We seem to be on a truck fling here at CC, so let’s keep it going – kind of. Through much of my life, the El Camino was not a novelty, it was just there. Like Walter Cronkite on the news and telephones with dials, El Caminos were just part of the background. Nobody in my family or neighborhood or circle of friends owned one. I don’t believe that I have ever even ridden in one. For most of that time, I didn’t really care to. But at some point, just like the old news anchors and rotary phones, the El Camino just sort of faded away. It is too bad, because it was an interesting idea.
Like the Satyr – that mythical creature that was half man and half goat – the El Camino was the combination of two distinct natures. We won’t go through their whole history of Chevrolet’s half car-half pickup other than to say that after the original 1959-60 Impala based version, the vehicle reappeared in 1964 on the Chevelle chassis, where it would remain until the end. Through every version of the Chevelle/Malibu of the 60s, 70s and 80s, the El Camino was part of the lineup. And they were not alone. Ford was usually right in there with the Ranchero, giving those of us more disposed to Fords an alternative to the tidy little Chevy ute. Ford bowed out when the LTDII line expired in 1979. Although the Fox platform could have made the best Ranchero since the Falcon version, we will never know, and Chevrolet finally had the market to itself by 1980.
The 1978 Chevelle/Malibu was not (in my view) a particularly attractive car. As with the new Caprice the year before, the downsized Malibu was more about substance than looks. It was kind of plain, even a bit homely. Sedan, coupe or wagon, there was no flow in the lines. The car was all brick. But for the first time ever, the El Camino was the style leader of the line. The El Camino brought back a little of the old Bill Mitchell magic with curves, flow and style. Look at the concave curve of the rear glass and rear cab, and the graceful sweep of the sail panel as it flows into the bedside. Was there any other vehicle from this time period with lines this graceful? This was par for the course a decade or two earlier, but was extremely unusual styling in the late 70s. And in a truck(let), no less. This was a good thing, because we got to look at the car for 10 years, through the 1987 model run.
I will confess that I had to work up some enthusiasm to write about this vehicle, but my effort was rewarded. Actually, I learned some fascinating facts about these cars. Although the 78 Malibu was downsized from the 77, the El Camino actually got a 1 inch increase in wheelbase, to 117 and a chassis that was shared with no other Chevrolet. What it did share was its front clip with the Malibu, its rear bumper/tailgate with the Malibu wagon, and its doors with the Monte Carlo. This may be one of GM’s most successful cut and paste jobs of all time. Style-wise, it is tough to distinguish the years of these. The grille was changed to the eggcrate design in 1982, and that was about it. As near as I can deduce, this car is an 82 because it has the new grille, and the unique copper color (Light Redwood Metallic – a favorite of mine) which did not carry over to 1983. But I don’t know my 80s Chevy trivia that well, so please step in if I require a little more education.
Rather than finding this car, it sort of found me. It passed me as my daughter and I were driving to Sam’s Club for 5 gallons of pickles or something. It suddenly dawned on me that I had not seen one of these in ages, and this one was actually pretty nice. As I pulled into Sam’s parking lot, there it was. Although I was not fast enough to catch the driver, I got some decent pictures. While these came with an assortment of V6 and diesel engines built by various GM divisions (as they used to say) this car has the Chevrolet 305 V8, which sounded quite pleasant as it passed me. Up close, this car has been very well cared for through its nearly 30 year life. But it sports still another 80s GM hood with dull paint.
I was always pretty ambivalent about the El Camino, and was even a mite hostile towards the 73-77 version, which I didn’t care much for at all (along with its Chevelle/Malibu sibling). But this fresh look at the car has been a positive experience for me. The powertrain was pretty well sorted out (if you could avoid the miserable THM 200), they resisted the tinworm better than most and they are quite pleasant to look at. The sportiness of a 2 seater, the utility of a truck. What’s not to like here?
So if this was such a great idea, what happened to it? Not fully a truck or a car, the market was always limited. The ute may be part of the social fabric down under, but they never got much traction in the US. These sold pretty steadily from 40 to 60 thousand units per year through the 70s and up to 1982, when demand dropped to about 25 thousand annual units for the rest of its life (with a dropoff in its last year). Let’s start with the fact that the car had gone virtually unchanged for 10 seasons. Unless you are selling police cars, this is not usually a winning plan.
But I think that The El Camino’s bigger problem was Chevy’s own S-10 which, coincidentally, arrived in 1982, the year of the older vehicle’s big sales drop. Maybe the market just valued utility over style, something that the S-10 delivered. Another major factor was the death of the other vehicles with which the El Camino shared its components. Low volume is fine when it supplements a lot of Malibus and Monte Carlos. But the Malibu was gone after 1982 and the Monte was dead by 88. With the rest of the mid sized rear drive platforms gone, the El Camino finally withered and died.
It is funny that it took me this long to really notice that they were gone. And after thinking about them for a bit, I kind of miss them. This may actually be my favorite 80s Chevrolet. This vehicle was unique in the 80s, and I am always in favor of anything that brings its own flavor to the automotive smorgasbord. The El Camino did this very well. And a pleasant flavor it was.