When is a pickup more than a pickup, and a muscle car more than a muscle car? When it's a '68 El-Co, that's when. It was a sleek hybrid that probably wasn't good as either a serious pickup or a truly comfortable coupe, but I always sort of admired them. From time to time I'll see an old El Camino that's been restored, and they always catch my eye and tug at my heart. I just dig them, and always have.
GM introduced the Chevrolet El Camino in 1959, in response to the success that Ford already had with the similar Ranchero, which was introduced 2 years earlier. I always found the Ranchero to be more boxy looking...more utilitarian and less stylish. Both cars were built upon passenger car chasis, but the El Camino was always the more sleek of the two. Here's a nicely restored '59 Chevy, followed by a Ranchero from the same model year:
The El Camino was a ride for the city, while the Ranchero was, IMO, probably more popular in the country. In auto industry jargon they were classified as a "coupe utility vehicle", but by the late 60's the truest description of an El Camino's essence was penned by a writer for MotorTrend Magazine, who likened it to country singer Billy Ray Cyrus' description of his infamous mullet during the 80's: "Business in the front, and party in the back." Sadly, Chevy stopped making the El Camino in 1987.
If you are into cars, there have been rumors for years that GM might bring the El Camino back. That would suit me just fine. If they do, however, I hope they make a nod to some of the earlier model years in terms of styling. Cuz, you know...I'm an El Camino Man:
The 1960 model was pretty cool, too. And who doesn't love the tail lights?
Legend has it that the concept for a coupe utility vehicle originated in Australia when a woman wrote a letter to Ford Australia requesting a vehicle that "she could drive to church on Sunday, and which could carry their pigs to market on Monday." The earliest models that tried to fill that bill were produced there in the 30's.
In the U.S. market, this concept wasn't fully realized until the mid-Fifties, when Ford introduced their Ranchero. It was met with a fair amount of success, so GM followed suit in 1959 with the El Camino. It lasted only two model years, and GM dropped it after the 1960 model year (which was uncharacteristic for General Motors). When you think about it, in 1960 America most families had 2.2 future Baby Boomer rug rats running around the household, and a car that, at best, could only fit three across a bench seat wasn't particularly practical, regardless of the utility of a bed in the back for hauling stuff. The days when American's hauled their pigs to market on Monday were pretty much behind us.
GM reintroduced the El Camino in the 1964 model year, based upon a whole new frame and car body. The Chevelle became the platform upon which GM built the 2nd generation of El Caminos. Gone were the late 50's stylistic flourishes of fins and other modernistic touches. It came back into the world as a rather boxy, rectangular hybrid. Same concept as before, but much less stylish.
But by the mid Sixties, the Detroit auto makers were engaged in another type of competition...one that involved engine size and horse power, and adapting larger bloc engines into smaller framed cars. The illusion of speed, which tail fins and other stylistic design features only suggested, was giving way to raw power, and true performance. By the end of 1967, the engineers at GM were, arguably, unsurpassed when it came to configuring a small framed car body with a large block engine.
The El Camino really came into its own with the 1968 model year, when Chevy introduced an SS model, with a 396 cubic inch engine, four barrel carbed V-8 shoe-horned under the hood. The body styling was redesigned, made more aerodynamic and elongated a bit. The front end leaned a bit into the wind. It looked faster, and it was. It may not have looked like a Chevelle, but from the steering wheel to the front bumper the two cars were virtually interchangeable. (That's a good thing for those of you who enjoy restoring old cars...El Camino parts, even though they ceased production in 1987, are pretty much readily available)
Now, you could drive your El Camino to church on Sunday, and burn rubber and do donuts in the parking lot after the sermon was over. By 1968, a lot of those Boomer had their own own drivers licences, and a two seater car no longer seemed quite so impractical. The El Camino had entered into its prime time. We didn't know it then, but the heyday would only last 4 years.
The 3rd generation El-Co's were fast. How fast were they? They could go from zero to 95 in about 14 seconds, which was pretty damned respectable for a street car at the time. GM rated the 396 engine at 375 horse power, but most auto enthusiasts and reviewers have concluded that they grossly underestimated the engine's power. It probably was closer to 400 HP.
In 1970 GM upped the ante one last time, offering a 454 cubic inch engine in the El Camino. Rated at 450 HP, MotorTrend had this to say about it:
The 454 LS5/LS6 and later big-block models with the M22 "rock-crusher" four-speed will smoke near anything at a stoplight. The engine has earth-crushing power.Of course, all good things come to an end. For the El Camino, as a muscle car, that came with the Arab Oil Embargo, gas lines, a spike in gas prices and the onset of emmisions control standards. After 1973, the car would be downsized, lose its muscle car status, and enter into a new generation. It would never be the same again.
I can remember having so much fun in an El Camino. They were a blast to drive. And you could load them up with camping gear, a couple of coolers, all the beer you and your buds could drink in a weekend, maybe even a dirt bike or two, and head out to the desert or the Colorado River from Los Angeles, and have a damned good time. They were fun to drive in the city, they were fast, and they were handy for a weekend trip that involved hauling a bunch of provisions.
That made them A-Okay in my book, and while there are SUV's today that can go places an El Camino couldn't...I'd still take a 68 Elky over a late model Toyota Tundra any day of the week.
I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She's waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money got no strings attached
We shut `em up and then we shut `em down
Tonight tonight the strip's just right
I wanna blow `em off in my first heat
Summer's here and the time is right
We're goin' racin' in the street
Springsteen, Racing in the Street
Any other El Camino men or women here in the Big Orange?