1959 El Camino
It’s hard to imagine a time when the car and the truck were seen as very different beasts, meant for very different purposes. Chevrolet was one of the earlier manufacturers to attempt to resolve this design divide with its ground-breaking car-based pick-up, the El Camino…
The Fifties was famously the most creative period for American car design, and the pursuit of novelty was responsible for some highly unorthodox thinking. While this was mainly limited to show cars, every now and then a new concept was carried through to the production stages.
It’s a pity no one recorded the discussion at Ford when someone said: “Do you think there might be a gap in the market for a stylish, comfortable car that’s also a practical pick-up?” – but it evidently met with the boardroom’s approval as it entered the market in December 1956 as the Ranchero. There must have been some nail-biting at Ford, as a vehicle that attempts to fulfil two functions can too easily fail to perform either of them to any useful degree, but the Ranchero was stylish, pleasant to drive and practical, and it was a success. Maybe Ford shouldn’t take all the credit for the idea, however, as Harley Earl reputedly suggested making a Chevrolet coupe utility as early as 1952 but, either way, Ford was the first to make its idea a production reality.
The Ranchero was nothing revolutionary, as utes were already popular in Australia and the sedan delivery had been a successful concept for some years, but the American reception could have gone one of two ways. Its success can be attributed in part to the fact that some buyers were motivated by the desire to own a good-looking truck for themselves, but there was also the belief that a smart coupe utility would garner more respect for the driver in a well-to-do neighbourhood than a more overtly agricultural or industrial truck.
Although Chrysler seemed unfazed by the newcomer, n Chevrolet didn’t want to miss a trick and a quickly got to work developing its own answer a to the Ranchero. Chevrolet outsold Ford most m years, and a failure to produce a worthy competitor c to the Ranchero could result in it losing l its footing. Acting with a surprising lack of speed, s the Bowtie’s competitor wouldn’t appear until u two years later, arriving on the market on October O 16, 1958. Like Ford, Chevrolet invoked thoughts t of the south-western frontier land when settling s on a Spanish name for its new coupe utility: u El Camino, meaning ‘The Route’ or ‘The Road’. R However, Chevrolet probably wasn’t targeting t Spanish-speakers when it settled on the marketing m line ‘It’s Terrifico!’, which translates into i English as ‘terrifying’.
A Chevy to be proud of!
Based on the 119-inch passenger-car platform, but belonging to Chevrolet’s truck division, it would be a fair assessment to say that the 1959 El Camino was the most heavily stylised pick-up there has ever been, and it was far more of a head-turner than its contemporary Ranchero. The front-end appearance was kept low and sleek by tucking the horizontal twin headlights underneath the vast expanse of bonnet; the ‘batwing’ rear-end treatment was the most radical feature of all ’59 Chevys, and the slim, forward-leaning pillars, swept-back windscreen and scalloped rear wheel arches suggested movement even when standing still. The tapering roofline, extending beyond the rear window, was one three-dimensional speed line.
In Chevrolet’s own words: ‘Dramatic Slimline design gives Chevrolet a completely fresh new appearance. Here is truly functional styling designed to meet the demands of modern motoring.’ The vast expanses of glass were seen as a major selling point, with Chevrolet claiming the ’59s featured a 50% larger glass area than the ’58s, the rear window alone providing more than 1000 square inches of viewing area. Other new features were the Magic-Mirror acrylic lacquer paint finish ‘for new color depth and luster’, air-cooled Safety-Master brakes, newly developed Tyrex cord tyres, improvements to the Full Coil suspension and Safety-Girder X-frame construction, both of which were new for 1958, plus a lower centre of gravity and longer wheelbase. The volume of the pick-up bed was 26 cubic feet, or ‘man-sized’, as the advertising men put it.
The range of engines was broad enough to meet any prospective buyer’s needs, with the utilitarian 135bhp, 235.5cu in Hi-Thrift straightsix or 185/230bhp, 283cu in Turbo-Fire V8 as standard, and the Turbo-Thrust 348cu in V8 as an option. Specified with a triple-carburettor set-up and 11.25:1 compression ratio, this last engine gave 335bhp.
Your average delivery driver could never have required that much power, but it interested Hot Rod magazine, which conducted a road test and found it to be good for 0-60mph in seven seconds, with an estimated top speed of 130mph and a predicted quarter-mile time of 14 seconds at 100mph with a special highperformance rear axle. Rochester Ramjet fuel injection was an option for 1959 only.
A three-speed manual synchromesh transmission was standard, with optional overdrive. The two-speed Powerglide automatic could also be specified, and the Turboglide was an option for the V8s only. The suspension, critics said, was softly sprung and so provided a passenger-car level of ride quality, contrasting with the Ranchero, which had a much harder ride and was therefore better suited to the rougher pick-up work. Advertising the new model, Chevrolet said its ‘beautiful 1959 El Camino’ epitomised the firm’s stylish design features ‘and blends it with the rugged strength of Chevrolet Task-Force 59 Trucks’.
In terms of trim, the El Camino was essentially a Biscayne on the inside, with an unexciting interior in grey, blue or green, but the full-length trim strip with painted infill made it look like a Bel Air pick-up to the outside world. If luxury was immaterial, you could save money by settling for plain cloth/vinyl upholstery, a single sun visor and little else; but power steering, power brakes, power windows, tinted glass, air conditioning and a Positraction rear axle were all available.
A resounding success
All in all, the new El Camino very much lived up to its aims: ‘This new combination of glamor and utility makes the El Camino an ideal vehicle for busy suburbanites who have both an eye for style and weekend work to do. And it’s just right for hard-working farmers, ranchers, or businessmen.’
At the end of its first year, Chevrolet might have considered the El Camino to have been a resounding success. It sold 22,246 units, surpassing the 21,706 Rancheros sold in its début year, and was also stealing a lot of 1959 sales from Ford, which only sold 14,169 Rancheros that year. However, the arrival of the 1960s brought with it major changes that Chevrolet just didn’t see coming.
Following the 1958 recession, the cars with the most extreme dimensions and excessive styling were coming to be seen as unwieldy white elephants, and it was clear that the carmaker who dominated the start of the new decade would be the one that could produce the most successful compact, hence a wave of new, downsized models appeared for 1960 including the Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair.
What Ford got right and Chevrolet didn’t was identification of the fact that businesses, not just private individuals, would want to be more frugal, to which it responded by taking the Ranchero away from the full-size Fairlane platform and relaunching it on the compact Falcon platform. Even if Chevrolet had exhibited the same foresight as Ford, it couldn’t follow the same example because its own compact Corvair was rather inconveniently rear-engined. So it was that Chevrolet’s ‘sweetheart of the fleet’ remained on a full-size platform for 1960, restyled along plainer and less flamboyant lines, but still much larger than the market was asking for.
It all went wrong for the El Camino in 1960. One concession for economy was made as the 283 V8 was detuned to 170bhp for improved fuel economy, but it was a pretty meagre effort in the grand scheme of things. Chevrolet glossed over the reality and tried to persuade prospective buyers that they still needed a full-size truck: ‘The glamorous new El Camino combines the smart sheerline styling of the 1960 Chevrolet passenger car with the working utility of a big, handy pickup box.’ Buyers remained unconvinced and the tables of 1959 were turned upside-down. Ford sales climbed back to a comfortable 21,027 while El Camino sales slipped to 14,163.
Without a suitable compact to adapt, it made no sense for Chevrolet to continue making El Caminos and after only two years it was quietly dropped. Still, not wanting to let Ford bask in all the glory of being America’s only maker of successful coupe utilities, Chevrolet got its act together and had another shot a few years later, relaunching the El Camino on the mid-size Chevelle platform for 1964.
It had also introduced a front-engined compact, the Chevy II, for 1962, so the El Camino could be downsized if necessary. It wouldn’t be necessary, though, and the new El Camino would set off on a much happier production run that would last until 1987. As for the ’59s and ’60s models, while they may have passed by relatively unloved when new, there can’t be an enthusiast alive today whose heart wouldn’t skip a beat on seeing one. After all, as Chevrolet said at the time, they’re ‘by far the handsomest of all commercial vehicles’. ★