General Motors liked to be first with new vehicle concepts in the 1950s, But there's no getting around the fact that by the time it rolled out the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino "sedan pickup," arch-rival Ford had already been building its similar Ranchero for two years. (That must have been somewhat galling, considering Chevrolet's truck design studio had explored a sedan pickup as early as 1952.)
Both the Ranchero and El Camino were pioneering examples of what are now dubbed "crossovers," vehicles that attempt to appeal to both car and truck customers with a mixed bag of creature comforts and utility features.
Before delving into origins, though, we need to address the question just what is a sedan pickup? For purposes of this article, consider it to be a utility vehicle built on a passenger-car chassis, with passenger-car frontal and cabin styling, and -- this is key -- a cargo box seamlessly integrated into the passenger-car design elements.
Thus, early pickups based on passenger-car chassis don't qualify. Nor do coupe models equipped with a pickup box in the deck opening, such as Chevrolet's own 1936-1942 Coupe-Pickup. The 1937-1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express and Hudson pickups of the 1930s and 1940s are also excluded, due to their distinctly separate cargo boxes.
There are antecedents to the Ranchero and El Camino, however. GM, Ford, and other automakers manufactured and marketed "utility" coupe-pickup models in Australia as early as the mid 1930s. These Aussie "utes" typically combined the styling of a five-window coupe body with an integrated pickup box. (GM's export organization offered a Chevrolet utility as late as 1952, and GM's Australian Holden model line continues to feature a distinctly El Camino-like "ute.")
Chevrolet's truly stylish Cameo Carrier pickup, introduced in mid 1955, also helped pave the way for the El Camino. Although a truck in every sense, the Cameo offered an unprecedented array of car-like features. Two-tone paint, smooth V-8 power, an automatic transmission, a relatively luxurious interior, power assists, and more were among its attractions.
The Cameo Carrier's genesis can be found in design exercises executed in the early 1950s by a talented and enthusiastic young stylist in the GM truck design group. His name was Charles M. "Chuck" Jordan, and he was destined to retire from GM in 1992 as its fourth vice president of design.
One of Jordan's early renderings for GM showed a 1952 Chevrolet passenger car with an integrated pickup box. Jordan recalls that the design sketch resulted from a discussion with GM's legendary design chief, Harley Earl. It was Earl, Jordan says, who suggested, "taking the Chevrolet passenger-car sedan and making a deluxe pickup out of it."
But Jordan says that his 1952 drawing had no direct connection to the original El Camino; he had already been named chief designer in the Cadillac studio by the time the 1959 Chevrolet styling program got under way. (The drawing was, however, the first in a chain of luxury pickup explorations that led up to Jordan's design for the Cameo Carrier.) Jordan also recalls there was a later sketch done of a passenger-car pickup based on the 1955 Chevrolet design.
The Cameo no doubt inspired Dodge, International, and Ford to offer flush-side cargo boxes on some of their 1957 pickups. But Ford had another surprise in store for the competition in 1957. It was, of course, the Ranchero.
In the next section, learn how -- and when -- Chevrolet countered its rival's "surprise."
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Chevrolet El Camino Counters the Ford Ranchero
The 1959 Chevrolet El Camino was Chevy's eventual answer to the Ford Ranchero. But Ford had a head start with its sedan pickup.
There were marketing challenges brewing that probably contributed to Ford's decision to bring out the car-based Ranchero. During the mid 1950s, sales of "commercial cars" -- typically sparsely trimmed low-line two-door wagons and sedan deliveries -- were generally declining.
Department stores, dry cleaners, florists, and other businesses had long relied on such models for delivery chores. But new suburban shopping centers, increasing numbers of two-car households, and other factors were reducing the demand for home-delivery services. At the same time, four-door wagons were quickly becoming the family wagon of choice. Thus, ideas for new models that could expand volume in the two-door commercial model line were likely to be warmly received.
Regardless of the rationale, it was all but inevitable that Chevrolet would offer a model to counter the Ranchero. In the head-to-head competitive environment of the 1950s, they virtually had to. Why did the Chevrolet response appear two years later? These factors are immediately obvious:
- With the Australian market in mind, Ford had planned a coupe-pickup utility derivation of its innovative 1952 all-steel two-door Ranch Wagon right from the start. Chevrolet didn't even offer a two-door wagon until 1955. As a result, Ford had a head start on the manufacturing and cost aspects of a sedan pickup.
- Chevrolet was locked into the third and final edition of its 1955 chassis/body program for 1957. Ford, though, had a totally new chassis and body that year. The timing was right for them, but not for Chevy.
- Chevrolet had a one-year body design for its 1958 passenger cars. It would still have been impractical to engineer a response to the relatively low-volume Ranchero, which Ford simply facelifted for 1958. Furthermore, Chevrolet's efforts on the truck front "were focused on releasing smooth-sided "Fleetside" pickups as more-practical midseason successors to the Cameo.
Ironically, by the time Chevrolet unveiled the El Camino (Spanish for "the road"), the full-size Ford Ranchero was already headed for the last roundup. Thus, El Camino and Ranchero would compete directly in only the 1959 model year.
Chevrolet chose to market the El Camino as part of its truck line (as Ford did with the Ranchero). Gentleman farmers, construction foremen, and others with generally light-duty rural or suburban hauling needs were targeted in advertising and marketing materials.
Still, introductory sales literature proclaimed, "In both appearance and performance, Chevrolet El Camino offers the best qualities of a fine passenger car." Though certainly true from the performance perspective, there were limitations to the appearance, at least from the factory.
For more detail on the El Camino's styling, continue to the next section of this article.
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1959 Chevrolet El Camino Styling
Although Chevrolet considered the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino to be part of the lowly commercial-car model line, the exterior was dressed up a bit with midlevel Bel Air-style side trim. That included tapering full-length bodyside moldings filled with Snowcrest White paint.
"El Camino" nameplates were affixed to the front fenders in the same place in which "Bel Air" scripts would adorn a passenger car. Wide, bright moldings swept up over the side windows and rimmed the trailing edge of the roof.
Other moldings ran under the side windows and flowed right into the chromed strips that encircled the top of the pickup box. The large, curved rear window was also framed in chrome.
Inside, though, the standard three-across bench seat was trimmed in Biscayne-level leather-grain and patterned vinyl. There were no seating options. Three interior colors -- gray, green, and blue -- were available. Floor coverings were black vinyl, with colored specks molded in to match the upholstery color. (Unfortunately, moisture could become trapped beneath these mats, causing floor pans to rust as the years went by.)
The El Camino's dramatic greenhouse was in essence a shortened version of the thin, flat "flying wing" roof design -- with its distinctive rear overhang -- first seen on many 1959 GM four-door hardtops. The flat roof panel and forward-thrusting rear pillars gave the El Camino a profile suggestive of powerboats of the era.
The massive rear window -- along with the large compound-curve windshield shared with the passenger cars -- contributed to El Camino's astonishing 4121 square inches of total glass area, providing what the introductory press release called, "control-tower visibility."
The 1959 El Camino was promoted as the first Chevrolet pickup built with a steel bed floor instead of wood. The floor was a corrugated sheetmetal insert, secured with 26 recessed bolts. Concealed beneath it was the floor pan from the Brookwood two-door wagon, complete with foot wells. Box capacity was almost 33 cubic feet.
The tailgate created a perfectly level bed extension when folded down, allowing for fully 91 inches of load length (the same as Ranchero, though its tailgate wouldn't fold quite as flat). The license-plate carrier, housed within the tailgate, was hinged to swing down when the gate was down, allowing the plate to remain visible. With no place else to go, the full-size spare tire stood in upright readiness behind the passenger-side seatback. It was partially concealed by the built-in parcel shelf behind the seat.
Being endowed with the styling of Chevrolet's 1959 passenger cars, the first El Camino shared their legendary "gullwing" fins and "cat's eye" taillamps. Each lamp unit was split into two pieces on the El Camino and other Chevy models with a tailgate. The fuel filler was located in the left rear quarter panel on these models as well. El Caminos were available in all Chevrolet colors, including two-tones.
The El Camino was built on Chevy's 1959 passenger-car chassis that featured a "Safety-Girder" X-frame design and full-coil suspension, both of which had debuted on the 1958s. The 119-inch wheel-base was 1.5 inches longer than that of the 1958 models, though. Overall length for all 1959 Chevys was up to 210.9 inches.
The El Camino's payload rating ranged from 650 pounds to 1150 pounds, with gross vehicle weights ranging from 4400 to 4900 pounds, depending on powertrain and suspension options specified.
The somewhat soft, passenger-car-type standard suspension enabled the El Camino to stand level without a load. (By contrast, the Ranchero came with stiffer heavy-duty rear springs that provided it with a standard 1100-pound payload rating and gave it a distinct "rake" when unloaded.) The quirky Level Air suspension option, in its second and final year, was listed as available, but was almost never seen on any Chevrolet model, much less an El Camino.
The El Camino boasted an array of available powertrains, which are detailed in the next section.
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1959 Chevrolet El Camino Engineering
As a result of the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino's passenger-car underpinnings, buyers found that they could enjoy unrestricted access to Chevrolet's lavish buffet of available powertrains.
The 283-cid Turbo-jet V-8 with two- or four-barrel carburetion and several Turbo-Thrust 348-cid V-8s with four-barrel or triple two-barrel carbs (the latter with up to 335 bhp by mid 1959) were among the entrées. Even the 250- and 290-bhp 283-cube Ramjet Fuel Injection engines were available -- at least on paper.
Chevrolet grouped models within six-cylinder and V-8 series in this era. Thus, the El Camino was officially the model 1180 with a six and model 1280 with a V-8. (Biscayne sedans and Brookwood wagons were also 1100-/1200-series vehicles.) The 195-bhp, two-barrel 283 was standard in the V-8 model, which listed for $2470. The six-cylinder model, priced $118 less at $2352, came with Chevrolet's reliable 235.5-cid Hi-Thrift six, which was newly detuned to 135 bhp in the interest of operating economy.
Depending on the engine selected, a customer could choose a three-speed manual transmission (standard on both six and V-8 models), three-speed with overdrive, Powerglide two-speed automatic, or the seamlessly shifting Turboglide automatic. A four-speed manual with floor shift was available with any of the 348s and the two fuel-injected engines.
Hot Rod magazine conducted a test of an El Camino equipped with the hottest powertrain combination available in early 1959 -- a 315-bhp, triple-carb, solid-lifter 348 V-8 mated to a four-speed. HR testers clocked 0-60-mph times of around seven seconds, estimated top speed at 130 mph, and predicted 14-second/100-mph quarter-mile performance with a rear-axle ratio suitable for serious drag racing installed.
The El Camino buyer could purchase many deluxe body equipment items -- a right-hand sunshade/appearance upgrades such as fender ornaments and other ornamental trim -- from Chevrolet's options catalog. No doubt some dealers upgraded brand-new El Caminos with even more deluxe bolt-on trim from the parts bin, both for their customers and for their own purposes.
A nicely accessorized and enhanced El Camino made a great "parts chaser." (Only the lack of uplevel interior trim kept the original El Camino from fully realizing in 1959 the deluxe passenger-car pickup Earl and Jordan had envisioned in 1952 -- an oversight some El Camino restorers have "corrected" by adding Impala trim features.) Among the few factory accessory items denied the original purchasers of 1959 El Caminos were the "continental-type spare carrier" and Autronic Eye headlamp dimmer.
The original El Camino was something of a sensation when it first appeared. According to Arthur W. Jones, who worked in GM Styling in the late 1950s, the 1959 El Camino was so admired by designers that some of them ordered one in lieu of the Corvette they typically drove. Across the nation, and especially in California, hot rodders and customizers found the new El Camino an extremely appealing vehicle for modification.
A total of 22,246 El Caminos were produced for 1959. That bested the count of 21,706 first-year Rancheros made in 1957 and the 14,169 Ford sedan pickups built in direct competition for the 1959 model year. But 1960 would be a different story. Continue to the next section to learn why.
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1960 Chevrolet El Camino
Below its beltline, the 1960 Chevrolet El Camino shared the toned-down styling of that year's full-size Chevrolets, including flatter fins and a return to a series of small round taillights, as in 1958. The license-plate mounting for all tailgate-equipped models was now below the rear bumper. This necessitated the use of special dual license lamps, but eliminated the drop-down hinge assembly used on corresponding 1959 models.
At first glance, the exterior once again had a Bel Air look, with that series' bright-metal "jet" appliqué and narrow trailing molding used to accent the rear quarters. But, like Biscaynes, the new El Camino also used narrow-band trim to fill a portion of the upper-body character line and did without a bright edge around the concave rear cove that contained the taillights.
Inside, Biscayne/Brookwood appointments also persisted (a contrast to Ford, which had offered only a Custom-trim version of its final big Ranchero the year before). The seat was now covered in striped-pattern cloth with vinyl facings. Available interior trim shades were once again gray, blue, and green. Floor coverings were in medium-tone vinyl.
Mid-1959 powertrain availability was carried over with minimal changes for 1960: The base 283-cid V-8 was detuned a bit for fuel economy and was now rated at 170 bhp, and the fuel-injected engines were officially gone.
Base prices were up very slightly, starting at $2366 for the six-cylinder model; another $107 fetched a V-8 with the two-barrel 283. However, orders plummeted by a third, to just 14,163. Meanwhile, Ford moved 21,027 Rancheros, which were now based on the brand-new Falcon compact.
The pioneering American sedan pickups just didn't connect with enough car-buying Americans. Perhaps these early "crossovers" didn't carry enough passengers; in a time when baby-boomer families dominated the market, three across was the best they could offer. The low-level trim and marketing efforts focused almost exclusively on commercial customers may have inhibited sales as well.
The basic idea was still viable, though. Ford proved it with the little Falcon Ranchero that was able to share parts with a two-door wagon and sedan delivery. (These styles faded from the full-size Chevy line after 1960.)
For a time, Chevrolet had only the rear-engine Corvair 95 Rampside pickup to offer as some competition for the Ranchero, but even then, the Rampside's true rival from Dearborn was the E-100 Econoline. It wasn't until 1964 that Chevrolet fielded a more direct competitor for the Ranchero via a revived El Camino spun off from the new intermediate-class Chevelle.
The midsized El Camino continued in production through four design generations spanning more than two decades. (It also outlasted the Ranchero, which faded in 1979.) In an unusual move, Chevrolet continued production of the last-series El Camino for four model years after the rear-drive Malibu on which it was based was discontinued in 1983. The 1987 El Caminos were the last of their kind . . . at least as of this date.
The El Camino concept remains a powerful idea today. Even though most new crossover vehicles are based on truck designs, Chevrolet has recently shown an El Camino concept car. This thoroughly contemporary "sedan pickup" remains true to the original El Camino.
Chevrolet isn't saying it will build something like it . . . but then again, it's not saying it won't. Perhaps, then, the Chevrolet El Camino has not reached the end of the road after all.
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