Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: David Tracy
Truck YeahThe trucks are good!

The second-generation Chevrolet Blazer may seem among the least interesting SUVs on earth. It’s got a strangely sad face, it has the same powertrain as damn near every other body-on-frame Chevy of the era, and its on and off-road performance isn’t remotely impressive. And yet, after spotting a peculiar green Blazer near the Belgium border and then going down a deep rabbit hole, I realized that, actually, the Blazer is fascinating. Here’s why.

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Last week, while driving my diesel, manual Chrysler Voyager from Dusseldorf, Germany to Ghent, I spotted near the Belgium border a vehicle that looked like an American Chevy Blazer, though something seemed off.

Curious, but also a little panicked at the possibility that I may have spent the last 25 years totally misunderstanding the second-generation Chevrolet Blazer, I hastily yanked my steering wheel and turned my van around to take a closer look. What I saw was baffling:

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Photo: David Tracy
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What’s going on here? Is this an E.U. spec Chevrolet Blazer? Surely not, right? Why in the name of William Carburetor Durant would Chevrolet decide that it was worth the investment to develop and build second-generation Chevrolet S-10 Blazers for the European market? What was the European market like in the late 1990s for 16 MPG mid-size SUVs? I can’t imagine it was strong.

Is this real?

I realize that Jeep was selling the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee in Europe during this time, even building the latter locally in Graz, Austria. But those two were offered with diesel engines, which made them more economical. Plus, they were unibody vehicles, with the Grand Cherokee much more refined than the S-10 Blazer, and the XJ significantly smaller and better suited to European roads.

The second-gen Blazer would seem like a pointless offering for Europe. A thirsty, relatively large, not particularly luxurious, body-on-frame vehicle offered by a brand that really didn’t have much of a presence on the continent.

These thoughts raced through my mind as the world became a blur. In time, though, my brain recovered from its state of dazed bafflement, and I was able to take a closer look at this green mystery machine parked on the side of the road.

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Photo: David Tracy

Sure enough. These are E.U.-specific taillights, with amber turn signals and fog lights built into the red, lower part of the housing.

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For a more detailed analysis, I reached out to my coworker Jason Torchinsky, a foremost expert in taillight design. Here’s his take on the amazing E.U.-spec Blazer lights compared to the U.S. ones shown in the image below:

Okay, the Euro-spec one follows a pattern of a lot of US cars converted to Euro-spec, the “layer cake” design, as we see on your Voyager, too.


AMC/Chrysler eventually used this design globally for the Cherokee.

It’s not too bad looking, especially when contrasted with the no-effort US variant design which is just the basic red lens for 90 percent of the light, and 10 percent for a clear reverse lamp at the bottom. The Euro version has four chambers, each clearly delineated by color, with the lower fog/tail area having an inset reflector as well. There’s separate brake and tail red areas, an unmistakable amber indicator, and the reverse lamp sandwiched in the middle. It’s more visible, readable, and, I think, attractive than the half-ass, three-bulb, two-color US-spec unit.

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Photo: GM

But there’s more to the mysterious European Blazer than its rear lights; the front fenders feature signal repeaters—little orange lights not found on U.S. models:

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Photo: David Tracy

The mirrors, too, are power-folding, which is handy for the tight streets of Europe:

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Here’s the button to fold them:

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If you look closely at the headlights, you’ll see an “E-code” (in this case “E13,” with the number 13 meaning the headlight was approved in Luxembourg) that denotes that the light pattern meets European safety requirements.

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Speaking of safety regulations, you can see above that the European Blazer comes with headlight washers. These are common among European cars, and their aim is to improve light-output and reduce glare, as mentioned in the incredibly exciting headlamp cleaner regulation document by the Economic Commission for Europe. Here are some key quotes from that regulation:

The headlamp cleaner shall be designed and constructed to clean those parts of the light-emitting surface of the headlamps which produce the principal passing beam and, as an option, the driving beam, so that at least the cleaning effect specified in paragraph 7 below is achieved.

[...]

The cleaning efficiency at the points on the measuring screen...shall, after every cleaning period, amount to at least 70 per cent for the principal passing beam lamp and also 70 per cent for the optional driving lamp;

Almost as exciting as these lighting changes are the Blazer’s Euro-specific fender flares:

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For comparison, here’s how the flares look on the U.S. model:

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Photo: GM
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I’m assuming the European flares are there to help the vehicle comply with some sort of regulation requiring tires to be packaged completely inboard of the fenders (when pointed straight)?

Who knows, but I think the Euro flares look great, and remind me a bit of those on the U.S.-market ZR2:

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Photo: GM
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To learn more about the European Blazer, I reached out to the General Motors Heritage Center, who sent me this brochure for the right-hand drive version offered for the U.K. market:

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As you can see, Chevy marketed the SUV as a roomy, relatively luxurious off-roader. That seems like a stretch in some ways, but I get it—why lose sales to Jeep and Land Rover? Chevy had to offer something.

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Photo: GM
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The brochure shows a few other cool differences between the E.U.-spec Blazer and the one we got in the U.S. One of the most interesting is the unique shifter, which is floor mounted on European Blazers (seen above). U.S.-blazers had column-mounted shifters (shown below—edit: Some U.S. models did have floor shifters, though they looked a bit different). Also in the image above, you can spot a headlight level-adjuster (these are required in Europe) just below the vent on the right side of the steering wheel, and you’ll see that there’s a hand brake and not a foot brake.

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There are quite a few other differences, all enumerated by a YouTuber named Pete Matesevac, who, bless his soul, was excited enough to create this video dedicated to the right-hand drive Chevy Blazer—a video that I never thought could possibly have existed. But here we are:

I know that right now, you’re all thinking that the second-gen Blazer is far more of a jet-setter than you could have possibly imagined, and that surely there’s no way things could get more interesting. But then you’d be wrong.

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Chevy built Blazers in Valencia, Venezuela. Here’s a Blazer commercial for the region:

And there appears to be a roughly 900-person Blazer off-road club in the neighboring country of Colombia:

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Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Screenshot: Facebook

Look at all of these Blazers at a meetup in Bogota:

It also appears that GM offered the Blazer in Japan:

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The Japanese models look quite similar to the U.K. Blazer. But lest you think the one in the image above—and the one below, which was recently for sale on the island of Kyushu in Japan—are just imported U.K. models, check out this August 1999 story from The Wall Street Journal about GM’s operations in the country. Here are some nice nuggets from the story:

General Motors Corp. will launch a right-hand drive version of its Chevrolet Blazer in Japan this fall, according to an executive at the GM division’s advertising firm in Japan. The move is a sign that the auto maker plans to continue trying to expand sales in Japan despite the country’s depressed auto market.

[...]

The Blazer, a sport-utility vehicle, will be the second GM vehicle to be sold in Japan with right-hand drive, accommodating a country where traffic moves on the left.

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Here’s the part about how the Japanese model differs from U.S. models (though how it differs from U.K. models isn’t clear):

Mr. Dodds, who oversees the advertising account in Japan for GM’s Chevrolet division, said GM has adapted the Blazer for the Japanese market in other ways as well. The new Blazer will have retractable mirrors so the vehicle can fit through Japan’s narrow streets, he said. And GM moved the turn signal control closer to the steering wheel and changed the angle of the brake pedal to accommodate Japanese drivers, he said.

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The U.S., mainland Europe, the U.K., Venezuela, Japan. Surely the humble, sad Blazer wasn’t sold elsewhere, right? This is that boring Blazer that your cousin used to take mudding all the time before the thing rotted out after its 10th winter; it’s too uncool to be this well traveled, right?

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This apparently omnipresent machine also made its way to Russia, a logical market for the vehicle, since fuel is cheap and mud and bad roads are plentiful. In fact, Chevy actually had a second-generation Blazer assembly plant in Yelabuga, per this old article from the LA Times:

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin took a test drive Thursday in a Chevrolet Blazer and then signed a joint venture agreement with General Motors Corp. to produce 50,000 of the vehicles a year in Russia.

“Good car,” Chernomyrdin said after a short spin near the main entrance to the Russian White House, or main government headquarters, where a few Blazers were presented.

The undertaking is the first joint venture in Russia with a Western auto company since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

[...]

General Motors said production could begin by the end of 1997 at a still-unfinished car manufacturing plant near the town of Yelabuga, about 900 miles east of Moscow in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.

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Per a document that the GM heritage center sent me, the Yelabuga, Tatarstan plant began Blazer production in late 1996, though the full manufacturing output of 50,000 annual vehicles wasn’t expected to happen until late 1998, with 500 vehicles a month happening in the interim.

While we’re on the topic of Russian Blazers, it is my responsibility as an automotive journalist to make you all aware of this abomination:

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Photo: GM (Other)

Sold for the Russian market with a fascia that was also offered in Brazil, this Blazer was often sold with the 2.2-liter inline-four mated to a five-speed manual. Check out this video from Russia:

But don’t think this is the weirdest the second-generation Blazer ever looked. Oh no, the Indonesia-built Blazers, and those offered in Brazil (and possibly Blazers offered in other markets), later got this face and unique body panels:

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Photo: Chevrolet
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In fact, just look at how popular Blazers are in Indonesia! There’s a whole off-road club devoted to the things:

Sadly, there are no weird-faced Blazers are shown in the clip above, but if you look closely one of the black ones shown at the end, you’ll notice something odd about the badge on the grille:

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: GM
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Yes, GM marked the Blazer as the “Opel Blazer” in Indonesia!

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Photo: Governo De Minas Gerais (Wikipedia (Other)
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Blazers are also ridiculously popular in Brazil, where the strange-faced ones were apparently used as police vehicles, as shown above.

If you don’t believe real-life photos anymore because you’ve become a computer-crazed maniac, this screenshot from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas might convince you that the Brazilian police uses weird-looking Blazers as police vehicles:

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Screenshot: GTAALL.EU (Other)
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You can see “Minas Gerais” written on the police cruiser’s hood in that photo before the screenshot above. That’s the name of a state in southeast Brazil. Keen to see just how prevalent these odd Blazers are there, I did some googling, and my god. The place is infested!

Before we get into the wacky ones, it’s worth mentioning that you can find these more conservatively styled ones all day. This 4.3-liter V6, manual transmission one costs 13,000 Brazilian Real, or about $2,300:

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: Cicero Henrique (OLX (Other)
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Here’s one of the wacky ones sale for 16,000 Brazilian Real, or about $2,900.

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Photo: Marcelo Tielo (OLX (Other)
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Before you look at this next picture, swallow whatever food or drink is in your mouth, because otherwise a spit-take will ensue:

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Photo: Marcello Tielo (OLX (Other)
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That’s right: The Chevy Blazer that, when you started reading this article you probably considered boring junkyard-fodder, came with a third taillight variant!

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Photo: Kamila (OLX (Other)
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The black Blazer above is for sale for around $3,100, though it has the four-cylinder engine, while the previous one has the 4.3-liter 90-degree V6. Both have manual transmissions, which is just awesome (particularly on the V6).

Check this one out with a hood-scoop. Its a 2011 model (yes, Brazil kept making these even after the second-gen Blazer bowed out of the U.S. market after 2005), so, like many later-model Blazers in Brazil, it came with a 2.4-liter inline-four instead of the 2.2 offered on earlier variants and in other markets:

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: Protacar (OLX (Fair Use)
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While we’re on the topic of engines, we should discuss one of the most amazing things about the second-gen Blazer. Not only did Chevy offer it in dozens of countries, not only could it be had with various faces and body stampings, and not only was it available in right-hand and left-hand drive, but it could also be had with a turbodiesel. A big, 2.8-liter one.

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: Alex (OLX (Other)
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Seriously, as boring as I find the U.S.-market Blazer, I have to say that the machine above is just epic. A four-wheel drive, manual transmission, body-on-frame machine with a leather interior, a wacky face, unique taillights, and this 138 horsepower, 250 lb-ft torque monster under the hood:

Illustration for article titled Why The Ugly Chevy Blazer That You All Know Is Actually Fascinating
Photo: Alex (OLX (Other)
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So the next time you see a “ho-hum” S-10 Blazer limping its way down your street, possibly dragging a rusty exhaust and leaving a trail of automatic transmission fluid, give it a little nod of respect. After all, it’s a fascinating machine offered in so many different variants in dozens countries around the globe. It’s a true automotive globetrotter; no wonder its production run lasted from 1994 (U.S.) well into the 2010s (Brazil).

That’s a hell of a run for what many consider just a boring, sad-looking Chevy SUV.

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Update (Oct 14, 2020 10:30 A.M. ET): This story has been updated with video footage of the Blazer sighting. In addition, the author noted that some U.S. models could be had with a floor/console-shift automatic transmission.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

the-easter-bunny
ROBOT TURDS

I get it. A lot of the writers on here are too young to remember when cars like this were new. I am. Bottom line? These were great big pieces of shit. Especially this era when GM somehow managed to make a engine coolant that would rot the entire coolant system out. These were made during a sad era of American automotive engineering complete with the god-awful molten plastic interiors. So as seen I don’t exactly have a nostalgic feeling about these things.