Is it a car, a truck, or a novelty? Designers at Chevrolet would likely say the El Camino is whatever you want it to be. This short-lived vehicle made its debut in 1959 as a challenge to Ford’s successful Ranchero. Built on a somewhat modified Brookwood two-door stationwagon chassis, the original El Camino won hearts with its flamboyant style. Twin headlights, moderate rear fins, and the trim of a mid-level Belair contributed the flamboyant style of the era’s best-selling sedans. The 1959 Chevrolet El Camino came standard with only one trim level option, which included the interior finishing touches of a low-range Chevrolet Biscayne.
Designers produced the first El Caminos with several engine options: the 283-cid Turbo-Fire V8 with two- or four-barrel carburetion, several Turbo-Thrust 348-cid V8s with four-barrel or triple two-barrel carburetors producing 250 kW, and 250- and 290-bhp 283-cube Ramjet Fuel Injection V8 engines. Though first-generation El Caminos were produced with a handful of impressive-for-their-time powertrain options, their suspension left a little to be desired. The passenger-level suspension left the El Camino level to the ground when unloaded, and payload capacity ranked a little lower than the Ranchero’s. But those first El Caminos offered an unexpected feature that showed well: the first steel truckbed floor, as opposed to the then-standard wood.
Designers created the ’59 El Camino with a corrugated steel sheet bed that used recessed bolts to attach directly onto the Brookwood’s floor pan below. Interestingly, you could remove that corrugated sheet to see the Brookwood’s floor pan, including the original built-in footwells. The capacity of the bed totalled 0.93 m3–not too shabby, compared to many other consumer trucks available at the time. It was designed carry a payload of 295 to 522kg.
The 1959 El Camino enjoyed a relatively successful release. A total of 22,246 El Caminos were produced that year; a handful more than the Ranchero during its first release in 1957. But in 1960, despite an upgrade and redesign, orders dropped to just over 14,000. The same year, Ford released a wildly successful redesigned Ranchero built on the platform of the Ford Falcon. Chevrolet execs did the math and made the call to discontinue the model.
In the decades that followed, the El Camino was resurrected for a few more generations of design. A second generation made its debut in 1964, a sporty third generation was released in 1968, and fourth and fifth generations were released in the 1970’s. The public received these models with modest enthusiasm, but the new designs didn’t catch on quite enough for the Elky to retain that glow of success. An attempt at a sixth generation was given the axe in 1995 when the rise of the SUV rendered the concept more or less obsolete–at least for a decade or two.
So… car or truck? Time will tell whether the El Camino gets to live again to stymy future drivers. For now, those 1959 Elky models remain a popular – and somewhat accessible – collector car, thanks to their classy 1950’s flair.