A feature last year on The El Caminos of Los Angeles depicted the fleet of Chevrolet El Caminos of every generation from 1964 to 1987 on the streets of L.A. Southern California being the land that rust forgot, almost any car can be kept on the road indefinitely as long as its owner finds it useful and is willing to keep it functioning mechanically, so large numbers of the highly useful and cheap to repair El Camino have survived as work vehicles.
In areas of the country with snow and salt, the story is different, however, and El Caminos survive in some numbers but often with more than utility as the motivation for the effort of keeping them alive. The El Camino SS has been the inspiration for the survival of many of these El Caminos. The SS396 and SS454 of 1968-72 are the most famous and have inspired the most survivors and clones, but the little-known El Camino SS of 1983-87 has its own following and movement of imitators. It probably can take credit for a considerable number of the survivors of the 1978-87 generation.
The 1983-87 El Camino SS is a model whose existence I notice every day, because one of my neighbors has owned this example for many years. With the El Camino SS logo on its tailgate, gleaming black paint with pinstripes, and wide rubber on American Racing wheels, it is clearly different from the average working El Camino. Somehow, I have never met this neighbor, and it is unfortunate, because his choice of vehicles–the El Camino SS and a W126 Mercedes 500SEL–indicates that we have similar tastes in cars and possibly other things.
The El Camino SS name returned in 1983 after having disappeared with the introduction of the downsized 1978 Malibu and El Camino. This iteration of the El Camino SS was a semi-factory custom built for GM by Choo Choo Customs in Chattanooga, Tennessee (hence the “Choo Choo” name). Its signature feature was its aerodynamic, body colored polyurethane front end, similar to the front end of the 1983 Monte Carlo SS.
With the 1983-88 Monte Carlo SS, a winning body style in NASCAR racing, the El Camino benefited from a racing halo effect to go along with its utility as a small pickup. Connection to motorsport would be a significant part of the promotion of the El Camino SS, which appeared as an IROC pace car in 1985-86 and an official service truck at the 1986 Indianapolis 500. I could not find sales figures, but this photo leads me to believe that they were quite brisk, most likely in NASCAR territory where they would benefit most from the connection to the Monte Carlo SS.
The “Designer Series” SS package was, in the tradition of Chevrolet’s Super Sport packages of the 1960s, a trim package. In addition to the aerodynamic front end, the El Camino SS received Rally wheels and special moldings and decals, and further appearance items like a non-functional cowl induction styled hood scoop, non-functional side pipes, and a spoiler were optional. The drivetrain was standard El Camino and Malibu fare, with the 110 horsepower 3.8L V6 and automatic transmission and the optional 150 horsepower 5.0L V8. Of course, El Camino SS owners then and now could use the vast universe of small block Chevy performance parts to enhance their car/truck’s power.
The El Camino SS lasted until the end of the El Camino in 1987, and in a way it never went away because Choo Choo Customs continued making El Camino SS specialty parts after 1987 and continues to sell them today. So anyone in 2014 who has an El Camino and wants an El Camino SS can make one.
Quite a number of people appear to want an El Camino SS, because like the 1968-72 SS396 and SS454, the 1983-87 El Camino SS has numerous clones out on the streets. This very clean El Camino with the SS front end, cowl induction styled hood, and custom paint appears to be a work vehicle at a local body shop, with a cargo bed full of parts and supplies. It is one of several highly customized 1978-87 El Caminos I’ve seen in my area, appearing to outnumber original, unmodified survivors.
Largely original, time-worn El Caminos probably outnumber modified examples, but with the last El Camino produced in 1987, it is likely that an increasing number of the surviving El Caminos on the East Coast have relied on restoration or customization to undo the toll of 27 or more years of road salt and other elements. The rust-eaten condition of this 1969 is far more typical of what one can expect from an El Camino on the East Coast that has not had considerable work done on it.
The El Camino will always be a vehicle that some people will love and some people will hate, but being a useful light duty cargo hauler with the performance potential and passenger accommodations of a mid-sized car, its appeal is easy to appreciate. The SS and its clones will probably keep the El Camino’s presence on the streets on the East Coast high for many years to come.