1958 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
In the early days of trucking, pickup trucks were mostly spinoffs of passenger cars. Manufacturers simply cut off a car body behind the front doors, closed in the rear of the cab and attached a utility box to the frame. This was largely the form of these no-nonsense working vehicles during the 1920s and ’30s.
Then during the 1940s, particularly after the Second World War, light half-ton trucks began to take on their own persona. They evolved into larger, sturdier, purpose-built commercial cargo haulers, rather than extensions of the automobile line. But while they were rugged and utilitarian, little thought was given to luxury or style. They were still primarily basic transportation tools for farms, trades and businesses.
That image began to change in the 1950s and if one vehicle could be called the originator of this movement it was the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier. There was also a companion GMC model called the Suburban which differed in trim and engine options.
For 1955 Chevrolet brought out all new cars and trucks. The car got a wraparound windshield, egg-crate grille, “eyebrow” headlamps and high taillights. It projected a luxury aura and exhibited strong Cadillac influences.
To go with this stunning style buyers could opt for the division’s outstanding new 4.3-litre (265 cu in.) short-stroke, 162-horsepower overhead valve V8 engine. With the 180 horsepower Power Pack option available it was a dramatic departure from Chevy’s staid old “Stovebolt Six” image.
When the year’s second series of Chevrolet trucks (the first series were carryover ’54s) appeared in March, 1955 it was apparent they had been influenced by the cars. Following the Chevrolet car’s styling theme they received wraparound windshields, egg-crate grilles, more substantial bumper and eyebrow headlamps. A 36 per cent increase in glass area provided greatly improved visibility.
Standard engine was the standard 3.8-litre (235 cu in.) 123 horsepower, overhead valve, inline six. Also available was that new V8 which for truck use was detuned to 145 horsepower. Underneath was a new, stronger frame, longer leaf springs, wider track and a wheelbase shortened by 51 mm (2 in.), to 2,896 mm (114 in.) for easier negotiation in confined spaces.
With its standard pickups becoming more stylish Chevy decided to offer a dressed up model called the Cameo Carrier. Starting with the Deluxe cab with its wraparound rear window, the designers added more stylish interior and exterior appointments and paint treatments.
The most striking difference was the addition of fiberglass panels to the sides and rear of the standard cargo box. These brought the sides out flush with the cab. The box sides were sculpted to carry through the cab’s styling crease line for a long, continuous appearance.
At the rear were car-type taillights and a central hinged licence plate panel that dropped down below the tailgate to reveal the spare tire. The usual chains that held the tailgate horizontal were replaced by cables that rewound onto spring loaded reels.
Cameos got a special two-tone paint treatment of Bombay Ivory with Commercial Red accents around the windows. This and the use of such additional items as full chromed wheel covers and grille set the Cameo apart from all other pickups.
Unfortunately this style didn’t come cheap; this dude truck was priced approximately 25 per cent above the regular model. Since trucks were still seen basically as utility vehicles bought by no-nonsense business people, not many buyers were willing to pay the premium. Only 5,220 Cameos were sold in its short first model year. Sales sputtered even more in 1956 when just 1,452 found buyers.
For 1957 Chevrolet gave the Cameo a new grille and different paint schemes and managed to coax sales up to 2,244. Despite quad headlamps and yet another revised grille for 1958 Chevy sold only 1,405 Cameos before deciding to discontinue it in mid-year.
The Cameo was replaced by the Chevrolet Fleetside pickup, which carried many of its predecessor’s styling cues, but not the high price.
The Cameo Carrier attracted competitors. Chrysler wanted to get into the glamour truck business too. It couldn’t afford to spend much money so it removed the rear fenders and bumper assembly from a custom cab half-ton Dodge pickup and replaced them with the rear fenders of a ’57 Dodge two-door Suburban station wagon. This produced the Dodge Sweptside 100 pickup. Dodge dressed it up with whitewall tires, chrome wheel covers and a two-tone paint job.
The more significant response came from Ford. It brought forth its wide-box 1957 Styleside pickup with the sides of the cargo bed pushed out to the full width of the vehicle. By doing this Ford led the industry by making the wide box standard equipment, not a premium model.
Although the Cameo Carrier was not a commercial success for Chevrolet, it showed the way to the glamorous pickup and the cab-width cargo box. It demonstrated that trucks could be stylishpassenger vehicles, not just dull and frumpy workhorses. By setting the trend for today’s high style, luxury loaded pickups the Cameo Carrier established its place in automotive history.