The idea of a car-based pickup took America by storm in the late 1950s when Ford's new Ranchero hit the showrooms. Introduced in 1957, the Ranchero proved the car/ truck concept's marketability with an impressive sales performance in its first year. So it was no surprise when General Motors rushed into production a car/pickup of its own to compete with Ford. Christened "El Camino" (Spanish for "the road"), it debuted in 1959 as the flagship of the Chevrolet light-duty truck line.
Chevrolet followed Ford's lead by utilizing a two-door station wagon platform to reduce costs and expedite production. Creating the new truck was a simple matter of cutting off the wagon's roof behind the front seat section and dropping a truck box in the wagon's cargo area. A rear window borrowed from the four-door hardtop passenger car completed the package.
From the side, the roof overhang created by the wraparound rear window and steeply canted door pillars made the El Camino look unlike any other truck. A 119-inch wheelbase and passenger car chassis ensured a pleasant ride and good handling--something few pickups of the period could boast.
The El Camino was not included in any of the regular Chevy car lines because it was created using a mix of components from two different series. Bel Air side trim graced the exterior, while the interior appointments came from the low line Biscayne range. For that reason, interior appointments did not match the expectation created by the flashy exterior. A drab gray vinyl, with weave inserts on the seat, was standard equipment, although brighter color schemes were optionally available. And, like regular trucks of the era, items such as armrests and a passenger side sun visor still cost extra.
Style-wise, there was no question about the El Camino's lineage. With its compound curve windshield that wrapped around the sides and over the top, radical bat-wing fins, cats eye taillights, and odd grille "snorkels," no one could mistake it for anything but a 1959 Chevy. Two models were available-the 1180, which came as a six cylinder, and the 1280, which was V8 powered.
Optional equipment paralleled that of the cars, and there was plenty of it to choose from. Tinted glass, electric windows, power steering and brakes, and even air conditioning could be ordered (on V8s). A Posi-traction rear axle was also available. El Caminos could be ordered in 13 solid and 10 two-tone paint combinations. Trucks wearing the two-tone scheme were painted one color on the roof, door pillars, and rear deck, with the rest of the car in a contrasting color. But, like other trucks of the era, most El Caminos left the factory relatively plain. Very few were dolled up as extensively as the options book indicated was possible.
Power came from the familiar 135hp 235-cid six cylinder as standard equipment or an optional 283-cid V8 in one of two horsepower ratings- 185 hp with a 2-bbl carburetor or 230-hp with a 4-bbl carburetor. A big block 348-cid V8 in no less than three horsepower ratings (305-, 315-, and 335-hp depending on carburetor setup could be stuffed under the El Camino's hood. (GM records indicate that fuel injection could be ordered on V8 engines, but none are known to have been built). Any of these engines could be mated to a three-speed manual, three-speed with overdrive, four-speed, or one of two automatics - - -the reliable two-speed Powerglide or the troublesome three speed Turboglide.
First year sales of 22,246 showed the public's acceptance of the new truck and ensured a return engagement the following year.
The El Camino returned for 1960 with a more subdued look than the previous year.The 1960 El Camino presented a slightly altered design with flatter fins and a more conservative grille, but the styling was recognizable as the 1959 body shell and still quite distinctive. Out back, last year's controversial bat wing fins were toned down considerably, but the rear aspect could hardly be called subtle. Taillights also came in for some changes, with two round lenses on each side taking the place of the former cat's eyes.
Optional equipment remained the same as in 1959, with the exception of air conditioning, which was now available on six-cylinder-equipped El Caminos. A minor engine reshuffle occurred in this year, as a new economy version of the 283-cid V8 joined the engine lineup. It produced 170-hp. On the big block side, the 335-hp 348-cid V8 was dropped. The two-model lineup (1180 six cylinder; 1280 V8) stayed pat. Interior appointments were identical to the previous year. Despite the freshened appearance, interest in the El Camino evaporated as buyers flocked to the new bombshell from Ford. A smaller, Falcon-based Ranchero bowed for 1960, once again catching Chevrolet off-guard with no competitive product. Because the new Ranchero had shifted from a full-size utility vehicle to a compact personal pickup, the El Camino became obsolete almost overnight.
As the only full sized car/pickup still on the market in 1960, Chevrolet tried to make the best of the situation by changing the El Camino's marketing strategy to focus on its commercial appeal. It didn't work - - - - sales skidded to a lackluster 14,163.
GM had no way to immediately counter the Ranchero because Chevy's new compact- - - - the Corvair - - - with its rear-mounted air-cooled engine, could not accommodate a regular pickup body. Also, the redesigned 1961 full sized car platform was out of the running because of its size and the fact that it's styling would not have blended with a truck box. Unable to compete with Ford, management canceled the El Camino at the end of the 1960 model run.
After being discontinued for 3 years, the El Camino name returned to the lineup in 1964, but as a very different vehicle. The truck now shared its platform with the new Chevelle series, a group of mid-sized cars aimed at the booming youth market of the time. A somewhat schizophrenic marketing strategy promoted the El Camino as both a utility vehicle and as a "personal pickup" in an attempt to broaden its appeal and compete better with the Ford Ranchero. It worked; the new truck out sold its predecessors by a substantial margin.
The Chevelle-based models were a more cohesive package than the full-sized 1959-1960 versions. The smaller 115-inch wheelbase platform fit the El Camino's sporty image, yet offered enough payload capacity to do serious work when needed. Like their predecessors, two trim levels were offered-Standard and Custom. The main difference was in the grade of upholstery; Standard El Caminos were already much plusher than a normal pickup, but Customs provided interior appointments right out of the top-line Chevelle car models.
As it had been in 1959-1960, style was clearly an important component of the El Camino package. The 1964 - 1967 series offered more style, convenience options, and luxury appointments than ever before. The fact that an El Camino had a truck bed that could haul a load was at most irrelevant! For example, the 1964 sales brochure text stated that, "nothing so useful ever looked so good!" and 'beauty and utility are one.' Or how about this marketing gem: "Here's a real sweetheart, ready for carefree fun, runs anywhere, and at the same time, willing, able ' and eager to tackle your light hauling chores." Referring to a truck as a” sweetheart" may have been stretching the analogy a bit, but these excerpts illustrate where GM was going with its new prestigious truck and it wasn't to the back forty!
Once again, engine choices were plentiful. However, unlike the 1959 - 1960 trucks that were broken into two engine specific series, the 1964 - 1967 trucks in both standard and custom trim could be fitted with either a six cylinder or a V8. A 194-cid six cylinder was standard in 1964 - 1965, with a larger 230-cid six cylinder optionally available both years. The 194-cid six cylinder was dropped after 1965, and the 230-cid six cylinder took over as the base engine. On the V8 side, the small block 283-cid and 327-cid pulled duty in all years, with a big block 396-cid joining the stable in 1966. All V8 engines were offered in a variety of horsepower ratings. Backing up those engines were several transmission choices, including a three-speed, three-speed with overdrive, four-speed, or Powerglide automatic. A more responsive three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic became optional in 1967.
Minor trim and sheet metal changes throughout 1965-1967 kept the trucks fresh. In 1965 a grille change with a peaked center section, bow-tie emblem, and sculptured front fender edges gave a more distinct appearance to what had been a relatively bland frontal aspect. Also for 1965, El Camino lost the 'Chevelle" fender nameplate that it had worn the previous year. 1966 ushered in more noticeable changes including another new grille with wraparound sides, a new front bumper, and larger rear wheel openings. An optional big-block engine package known as the SS-396 joined the options list in 1966, thrusting the El Camino into the super-truck class. By 1967, Chevy had secured the El Camino's place among its extensive truck lineup, but the "truck" part of the equation was becoming less important as marketing sought to promote its performance image.
If you've ever wondered why such a high percentage of late 1960s El Caminos were ordered with high-performance engine packages, consider this; El Caminos were classified as trucks. Thus, they could qualify for lower insurance rates than cars. That loophole meant that a 396-cid V8-powered El Camino was much cheaper to insure than a comparably equipped Chevelle, which was, for all practical purposes, the same vehicle. It's obvious why the performance crowd flocked to the El Camino as a muscle car favorite. Properly equipped, an El Camino could tear up the racetrack with the best of them. On the other end of the spectrum, fleet operators liked them because of their lower insurance rates and the fact that they fit into the truck class for tax purposes.
Style, power, and long list of optional extras made the Chevelle-based El Camino a winner. By the end of 1967, Chevy's 'personal pickup' had cemented its place in the GM family.
An all-new El Camino debuted for 1968 that was longer, lower, wider, and more muscular than its predecessors. Again based on the Chevelle platform (itself totally redesigned for 1968), the El Camino's mix of sporty muscle car styling and pickup truck utility was right in step with the booming recreational vehicle market of the late 1960s. Destined to be the most popular El Camino series of all time with enthusiasts, these models have achieved near cult status among collectors. No other series can boast a more devout following.
A total restyle for 1968 imparted a swanky, more daring look than the previous trucks. The "flying buttress' B-pillar-so called due to its rakish slant-was this series' most distinctive styling element, and it set the tone for future El Camino designs. Sheet metal changes over the five-year run were limited to the frontal aspect, with three distinct front-end designs. In 1968-1969 a chrome wraparound grille gave the El Camino's face a glittery look. Then, in 1970, a more upright and rounded front end with dual headlights changed its appearance greatly. Finally, for 1971 and 1972, the same grille and sheet metal were retained from 1970, but with single headlights. The single lamps of 1971-1972 were known as "projector beam" headlights. New at the time, they were supposed to emit a longer and brighter beam of light than normal sealed beams, hence, the 'projector" part of the name. Because of their Superior illumination, there seemed to be no need for a four-lamp arrangement. Whether or not they were an improvement is open to debate.
Interiors and trim were updated periodically to stay contemporary, with most of the changes involving the instrument panel and steering wheel. Along with its new look, the El Camino also grew a bit. The wheelbase went up one inch to 116 while overall length jumped from 197 inches to 201 inches front to rear. Despite the increase in size, the El Camino never looked sleeker or more athletic.
Power trains came in a mind-boggling array of configurations. In fact, the 1968-1972 models offered the widest engine variety in the El Camino's history. The carryover 230-cid six cylinder was the base engine in 1968-1969, while a larger 250-cid six cylinder took over for 1970-1972. Most buyers opted for V8 power and they had plenty of choices over the five-year period, including the following:
307-cid V8 (1968-1972)
327-cid V8 (1968-1969)
350-cid V8 (1970-1972)
396-cid V8 (1968-1970)
402-cid V8 (1970-1972 - advertised as a "400" )
454-cid V8 (1970-1972)
One source lists the 425-hp 427-cid V8 as an option for 1969, but none are known to exist. Obviously, El Caminos were never short on power!
In 1971 GMC got its own version of the El Camino. Known as the Sprint, it was identical in every way to its corporate cousin, except for nameplates.
From an enthusiast standpoint, the most interesting El Camino variant was the SS, introduced in 1968. Although an "SS-396" package was offered on the previous line of El Caminos starting in 1966, the new version was hotter than ever. Interestingly, 1968 was the only year in which the SS was a stand-alone model; from 1969-1972 it was a package that could be added to the El Camino Custom. In fact, individual items from the SS package could be added to a regular El Camino at extra cost. The power bulge hood with locking pins, for example, was a commonly ordered stand-alone item.
SS versions were the performance machines of the line, offering big block engines (a 396-cid V8 in 1968-1970 and a 454-cid V8 in 1971-1972) and a full roster of dress-up equipment to give the trucks a sporty look to go along with their blazing speed. Because of that image, these trucks are increasing in value much faster than the regular models. However, all 1968-1972 El Caminos are popular due to their close ties to the heavily collected Chevelle on which they are based. Restoration parts are in ample supply for the 1968-1972 El Caminos, and can be found in most Chevelle parts catalogs. Club support is also excellent.
These would technically be the last of the "Chevelle" El Caminos, as the Chevelle name was being de-emphasized in the car line from 1973 on in favor of the'Malibu"moniker. However, because of the close ties between the El Camino and Chevelle from 1964-1972, it is not uncommon to hear later models being referred to with the Chevelle name.
The "Flying Buttress" models racked up impressive sales every year. In the final year- - 1972- - a total of 57,147 El Caminos found buyers, setting a new sales record. Ironically, this record would be broken the very next year by a redesigned model that had almost nothing in common with its predecessor except for the El Camino name.
If the 1968-1972 El Camino represented a foray into the performance arena, the 1973-1977 versions was its entry into the near luxury class. In keeping with their new luxury image, these were the largest El Caminos ever built. A totally redesigned truck appeared for 1973 that de-emphasized performance in favor of plusher appointments and increased comfort. This marketing philosophy was a consequence of rising insurance rates and tighter government safety regulations that were taking effect in the early 1970s.
The new El Camino was advertised with this in mind, and sales literature reflected the new reality by depicting the truck more as a boulevard cruiser than a sports machine. Even the styling followed from GM's new-found safety" philosophy. Based on the Malibu passenger car with its new-for- 1973 "colonnade" hardtop design, the El Camino carried most of the styling cues found on that series. The colonnade term referred to the Malibu's coupe roofline, which was no longer a true two-door hardtop, but rather a cleverly disguised two-door sedan with a hardtop look. New federal rollover regulations mandated better safety than current hardtops could offer, thus, the move away from the pillarless style. Overall, the design was attractive, but the new regulations did have one detrimental effect-the bumpers.
As they did on all other American cars of the time, government-mandated 5-mph bumpers sprouted front and rear. Referred to as "battering rams" by one contemporary magazine, the ungainly appendages were poorly executed, and served to detract from an otherwise elegant design. Despite this faux pas, the truck was stylish and retained many design elements that had become associated with the El Camino image.
A number of models were available during the 1973-1977 period, but not all of them ran concurrently or remained in the lineup until the end. In 1973 the familiar Standard and Custom models were joined by a new Estate variant that featured wood-grain body side decals. In 1974 the Custom was replaced by the Classic, which could be ordered with the SS, Estate, or Conquista trim packages. For 1975, El Caminos could be had with a "Laguna" package taken from the Malibu car line. Information on this package is sketchy. It is not mentioned in factory literature, which may indicate that all were dealer installed. Laguna trim has only been found on 1975 examples. The last major model change came in 1976 with the deletion of the Estate package. No changes were made to the 1977 lineup. An unusual model offered only in the country bowed in 1977. Known as the "Camino Del Rey," it featured wheel flares, front air dam, rear spoiler, and "Camino Del Rey" decals on each door. It was offered only on Conquistas.
A long options list included such goodies as a stereo 8-track tape player, swivel bucket seats, cruise control, full power equipment, vinyl roof, and a host of other add-ons. The SS (Super Sport) package was still on the options list, but it was mainly for show.
If the exterior changes weren't dramatic enough, the engine lineup contrasted sharply with the El Camino's performance image. An engine shuffle in 1973 made V8 power the only choice for the first time, but there was less here than met the eye. The 307-cid V8, detuned to an anemic 115 horsepower, became standard equipment, while two emissions choked 350-cid V8s and a weak-kneed 454-cid V8 took over as the top offerings. This lineup only lasted until 1975 when the 250-cid six cylinder came back as the base power plant.
However, the engine roster would see even more changes as the years progressed. By 1976, the big block 454-cid V8 was history and the 400 would follow suit in 1977, leaving the small block (350-cid) as the largest power plant. Horsepower ratings would continue to drop as well. The full engine lineup for the series run is as follows:
307-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 115-hp
350-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 155-hp
350-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 175-hp
454-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 240-hp
350-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 145-hp
350-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 245-hp
400-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 150-hp
400-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 180-hp
454-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 245-hp
250-cid inline six cylinder; one-barrel carburetor; 105-hp
350-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 145-hp
350-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 160-hp
400-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 175-hp
454-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 245-hp
250-cid inline six cylinder; one-barrel carburetor; 105-hp
305-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor (4-bbl carburetor used in California); 140-hp
350-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor; 145-hp
350-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 165-hp
400-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 175-hp
250-cid inline six cylinder; one-barrel carburetor; 1 10-hp
305-cid V8; 2-bbl carburetor (4-bbl carburetor used in California); 145-hp
350-cid V8; 4-bbl carburetor; 170-hp
A shrinking engine roster and declining horsepower ratings illustrate the dire effects that government regulations were having on power in the mid- to late-1970s. Clearly, the El Camino's performance days were over, as engineers tried to wring as much economy out of these heavyweights as possible.
Oddly enough, despite the quest for better fuel mileage, curb weights were up significantly during this period. For example, the 1972 El Camino weighed in at 3,350 pounds, while the 1973 version tipped the scales at 3,635-an increase of 285 pounds. Most of the weight gain can be attributed to the new 5-mph bumpers and the beefed up body structure. However, the El Camino's weight would continue to climb through the end of the run in 1977.
The public didn't seem to mind the changes, and buyers snapped them up as quickly as the factory could build them. The 1973 model year sales of 64,987 broke the previous year's record, and stands to this day as the best selling El Camino of all time. Sales would remain strong through 1977, but by the late seventies buying habits had changed and, suddenly, smaller was the operative word. With memories of a recent oil shortage and long lines at the gas pump fresh on their minds, engineers went to work on a downsized El Camino that could better compete in a changed marketplace. 1978 would be both a shocker and a breath of fresh air for the General's image truck.
The sheet metal, grille, headlight/turn signal arrangement, and bumpers remained pat in these years, with most of the Like other GM products at the end of the 1970s, the El Camino joined the downsizing trend for 1978. In the process, the truck shed over 600 pounds and shrank 11 inches over the 1977 models. This was the smallest vehicle ever to wear the name, despite a longer 117-inch wheelbase. It also boasted increased head, hip, and legroom and could still haul an 800-pound payload. With crisp styling, plentiful power, and a smorgasbord of options and appearance packages, the fifth-generation El Camino remained in the Chevy truck lineup with only minor changes for a decade.
The styling changes were so minor, in fact, that it takes a knowledgeable person to distinguish among this series, particularly those from 1982-1987. updating being done under the hood and/or in areas not readily noticeable. Probably the easiest one to spot is the 1980 edition, which utilized a vertical finned grille that was only used in this year. Paint schemes, mechanical, and other equipment were continually revised throughout the series run.
The following is a list of the many appearance packages that were available and the years they were offered:
- Standard El Camino (1978-1987 ) base model with all standard El Camino equipment.
- El Camino Super Sport (1978-1984) Front air dam, dual painted sport mirrors, "Super Sport" decals on doors and tailgate, rally wheels, lower body side contrasting paint color, black quarter window moldings.
- El Camino SS (1984-1987) Includes front air dam, dual aero mirrors, power bulge hood, non-functional side pipes, box side rails, spoke wheels, "El Camino SS" door decals, "SS" decal on air dam and tailgate. Choo Choo Customs of Chattanooga, Tennessee supplied this package.
- El Camino Royal Knight (1978-1981) Graphics package available on the Super Sport model. Includes dragon hood decal, Royal Knight name decal on each front fender and tailgate, front air dam, rally wheels, and painted sport mirrors. All decals are color keyed to the body color.
- El Camino Conquista (1978-1987) The most commonly seen package. Includes basic body color on roof, upper portion of the pickup box and tailgate, and lower body sides. A contrasting color highlights the center section of the body, hood, and lower tailgate. A Conquista name decal was applied to the tailgate.
All 1978-1987 models offered a V6 engine as standard equipment. These included a 3.3-liter base engine through 1981; a 3.8-liter from 1982-1984; and a 4.3-liter engine from 1985-1987. V8 engines were also available, and many came that way. Available all years was the venerable 305-cid V8, which had been introduced in 1976. It coexisted with a smaller 4.4liter (267-cid) V8 from 1979-1982. A 350-cid V8 could be ordered through the 1979 model year.
In 1983, an Oldsmobile-built 5.7 liter diesel V8 joined the options list, but it only lasted through 1984, as its reputation for poor performance and questionable reliability kept buyers away. The engine's problems stemmed from the fact that it was a converted gasoline unit beefed up (it was assumed) to cope with the stress of a diesel's high compression ratios. Like all GM car diesels of the era, this engine was prone to blown head gaskets, sluggish acceleration, noise, and hard cold-weather starting. Buyers shunned it, and at the end of the 1984 run, it disappeared from the options list.
Automatic transmissions outsold the manual gearboxes by a wide margin in all years, with the three-speed automatic finally becoming standard equipment in 1982. A four-speed automatic became optional (standard equipment with the 4.3-liter V6) in 1986, but the three-speed was still around.
Looking solely at sales figures, the 1978-1987 models did not sell as consistently as their predecessors. From a high of 54,286 in 1978, El Camino production would plummet to 13,743 by 1987. The problem lay in the market, not the product.
Car-based pickups were no longer the novelty they had once been, and by the late 1980s sport utility vehicles had assumed much of the prestige role once reserved for specialty vehicles like the El Camino. Thus, the market for Chevy's hybrid hauler began to shrink. That, coupled with GM's shift to front wheel drive for most of its cars, prompted the company to move El Camino (and GMC Caballero) production to Mexico beginning with the 1985 models. All 1985-1987 models were produced there.
The handwriting was on the wall, and at the end of the 1987 model year the El Camino bid farewell to the auto scene. It may be gone, but an avid group of collectors and parts suppliers is making sure these fine trucks are never forgotten.