12 December 2016

Thank the Chevy Cameo Carrier if you own a pick-up but don’t use it like one

Remember when Chrysler called its PT Cruiser a “segment buster” about 15 years ago? As such, Chrysler explained, the PT Cruiser “anticipates the needs of owners by understanding emerging trends in the ways people use their vehicles.”

Deciphering the corporate speak, it meant carmakers try to predict what customers will like and buy, before they’ve even seen it. Sometimes, as with the PT Cruiser, segment busting works and a carmaker scores a hit. Other times, it fails miserably. Edsel, anyone?

Still, carmakers deserve credit for taking such risks. Even when seemingly ending in failure, they may still leave a lasting impact. The 1955-1958 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier is a perfect example. It sold barely more than 10,000 units over four model years, yet it set the stage for civilizing the pickup truck – a few decades too early.

Although carmakers had started paying attention to things like style and cabin roominess in pickup trucks in the post-WWII period, these vehicles were still a fairly crude bunch. Pickups were, after all, aimed at tradesmen and farmers, and needed to be affordable. If driving one took effort, well, that was part of the job.

Credit Chevrolet’s styling head, Chuck Jordan, for envisioning a new kind of pickup that might broaden its appeal and even make it attractive as a second vehicle for suburban dwellers. Jordan drew up a concept that replaced the traditional step-side design and separate bed with a unified body featuring stylish slab sides. His idea was included in the full redesign planned for the company’s 1955 Task Force pickups. It emerged as a stylish compromise called the Cameo Carrier.

Instead of the integrated cab and bed that Jordan wanted, designers filled the gap between the two with chrome trim. Grafting fiberglass panels onto a standard pickup bed highlighted the design’s smooth sides.

Chevy offered the Cameo Carrier as a special model, and all 1955s were painted Bombay Ivory, with the 6.5-foot bed and its inside walls painted Commercial Red. It was a striking and elegant look. The cabin appeared upscale for the time, as well, with the same two-tone scheme. A wrap-around rear window aided visibility, and car-like touches included armrests, sun visors, a cigarette lighter and chrome interior door handles. Many customers chose the optional 265-cid V-8 and Hydra-Matic automatic transmission.

The Cameo Carrier may have looked softer than standard Chevy trucks, but it shared the same 5,000 pound gross vehicle weight as the half-ton models. Style and comfort came at a cost; the $1,835 base price was a fairly hefty 30 percent jump over the standard pickup. With just 5,220 Cameo Carriers sold for 1955, it was purely a niche vehicle.

For 1955 only, GMC offered its own version of the Cameo Carrier, called the Suburban Carrier. Aside from the GMC-specific grille and trim, it featured a choice between the division’s own 248-cid straight-six or a 287-cid Pontiac V-8. Just 300 were made.

The Cameo Carrier returned for three more years, gaining more color choices and, in 1958, Chevy’s quad-headlight restyle and an optional 283 V-8. Production for those three years added another 5,105 for a four-year total of 10,305. In retrospect, it seems odd that a Big Three automaker would devote such resources to filling a tiny niche, essentially trying to convert a work vehicle into a lifestyle vehicle.

Yet, the Cameo Carrier had sparked a trend. Dodge responded with its own in-house custom truck, the 1957 Sweptside. It was essentially a hand-built conversion on the standard pickup, with the Dodge station wagon’s quarter panels and tailfins appended to it. Fewer than 1,300 were built through 1959.

By 1958, the Cameo Carrier’s toughest competition was Chevy’s own new Fleetside pickup. Ford, too, had joined the club with its Styleside models. The Cameo Carrier was dropped after 1958, but its impact seemed to last. Entering the 1960s, the smooth-sided pickup style would proliferate, and Ford even tried an integrated bed and cab for its 1961-1963 Styleside models. Meanwhile, the car-based Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino had revived the idea of the car-based “coupe utility” from the 1930s, creating yet another niche.

More creature comforts began creeping into pickups by 1970. Today, distinguishing a high-end pickup’s cabin from a luxury sedan’s is difficult. The Cameo Carrier’s idea of car-like exterior design for pickups, however, never caught on. Today’s pickups, no matter how soft and luxurious their interiors, look like angry monsters compared to cars. And that’s the way pickup drivers seem to like them.

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