Curbside Classic: 1957 Ford Ranchero – The First Respectable Truck

(first posted 11/15/2011)   From today’s perspective, Rancheros – and their El Camino counterparts – are just cool, funky, fun and desirable, because of their unique configuration and, well; because they’re cool, funky and and fun. What else is needed? They long ago achieved cult status, and one can never go wrong showing up in one, regardless of whether that’s in Beverly Hills or Lubbock. And for anyone under the age of fifty or so, the reasons for their existence are self-evident: another opportunity for guys to express their disdain for sedans, and all the implications of domesticity they imply. The Anti-Paternity Mobile, as I tagged the 1969 Ranchero we did a while back. In today’s time frame, the dozen years between 1957 and 1969 may not seem like much, but back then, well; how old is rap? Think kids in 1969 were listening to Pat Boone?

So to try to understand why Ford decided to build the first Ranchero in 1957, we need to make a huge jump, culturally speaking. And it involves this: in 1957, trucks were madly uncool. Nobody ever took a girl out in a truck in 1957, period. They’d beg, steal or borrow anything else; whatever it took. Trucks were nasty, dirty and as un-sexy as it got; might as well take a tractor to the prom. Enter the Ranchero.

You probably can’t make out the text, but here’s the key lines from this ad:

Because Ranchero, with its crisp modern lines, has a wonderful way of saying nice things about your company. Nice things like “progressive”…”up-to-date”…”good to deal with”. That’s why the Ranchero is excellent for any business – large or small – where customer impressions count.

Does that implicate genuine trucks adequately enough? As in, you’re going to be seen as a crude, dirty, untrustworthy hick if you show up to fix Mrs. Smiths’ sink in a Ford F-100. Like I said, 1957 was a long time ago, and America’s embrace of the truck as the family truckster was as unimaginable as gay marriage.

In that context, the Ranchero was as obvious as, and analogous to Ford’s 1958 Thunderbird: time to step up your game, dude!

Imagine driving around your suburban neighborhood, and not seeing a genuine pickup truck, anywhere. To the best of my memory, that was the case when I arrived in Iowa City in 1960, and I was pretty observant. The first one appeared in 1964, a big Dodge double cab with a giant cab-over camper; the forerunner of the RV. And then our neighbors bought a new 1965 Chevy C10, because they were building a house in the country to move to. And of course, those were strictly second vehicles. And of course, there were exceptions, somewhere.

Drive out of town, and every farm had a pickup. But there was always a sedan too. And you know which one got driven to church, game or the the dance. All which explains the divergent evolution of automobilus ute; as in Australian ute, or utility coupe, from the American counterpart. Even the lowliest of American farmers could afford a sedan, even if it meant driving a ten year old pickup.

Not so in Australia. The ute was a necessary compromise of coupe and truck, because folks needed one vehicle to haul the barbed wire  as well as to drive to church on Sunday. The Ranchero was never conceived of in the same vein, and American “utes” and Ozzie utes are as different in their genealogy as coyotes and kangaroos. They both have tails, but that’s about the extent of it.

And for what it’s worth, the Ranchero was hardly a brilliant idea, or sales success. Until the mid-late sixties, when Chevy’s El Camino became “cool”, an “individualistic” alternative to a Malibu coupe, the category’s sales were somewhere between modest and mediocre. Not that it probably hurt Ford any; the Ranchero shared a whole lot of body parts with its aptly-named stable-mate, the two-door Ranch Wagon.

Even the tailgate was re-used. And presumably, Ford’s legendarily mediocre build quality for that year.

Our example has been “improved” a bit, but was a regular driver parked downtown on and off for a couple of years. I’m particularly fond of its caramel paint job.  Yumm! Whether the machinery in the engine compartment has been improved is unknown. Ford’s 226 six and the 272 and 292 Y-blocks were the choices, then.

Even though Ford may not have made a lot of hay with the early Rancheros, it was another example of their willingness to blaze new market niches. That would serve Ford well, mostly. It may not have turned out to be another T-Bird, but it wasn’t an Edsel either. Development costs were undoubtedly peanuts, and the tooling didn’t take much to pay off. A risk worth taking, even if earlier attempts at a similar concept, like the Hudson car-based pickups a decade earlier flopped.

The Ranchero cost a not-insubstantial amount more than a dirty F-100, which undoubtedly held back its appeal. But someone has to be the trailblazer, and the Ranchero paved the way for a raft of smaller and more civilized trucks of all sorts. Before we knew it, trucks became respectable; maybe too much so.