(first posted 10/18/2016) Nothing looks like an El Camino. Unless it’s a GMC Caballero – the lesser known of General Motors’ half-car/half-pickup vehicles. For 17 of the El Camino’s 26 model years, GMC offered a badge-engineered version of its own, but with only a few thousand being sold each year, they never became well-known. This slightly modified example is from the Caballero’s final production year of 1987 and can shed some light on one of GM’s rarest models of the 1980s.
El Caminos and their GMC twins held a unique place in North America’s automotive landscape, being among the few car-based pickups to endure in a marketplace that was generally ambivalent about the concept. But endure they did – with nearly a million copies having been sold. Throughout the decades, the concept stayed remarkably true to its original intent. Along the way, these vehicles became known as “Cowboy Cadillacs” – and that nickname was as true for our featured 1987 model as it was for the first El Camino nearly three decades earlier.
The El Camino story dates to 1959, when Chevrolet first added the cross-bred car/truck to its lineup. Based on the Bel Air, Chevrolet hoped to bridge the wide gap that existed between comfortable cars and utilitarian trucks. That gap, after all, suggested great opportunity for a niche vehicle.
“El Camino” (literally The Road in Spanish) was meant to evoke the El Camino Real mission trail in California. GM first used the name on a 1954 Cadillac concept car, and noted that cars bearing that name were envisioned to be trailblazers, similar to their historical eponym. But if it was blazing a new trail, the El Camino got off to a shaky start; after two years of mediocre sales, the model was discontinued.
The car/truck concept was still alluring though, and in 1964, El Camino returned, this time based on a Chevelle chassis. Chevy’s rationale for the El Camino in the above ad is revealing – it was intended to be:
“…a vehicle that could not only work hard but look like a million dollars doing it.”
As opposed to the tradesmen shown driving other trucks in the ad, the El Camino driver is shown wearing a shirt and tie. This presaged El Camino’s marketing approach for the next quarter century – a vehicle for white-collar buyers who had an occasional need for hauling cargo, but wanted a more comfortable and presentable vehicle than a typical pickup.
Whomever its customers wound up being, the car/truck concept found modest, but stable demand: Between 1964 and 1977, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation El Caminos sold on average 47,000 copies per year. Along the way, the El Camino attracted another clientele – the muscle car enthusiast. While the Elky’s performance credentials peaked in 1970 (with a 450-hp 454 V-8), El Camino retained both its muscular persona and its muscle car following until the end of its long production run.
For 1971, a new GM family member joined the now-established El Camino. GMC dealers received their own version to sell – the Sprint. From the outset, the GMC differed from its Chevy twin only in the most minor details – badges and trim. Throughout the remainder of the 3rd generation and throughout its 4th, Sprints sold about 5,000 copies annually.
In 1978, the El Camino entered its 5th and final generation, and a GMC version tagged along for the ride. Its name changed, though, with GMC ditching Sprint for Caballero. “Caballero” was intended to complement the El Camino’s own Spanish nomenclature – caballero being a Spanish term for gentleman (GM originally used the name on a model of Buick station wagon sold in 1957-58). Befitting its gentlemanly name, the GMC was promoted as a refined and distinguished vehicle for buyers who wanted the best of both worlds – comfortable cars and useful trucks.
5th generation El Caminos / Caballeros were based on Chevy Malibus, similar to how earlier models were derived from Chevelles. In a departure from previous generations, the underpinnings became somewhat unique, with a 117.1” wheelbase exclusive to the El Camino / Caballero – and 9” longer than that of the Malibu. This was done to ensure a usable bed size and to keep key dimensions similar to those on its larger Chevelle-based predecessor. Though overall length was shorter by nearly a foot compared to the 4th generation vehicles, bed length shrunk only 1” (to 79.5”) and interior dimensions generally grew larger. Caballero’s bed, though, was shallow at 13.6” – more than two inches shallower than that of an S-15 compact pickup.
With their only direct competition, Ford’s Ranchero, discontinued after 1979, the GM twins were left all alone in the car-based pickup market. Since that time, the El Camino and Caballero have been unique fixtures on American roads. These cars have always stood out – despite not standing above – in a crowd.
In 1982, the 5th generation El Camino / Caballero received its most significant appearance change – a redesigned front clip, again courtesy of the Malibu, featuring quad headlamps, as well as revised interior trim. As shown on the two El Camino examples above, the redesign provided a slightly more modern appearance, though this was hardly a cutting-edge design in 1982.
GMC’s Caballero brochure that year called it an “elegant pickup.” Promotional photos reinforced this notion, as Caballeros were shown taking their owners antiquing, to the tennis club and on a romantic night out. Caballeros are rarely shown hauling, towing or getting dirty.
With a range of V-6 and V-8 engines available and a pickup box capacity of 35.5 cu. ft., Caballero’s work threshold was in line with other lighter-duty pickups of its time, but heavy-duty use is not what these vehicles were intended for.
Sales of the post-1982 models dropped to their lowest levels since the El Camino resumed production in 1964. It must have seemed that time had run out on the car/truck concept, particularly with the Malibu itself discontinued after 1983. Yet amazingly the El Camino / Caballero still had another several years of production left. For their last 6 model years, combined sales averaged just below 24,000 units. About 11% of those sales were Caballeros. With only 2,500 units sold each year, there wasn’t much obvious benefit to keeping the Caballero around.
Sometimes, Caballero was even left out of GMC family portraits. In theory, its presence could attract a broad range of customers to the car/truck fold, with GMC dealers often co-located with Pontiac or Buick franchises. However, by the mid-1980s, it’s doubtful that many customers cross-shopped an El Camino or Caballero with anything. For better or worse, they were in a league of their own.
For 1985, these twins became Spanish in more than just name. GM shifted production from Arlington, Texas 600 miles south to Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, and these cars became among GM’s first vehicles imported to the US from Mexico.
Our featured car is from 1987, the Caballero’s (and El Camino’s) last year. As in previous years, differences between El Caminos and Caballeros were wholly cosmetic and consist almost entirely of interior and exterior badges – virtually defining the term “badge engineering.” And with the final generation produced for 10 largely similar years, by 1987 these cars were virtually Curbside Classics while still in production.
1987 Caballeros were available with a standard 4.3-liter fuel-injected V-6, or an optional 5.0-liter 4-bbl. V-8. This car features the V-8 option, which developed 150-hp and 240-lb. ft. of torque. Payload was rated at 1,250 lbs., within the range of GMC’s S-15.
This particular car probably started life as a Diablo model, GMC’s equivalent of the El Camino SS Sport Decor Package. Essentially a sport-trim package, the Diablo featured a subtle front air dam, sport mirrors, rally wheels, some blacked-out trim and other appearance enhancements.
Despite its sinister-sounding name, the Diablo was not a skull-and-crossbones type of vehicle – the above picture is the Diablo image from GMC’s 1987 brochure. Mechanically, Diablos were identical to other Caballeros.
Our featured car differs from its stock appearance however, having been enhanced by features mimicking a limited edition El Camino SS. Between 1983 and 1987, El Caminos were available with an appearance package created by Choo Choo Customs, a car and truck customization firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Choo Choo grafted on a polyurethane front clip similar to that on the Monte Carlo SS, and augmented that with a power bulge hood, side moldings, and special graphics. The Choo Choo package proved popular (and spawned many imitations), but curiously was never available on Caballeros.
This car shows some aftermarket additions similar to the Choo Choo design, notably the hood bulge and similar side moldings, though the front end retains its unaltered Caballero appearance. Several “SS” badges also adorn our featured vehicle, and those are aftermarket additions as well, since there was no official “Caballero SS.”
The maroon interior retains its original appearance. A well-equipped car, this Caballero features power windows and locks, cruise control, air conditioning and the optional GM/Delco cassette stereo with equalizer. A 55/45 split bench seat provides an upscale seating surface, with pillow-style “Comfort Level” upholstery (a non-split bench and bucket seats were also available).
In between the Malibu-sourced front and rear lurks some interesting, and often overlooked bodywork. Unlike on pickups, there is no vertical separation between the cab and the pickup box; one flows seamlessly into the other.
Speaking of seamless, notice the graceful flying buttress B-pillars. The swooping pillars became a hallmark of El Caminos since 1968 and remained so ever since.
The pillars are augmented by triangular quarter-windows that give the side glass area an almost symmetrical appearance. With all of those styling details, one can see why GM billed the El Camino / Caballero as “one racy looking vehicle.”
The curved glass, though, did contribute to one minor reduction of the Caballero’s functionality – the front corners of the bed were similarly curved, rather than squared-off as on other pickups.
Despite these styling touches, by the mid-1980s, it was clear that the car/truck concept trail was nearing an end. El Caminos and Caballeros were pure profit for GM by that point (tooling had long since been paid for), but the sales volume did not justify a replacement.
Much had changed since the concept was first introduced, notably a blurring of the car and truck distinction. However, it didn’t blur in the Caballero’s favor. Ironically, the 1988 Dodge Dakota parked next to our Caballero demonstrates this change – trucks increasingly took on car characteristics and amenities, rather than cars sprouting pickup beds.
After the El Camino and Caballero ended production, the car/truck concept slowly receded from memory in North America. Today, even though pickups have thoroughly permeated the mainstream marketplace, the Caballero seems like an oddity – a pickup designed around car-like comfort without any pretension of overbearing arrogance.
Perhaps because of its rarity, the Caballero is a car that lived up to its name: A gentleman. In a world where true gentlemen seem rarer than they’ve ever been, it’s even more of a standout now then it was three decades ago. ¡Hasta la vista, Caballero!
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in June 2016.