From 1931 through 1991, General Motors dominated the domestic marketplace, posting an annual share ranging between 35 and 51 percent. To stay on top, the juggernaut often successfully copied its competitors’ popular ideas. Perhaps the best example is the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino pickup-car. The El Camino, which rode on Chevy’s lone car platform, was a direct response to Ford‘s Fairlane-based Ranchero, which had debuted in 1957 and handily outsold Chevy’s gussied-up pickup, the Cameo.
Essentially, the El Camino was a two-door Biscayne Brookwood station wagon (a car that also formed the basis for the Sedan Delivery) with Bel Air exterior trim, a shortened hardtop-sedan roof, and a pickup bed crafted from the wagon’s aft quarters. Since the 211-inch-long model’s gargantuan, wing-shaped rear fins took up so much real estate, the bed itself was only about six feet long; it could hold nearly 34 cubic feet of cargo (How many pumpkins is that, anyway?), and the payload rating was 1150 pounds.
With its modest utilitarian abilities, the sleek trucklet was more about style and performance than it was about working. The El Camino handled like a contemporary Chevy car–comfortable ride, lots of body roll, and slow-geared steering (nearly six turns lock-to-lock)–primitive by today’s standards but much better than conventional Chevy pickups. In ’59, three engines (a 235-cubic-inch I-6, a 283 V-8, and a 348 V-8) offered several different outputs that ranged from 135 hp to 315 hp. The less common 348 could be ordered with three two-barrel carburetors and a floor-mounted four-speed manual.
In 1960, a higher-compression 348 put out 335 hp, but the biggest change for the El Camino’s sophomore season was the more sedate exterior design, consistent with the rest of Chevy’s cars that year. Gone were the eyebrows over the headlights, replaced by a more generic front end. The side profile was simplified, too, although the 1960 model gained an aircraft-inspired swatch of chrome above the rear wheels. The teardrop taillights were superseded by four pointy lenses, and the graceful wings were toned down slightly. The interior and the greenhouse remained the same.
Chevrolet pulled the plug on the El Camino after two years because of poor sales. But GM returned from its pickup-car sabbatical in 1964, once again following Ford’s lead and shrinking the El Camino to mid-size. Chevy built nearly a million El Caminos through 1988 (almost doubling Ford’s eventual Ranchero production), but our favorite is easily the finned first-generation El Camino.
WHAT TO PAYFinding a driveable example for less than $10,000 is tough. Show-quality cars can reach $30,000, but original 348-powered vehicles can go much higher. 1960 models are worth about five percent less than ’59s.
BODY STYLETwo-door pickup-car.
PRODUCTION22,246 in 1959; 14,163 in 1960.
WATCH OUT FORLots of modifications, altered powertrains, rust in the rocker and quarter panels, leaky window seals.
EL CAMINO: A SOURCE BOOKby Edward Lehwald, Bookman Publishing Division, out of print. Used copies available at www.amazon.com
CHEVROLET EL CAMINO PHOTO HISTORYMonty Montgomery, Iconografix, $25. www.iconografixinc.com
SPARES AND DEALERS
THE EL CAMINO STORE888-685-5987www.elcaminostore.com
ECKLER’S LATE GREAT CHEVY800-285-7461www.lategreatchevy.com
EL CAMINO CLASSICSwww.elcaminoclassics.com
NATIONAL EL CAMINO OWNERS ASSOCIATIONwww.elcaminocentral.com
OUR CHOICEAn easy-cruising, beautiful 1959 with an overdrive three-on-the-tree and a 230 hp, 283-cubic-inch V-8.