Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Australian hybrid. History of the Chevrolet El Camino

It’s a car! It’s a truck! No—it’s an El Camino! Chevrolet’s light duty hauler is one of the most versatile machines out there. From hauling hay to heading to church, the El Camino is one of the best examples of sport plus utility ever to grace America’s highways.

The idea for the El Camino isn’t exactly American, though. Long before this concept had legs in the U.S., Australia had fully embraced the car/truck concept. Known down-under as the “Ute,” these hybrid Fords and Chevrolets were rolling through the Outback as far back as the 1930s. Even today, long after the El Camino’s exit from the American market, Utes are still a popular mode of transportation in Australia.

Ford made the first move, introducing the Ranchero in 1957. Chevrolet countered with the first El Camino in 1959. And while neither sold in overwhelming numbers, they did find a following on ranches and in oil field work. People that wanted the comfort and style of a car paired with the capabilities of a light-duty truck swore by these new vehicles.

Based on a full-sized Chevrolet wagon platform, the first generation El Camino only lasted two years. They were pretty cars—maybe too pretty for truck work. Interiors were relatively sparse, but they were fairly glittery on the outside, decked out with the up-level Bel Air-style trim.

What really may have done the first El Camino in was competition from Ford. The Ranchero went from being a trucked-up full-sized Fairlane to a smaller Falcon-based model in 1960, and the new wore off the El Camino in a hurry. No 1961 model was produced.

In fact, the El Camino wouldn’t return again until 1964. This time, it was based on the intermediate Chevelle platform, and like the Ranchero, this downsizing proved to be popular. The El Camino followed all of the styling changes and improvements enjoyed by the Chevelle. You could buy a bare-bones version, complete with an inline six, to a high-horsepower SS. By 1966, you could even get a 396-c.i. big block in your El Camino. Suddenly, the El Camino didn’t just haul … it hauled!

1968 introduced big changes for the Chevelle, and once again, the El Camino came along for the ride. The new El Camino was a little bigger than the one it replaced, but nowhere near the size of the original ’59-’60 version.

The late 1960s was the heart of the muscle car era, and the El Camino was not immune. By 1970, you could order an El Camino SS with a 454-c.i., 450-hp LS6 big block. This wasn’t just a utility vehicle to help you out around the ranch anymore. An El Camino equipped like this was one bad mamma-jamma.

GMC got in on the act in 1971, adding an identical model to their lineup known as the Sprint. That kind of “badge-engineering” wasn’t as ridiculous as you might think, though. In small towns and rural areas, there may have only been a GMC distributor. Sometimes, a dealership may have carried a car-only line, line say Buick, and the GMC truck line. There were often sound business reasons to offer re-badged Chevrolets as GMC’s.

The next generation of El Camino ran from 1973 to 1977. And they proved to be everything good and bad about the 1970s. On the positive side, they were sweet-riding highway cruisers. They had bulletproof drivetrains. They were safer, stronger, and came in a variety of trim levels to meet every taste.

Of course, horsepower was choked to death by the end of the decade. They were prone to rust. They had all the quality control issues that people hated about cars from that era. All cars were a bit of a tradeoff back then, but the El Camino was more popular than ever.

In 1978, virtually everything General Motors introduced was downsized, and the Malibu/El Camino was no exception. Sure, they had teeny V6’s, wheezy 305 V8’s, and God-awful diesels, but their smaller size was a plus. Engines and styling cues changed throughout the El Camino’s remaining life, but there was never any significant effort put into the U.S. Ute. The El Camino very quietly disappeared from the Chevrolet order guide after the 1987 model year, and hasn’t been back since.

Will the El Camino ever return? Hard to say. The Chevrolet SSR was kind of a car/truck thing, but it was expensive, and never really caught on. They had announced that they were going to start building the Pontiac G8 ST, which was the G8-based Ute that was already being sold in Australia. Of course, Pontiac went away, and that idea was stillborn. The seeds are out there, though, so I guess you never know.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the El Camino for what it was. The slideshow below contains more than 140 pictures of El Caminos that I took at various car shows and events over the last couple of years. They are obviously still adored by enthusiasts, and are a nice change of pace from all the ’57 Chevys, Mustangs, and Corvettes that you usually see at the local car cruise. There’s even a ’52 Chevy Australian Ute and a custom-made ’58 El Camino-type thing. Check ‘em out.


  1. Thanx. Have always liked El Caminos, but never owned one. May hafta rectify that situation here directly...
    The early [59 and 60] El Caminos were very popular with another microcosmic segment of the population - rodeo contestants. The ElCamino with the torquey 348 and a Powerglide were highly favoured amongst riders and ropers - the comfort of a car plus the ability to tow a horse trailer and an open bed for saddles, feed, or whatever.

  2. C,
    The folks with the '52 "ute" has been to the
    "Basehor Boys" cruise a couple of times... N E A R !!


    1. "Basehor Boys" cruise a couple of times... N E A R !!

      ,,,,,,,,,,,should read N E A T ! I'm going to bed !

  3. I always loved the El Camino, even when I didn't know what it was called. I saw it in a surfer movie when I was a kid and thought, "I Love That!"