Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino

A Whole Lotta Muscle

Whether you call them cars or trucks, one thing’s for sure, the Ranchero and El Camino sure had a lot of muscle. You had to love Detroit in the 50s. It was a time when the auto makers weren’t afraid to try new things like a half and half creation that defied being classified as either as a car or a truck. Jack Giacalone says “It’s a truck! It’s classified as a truck.” The front half of a fine automobile made it to the working end of a pickup truck and made a very unique car for one heck of a nice truck, depending on your point of view. Steve Courter adds to the debate: “It’s considered a pickup.”

Whether they were cars or trucks, the Ford Ranchero and the Chevrolet El Camino were different from anything else on the road and they appealed to a wide group of American car buyers. One of these buyers, Richard Freeman, says: “I wanted a pickup truck and a car and that’s what I had. I got me a pickup truck that nudged like a car.” And Jack Giacalone adds in: “An El Camino is kind of like a personal luxury truck.” Steve Courter says: “I like it because it feels like you are in a coupe body and I like it because of its big block power. It’s the only big block I’ve ever owned and it’s awesome.”

The 1957 Ford Ranchero – First Out of the Box

Ford was first out of the box with the Ranchero in 1957. And for two years, they had this sporty truck playing field all to themselves. By 1959, though, Chevy had noticed the Ranchero’s popularity and rolled out their own model, complete with its own south of the border sounding name: El Camino. The two vehicles were very similar, yet remarkably different in many ways.

The Ranchero’s plain, no frills styling was right on for a sporty little pickup truck. Chevrolet on the other hand, called the El Camino a dual purpose vehicle and gave its styling a few deluxe touches from the Bel Air and the Impala. Obviously, the two years Chevy had spent observing the Ranchero’s success helped them put their package together. But in that two years, Ford had sold almost 32,000 Rancheros and had a huge head start in this market. In fact, by the time Chevy had put two models of El Camino on the street, Ford had already decided to change direction with the Ranchero and make this little pickup car a true compact. The Falcon years for the Rancher would be some of the little truck’s most popular and during these years, it had the marketplace all to itself again. Chevy sat out for three years but fired back in 1964 with a down sized version of the El Camino based on the Chevelle.

But the real fun was just over the horizon. By the mid 60s, muscle cars were providing all the sizzle in the auto industry and these little all purpose vehicles just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Even though the Ranchero and the El Camino were trucks from their rear windows to their bumpers, from the roof pillar forward, they were cars and those front halves could be as racy as any muscle car on the street. The Ranchero became Fairlane: a muscle car that had racing credentials to back up its racy looks. The El Camino’s parent car, the Chevelle, earned its reputation on the street. With the Super Sport Chevelle as a base, the second generation El Camino could be as hardcore as any muscle car on the street.

The Biggest, Baddest Engines

At the height of the muscle car era, both the Ranchero and the El Camino would sport the biggest, baddest engines Ford and Chevy could make. Thais blending of pure muscle and simple utility would make some memorable muscle cars or muscle trucks or whatever! Ford’s all new look for 1957 was a traffic stopper. The ’57 Ford was the newest looking of any Detroit car that year and the car buying public jumped on it to the tune of 1.5 million cars that year. Every model in Ford’s line got this lovely new face lift and this new styling was the talk of the industry. Ford trucks were not the most stylish vehicles on the highway. They were work horses not show horses.

But at the end of this line of heavy haulers was something all new for 1957: the Ranchero. For a truck, the Ranchero had some pretty non traditional roots. Instead of being built on a truck chassis, the Ranchero was created by slicing up the top and rear body work of the ranch wagon two door station wagon. This made it 16 inches lower and a foot and half longer than a Ford half ton pickup. The Ranch wagon’s frame was plenty strong for this little truck’s 1190 pound cargo rating. And it already had a stylish tailgate. The six foot cargo bed was double floored and double walled and because of its passenger car suspension, the Ranchero was a much smoother, quieter ride than your basic F100 pickup. Now this was load hauling in style. Lynn Severance of Orlando, Florida explains: “Here was a vehicle that was part truck, part car, that could take you to town, that could take you to the grocery store, whatever. The car was so ideally suited for what it was designed for, that’s why there’s so few of ‘em today because they were just run slap into the ground.”

Even though Ford built the Ranchero as a truck, just about everything on the passenger car option list was available from air conditioning and power seats to automatic transmissions and signal seeking radio. The basic Ranchero stickered for $2098 and a snazzy custom Ranchero listed for $2149 before options. If you sprung for the up market custom Ranchero, you picked up a few nice to have items like a horn ring, deluxe upholstery, stainless side moldings. And you could order from a list of two color style tone paint schemes. Either way, the Ranchero was one classy pickup truck.

Ford’s engine lineup for the Ranchero included the standard 144 horsepower mileage maker six cylinder and two V8s. 190 horse 272 cubic inch unit and the Thunderbird’s 292 cubic inch, which made 212 horses. In this 3500 pound truck, none of these engines produced neck snapping performance. But despite the truck-like get up and go, nearly 22,000 buyers thought the ’57 Ranchero was just the vehicle they needed. And in a clear vote of confidence for the stylists, the custom Ranchero with the two-tone paint and the chrome trim outsold the Plain Jane model by almost three to one.

The 1958 Ford Ranchero

By 1958, the pickup car concept was off and running. This year, Ford restyled the Ranchero’s front half with the new Thunderbird inspired 1958 sheet metal. But its back half remained unchanged from 1957. Top dog in the Ranchero’s power train was now the interceptor 352, packing 300 horses. And a three speed Cruise-o-Matic auto trans was now available with this engine. Again this year, Rancheros came in two flavors: plain and fancy. And this time the fancy ones outsold the plain ones by almost 8 to 1.

The 1959 Ford Ranchero

Ford revamped the whole Ranchero package in 1959 and now both ends of the truck got the treatment. Even with a $200 jump in the sticker price, sales rebounded from 1958′s 9950 units to a more respectable 14,169 trucks sold. The Ranchero might have sold a lot better that year if it had not been for the appearance of Chevrolet’s new all purpose vehicle. After sitting out the first two years of the sporty truck revolution, Chevy now entered the fray with the El Camino and a slightly different approach to the whole thing.

The 1959 Chevrolet El Camino

Chevy’s 1959 styling was as radical as anything Detroit had ever come up with. And the El Camino got a full shot of it. On the outrageous scale, from 1 to 10, the Ranchero was about a 6. The El Camino was an 11. The side sculpturing, the space ship front end look, and those amazing fins made this vehicle a big time traffic stopper. Whether it was rolling or parked!

Even its wraparound windshield accented the long, low look, blending into an Impala style fly away roof line. Where the Ranchero was part of Ford’s truck line, the El Camino had a lot more car in it and this was both good and bad. Using the Brookwood two door station wagon as a base, the El Camino rode on a 119 inch wheel base, one inch longer than the Ranchero with a wider bed. Chevy’s sturdy chassis and the station wagon’s coil spring suspension gave a soft, comfortable ride. But this also made it a little saggy when it was fully loaded.

Describes Mike McAdams of Bay City, Michigan: “It’s a typical 50s car. It rolls into curbs but it’s smooth as glass on the straightaways.” But thanks to its passenger car platform, this little truck could pack a lot of nice into its 3980 pound body. The El Camino’s base price of over $2500 omitted some conveniences. But by the time you went through its long list of luxury options, you could build yourself a very plush little truck. And you could also run the drive out price over $3000. “I think I counted no more than ten pieces of plastic in the whole car and those were basically the little plastic discs behind the window cranks so it wouldn’t cut the door panel” says an El Camino owner.

Maybe it was its extreme styling or maybe it was its all star engine lineup featuring everything from Chevy’s old reliable 235 cubic inch to the super thrust 348. Whatever the reason, the ’59 El Camino sold over 22,000 units in its first year: 8000 more than Ford’s third year Ranchero, even with its pricey window sticker. Thanks to this response, Chevy brought the El Camino back for another year in 1960 with the formula unchanged. In its second year, there was even more evidence that when it came to styling and luxury, Chevy saw the El Camino as more car than truck. This year, Chevy’s all purpose vehicle took advantage of their 1960 passenger car styling upgrade, looking even longer and lower with more rakish fins and a much more conventional front end look. It was still one of the most striking things on four wheels, though. And it rode the wave of the pickup car phenomenon to the tune of 14,163 sales this year.

But the times they were a’changing and America was in the grips of a recession. Detroit was now pushing compact cars as car buyers were looking to downsize both their gas bills and their car payments. Chevy took a look at the El Camino with its nearly 4000 gross weight, its extensive price tag, and its flowing sales and decided that maybe this wasn’t the right time to be in the sporty truck business. Ford, on the other hand, took a look at the same market and had a better idea. With Chevy out of the game, at least temporarily, Ford had the sporty truck market all to itself again. And they had a real today kind of vehicle to play with.

Long On Innovation, Short on Performance

The years between 1960 and 1964 were long on innovation but short on performance for the Ford Ranchero. With the emphasis on making a smaller truck that was less expensive to run, there wasn’t much in the budget for high horsepower or high style. But at least they were in the game. While Chevrolet was off doing other things, Ford sold about 80,000 Falcon Rancheros between ’60 and ’63. But by 1964, Chevrolet’s relationship with the El Camino was about to heat up again.

The El Camino was back! And just like 1959, Chevy’s pickup car was a car first and then a truck. Now based on the Chevelle, the new El Camino was larger, it had more engine options and had way more luxury and comfort than the Falcon Ranchero. Chevy sold nearly 60,000 El Caminos in 1964 and 1965: a respectable “Welcome Back” from Chevy’s truck buyers. But something was about to put a whole new spin on the sporty truck thing. These little all purpose vehicles were about to hit head on with the muscle cars.

The 1966 Chevrolet El Camino

In 1966, Chevy’s 396 powered El Camino ushered in the era of the muscle truck. And by 1968, the rest of the Super Sport package from the SS 396 Chevelle was laid on the El Camino. The all purpose vehicle had just become an all purpose muscle car. Thomas Robert explains: “The El Caminos were different. Not everybody likes them. I like them. I’ve always like the ’64 to ’67 El Caminos and the ’66 in particular is my favorite, although I like the ’67s equally this is just a stand out favorite of mine.” Meanwhile, over at Ford, the economy truck era officially ended when Ford upgraded the ’67 Ranchero to Fairlane status.

The 1967 Ranchero Upgrade

The Fairlane was the perfect platform for Ford’s little truck. Like the Chevelle it had style, size, and a pile of luxury options. Also like the Chevelle, Ford was going flat out to turn the Fairlane into a world class muscle car. And what was good for the Fairlane was good for the Ranchero. Powered by horsepower makers like the high winding 289 small block or the torquey 350 horse 390 engine, Rancheros made excellent muscle cars (or trucks). Owners wasted no time in turning their Rancheros into hot rods and showing the folks on the street that these things were made for hauling more than just cargo. Likewise, Chevy’s sporty truck owners were discovering that all the hot parts from Chevy’s high performance catalog could turn their trucks into street monsters with just a little cash and a few hours.

By 1968, Ford’s pickup cars were big time players in the muscle car game. Ford still offered the Ranchero in plain and fancy and in 1969 the Ranchero GT got maximum hauling power thanks to Ford’s bad boy 428 Cobra Jet engine. Still, though, no one could lose sight of the fact that behind the rear window there was a roomy pickup bed. No matter how fancy and high powered these things got, they were still made to do a day’s work before they went out to play at night. Roaring into the 70s, the Ranchero and the El Camino were hitting their stride, both as work horses and race horses.

Hitting Their Stride

By 1970, the muscle car world was all about big cubic inches. And the top of the line pickup cars were now muscle cars in every sense of the word. Ford’s Ranchero had become one stylish little truck through the years but you could still see a blending of the three elements that made up this vehicle and models like the Ranchero Squire. This nifty piece of work was still a truck but with the Country Squire’s station wagon’s side trim and a full on 370 horsepower 429 Cobra Jet motor under the hood, it was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jack Giacalone details: “The’ 70 is probably the raciest and most streamlined model. Step on the gas, it goes. It’s really fun driving. It’s got power when you want it.”

The Ranchero Squire outsold the racier looking GT model by a slim margin that year, which was evidence that some of Chevy’s luxury truck thinking had finally penetrated Ford’s all work and no play philosophy for its little work horse.

Chevy, meanwhile, was continuing to crank up both the horsepower and the style on the El Camino. And in the third year for the Super Sport, it was now a bona fide thunder truck. The ’70 SS was the smoothest, most luxurious El Camino yet. But it’s 350 horsepower 396 had more than enough muscle to make this truck a fearsome street machine. In full SS trim, with the look at me stripes, the vacuum operated cowl induction hood and the special SS 14 by 7 inch wheels, SS El Caminos were as eye catching as they were fast as many people on the street found out. Jack Giacalone recalls racing: “People would pull up beside you and want to know if you want to race and my wife didn’t like it but I’m kind of prone to do that also. She said it’s going to be bad if she has to get her old man out of jail for drag racing but I said, ‘If it happens, it happens.’”

Chevy held the trump card when it came to cubic inches. Their massive 454 big block engine. In 1970, this motor was mated to the Chevelle SS to create the awesome 450 horsepower LS6. And wouldn’t you know it? A few of these engines found their way inside the El Camino. By 1971, with compression ratios falling, the El Camino’s 454 was available as the 365 horse LS5 version. Still the bad boy muscle truck power plant on the street. Ford gave the big block Ranchero one more year but after 1971′s slow sales and pressure to tone down the muscle car thing, Ford’s era of the muscle truck came to a close, at least for a few years.

By 1972, Chevy’s fastest El Camino was still powered by the 402 rat motor. But thanks to lower compression and unleaded fuel, it now made 240 horsepower. Even though it didn’t shake the ground like the LS6s, ti was fast enough for most folks and people still bought ‘em for the same reasons they did back in the 50s. Jack Giacalone laughs: “You can’t fit 500 cement blocks in the back of it but I used to carry my motorcycle in the back and we’d take weekend trips to the trash dump. I mean, it was used as a truck. You just have the luxury of having that but you have the luxury of having a car also.”

Rancheros and El Caminos – True Survivors

Today’s restored El Caminos and Rancheros are true survivors. The ones you see on the street today not only made it through the muscle car era, which was strenuous enough, most of them also survived a lifetime of doing a truck’s work. The ones still around today are a testament to just how attached you can get to a good ol’ truck. Lynn Severance talks about its status: “It is beginning to receive even greater collector’s status and we’re hoping, through the efforts of our club, that we can help spread the glory of owning and driving a Ranchero. There’s nothing like it in the world.” Adds Jeff Dover: “Finding a restored, original El Camino is getting harder nowadays because people have changed the engines, changed paint codes, changed the color. They’ve done a lot of different modifications over the years so it’s hard to find a restored original.”

There’s a sport truck revolution going in recent years and this phenomenon owes a lot to the El Camino and the Ranchero. Very special trucks like GM’s Cyclone and Typhoon and a few others were the Ranchero and El Camino’s grandsons. And these new wave sport utes show the same out of the box thinking that produced the pickup cars. Thanks to those that love ‘em, there are still a few original sport utility vehicles left to remind us that the sporty truck thing isn’t a totally new idea. So, the next time you see an El Camino or a Ranchero and you wonder, is that a car or a truck? Now you know. The correct answer is well said by Mike McAdams: “I don’t think anybody knows or even cares!”

Related posts:

  1. Chevrolet Impala