Many moons ago, I wrote a love letter to the many El Caminos plying the streets of Los Angeles. At the time, my only motivation was to describe a unique aspect of LA culture (that continues today). However, it turns out the article infected me with El Camino fever, and over the next four years I found the idea of owning an American “Ute” more and more appealing. Checking Craigslist postings on a weekly basis, by the spring of 2017 I decided an upcoming move justified a purchase. I pitched the idea to my wife, and she gave her assent (Proof of our solid partnership).
Prior to making the purchase, I drilled a bit deeper into the world of El Caminos. Between 1959 and 1987, Chevy built 5 different generations, but my budget limited me to nice examples from the 4th (1973-1977) or 5th (1978-1987) series. So which gen did I want? Well, five years ago, I had this to say about the 4th gen Elcos:
“These 73-77 models are the opposite of the muscle cars. They have too little power and too much metal. While all El Caminos have similar bed dimensions, this body of this generation was 15 inches longer than the rest, and it carried an additional 600 pounds. Compared to other generations, this truck was a whale. Fortunately, the final generation returned the El Camino to it’s (right sized) roots.”
Clearly, my preference was a fifth gen truck, so I researched my options. GM built this truck for ten model years, using the down sized A-body platform.
They used 4 engine types and seven different displacements. Most trucks came with a Chevy motor- the 90 degree V-6 (200, 229, or 262,) or the small block V-8 (267, 305 or 350). However, some early models offered the Buick 231 V-6 in California, and for two years Chevy offered the 350 cubic inch Olds V-8 diesel.
For transmissions, most El Caminos came with a variation of GMs Turbo-hydramatic. Initially they were 3 speed only, but 4-speed overdrive versions became an option in 1985. From 1978 to 1982, you could get a manual transmission (3-speed in the V-6, a full 4 cogs behind the V-8), but both were very uncommon, and in 1983 Chevy dropped the manuals from the option list.
While I wouldn’t turn down a 350 four speed combination, the engine option that caught my eye first appeared in 1985, when the base V-6 grew to 262 Cubic inches. We all know it better as the 4.3 liter Vortec V-6, and Chevy tossed in TBI style fuel injection to sweeten the pot.
As the only factory injected (gasoline) motor installed in any El Camino, this option offered me excellent reliability, good cold starting performance and improved fuel economy. In addition, early GM TBI systems are dirt simple to tune and service. As an additional inducement, in 1987 several internal improvements moved it very close to the horsepower rating of the 305 V-8 (though torque still trailed a bit). In fact, the 1987 V-6 exceeded the power rating of almost every other engine offered since 1978.
With my preferred engine identified, I reviewed trim levels and interior features. As it turns out, one El Camino was pretty much like another. You could get some fancy paint jobs and chrome trim packages, but all models used the same basic body, and the bones were very similar truck to truck. My decision made, I started to look for any ’85-’87 V-6 with the four speed automatic. I probably would have bought a 3-speed automatic if I found a nice enough truck, but after about three months I found my preferred package in the San Gabriel Valley.
Outside of minor rust spots on the A-pillar and hood, the truck was rust free. The paint and interior fabrics showed thirty years of sun damage, but it drove impeccably, and included the overdrive automatic. I was delighted to pick this truck up for a very reasonable $3,100.
It’s called the El Kylemino, in honor of my cousin Kyle (on the left in the picture), who lost a fight with cancer a few years ago. Kyle was an El Camino kind of guy and a big Chevy fan, so I’m sure he’s smiling down on this truck from heaven.
This article shows the truck at the time of purchase. Someone installed (Oldsmobile) styled steel wheels and an aftermarket muffler with dual tipped exhaust, but the rest of the car was stock.
A base model, the build sheet listed a tilt wheel (score!), a gauge package (but no tach), along with a driver’s remote control mirror and an increased capacity fuel tank. At purchase, most of the gauges displayed incorrect values, but everything else functioned perfectly within GM’s design parameters.
I’ve owned the truck two years now, and it’s looks have changed as compared to these early pics. It’s my go-to rig for junkyard runs, so I have no immediate plans to add a shiny coat of new paint, but I have addressed the rust and sunburned paint. I’ve also added a few custom modifications and upgraded interior features. Next week I’ll give you a closer look at the interior, touch on some basic gauge repairs, and highlight some modifications to improve the cockpit experience, so stay tuned!
Note: In another interesting example of the CC Effect, TWO authors own a brown El Camino, and we’re both sharing our ownership experience here on Curbside Classic. I’ve enjoyed the articles posted by Pioneer Fox, and I hope he enjoys mine, but we are two different authors talking about two distinct vehicles.
To avoid confusion, please note the byline! Thanks, Dave S