What happened to pickup cars?
Find a Chevy El Camino or Ford Ranchero at a car show, and inevitably, you’ll hear someone ask why carmakers don’t offer such car/pickup combos anymore. Those two rivals emerged in the late 1950s, with the Ranchero lasting until 1979 and the El Camino surviving through 1987.
Along the way, other car/pickups came and went, but if you’re wondering why the idea died, look to SUVs and pickup trucks. Both became more civilized and passenger-focused through the 1980s, and today some pickups rival luxury cars for comfort and amenities – and pricing, too.
Will we see a revival of such vehicles? In an era when carmakers call four-door sedans and SUVs “coupes,” you just never know. In the meantime, enjoy the classics.
Until the first Ford F-100 in 1948, Ford pickups shared much with the car side of the family. In Australia, Ford offered a “coupe utility” starting in the 1930s that gave rise to the continent’s popular “ute” car/pickup body style.
In the U.S., Studebaker innovatively offered the J-5 Coupe Express for 1937, melding its big sedan’s front section with a steel pickup bed. The Coupe Express returned the following two years with Studebaker’s beautifully updated car styling, but production totaled just over 5,000 before the model disappeared.
Ford revived the pickup/car idea with its ‘57 Ranchero, combining the low-line Custom model with a pickup bed based on the two-door Ranch Wagon. Ads promoted the Ranchero as “More than a car! More than a truck!” Ford sold just under 46,000 Rancheros in its first three years and also built the model in Canada as the Meteor Ranchero.
For 1960, Ford introduced its dramatically smaller and lighter second-generation Ranchero based on the Falcon compact. Design mirrored the Falcon’s, although the 1966 Ranchero was based on the longer Fairlane wagon platform and then for 1967 picked up the Fairlane’s front-end sheetmetal. With the transition, Ford offered engines all the way up to the 390-cid V-8, along with upscale GT trim.
The Ranchero adopted the new Fairlane/Torino sheetmetal for 1968, when a Ford magazine ad proclaimed it as “The best idea yet in pickup luxury!” New engines for 1969 included Ford’s 351 Windsor and muscular 428 Cobra Jet. The 1970-1971 Ranchero even offered a Squire model with faux woodgrain exterior trim. You could get the new 429 Cobra Jet V-8 in any Ranchero, including the Squire. (Yes, Ford built a few of those.)
The Ranchero moved to the Torino’s body-on-frame construction for 1972 and adopted the LTD II sheetmetal when the Torino morphed into that model for 1977. Ford dropped the Ranchero after 1979, by which time a little over 508,000 had been built.
Across town, Chevy had attempted to infuse car styling and comfort into a pickup truck with the 1955 Cameo Carrier. The far greater success of Ford’s car-based Ranchero, however, spurred Chevy to field a direct competitor for 1959, also with a Spanish-derived name, El Camino.
Based on the low-line Brookwood two-door wagon, the ’59 El Camino shared the fabulous “batwing” tailfin styling. Customers could choose an inline-six, 283-cid V-8 or Chevy’s 348 Turbo Thrust V-8. First year sales were about 22,300 but dropped to just over 14,000 for 1960, and Chevy dropped the model – temporarily. The El Camino returned on the midsize Chevelle chassis for 1964, and by 1966, optional engines included the 396 big blocks.
Annual sales rose into the mid-30k range through 1967 and climbed higher still with the redesigned third-gen El Camino in 1968. There were SS-396 and SS-454 models, including, for 1970 only, the mighty (and mighty rare) LS-6 version. In 1971, GMC dealers began selling the El Camino as the Sprint, purely a badge switch job.
The heavier 1973-1977 El Camino sold even better. Most had a 350-cid V-8, and the SS remained a trim option. When Chevy downsized the Malibu for 1978, the El Camino came along, but on its own 117-inch wheelbase chassis to retain a roomy bed. The GMC version took a different, new Spanish name, Caballero.
Lighter weight and Chevy and Buick-sourced V-6 engines boosted fuel economy. Engine selection also included various small-block V-8s and, for a while, the troublesome Oldsmobile diesel V-8.
Pontiac considered the market and built a one-off 1968 Le Mans Sport Truck based on the El Camino but wearing the Le Mans front section. It was evaluated for production and ended up in a Pontiac dealer’s hands. (As of mid-October, it was being offered for sale from Leaded Gas Classics in Alabaster, Ala., for $49,995.) Four decades later, just before GM pulled the plug on the Pontiac Division, rumors and photos suggested Pontiac might offer a “ute” imported, like the G8 sedan, from Australia.
And then there were the also-rans.
Based on Subaru’s small wagon of the time, the 1978 B.R.A.T. was an attempt to compete with other small Japanese pickups then becoming popular. The offbeat name was an acronym for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, with “Bi-drive” referring to Subaru’s part-time four-wheel drive system. What most people remember about the B.R.A.T. was a pair of rear-racing plastic seats in the bed, a rather questionable ploy to beat the 25-percent tariff on imported Japanese trucks. President Ronald Reagan was among B.R.A.T. owners, keeping one on his California ranch.
Subaru tried again with the more conventional 2003-2006 Baja, a four-door pickup/car based on the Legacy/Outback platform. Impeded by a super-short 41-inch bed, the Baja was dropped after just 30,000 were sold.
Volkswagen jumped into the pickup/car arena with the 1980 Rabbit pickup, riding on a wheelbase stretched nine inches over the passenger car’s. The six-foot double-wall bed with 1,100-pound payload capacity was useful, but the small-displacement gas and diesel engines had their work cut out for them. Production in VW’s Westmoreland, Penn., plant ran until 1983, by which time nearly 77,000 had been made. The little pickup was subsequently built in what was then Yugoslavia as the VW Caddy.
Remember the 1982-1984 Dodge Rampage and 1983-only Plymouth Scamp? No? These front-drive utes were based on the Charger/Turismo hatchback coupe, but with a longer wheelbase and a leaf-spring rear suspension in place of the cars’ coils. Surprisingly, this little 2,400-pound pickup was rated to haul 1,145 pounds in its double-wall steel bed, which measured a bit over five feet. All told, about 37,000 Rampages and some 3,500 Scamps were made.
Finally, here’s one from the “Huh?” file. BMW showed two pickup-car prototypes based on its M3 hotrod, the first in 1986 and the second in 2011. There was no hint of production. Perhaps it was a clue, however, that some BMW designers wrench on their own El Caminos over the weekend.