The late fifties were a wild time in the domestic automobile industry. It was the dawn of the jet age, and all the rapid advances in aeronautics and space exploration heavily influenced automotive styling. Fins were in, and General Motors was headed for the Fin Hall of Fame in 1959. The 1959 Cadillac is probably the de-fin-itive design, but the ’59 Chevrolet wasn’t far behind. Chevy just positioned their tailfins in a more horizontal fashion.
If the wild ’59 Chevy styling wasn’t newsworthy enough, Chevrolet introduced the El Camino car/truck hybrid along with its regular passenger cars. The unique ’59 Chevy styling really stood out on the El Camino bed and tailgate.
Sales literature described the new El Camino as more than a car and more than a truck. The El Camino was its own model (1180 for 6-cylinder and 1280 for V-8 versions). It was essentially a 2-door Brookwood station wagon. The side trim came from the mid-level Bel Air, while the rather plain interior was based on the Biscayne. Engines ranged from a 235-cubic inch six to a 283-cubic inch V-8 to a 348 cubic inch V-8. Horsepower varied from 135 to 335. Transmissions included 3- and 4-speed manuals and 2- and 3-speed automatics.
The Chevy El Camino was a belated response to the 1957 Ford Ranchero. The El Camino also served as a replacement for the slow-selling Cameo deluxe pickup. The ’58 Cameo sold 1,405 units, while the El Camino easily sold 22,246 units in its first year of production. That initial success was tempered by the reduced production of 14,163 units in 1960.
A significant sales problem was that Ford once again beat Chevy to a new market segment. In 1960, Ford debuted the new compact Ranchero, which was based on the new Ford Falcon. Ford sold 21,027 Rancheros in 1960. Unfortunately, the new rear-engined Chevy compact, the Corvair, wasn’t suited for an El Camino style vehicle. The El Camino was dropped until 1964, when it reappeared on the new mid-size Chevelle platform.
The revitalized mid-size El Camino was an instant success, with sales of 36,615 units. The whole musclecar phenomenon was booming, and the El Camino closely followed Chevelle models in terms of engine availability and performance potential. El Camino performance peaked in 1970 with the SS 454 and its 450 horsepower LS6 454-cubic inch big-block V-8. Performance gradually declined in 1971 and 1972, which is considered the last year of the classic musclecar El Caminos.
The time from 1973 through 1977 wasn’t great for any domestic vehicles, and the bloated El Caminos were typical of the era. The larger, slower El Caminos still sold well (64,987 units in 1973), however. In 1978, the El Camino became Malibu-based and entered its final iteration. The barge-like Ranchero bit the dust in 1979, but the trim and handsome El Camino (along with the GMC version, the Caballero) soldiered on valiantly until 1987.
Now fifty plus years old, the ’59 El Camino has become something of a cult car in the hot rod world. Its unique styling still draws crowds of admirers. Modern, ground-scraping air suspension systems and large diameter custom wheels emphasize the wild styling by making the El Camino seem extra long and futuristic. The Chevy El Camino was a stunner in 1959, and it still looks fantastic today—not bad for a fifty year old.
EL CAMINO TIMELINE
1954 - General Motors uses the El Camino moniker on a concept car, the two-passenger Cadillac El Camino closed roof sports car. 1955 - Chevrolet introduces a deluxe half-ton pickup, the Cameo, with unique fiberglass bed sides.
1957 - Ford introduces their car/truck hybrid Ranchero.
1958 - Last year of production for the slow selling Cameo pickup.
1959 - Chevrolet debuts its stunning new El Camino car/truck hybrid along with the radically restyled ’59 model lineup.
1960 - The El Camino is restyled to match the rest of the 1960 Chevrolets. El Camino production is halted after only two years.
1960 - Ford debuts a downsized Ranchero based on the new compact Falcon.
1964 - The Chevy El Camino returns and is based on the new mid-size Chevelle.
1966 - The El Camino is restyled along with the Chevelle line. The 396 ci big-block V-8 is available in the El Camino.
1967 - The SS 396 Super Sport option in made available on the El Camino.
1968 - The Chevelle line, including the El Camino, is restyled.
1970 - The SS 454 big-block El Camino is available with up to 450 hp. The El Camino nose is mildly restyled.
1972 - El Camino production totals 57,147 units, even though horsepower ratings have been reduced.
1973 - El Camino radically restyled with rest of Chevelle lineup. Now 12-inches longer than 1972 models.
1975 - Last year of the 454 El Camino. Horsepower drops to 235.
1978 - All new El Camino is now based on Chevy Malibu. It’s 12-inches shorter than 1977 El Camino.
1979 - Ranchero ceases production.
1983 - 5.7-liter diesel V-8 is made available in El Caminos.
1985 - Monte Carlo SS style nose is available on El Camino SS.
1987 - Last year of El Camino production.
2009 - The first series Chevy El Camino is fifty years old. The El Camino body style is revived as the Pontiac G8 ST (2009 introduction as a 2010 model). Sadly this model was canceled along with Pontiac itself.