After World War II, Ford was fighting a losing battle to seize Chevy's crown as the king of the truck world. Ford's first F-Series pickup, introduced in 1948, was overshadowed by Chevrolet's more economical Advance Design trucks. The F-100, which debuted in 1953, nearly gave Ford the sales lead, but the handsome Task Force series of pickups unveiled in 1955 shifted momentum back to the Bow Tie brigade.
So for 1957, Ford overhauled its commercial fleet. The result was a lineup of smart-looking trucks with a mind-boggling array of options, plus a clever wrinkle: the first modern crossover vehicle. Ford introduced it with a splashy advertising campaign aimed at farmers and ranchers looking for something more inviting than a work truck: "It's more than a car! It's more than a truck! Any way you look at it, the stunning new Ranchero is the slickest, sleekest pickup ever to pack a load. And what a load! The Ranchero carries more than half a ton -- more than many standard pickups!" ran an introductory ad that set a new standard for exclamation points. "And when work is done, this pack horse turns into a show pony! It gives you all the luxury and handling of a fine car, just right for those trips to town, for after-work fun -- a pleasure to step into, fun to step out in!"
Although the Ranchero was sold as a pickup truck, it was essentially a two-door station wagon with the top removed and a bed installed. As such, it was a precursor to the car-based sport/utility vehicles that are now a common sight on the automotive landscape. Sales were reasonably brisk, 21,705 units, and the Ranchero generated plenty of buzz among enthusiasts. As Motor Trend editor Walt Woron wrote, "I'll go on record with a prognostication that the Ranchero will be copied in principle by other manufacturers -- it's too good to pass up."
Sure enough, when the 1959 models were introduced, Chevrolet had its own car-based pickup. Like the Ranchero, its all-new El Camino was a wildly repurposed station wagon. Not to be outdone in the exclamation department, Chevy billed it with advertising slogans such as "It's magnifico!" "It's terrifico!" "Good looks never carried as much weight!" and "Chevrolet brings you the brightest new idea of the year!"
While Ford reskinned the Ranchero in 1959 in square-edged, buttoned-down clothing, Chevy opted for zoomy styling that was one of the high points -- or low points, depending on your point of view -- of over-the-top 1950s design. Eyebrows over the headlights, gullwing tailfins, and cat-eye taillights resonated with consumers, who snapped up nearly 22,246 units. But this proved the high-water mark for the wagon-based pickup.
In 1960, Ford downsized and built its Ranchero on the compact Falcon platform. Later, both the Ranchero and the El Camino were based on midsize cars, and while they sold solidly, they never again qualified as halo vehicles. The Ranchero was killed off by the fuel crises of the 1970s. Then, the four-door Jeep Cherokee launched the SUV revolution, and with conventional pickups coming in ever-more-luxurious trim levels, the El Camino no longer made sense. Chevrolet finally axed the nameplate in 1987.
These days, the Ranchero and El Camino are long gone, but not forgotten. Over the years, they've become cult classics: low-buck collectibles prized not by the farmers and ranchers who were the original target market, but by hot rodders who use them as light-duty shop trucks, parts chasers, and show-and-tell vehicles. (They're also big with the surfing crowd on both coasts.) Usefulness is part of their enduring appeal. But for most owners, it's more style than substance. As Ranchero owner Glenn Rogers says, "It just looks cool."
Rogers' ride is the first of the breed, a 1957 model in a lovely Starmist Blue and Colonial White two-tone. Tommy Vargas owns the original El Camino, a ruby-red 1959 with a vanity plate reading "59 LCMNO." Besides representing different manufacturers, their cars reflect contrasting philosophical approaches: Rogers' Ranchero is nearly bone-stock, while Vargas' El Camino has been sprinkled with hot-rod fairy dust. Motor Trend Classic strives to present stock vehicles, but the scant survival rate of such hard-workers made it difficult to locate one of each in roughly the same place, so we decided to compare both the cars and the philosophies.
It's worth noting that these mid-'50s crossovers didn't embody an entirely new concept when they debuted. During the 1930s, coupes, sedans, and even roadsters had been fitted with pickup beds by Hudson, Studebaker, and, most notably, Ford Australia, not to mention countless shade-tree customizers. In 1955, Chevrolet upgraded its stepside pickup with fiberglass cladding to create the slab-sided Cameo Carrier. Although the vehicle looked sweet, sales were slow because the special tooling was pricey, and the vehicle drove like the truck it was.
Seeing the 1957 Ranchero and 1959 El Camino parked side by side, it's easy to understand why buyers looking for something different flocked to these half-car/half-truck hybrids. The El Camino looks longer and sleeker -- a natural low-rider -- while the Ranchero seems more upright and dignified. But in both cases, the long hoods, compact cabins, and pickup beds give the cars a rakish charm lacking in pickups, sedans, or station wagons of the day. And they were legitimate sport/utility vehicles before the term had been coined.
Rogers searched all over the country before locating his baby. The challenge was finding a Ranchero with the three-speed manual he wanted. Eventually, he hit pay dirt in a small town in Kansas. The seller, amazingly, was the original owner -- a rancher who'd used the Ranchero for, among other things, pulling a horse trailer.
With 112,000 miles on the odometer, the car needed a complete restoration, but Rogers was determined to keep it as stock as possible. Fortunately, the car he found happened to be a high-line Custom model. This came with additional chrome trim, luxury touches such as a more comfortable seat, and an optional V-8 displacing 292 rather than 272 cubic inches. (A 223-cubic-inch straight-six was standard in both the base and Custom models, and a 352-cubic-inch V-8 was also available.) Rogers was happy with the three-speed overdrive transmission and 292-cubic-inch engine, so, other than going to a modern alternator and electronic ignition, he did nothing to upgrade the drivetrain.
Climbing into his Ranchero requires some modest contortions. The problem is the base of the wraparound windshield, which is positioned precisely where your knee would normally go. (Ask me how I discovered this.) Sliding across the vinyl-covered bench seat reminds me that I'm no longer in the 21st century. The sensation of going back in time -- way back in time -- intensifies as I settle in behind the steering wheel. Not only is it wide enough to look at home on a Greyhound bus, but even with the seat pushed back all the way, the bottom of the steering wheel nearly touches my belly.