Truck Trend Legends: Chevrolet El Camino
Business in the Front…
Some people may think the current trend of four-door coupe SUV/crossovers is niche marketing gone mad. They might wonder what strange mongrel the car companies will think of next. A pickup truck mixed with a coupe, perhaps.
Been there, done that.
The Chevrolet El Camino could be considered ahead of its time, an absolute epitome of its time, or maybe even timeless. It’s oddly beautiful, coolly impractical, and intriguingly desirable. It seems as if it could only have been conceived and created in the United States. If Uncle Sam ever drove a car, it would have to be an El Camino, because it demonstrates a particular and peculiar ingenuity, then powers it with a V-8 engine.
What might be surprising is that, although the El Camino has achieved an iconic status, it wasn’t the only vehicle of its kind. The Ford Ranchero was the first “coupe utility” and was introduced in ’57, two years before Chevrolet’s response. They’re both based on car platforms rather than trucks. And although these vehicles seem so quintessentially American, the Ranchero originally came from Ford’s operation in Australia. Apparently, an Australian farmer’s wife had written requesting something to drive to church on Sunday and take the pigs to market on Monday. Which brings us to the impractical bit.
Sure, that steel-floored bed area is great for agricultural purposes and able to withstand a thorough hosing out, but the vehicle itself doesn’t have the ground clearance for rough farm tracks. Coming from the other direction, employ the El Camino as stylish transport for two, the usual reason for buying a coupe, and there isn’t any secure trunk space. But it’s this oddness that makes the El Camino so charming. It is what it is; buyers could take it or leave it.
Sadly, plenty of people left it at first, since the initial generation only lasted a couple of years, despite some resplendent tail fins (like the Chevy Impala of the time) and a load area of 32.8 cubic feet. But Chevrolet resurrected the El Camino in ’64, based this time on a Chevelle coupe and with a 300hp small-block V-8, adding a subsequent version propelled by a 375hp big-block V-8.
This version lasted until ’67, succeeded by a larger third generation the following year. Now things really became interesting with the 350hp Super Sport variant, and a rare version with a 7.4L, 454ci V-8 making an intimidating 450 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque. This kind of muscle could allow the El Camino to rattle off a quarter-mile time under 14 seconds while hitting 108 mph. If people were still using their ride to take pigs to the market, there was probably a lot of squealing going on. And not just from the bed area.
An even larger fourth generation spanned the years from ’73-’77. Thankfully, front brake discs were fitted as standard. Frameless side windows were also introduced on this model as well as its Chevelle counterpart. Generation five, ’78-’87, was smaller and sleeker than its predecessor, with a V-6 gasoline engine as standard, while offering diesel and gasoline V-8 options.
El Camino owners include former President Bill Clinton, Reggie Jackson, and Evel Knievel, plus country singers Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam (who used his as a daily driver). Rumor has it that even Frank Sinatra had one for a time. The El Camino is also said to have inspired the name of the super-popular Hot Wheels toys, because it was considered a set of “hot wheels” by one of the Mattel partners.
Naturally, we looked around to see what they were selling for. No harm in that, right? There were some “projects” for about $4,000. At the other end of an incredibly wide spectrum, there was a pristine ’59 example with 5,000 miles on the odometer going for (gulp) $86,000. Somewhere in between could be the ideal buy for someone who really likes the idea of owning an “Elky.”
Did that Australian farmer’s wife ever buy a Ford Ranchero? And could she have ever known what she started as a result of writing that letter? Those answers are lost under the ever-moving wheels of history, but at least we still have the El Camino.