Curbside Classic: 1961 Ford Ranchero – America’s Lowest Price and Hippest Pickup

America’s love affair with pickups is hardly new. Sure, it took a while for them to become the perennial best sellers, but ever since the mid 50s, there were signs of a budding crush developing. Ford’s Ranchero was one little but key aphrodisiac in that first process. It took a while for it and its cross-town rival El Camino to find their ultimate market niche, but by then their days were effectively numbered because big pickups had become fully civilized and gone mainstream. Whatever role the American utes had in their fairly brief lifespan was soon played out.

The Falcon version of the Ranchero was particularly interesting, as it also lowered the financial bar, and as such it can be seen as the precursor to the huge mini-truck mania that swept the land a decade or so after it arrived in 1960. And of course it’s the hippest of the bunch.

Ford pioneered the segment in the modern era with its 1957 Ranchero, based on the full-sized Ford; the two door Ranch Wagon more specifically, with which it shared a good deal of its body panels. Going back a few decades, pickups were all based more heavily on the sedan counterparts, but in the 1930s most of them started to diverge with unique bodies and chassis, although there were a few exceptions like the Hudson and the Studebaker Champ.

I’ve covered the ’57 Ranchero here, and titled it “America’s First Respectable Truck”, as real pickups were still widely considered to be the rough and ready work tools of certain professions.

The first shot at respectability for real pickups was the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, conceived by Chuck Jordan. It was created by adding sleek fiberglass panels to the universally-used step-side bed of the times, along with a sleek new rear end and bumper, a very nicely trimmed cab interior and some other touches to turn it into something rather different. Sales in 1955 (5,000) were somewhat encouraging given its considerable price premium, but already in its second year, they started to fizzle out.

One can’t help but wonder why they didn’t just use their new 1955 Nomad wagon for the Cameo, or the proto-El Camino. I rather suspect it would have made a much bigger splash and a more enduring one. This one is of course a custom conversion.

Dodge countered two years later with its 1957 Sweptline, which was of course a Cameo Carrier imitation, but by then that approach was passé.

In 1957, Ford showed the way forward with its new Styleside beds, which were the real thing, not just a stepside with plastic falsies. This was a key step in making the every-day pickup look more stylish, and Chevrolet quickly followed in 1958 with its Fleetside bed.

The 1957-1959 Ranchero was decidedly a niche or lifestyle vehicle, and as such, its sales were modest at best. And then in 1959, Chevrolet jumped in with its wild bat-winged El Camino. That only diluted that narrow slice of the market further. Good thing that Ford had already decided to move the Ranchero to the Falcon platform. In any case, the El Camino was a two-year wonder in its first iteration, killed by weak sales and the fact that there was no more two door wagon or sedan delivery in 1961 with which to share tooling. And in 1961, the Corvair Rampside and pickup offered something a bit different, compact and efficient as a complement to the regular pickup trucks.

Of course Ford too fielded a Falcon-based Econoline van and pickup, so Ford was really covering all the bases starting in 1961. But the pickup version didn’t last very long either.

With the Falcon Ranchero, there was a now a new emphasis on low price and economical operating costs.  Here was America’s lowest-priced pickup, and one that was advertised to get up to 30mpg. Probably cruising at a steady 50 or so might actually yield that number, but the point was made. It all played into the zeitgeist that propelled compacts and low-cost cars into the spotlight, a combination of a reaction to the giant finned barges of the mid-late 50s and a double-dip recession in ’58 and ’61.

The Falcon was also ideal, as it did include a two-door wagon in the lineup, upon which to base both the Ranchero and Sedan Delivery. This means the investment to tool these was not exactly huge. And sales did perk up, as its low cost and efficiency spoke to a sgment of buyers looking for a little hauler.


This ’61 Ranchero is very much in sync with the times. Old falcons are cool, so an old Falcon Ranchero ups the ante considerably.


The purple wheels and green hubcaps are the frosting on this tidbit. I don’t know what’s under the hood, but I rather suspect it’s a genuine Falcon six, as these are not cool once they’ve been hot rodded. It may well not be the original standard 144 or the optional 170 version, but a 200 or 250 would make a nice motor in one of these, given how light they are (ca. 2500lbs).

The original bench seat has been tossed in favor of some much more comfortable buckets, and a homemade wooden box does duty as a center console. The floor mounted Hurst shifter raises the question as to what it’s attached to. I’m guessing it’s the original three-speed, or a later fully synchronized version, or possibly a four speed. The 8 ball doesn’t exactly tell us much.

The bed is on its way to looking like the bed in my F100.

The Ranchero was of course restyled in the boxy mode for 1964-1965, and was the beneficiary of the excellent 289 V8 in ’65.

A ’64 Ranchero became famous after it hauled off the compacted remains of a 5000lb Lincoln Continental in the movie “Goldfinger” without breaking a sweat, or spring.

The 1966-1967 Ranchero is a curious beast, as it sported a Falcon front end in ’66.

But the El Camino, which had reappeared in 1964 as a Chevelle offshoot, quickly redefined the genre. Now it increasingly about sporty styling and performance, and when the ’66 El Camino was offered with an optional 396 V8, the gloves had come off. These trucks were now quickly becoming two-passenger muscle coupes with a bed out back for a large cooler full of beer.

Ford responded by swapping out front end clips on the Ranchero, thus elevating it to Fairlane status.

The Ranchero continued to track the evolution of Ford’s intermediate cars, through the Fairlane, Torino and even the LTD II, ending in 1979 with that car’s oversize front end. That has earned it the dubious moniker “center cab” in my book. Quite the contrast from the little Falcon it started out as.

The later Rancheros have their fans, but I’m afraid I’m with the Eugene contingent that considers this one the best of them all. And I felt that way about them before I moved here. I’ve been a fan since I first saw one in 1961.