Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Campus classic—1988 GMC S-15 Jimmy

SUVs like this have almost become extinct.

(The Truth About Cars/Rare Rides)

(The Truth About Cars/Rare Rides)

(The Truth About Cars/Rare Rides)

By Anthony Sophinos, Contributing Writer

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Look upon this black-and-gold ride with a heavy heart, my friends; this kind of machine no longer exists. You can go out and find a number of new crossovers that match the 170.3-inch-long shadow this 1988 GMC S-15 Jimmy casts. But another similarly sized, body-on-frame, four-wheel-drive, genuine SUV that isn’t a Jeep Wrangler? Nope. It is a species that has all but gone the way of the dodo.

The world before the 1980s was also bereft of small SUVs (save the crude, rough, rattle-your-teeth-off CJ-7 and Scout). At that time, if you wanted a road-going rig with off-road chops, you bought a Bronco, a Blazer or a Ramcharger. These were big trucks, powered almost exclusively by also-big V8 engines. Their road manners were compromised at best, with suspensions designed for the trail first and for the asphalt second. That was the whole point of these vehicles: to be able to go where ordinary vehicles couldn’t follow. High clearance, short wheelbases and a solid axle front and rear achieved that goal, but drivers were left wanting more if they decided to use their big country bruiser for the city commute.

That last bit became especially true after the second gas crisis in the late 70s. When fuel prices spiked for the second time that decade, and newly implemented Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards mandated specific fuel economy performance for all models, automakers knew they needed to field something a little more parsimonious. What this meant was all-new SUVs would have smaller footprints and engines while retaining the off-road prowess of the full-sizers they would eventually replace. These new “trucklets” would also need to have better on-road manners than their predecessors, as buyers wanted a vehicle that could handle both the highway and the high country with aptitude.

This challenge was approached by each manufacturer in a slightly different way, and the alchemists at GM believed they mixed the perfect concoction with the new-for-1983 S10 Blazer and the identical S15 Jimmy. The S-prefixes distinguished these newly diminutive SUVs from their similarly named big brothers, the K5 Blazer and Jimmy. Wearing sharp and crisp sheet metal, the new SUVs at least looked the part—the butch-looking two-doors gave off a vibe of casual competence no matter the locale.

Maybe it was because it was the malaise era, or maybe it was because GM’s hubris, but hiding between the front fenders were engines that were anything but competent. The base engine in those early years was an 83-horsepower, 2.0-liter four cylinder, and for those who were gluttons for punishment, there was a 58-horsepower Isuzu-built diesel on the options sheet. The best options for speed demons was the available 2.8-liter V6 and its blistering 110 horsepower. This 60-degree V6 gave baby Blazers adequate gusto for the day, but suffice to say it was no barnstormer. In 1988, the dearth of power was remedied with the optional availability of 4.3-liter V6, later becoming standard in 1990. This motor, for all intents and purposes, was a small-block Chevy V8 with two cylinders sliced off. It put out 160 horsepower, and actually gave the S10/S15 respectable performance.

Even though sales were usually strong (246,000 units moved in 1996, its best year), the Blazer never was able to blaze a path to greatness. The reason why could be summed up in one word: Cherokee. The all-new XJ Jeep Cherokee debuted just one year after the GM SUVs, and right out of the gate it offered four doors, a more advanced suspension and unibody construction. The XJ was quickly deemed the “cool” SUV by the car-buying proletariat, and as such became the de facto compact SUV of the 1980s.

The saddest part about the Blazer and Jimmy was that they could have been just as great as the highly-lauded Cherokee, had GM kept improving it on a timely basis. Unfortunately, they didn’t. In what would become a painfully familiar charade, the company neglected the two SUVs and failed to give them the resources they needed to prosper. Doubt it? Then just consider how a full seven years passed before a four-door version was made available in 1990. And how another five years went by before the original 1982 design was updated, which would turn out to be the only major overhaul in the Blazer’s 22-year existence. By this time, the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee had debuted to incredible fanfare and success, running away from the Blazer/Jimmy twins in terms of sales and—more importantly—public perception.

It was an unfortunate truth that though the Blazer and Jimmy sold well, GM’s refusal to grace the small SUVs with timely updates meant they spent most of their existence in the competition’s shadow—the Cherokee in the 80s, the Explorer and Grand Cherokee in the 90s. But there was one glorious moment that cannot go unmentioned: the incredible 1991-1993 GMC Typhoon. A turbocharged 4.3-liter V6, less restrictive manifolds, a more aggressive camshaft and other engine upgrades gave these Jimmy-based machines an incredible 280 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque. In an era where a base Corvette had 245 horses, this was nothing short of mind-blowing. Sprinting from 0-60 in under six seconds and doing the quarter-mile in less than 15, it can lay claim to being the first performance SUV.

The example pictured here is not a Typhoon. But it may be better—it is, after all, an incredibly clean example of an SUV that is hardly seen anymore. Of those that have survived, most are on their seventh or owner and have been regulated to backwoods beaters with broken frames and rusted bodies. This striking black-and-gold beauty somehow escaped that fate, and judging by the great shape it’s in, it seems uninitiated to violent off-road skullduggery.

It’s an all-too common story: taken for granted, used hard and put away wet, then disappearing from the streetscape. Like the dodo, the compact SUV was driven to both fame and extinction by human endeavor. This Jimmy is a rare example of what once was; a look back to a different time and another era in motoring. A two-tone time machine. Extinct, yet not quite nonexistent. If only the dodo had been so lucky.


Anthony Sophinos can be reached [email protected]

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