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.
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.
Long before the Ranchero was a gleam in an American product planner's eye, car-like pickup trucks were a common sight in Australia. And while the Ranchero and El Camino are now historical artifacts in North America, so-called utes -- Australian for utility trucks or coupe utilities -- are still alive and well Down Under.
According to the much-loved creation myth, the Aussie ute was inspired by a letter sent to the Ford plant in Geelong, Victoria, in 1932 by a farmer's wife who was tired of commuting to town in a hard-riding work truck. "Why don't you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?" she demanded.
When the plant superintendent showed him the letter, Ford Australia chief designer Lewis Bandt sketched plans to graft a pickup bed to the cab of a coupe. When he finished, he told the plant superintendent, "Boss, them pigs are going to have a luxury ride around the city of Geelong!" The first Ford coupe utility rolled off the assembly line in 1934, and it's been in production pretty much ever since.
Holden, the General Motors brand in Australia, jumped on the bandwagon in 1951 with the Holden Ute. Although it disappeared in 1984, the Ute reemerged in 1990. Today, it competes head-to-head with the Ford Falcon Ute. Coupe utilities are also sold just about everywhere else in the world by manufacturers as diverse as Fiat, Volkswagen, and Proton. In America, alas, the concept is considered as outdated as eight-track tapes.
1957 FORD RANCHERO CUSTOM
Engine 291.6-cu-in/4778cc OHV V-8, 1x2-bbl Carter carburetor Power and torque (SAE gross) 205 hp @ 4500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm Drivetrain 3-speed manual with overdrive, RWD Brakes front: drum, rear: drum Suspension front: control arms, coil springs; rear: live axle, leaf springs Dimensions L: 202.0 in , W:77.0 in, H: 57.2 in Weight 3398 lb Performance 0-60 mph 11.6 sec. quarter mile 18.6 sec @ 75 mph, 60-0 174 ft (Motor Trend, January 1956, Ford Fairlane with a 202-hp 292-cu-in V-8 and 3-speed auto) Price when new $2242
ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE
GLENN ROGERS is a San Diego retiree and Ford devotee who sold his '59 Thunderbird to finance his restoration of the Ranchero to virtually bone-stock condition.
WHY I LIKE IT: "I like the look of the '57 Fords, and the Ranchero is something different. Plus, I like being able to go down to Pep Boys to get whatever I need."
WHY IT'S COLLECTIBLE: The El Camino proved more popular, but the Ranchero was the first of the breed, and epitomizes Ford's ambitious design ethic of the mid-'50s.
RESTORING/MAINTAINING: The Ranchero is basically a 1957 Ford, so most parts are easily found from a large network of vendors who specialize in this era.
BEWARE: Rust is the common bugaboo, typically in floorpans and behind the wheels. Also, most survivors have been customized, and original Y-block V-8s are hard to find.
EXPECT TO PAY: Concours-ready, $32,350; solid driver, $15,400; tired runner, $8600
JOIN THE CLUB: Ranchero Enthusiasts, www.supermotors.net/clubs/rancheroenthushiasts; Ranchero USA, www.ranchero.us
THEN: "The Ranchero gives the room and 'personal' feel of a Thunderbird, the comfort of a sedan and the load-carrying capacity of a small pickup." -- Walt Woron, Motor Trend, April 1957
NOW: The 1957 Ford Ranchero is a time machine that gives us a glimpse back at a uniquely optimistic and inventive era of American automobile styling. But in its day, the idiosyncratic car-truck also pointed to a new direction of one-size-fits-all design that resonates with contemporary consumers.
1959 CHEVROLET EL CAMINO
Engine (awaiting installation) 348-cu-in/5703cc OHV V-8, 3x2-bbl Rochester carburetors Power and torque (SAE gross) 315 hp @ 5600 rpm, 356 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm Drivetrain 3-speed automatic, RWD Brakes front: drum, rear: drum Suspension front: control arms, coil springs, rear: live axle, coil springs Dimensions L: 210.9 in, W:79.9 in, H: 56.3 in Weight 3880 lb Performance 0-60 mph 8.7 sec, quarter mile 16.0 sec @ 90 mph (Hot Rod February, 1959, 348-cu-in 3x2 V-8 with 4-speed manual) Price when new $2950
ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE
TOMMY VARGAS who works in construction sales in San Diego, is a lifelong Chevy guy who had lusted after a '59 El Camino ever since his eldest brother bought a new one.
WHY I LIKE IT: "My brother's was red, with the big engine, and I loved the way it looked. I said, 'I'm going to own one someday.' And now I do."
WHY IT'S COLLECTIBLE: Chevy made the full-size El Camino only in 1959 and 1960, and this is the one with the flamboyant gullwings and cat-eye taillights prized by aficionados of '50s style.
RESTORING/MAINTAINING: Mechanical parts are easily found, but trim items unique to the El Camino and wagon models can be difficult to locate.
BEWARE: As always with cars of this era, watch out for rust. The rear window seal was notoriously leaky, so carefully check the floorboard underneath.
EXPECT TO PAY: Concours-ready, $23,925; solid driver, $12,600; tired runner, $7000
JOIN THE CLUB: National El Camino Owners Association, www.elcaminocentral.com/index.php
THEN: "Chevrolet's El Camino sports high styling of the passenger-car line, yet provides space for a 1030-pound load. It should prove a hot competitor to Ford's Ranchero during 1959." -- Bill Callahan, Motor Trend, March 1959
NOW: The El Camino is a sport/utility vehicle that a hot rodder can love without reservation. By combining the outlandish styling of the '50s with the usefulness of a shop truck, the El Camino is a parts chaser par excellence, yet perfectly adequate around town or on the car show circuit.