Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevy El Camino- Unrestrained Exuberance

 

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Back in October of 2013, I posted “The El Caminos of Los Angeles.” That article included 20 different El Caminos photographed over a two week span, demonstrating that the streets of LA were littered with these American utes. However, the article also noted I didn’t find any of the original Elkys, built in ’59 & ’60. Eighteen months later, I’ve finally found one on the streets of Long Beach, and gathered enough pics to justify a full write up.

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Chevy brought out the El Camino in response to Ford’s Ranchero, a model Ford first offered in 1957. In 1959, both Ford and Chevy offered these “pickups” with their full sized station wagons providing the platform. Given the exuberant styling of the time, the utilitarian aspects of these vehicles were overshadowed by the deeply drawn sheet metal panels draped around the pickup box. Thanks to the Chevie’s “batwing” styling, it may be the most impractical pickup body ever built.

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In another posting, Paul reviewed the ’59 El Camino using the perspective of his younger self.  That may be the best approach to understand these trucks. This Jet Age styling may have made sense to a youth growing up in the sixties, but since it came out two years before I was born, I lack the ability to relate.

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I will say this- Sighting down the side of a ’59 El Camino, you’ll never mistake it for any other vehicle. I’m no fan, but at the same time, I’m delighted it exists. The thing is so damn single minded in it’s pursuit of style strictly for the sake of style. Looking at my Miata parked in the Camino’s gun sights, I marvel that the world has room for two vehicles so diverse in design and purpose, yet both are (essentially) a two person transportation device.

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In case you haven’t picked up on it, for me the styling overwhelms all other aspects of this truck. The ’59 Chevy was the second year of the X-Frame, quad headlights, and the big block 348, but I see no reason to discuss these details. Whether you take in the ’59’s shape from a distance, or step in close, you’ll find a detail or curve you missed on the initial viewing.

In this shot, I’m fascinated by the crudeness of these tail lights. I’m not talking about the dents in the trim, but rather the way the assembly appears to be slapped up against the sheet metal, and then mounted to the car using exposed screws. I had higher expectations from GM- It seems to me their tail lights of thar era typically interlocked with the sheetmetal, and tucked the mounting hardware into the nooks and crannys of the tail light lenses.

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I’m also amazed by this fuel door. The way it tucks under the wing, and curves to match the fender further emphasizes the outrageous styling . When it’s all said and done, nothing about this vehicle fits the phrases “truck” or “utility.”

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Our final look at the ’59 takes in all the gingerbread mounted to the front clip. The dual spears mounted to the fender tops, dual grilles flanking the turn signals, and a main grille missing several chrome caps all emphasize the excesses of the time.

Throughout this article, I’ve tried to avoid using the words like “ugly” and “gross,” but perhaps it is time to concede the obvious- There’s no real upside to the ’59 Chevy styling, and turning it into a pickup takes it from absurd to completely gruesome. I’m sure there are those who will disagree with me, but this truck is just fugly.

60 Elky 1I also found these shots of an 1960 El Camino in my files, taken by Robert Kim some time ago. He knew I was looking for a first generation El Camino, and was kind enough to share them with me. Overall, I think the 1960 styling is an improvement. Up front, the grille is cleaner, with fewer disparate elements and less useless gingerbread.

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The back loses most of the scallop defining the batwing, and better incorporates the tail lights into the back panel. It’s still an impractical body with a relatively useless bed, but it’s moving in the right direction.

I did not intend to cover the history of the El Camino today, but it’s worth noting that these full sized Chevy utes only lasted for two model years. Styling may not be the only factor in their failure (For example, Ford brought out their smaller, Falcon based Ranchero in 1960), but they did not live long in the market. The improved looks in 1960 did not sway the buying public, and sales came in even weaker than in ’59, leading to a brief hiatus of the El Camino nameplate.

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Chevy resurrected it in 1964, using the mid size Chevelle platform. The ’64 El Camino arrived with sheet metal better suited to a pickup box, along with a more practical size. While I’m hard pressed to call this similar ’65 beautiful, I would call it well proportioned and practical, phrases you’ll never hear in reference to it’s ancestor from 1959. The public agreed, buying enough trucks to maintain the line for over twenty years.