Chevrolet launched their El Camino pick up on 16 October 1958 –
but Ford (and Studebaker) were first (and second)!
On 16 October 1958, Chevrolet their car-truck that it called El Camino. The name means “the road” in Spanish and perhaps was inspired by California’s El Camino Real – “the Royal Road” as the road connecting the Spanish mission chain that runs from San Diego to Sonoma is called.
In the U.S., Ford’s Ranchero, another passenger car-based pickup truck, had
already been on the market for two years. El Camino was a combination sedan-
pickup truck built on the Chevrolet passenger car body, with the same “cat’s
eye” taillights and dramatic rear fins the ’59 Chevrolets are remembered for. It
was, ads trilled, “the most beautiful thing that ever shouldered a load!” “It
rides and handles like a convertible,” Chevy said, “yet hauls and hustles like
the workingest thing on wheels.”
“Who’s on first?”:
Above: Ford of Australia introduced the Ute in 1934 – passenger car front with a pickup bed at the rear. Below: Studebaker brought the concept to the U.S. with their ’37-’39 Coupe-Express:
Ford was first in Australia with the concept but second in the U.S..
Seen below is Ford’s ’57 Ranchero.
Ford’s Ranchero was the second “car-truck” sold in the United States – Studebaker had beat Ford to it in the U.S. exactly twenty years prior – in 1937. The idea, however, originated in Australia when an Australian farmer’s wife wrote Ford of Australia asking for a car that could carry her to church on Sundays and her husband’s pigs to market on Mondays. As a result Australian farmers had been driving what they called “Utes” – short for “coupé utility” – all around the outback since Ford launched the farmer’s wife’s request in 1934. Ford engineer Lewis Brandt designed a low-slung sedan-based vehicle that offered passenger car comfort in the front, with wind-up windows and sedan seats and a rough-and-tumble pickup in back. The Ute was a huge hit; eventually, virtually every company that sold cars Down Under made its own version.
In the U.S., Studebaker introduced their Coupe-Express in 1937 and offered it for three model years. As part of the planned all-new 1957 Studebaker-Packard bodies, sharing the same basic body shell, Studebaker had planned on re-introducing the Coupe=Express, no doubt in response to Ford’s Ranchero.
Above: The interchangeability program for the planned but unbuilt 1957 Packards and Studebakers. The Studebaker Coupe-Express is shown at the bottom left. Below: drawing of the ’57 Studebaker Coupe-Express in camper mode.
In the United States, Ute-type vehicles were slower to catch on than in Australia. Though Ford’s Ranchero was a steady seller, likely due to Ford’s long dominance in the light truck field in the U.S., the first incarnation of Chevy’s El Camino was not a big seller and GM discontinued it after just two years. In 1964, the company introduced a new El Camino, this one built on the Chevelle platform. In 1968, the more powerful SS engine made El Camino one of the iconic muscle cars of the late 1960s and 1970s.
In 1987, Chevrolet dropped El Camino from its lineup for good. Today, the car is a cult classic. In 2008, Pontiac announced plans to introduce an El Camino–inspired “sport truck” and even considered naming it El Camino, before settling on the shorter G8 ST. In 2009, however, GM’s financial difficulties forced the carmaker to postpone production of its new models; it also announced plans to eliminate the Pontiac brand altogether by 2010. The Ute that began in Australia could also be considered the forerunner of what evolved into modern SUVs.