Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevrolet El Camino – I Have Seen Many Strange And Amazing Things In America

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October 5, 1960

Dear Harald,

I’m sorry I haven’t written to you sooner. Our trip to America was very exciting, on one of the new DC-8 jets. New York was incredible, all those skyscrapers. Iowa City is a nice little town, and I am quickly learning English in school. Everything is sooooo different; how can I begin to explain it all? And the cars! I have seen so many fantastic cars, and the new 1961 models just came out. But of all the strange and amazing things I have seen so far, this one is ultimate. You won’t believe it, but this is actually a truck!

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Back in Austria, small trucks (called “pickups” here) are so different then the ones here. They are obviously designed for carrying loads, and the bed takes up the most of their length.

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And the sides of their beds flip down, to make loading and unloading easier. Oh, before I forget, there are a few VW buses in Iowa City; our church even has one. But I haven’t seen a VW pickup yet.

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In Iowa, mainly the farmers drive pickups, many of them older ones like this one. They seem to be very rugged. And although the bed is not as big as on the European pickups, at least it looks like one could use it for actually hauling things. I’ve seen pigs riding in them.

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On the new ones, the cabs are lower and some of them have beds where the sides of the bed extend all the way out to the side of the truck cab, which makes them look sleeker. But the sides don’t still fold down. I wonder why?

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So why would they also build this thing? And call it “El Camino”? Chevrolet already has a whole line of pickups. But it does look  amazing, ja?

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It just seems odd that they would have those sharp fins sticking out right where people have to lean in to load things into the back or sides. Or if you’re a kid just trying to look into the bed. The bed isn’t very big at all, once you actually see it.

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If you’re a little kid, forget it. Maybe that’s the reason; to keep kids from snooping into the beds of their El Caminos.

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Especially if it’s missing its trim. Ouch!

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I suppose there are other practical reasons for the fins too. Why else would they have them?

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But the best thing is the cab; it’s just like the Impala four door hardtop, but without the rear seat. I love that pointy lip sticking out over the rear window. So many of the GM cars have it, but it’s mostly gone away for the 1961 cars. I’m going to miss it.

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The interior is of course just like the Chevrolet sedans too, except no back seat. I like those five big round pods; the 1961 dash is a lot more boring in comparison.

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And that steering wheel is pretty neat too; a lot nicer than the Ford steering wheel. But wait until I tell you about the Chrysler steering wheels, Harald, and some of their cars too. Maybe this El Camino isn’t the strangest thing I’ve seen so far after all. I don’t know how to begin to describe them to you.

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Anyway, I just love that cab in this truck. I wonder why they don’t use a similar one for their really big trucks, the big semi tractors. Imagine this way up high; that would be so cool.

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I asked the man who owned this El Camino if I could see under the hood. Americans are so friendly; you just wouldn’t do that on the street in Innsbruck. It has a V8 engine; think of that, Harald. A V8 engine in a little truck than can barely carry anything. A VW pickup can carry a ton, and only has a four little cylinders with 36 hp. This one has 185 hp!

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But that’s not all. I saw another El Camino, and noticed it had a different emblem on the front of the hood, with flags on it. The owner told me it meant that there was a bigger engine under the hood, and asked if I wanted to see it? Of course!

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Wow! The man said it had 348 cubic inches, which I had my dad convert to liters for you: 5.7!! Almost twice that of an Adenauer Mercedes 300! In a truck with a small cargo bed. And this one has three carburetors and 315 hp!! That’s more than a big semi truck tractor!

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The man told me to stand near the back of it, and then he got in and started it up and revved it up and down like crazy. It had the most amazing sound! Wicked and snarly with a staccato . He said that the 348 was famous for its distinctive exhaust sound. Well, VWs have a distinctive exhaust sound, but they sound like a girl farting in church compared to the nasty bellowing of this thing. And it’s a truck! What a crazy place this is. But I love it.

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So who would buy a truck like this? I guess Chevrolet must be asking this question too, as the El Camino is already cancelled after just two years. There’s no 1961 models in the brochures anywhere.

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Instead, Chevrolet has brought out this Corvair Rampside pickup. It’s as different from the El Camino as it possibly could be. It’s very European, really just like a VW pickup, with an air-cooled rear engine and a cab in front. But it has very modern styling. And it has a neat side gate that folds down so one can load things into it very easily that way.

But its exhaust sounds kind of farty too; nothing like that bellowing big 348 V8. I wonder if Americans will like it any better than the El Camino. I’m not sure Americans are ready for European style trucks. Now if they could put a 348 V8 in this Rampside, that might be good. But then they already have regular pickups; why do they keep inventing new ones?

Next time I write I promise I will tell you about the 1960 Imperial this rich old lady in the next block has in her garage.

Yours,

Paul

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Postscript: I’ve shot this ’59 El Camino twice, several years apart. The owner has used it as his only daily driver for over twelve years, during which time it’s made the trip between Arizona and Oregon several times. A genuine curbside classic.