1955 - 1958 Before the El Camino—the Cameo Carrier.
- In 1955, Chevrolet did something new and special. They rolled out a specially designed and fancied-up version of their pickup truck to add style and comfort. It was called the Camino Carrier. While it was stylish inside and out and turned heads, in reality it was a well-designed version of the Chevy Task Force generation of pickup trucks. Boasting V-8 power, automatic transmission, two-tone paint, and deluxe interior, the "1955" Chevrolet Cameo narrowed the distance between car and truck. Although not a big seller, the Camino Carrier, which never made a comeback, did inspire Ford to rethink the pickup concept and set the stage for it's Ranchero. The Ranchero was more car than truck (the reverse of the Cameo Carrier) and gave buyers the usefulness of a light pickup truck with the comforts (and familiarity) of an everyday driving car. Relatively popular in the prewar years, car-based pickups had all but disappeared from the American landscape when Ford launched it's 1957 Ranchero in December 1956. General Motors was left without an equivalent product, and not responding to the blue-oval threat simply wasn't an option. Two years later, GM answered with the Chevrolet version, christened "El Camino" which is Spanish for "the road" (or "the way").
1959 - 1960 The Beginning
- The first-generation GM version of the car-based pickup debuted on October 16, 1958 as a new "1959" model. The inaugural El Camino was introduced as the flagship of Chevrolet light-duty truck line. Although the El Camino wasn't the first vehicle to blend a passenger-car platform with the utility of a truck’s cargo bed, it was ultimately the most successful in the United States. The standard engine was a 135-hp, 235-cu.-in. inline 6-cylinder, with a 3-speed manual transmission. But there were engine upgrade options, starting with two V8 engines: One offered 170 horsepower (improved to 230 in 1960), with 283 cubic inches and fuel injection; the second V8 option was up to 355 horsepower, with 348 cubic inches and three carburetors. Automatic transmissions were also available—either the Powerglide (a 2-speed automatic) or the Turboglide (a continuously variable automatic).
The 119-inch wheelbase and passenger car chassis ensured a pleasant ride and good handling - something few pickups of the period could boast. Built on the fullsize Brookwood station wagon platform, it had the same "cat’s eye" taillights and "bat mobile" rear fins as the Impala which sold in fewer numbers than the more conservatively styled Fords. The El Camino, however, managed to outsell the Ranchero's 14,169 units with 22,246 built in the first year. Suspension was softer than the competing Ranchero, allowing the El Camino to ride level without a load. Payload capacity ranged from 650 to an advertised 1,150 pounds.
The similar but less flamboyant "1960" model (front and rear-end styling continued to mirror the changes of the Bel Air) was unable to compete with a smaller, Falcon-based Ranchero introduced by Ford in 1960. Only 14,163 units were sold.
Neither Chevy's new compact, the Corvair, with it's rear-mounted air-cooled engine, or the 1961 full-size car platform could accommodate a truck box. Consequently, GM management temporarily canceled the El Camino at the end of the 1960 model run.
1964 - 1967 The El Camino Comes of Age
- After a three-year hiatus, the second generation El Camino returned in "1964", but now shared it's GM A-body platform with the new mid-size Chevelle series. Alas, the Chevelle nameplate appeared on the front fenders. The smaller 115-inch wheelbase fit the El Camino's sporty image, yet offered enough payload to do serious work when needed. Chevrolet initially marketed the El Camino as a utility model "personal pickup" and Chevelle's most powerful engines were not available. The redesign was a huge success and the '64 El Camino outsold the Ranchero by almost 50 percent. 1965 saw minor trim updates and the availability of a higher performance version of the Corvette-sourced 327 engine rated at 350 hp that was also available in Chevelles. For the first time, an AM-FM radio could be ordered from the options list. Decisively, the El Camino grew up and the Chevelle nameplate was removed from the front fenders. In 1966 the styling was again updated and a 396 cu in V8 engine rated from 325 to 375hp was added to the lineup. Shoulder belts became available for the first time in March of 1966. An extensive face-lift and plusher interior enhancements refined the El Camino in 1967. The year 1967 also brought the collapsible steering column and options of disc brakes and Turbo Hydramatic 400 3 speed automatic transmission.
1968 - 1972 A Modern Classic
- An all-new third generation El Camino debuted for "1968" that was longer, lower, wider, and more muscular that it's predecessors. The wheelbase went up one inch to 116 while overall length jumped 4 inches. They are known as the "fastback" El Caminos, due to the sloping rear roof pillars and represented a foray into the performance arena. A new, high performance Super Sport SS396 version was launched in 1968, the only year prior to 1978 that the El Camino SS was a separate model. With only minor trim changes in 1969, 1970 saw major design changes and the availability of Chevrolet's largest and most-powerful engine of the time, the LS6 454 cu in engine rated at 450 hp, in a select few El Caminos. For 1971 the front-end was reshuffle. Mandated lower-octane unleaded fuel necessitated a reduction in engine compression, and GM's A.I.R. system, a "smog pump", was added to control tailpipe emissions. Power and performance suffered. Based on the El Camino's unrivaled success, in 1971 GMC began producing the Sprint to be sold by GMC Truck dealers primarily in the United States and Canada as the GMC version of the Chevrolet El Camino. Only trim designations, emblems, and wheel trim differentiate the GMC from Chevrolet's version. In 1972 little changed but still lower power outputs prevailed. 1972 was the first year for the SAE Net rating. The El Camino may have been late to the game, but it was outselling the Ford Ranchero by 20,000 units in 1972; its best year was this final year before a sweeping redesign. The age of the muscle car was coming to a close.
1973 - 1977 Boulevard Crusing
- A totally redesigned fourth generation car/truck appeared for "1973" that de-emphasized performance in favor of plusher appointments and increased creature comfort. The styling followed the "Colonnade" frameless door glass hardtop design of the Malibu car line coupe's roof-line. A 307 2-barrel V8 with 115 hp was the base engine. Options included a 350 2-barrel V8 with 145 hp, a 350 4-barrel V8 with 175 hp, and a 454 4-barrel V8 with 245 hp. Hardened engine valve seats and hydraulic camshafts made these engines reliable for many miles, and allowed them to accept the increasingly popular unleaded regular gasoline. Crossflow radiators and coolant reservoirs prevented overheating. Front disc brakes became standard on all '73 El Caminos. Additional new features were an acoustical double-panel roof, tighter-fitting glass, flush-style outside door handles, molded full-foam seat construction, flow-through power ventilation system, inside hood release, refined Delcotron generator and sealed side-terminal battery. In keeping with their new luxury image, these were the largest El Caminos ever built, but thanks to lighter construction, it weighed less than the previous generation. 1973 represented the best sales year for the El Camino! Combined with the GMC version, there were 71,753 units sold. 1974 only saw minor detail changes. The 350 V8 became the base engine and a 400 V8 engine was added. The 1975 models featured a new grill, providing a fresh appearance. Suspension upgrades offered a quieter ride, and radial-ply tires became standard. Dual remote mirrors, new twin sport mirrors, intermittent wipers, and cruise control were among new convenience features this year. The 1975 high energy ignition (HEI) provided spark to the spark plugs with minimal maintenance and increased power. Catalytic converters were added to all engines beginning with the 1975 model. The six cylinder engine returns as base power. The 454 Turbo-Jet big block V8 was discontinued after 1975. Other than a new 140 hp 305-cubic-inch V8 engine option, annual grill revisions and quad stacked, rectangular headlights in 1976, it was relatively unchanged through 1977 (except the 400 V8 was gone). The El Camino was one of the few Chevrolet models to retain an "SS" or Super Sport version through this period. In contrast with the rest of the Chevrolet line, the El Camino "SS" was an option package rather than a distinct model. A few distinctive 73-76 El Caminos where delivered with a factory Chevelle Laguna front end. GM didn’t advertise the slant-nose Laguna front end as an option on the El Camino and as such, not many buyers even knew it was available. These where ordered through the GM's Central Office Production Order, or COPO. This system was utilized by GM dealers to generate specialty vehicle orders, mostly for fleet vehicles. The COPO option code for the Laguna front end on the 1975 El Camino was 6H1. The Laguna front end bolts right onto an El Camino of this generation with no modification, so some owners have added it on themselves.
1978 - 1987 Sleek and Sassy to the End
- Like other GM products at the end of the 1970's, the El Camino joined the downsizing trend for "1978". It shed over 600 pounds and shrank 11 inches, yet despite a longer 117-inch wheelbase, it was the smallest El Camino made. The El Camino "SS" now became a separate model. This fifth and last generation El Camino remained in the Chevy truck lineup with only minor changes for a decade. It now shared components with the Chevrolet Malibu on the reborn A/G platform. (The second series of G-bodies began production designated as A-body cars in 1978, but were redesignated as G-body when the new front-wheel drive A-body platform was introduced in 1982). The GMC Sprint version was renamed Caballero for the 1978 model year. In 1978 Chevy produced El Caminos with a "Black Knight" option package (Z16). Only 1200 examples were built before production was halted due to a dispute with Marvel Comics over the use of the name "Black Knight". Chevy re-introduced the package in '79 as the "Royal Knight", produced in the regular El Camino line up until 1980; afterwards, it became a special order, until 1983, when it was discontinued. A total of approximately 14,000 Black & Royal Knights were built between '78 & '83. Whereas the GMC version Caballero Diablo package began in 1978 as an equivalent to the El Camino's Black Knight/Royal Knight, GMC's Diablo remained but was now analogous to the "normal" Super Sport model. This meant that the flame decal was gone, but little else changed. However, when the El Camino Super Sport gained a new dealer optioned aerodynamic front end from Choo Choo Customs for 1983, the Diablo stuck with the same front end it had carried since the final factory front clip revision from 1982. The Diablo was offered through the end of the Caballero line in 1987. The Ford Ranchero couldn't compete with the GM versions, and production ceased in 1979 during which time Ford would develop their homegrown replacement truck, the Ranger.
The 1982 revision began the four headlight design. The 1983-87 El Camino SS was offered in a Choo-Choo Customs Group special edition which shared the NASCAR-inspired aerodynamic front end with the concurrent Monte Carlo SS, but never offered Monte Carlo's higher output V8. Ironically, for a vehicle dubbed with a Spanish moniker, after 1984 GM shifted El Camino production to Mexico for three more years. These were the first models manufactured by General Motors de México to be exported to the United States. Cars were getting smaller and increasing government restrictions, and requirements on a car-based pickup truck made such a vehicle less and less attractive from a manufacturing standpoint. Meanwhile, purpose-designed light trucks had to meet much less stringent requirements for emissions and fuel economy. Production ceased after the 1987 model year, as sales of the Chevrolet S-10 true pickup truck were outselling its coupe utility counterpart. Although 1987 was officially the El Camino’s last year, 420 examples were produced and sold as 1988 models, bringing an inauspicious end to an iconic vehicle. It has been rumored for years that GM may bring back an El Camino like coupe - pickup (or rather, a "sedan – pickup"). Last generation El Caminos are affordable and easily customizable, making them an increasingly popular choice with collectors.
- My last generation El Camino was 'born' in Ramos Arizpe Mexico at the time Tom Cruise was falling in love with Kelly McGillis in 'Top Gun', July "1986".
We ordered it from Lou Grubb Chevrolet in Phoenix, so it took a short trip across the border into Arizona, and was delivered on
July 29, 1986.
- The information presented in this brief summary was obtained in part from the "Chevrolet El Camino Photo History" by automotive journalist Monty Montgomery, specializing in collector cars and trucks. My '86 is proudly displayed on page 111 of this Iconografix publication of notable photographic archives.