecting the axles from the wheels when running in rear-drive mode. This prevented wear, but if you forgot to lock them before you hit the mud, it could be difficult to engage them afterward.
The Jeepster—No Rough Off-Roader!?
Here’s a historical anomaly: a Jeep that was not the de facto off-road champ. “Although the name Jeep is synonymous with four-wheel drive, the Jeepster Commando was more of a combination street/dirt car, not really suited for really rough off-roading. Its suspension is too soft and ground clearance not sufficient to surmount large obstacles. The Jeepster also lacked sufficient ground clearance and the protective skid plates (which resulted in a few dents to the gas tank). Of the three vehicles on the trip, the Jeepster was the only one to get stuck, although for a very short period. Again, insufficient ground clearance was the villain. The Jeepster’s price came to $4,659.56.”
“Adequate passenger comfort is also important to the off-roader since rough country can lead to driver fatigue and here the Blazer won out. It bucket seats were very good, providing excellent lateral support and just enough padding to absorb blows to the rump. Legroom was sufficient and arm room adequate despite a huge steering wheel that stared you in the face. The Jeepster rates second, again on the strength of its comfortable bucket seat, but legroom was lacking and occasionally the car’s rocking motion would cause a leg to sharply strike the steering column. Bench seats, totally inadequate legroom and a generally awkward driving position relegate the Bronco to last place in comfort. Perhaps the wagon version improves on this situation—we would hope so—but some advancement is definitely needed in this area.”
“As great as the Blazer is, it does have its drawbacks and these concern the car’s dimensions. The wheelbase strikes us as being on the upper limits of what you’d want for serious off-roading. While the length is nice for traveling over ruts, tending to smooth out the ride, it can get you in trouble when encountering steep rock climbs. The front wheels will make it up with no problem, but the frame can get hung up since the rear wheels are so far back. On the other hand, a short wheelbase, like the Bronco’s 92 inches, will imply bounce over the rock without getting stuck. With a medium-length wheelbase, 101 inches, and a narrow width, 65.2 inches, the Jeepster was maneuvered fairly easily; but when in rocky country more often than not the suspension would bottom out, slamming the unprotected gas tank down on some awaiting boulder.”
“Standard engine in the Blazer is the 307 V-8 but ours had the 350 two-barrel, which runs on low lead gas and produces 245 hp at 4,800 rpm. Next in performance was the Bronco, not set up a nicely as the Blazer but its power, 205 hp at 4,000 rpm, was enough to pull it through without too much trouble. Despite its rather calm personality, the Jeepster had a rugged OHV V-6 engine with a four-main-bearing crankshaft. This motor is extremely light, to save front suspension wear, yet very durable and fairly powerful; displacing 225 cubic inches and producing 160 hp at 4,200 rpm. While the engine tended to strain traversing steep inclines, we could not fault the 13.5 mpg fuel economy.”
Two Pedals are Better than Three
“In addition to its superior power, the Blazer was also equipped with an automatic transmission, a decided advantage over the Bronco. Now, don’t get us wrong. We like to shift gears as much as the next guy, but when you’re in deep sand, a manual shift is about the last thing you want and it is a shame that Ford has yet to offer an automatic in the Bronco, except in the expensive Baja version. The reason behind the automatic’s superiority is in its torque converter, which more than doubles the low range torque production of the engine. This allows the driver to more precisely control the amount of power delivered to the wheels, making it possible to turn them without losing traction and digging a hole in the sand. The only way to approximate this process with a manual shift is to slip the clutch and this, naturally, reduces clutch life and does not guarantee full traction on starting. With the automatic it’s just a matter of gently stepping on the accelerator and gradually applying pressure as you begin to move to multiply torque while the manual requires engaging the clutch, adding power, and finally hoping that those shovels you packed won’t have to be used.”
“In our little contest the Blazer wins bands down, with the Bronco a distant second. Both are decent off-road vehicles and while the Ford requires improvement in several important areas, Chevrolet seems to have the inside track on what it takes to achieve its purpose, with a smattering of style. The Jeepster needs to decide whether it wants to be a street automobile or an off-road machine. In its present, compromise configuration it is not really well suited to either. But no matter what we have said about these three particular vehicles, one inescapable fact remains: off-road driving is fun and exciting. If we came away with any definitive statement after our three-day desert bash it was, if you want to escape the pressure of the civilization, off-roading is the way to do it. No other means we know of allows you to reach the ‘way back’ country, free of smog and urban congestion, in the relative comfort of an automobile seat. Now we know why recreational vehicles are so popular, but we wonder how long it will last. After all, there’s only so much open land left.”
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