Then again, the generous proportions of the wheel makes sense, because Rogers' Ranchero isn't equipped with power steering -- or power brakes, much less power locks or windows. At low speed, the bent-arm driving position helps produce the leverage necessary to turn the wheel. Once the car is moving, steering effort is moderate, though the dimensions of the wheel and the 27:1 steering ratio mean you have to do a lot of turning to navigate tight corners. Also, as you'd expect from a recirculating-ball unit, the vague steering requires constant course corrections.
The most appealing mechanical feature of the Ranchero is the engine. Unfettered by anti-pollution controls, it's rated at 205 hp, which isn't bad for a vehicle that weighs about 3400 pounds. The V-8 burbles pleasantly at idle and emits a satisfying blaaat when you lean on the loud pedal. On the other hand, the column shifter demands long throws and lots of patience, and the funky overdrive is engaged by pulling out a knob mounted under the dash. All things considered, the Ranchero isn't the right weapon for the La Carrera Panamericana road rally, but it has no trouble cruising in modern traffic.
The frame rail-style chassis is willowy and creaky by modern standards, and the handling is predictably poor. On the other hand, the soft springs soak up bumps and road imperfections to provide a surprisingly plush ride. The brakes -- drums front and rear -- take some getting used to. Unlike disc brakes, drums don't provide much initial bite, and a firm application often causes the Ranchero to dart to one side or the other. This isn't a big deal, by any means. But it's symptomatic of a fundamental difference between old cars, which require constant attention from the driver, and new ones, which almost seem to drive themselves. Not that this poses any hardship for Rogers, who drives his Ranchero to 60 car shows a year. Then again, as he puts it, "I'm worn out after a long drive."
Tommy Vargas spent nearly a decade looking for a first-year El Camino. At one point, he was so discouraged that he considered expanding his net to include 1960 models. Then, a co-worker told him that he'd seen a '59 offered on eBay. A few days later, Vargas drove north to California's San Joaquin Valley to see the owner -- and the car -- in person. "He'd cut the springs and slammed it to the ground," Vargas recalls. "He asked me if I wanted to start it, and I told him not to bother."
Vargas wasn't as concerned about authenticity as Rogers was, and since he intended to make his own changes anyway, he wasn't scared off by the El Camino's lowrider stance. The good news was that the car looked right. Chevy had opted for much more exuberant styling for the El Camino than Ford had given the Ranchero. Besides a wraparound windshield, the El Camino also had wraparound rear glass, creating a panoramic greenhouse. Another memorable piece of eye candy was the thin, flat roof with a chrome lip extending beyond the rear window. But best of all was the rear end, with the flamboyant gullwing fins and cat-eye taillights, both split in two by the tailgate.
The El Camino was offered in only one trim level, but there were options galore. Engines, for example, came in nearly a dozen flavors, ranging from a 235.5-cubic-inch six-cylinder making a measly 135 ponies to small-block V-8s, which then measured 283 cubic inches, to big-block V-8s displacing 348 cubic inches. The topline motor featured three deuces -- two-barrel Rochester carburetors -- an 11.25:1 compression ratio, a hot Duntov cam, and solid lifters, all of which translated into 335 hp. Mated to a floor-mounted four-speed synchromesh gearbox developed for the Corvette, this bad boy would zoom from 0 to 60 in a tick more than 8 seconds.
By the time Vargas bought his El Camino, it had been fitted with a late-model 350-cubic-inch Chevy. He yanked out the small-block and plans to replace it with a period-correct 348, but for now it's making do with a 454-cubic-inch big-block topped with a four-barrel 750cfm Holley. Although it's never been on a dyno, Vargas figures the motor makes about 400 hp.
Another modern upgrade is obvious as soon as I slide onto the vinyl bench seat (after inevitably smacking my knee against the base of the wraparound windshield): Vargas retrofitted the car with a smaller-diameter steering wheel. The recirculating-ball steering system is still vague by contemporary standards, but the smaller wheel and power assist create the illusion of greater precision than the Ranchero can muster.
Cranking the key ignites the familiar bass rumble of a big-block Chevy, and at idle, an aftermarket cam produces the signature rumpity-rump lope beloved by hot rodders the world over. It seems especially loud in Vargas' El Camino because he had trouble running the exhaust past the rear axle, so he routed the tips beneath the frame rails behind each door. Shifting the car into gear reveals another giant upgrade: a floor-mounted Turbo 400, the smooth-shifting and seemingly indestructible three-speed automatic General Motors developed in the mid-1960s.
Naturally, Vargas' El Camino is considerably faster than Rogers' Ranchero. With coil springs rather than leafs at the rear, it's also a bit more compliant. In an effort to make the car an even better driver, Vargas retrofitted it with front disc brakes, which inspire confidence that drum brakes can't match. Coupled with the contemporary-looking gauge cluster, his El Camino feels significantly more modern than Rogers' Ranchero -- which, of course, it is, thanks largely to all the aftermarket goodies.
Contemporary road tests found little difference between the two cars in terms of performance. Back in the day, choosing between them probably came down to price, perceived style, and professed marque affiliation. As Vargas puts it: "My dad and all my brothers had Chevrolets. 'Ford' was a dirty word in my family."
In some respects, the Ranchero and El Camino were merely blips on the radar, and they're sometimes written off as misguided steps down the road that led to more important crossovers and SUVs. In fact, they were the proof-of-concept vehicles for the luxury pickups that we now take for granted. And half a century after they debuted, the stylish Ranchero and flashy El Camino seem more appealing than ever.