COAL: 1986 Chevrolet El Camino – A Sad Ending

The Chevy El Camino makes me smile.  It is one of those vehicles people love to hate on.  The El Camino was certainly a niche market vehicle and those outside of the niche never “got it”.   It certainly wasn’t the greatest truck, and wasn’t that great of a car either.  But it was unique.  After the Ford Ranchero was discontinued, there was nothing else like it.

As a kid, the El Camino always fascinated me, and I decided that one day I would get one.  The El Camino was manufactured for decades, and there are lots of different versions.  The last, most recent version was the 1978-1987 model on the “G” body chassis.

The El Camino was a body-on frame vehicle that used a long frame similar to the G station wagon’s.  Incidentally, the El Camino and the G wagons also shared a unique rear bumper that incorporated the tail lights.

I found an El Camino for sale locally on the web.  It was not running but the pictures showed a complete vehicle.  When I called, the seller seemed very nervous.  He refused to give me his address.  After some back-and-forth, he agreed to meet me at a doughnut shop.  The vehicle didn’t run, so I didn’t understand how was this was going to work, but I went.  When I arrived, there was no one there.  It turns out he was spying on me from a different store on the opposite corner.  I guess I passed the “test” so I could follow him.  We drove to a very sketchy part of town and looked at the El Camino.  It was parked alongside a house that couldn’t have been more than 800 square feet in total.  The El Camino was very rough, but nicer than the house.

It was two tone silver and came with the fuel injected 4.3 V6.  The odometer showed 46k.  It had either rolled over once or possibly twice, he swore to me that it had 46 thousand original miles, I chuckled.  It was over 20 years old and every part of this vehicle was used and abused.  It had obviously done some heavy hauling, the bed had hundreds of dings and dents and barely any paint left.  The seller reluctantly agreed to let it go for $600.  I think I finally paid him something like $612 – I emptied my wallet because he kept begging for more money.

I backed the tow dolly right up to it and asked for help rolling it on.  He immediately jumped in the driver’s seat to steer it those 24 inches or so.  I was frustrated, and told him not only did I have to push it by myself, now I had to push his weight along with it!  He screamed for a one-armed neighbor to come over and help push.  You can’t make this stuff up.

It ran great after the coil was replaced.  That little 4.3 was the only bright spot.  The interior needed work, the body needed more.  I replaced the carpet and found a better seat at the salvage yard.  I did all the bodywork and got it painted.  I used multiple coats of that texturized liquid bedliner which made the bed look 100% better.

A little El Camino trivia before I get to the sad ending.  The first year for the El Camino was 1959.  The Ford Ranchero actually pre-dates the El Camino.  There was a GMC version first called Sprint, then later the name was changed to Caballero.  Regardless of name, all these GM vehicles had a “secret” compartment under the bed, behind the seat where the spare tire and jack were.  From the dashboard forward, the last generation was identical to the Chevy Malibu, every part interchanges.

Back to the story.  I used my El Camino daily for a while, and occasionally hauled stuff.  Then I sold it to a young man in town.  Less than a year later I read about a fatal accident on the interstate near the exit to my neighborhood.   It was a late-night, fiery crash.  The next day there was an update to the story and it mentioned the victim was driving an ’86 El Camino.

It was him.  Apparently he broke down in the wee hours of the morning on the interstate in the center lane.  He was rear ended by a small car, and then again by a tractor-trailer.  The second impact split the gas tank.  A vehicle stopped on a highway and hit from behind by another traveling at speed is an extremely violent impact.

I was somber and depressed, I felt so bad for the family.  I did not want to be a part of that story.  I decided to quit flipping cars.

I found out later that a V8 swap had been done to the El Camino.  As with all engine swaps, I suppose there were still bugs to be worked out.  I assume that was the reason for the midnight breakdown.  A sad story, and for me, the sight of an El Camino is now bittersweet.