1986 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Bill Vance
1986 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

Join Autos’s Facebook group
Follow Autos on Twitter

By Bill Vance

When Ford introduced its 1957 Ranchero sedan-pickup, it was a new direction in pickup trucks. Based on a passenger car chassis, it had car-like driving characteristics. It was really a two-door Ford station wagon with a smoothly integrated utility box replacing the rear seats.

Being car-based, it had access to all the car’s options and conveniences, and was aimed at light duty commercial users such as gentlemen farmers and field supervisors who wanted a little more glamour and luxury.

Although new to North America, sedan-pickups were popular in Australia where they were known as Utes (for utility). A few British manufacturers also produced car-based pickups.

1959 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user vegavairbob
1959 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user vegavairbob. Click image to enlarge

Chevrolet’s response to Ford’s Ranchero was the 1959 El Camino (Spanish for “the road’) sedan-pickup based on the Chevrolet car. It had Chevrolet’s “bat wing” rear fins, and its slim pillars, large wraparound windshield and full rear window gave 360-degree visibilty. The bench seat accommodated three passengers.

The El Camino had the Chevrolet X-braced frame, and the steel-floored cargo box had a volume of 934 litres (33 cu. ft.). Suspension was by coil springs all around and payload ranged up to 522 kg (1,150 lb) depending on suspension and powertrain.

Engines ran from the standard 3.8-litre “Hi-Thrift” overhead valve, 135-horsepower inline six, to a 4.6-litre “Turbo Jet” V8, to a 5.7-litre 335-horsepower “Turbo Thrust” V8. Transmissions were a column shifted three-speed manual, available with overdrive, a two-speed “Powerglide” automatic or “Turboglide” automatic. A floor-shifted, four-speed manual was available with higher output engines.

1975 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user Rogerd1955
1975 Chevrolet El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user Rogerd1955. Click image to enlarge

The El Camino carried into 1960 with the car’s less flamboyant styling featuring flatter rear fins. But for a couple of reasons, after only two model years, the El Camino would then take three years off. The first reason was that the two-door, full size Chevrolet wagon on which it was based was discontinued, and second, a sales slide from over 22,000 in 1959 to about 14,000 1960s was discouraging.

It finally reappeared in 1964, now based on the mid-sized Chevelle two-door wagon. Although based on the intermediate size car, its box was bigger than the original in both depth and length. The Chevelle was a good choice because the industry was on the verge of the big-engine-in-a-light-car “muscle car” craze, kicked off by the 1964 Pontiac GTO. Chevrolet soon entered the race, and because the El Camino was based on the Chevelle it could join in too.

Almost all options available for the Chevelle SS 396 muscle car could be had by El Camino buyers wanting to turn them into high performance machines. In addition to the country squire and horsey set, it began to attract a new clientele, one looking for speed not cargo-carrying. By 1968, Chevrolet emphasized the sporty aspect by offering the El Camino SS 396 with the 396 cu. in. (6.5 litre) V8. The market was clearly ready: ’68 El Camino sales rose 20 per cent to almost 42,000, its highest so far.

In 1969, sales increased again, so Chevrolet responded for 1970 with an even bigger optional engine, the tire-smoking El Camino SS 454 with 454 cubic inches (7.4 litres). Ford had been also active with the muscle, culminating in its 429 cubic inch (7 litre) Cobra Jet V8 for the 1970 Ranchero GT.

1979 Chevroelt El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user Agrestik
1979 Chevroelt El Camino; photo by Wikipedia user Agrestik. Click image to enlarge

Just when muscle cars were at their peak, changing conditions began to emasculate them. With 1971 models, compression ratios began falling in anticipation of the non-leaded gasoline needed for catalytic converters. That and other emissions hardware gradually sapped engine power, soon killing the muscle car.

But being classed as a truck, the El Camino escaped the worst of emission controls and carried on with SS models and high performance V8s for several years, a kind of sleeper vehicle for performance enthusiasts.

In 1971, the El Camino was joined by the corporate clone GMC Sprint, which became the GMC Caballero in 1978. Although competitor Ford Ranchero disappeared in 1979, the El Camino was able to keep interest up with such options as the Royal Knight and Diablo featuring special striping on a black exterior.

Over the years, the intermediates grew bigger, and the El Camino along with it. This was addressed in 1978 with the final generation El Camino based on the smaller Chevrolet Malibu wagon. It was a trimmer and lighter with a V6 as standard engine and a V8 optional.

The El Camino carried on for a few more years, but minivans and sport utilities were gaining popularity. Its last full year was 1987 followed by a few ’88s. The El Camino was always a niche vehicle that, with a short hiatus, had a 30-year run. And to prove the concept never dies, Chevrolet introduced a kind of El Camino reincarnation, the SSR Sport Truck, in 2003.

Connect with Autos.ca