Australian farmer Slim Westman originated the idea for a vehicle that became known as the Ute and Chevrolet was not involved. Westman heard about pickup trucks that people in America were using on their farms. They did their chores with them during the week and drove them to church on Sunday.
Slim got in touch with Ford’s Australian branch about making a cheap-to-operate, dual-purpose vehicle that combined the styling and comfort of a passenger car with the utility of a pickup. Lewis T. Bandt, chief designer at Ford in Geelong, Victoria, took the idea and created the 1934 Ford V-8 Model 302 UTE, which sold well and inspired Holden (GM’s Australian branch) to develop one. The GM-H Ute was based on a 1934 Chevy from the United States, that came in CKD (completely-knocked-down) form and was assembled by local workers. This became the best-selling Ute. In 1951, a Ute based on the Holden 215 became the first Ute designed and manufactured in Australia.
Utes never caught on in America, but the idea of a car-pickup was tried as early as the 1930s. Ford was first to bring the Ute concept to America in a high-volume way with the 1957 Ranchero. Seeing Ford’s success with the Ranchero, General Motors decided to offer a car-based pickup. Chevy’s 1959 El Camino was based on the big Chevy Impala. It had the gull-wing styling of the cars, but with a load box that could hold 34 cubic feet of cargo. El Caminos came in 13 solid colors and 10 two-tones and had a choice of one six-cylinder engine or two V8s. The model continued into 1960 and was then dropped.
In 1964, the El Camino re-appeared as a mid-sized Chevelle-based pickup. By 1967, it had a new grille and a new 396-cid “big-block” V-8. For 1968, a new SS 396 version greeted performance buffs and production topped 40,000 units. The ’69 was a carryover model with nearly 50,000 built.
Performance in the El Camino peaked in 1970 with a 454-cid 450-hp LS6 V-8. Tougher emissions laws and the elimination of leaded fuel in 1971, caused a drop in power ratings.
The 1973 El Camino received its first new body since 1968. It was a taller and some five inches longer. All models had impact-resistant front bumpers and were substantially improved in roadability, comfort and styling. Engines included a de-tuned 250-cid inline six, a 307-cid V-8 and two 350s. The base El Camino compared to a Chevelle Deluxe. The one-step-up Custom was like a Malibu and had an SS 454 option. Fancy Estate and Conquista packages were offered.
Modest El Camino styling revisions were seen in 1974 through 1977 models. A new Classic trim level was added in 1974. It included wide rocker panel moldings, an armrest seat and fancier trim. The SS package was a $215 option and the Conquista package for the Classic model was about $125. During this period, the base model had single headlights, while upscale versions used dual headlights. The grille and taillight designs changed annually and the SS became more of a lick-’em/stick ’em model than a true high-horsepower muscle truck.
Mid-size Chevys were down-sized in 1978. Chevy truck engineers felt that making the El Camino Classic Malibu-sized would have compromised its limited cargo capacity. Instead, the new wheelbase was made about an inch longer than the old one, although the body was several inches shorter and weight was reduced by 200 to 300 lbs. Interior head and legroom grew. The Conquista and SS options were carried over and were joined by a new Royal Knight package.
Full-frame construction was retained in the new El Camino. The base engine was now a thrifty V-6. Other top selling features included a standard front stabilizer bar, extensive corrosion-resistance treatments, the incorporation of 14 noise-insulating body mounts (for a quieter ride) and new double-panel door, hood and deck lid construction. After these revisions, the El Camino would stick around until 1987 with mostly minor updates and some engine changes.
A new 267-cid V-8 was introduced in 1979, though it wasn’t available in California. A 3.3-liter V-6 was standard. A new lock-up automatic transmission arrived in 1980. Computer Command Control was new in 1981. That year a 3.8-liter V-6 became standard. Options included 4.4-liter and 5.0-liter V-8s. In California, a 3.8-liter V-6 was standard and a 5.0-liter V-8 was optional.
The 1982 El Camino used the Malibu’s new Caprice-style grille and side-by-side dual rectangular headlamps. The seating and instrument panel were revised. A “Smart Switch” was added to the steering column. A 1983 option was a 5.7-liter diesel V-8.
Chevrolet dropped the mid-sized Malibu in 1983, but continued making El Caminos. The 1984 version was a luxurious vehicle with dual, side-by-side, rectangular headlights on either side of a cross-hatch grille and long, narrow parking lights directly below the headlights. The bumper was a simple, straight-across design. A 5.7-liter gas V-8 returned and the 5.7-liter diesel V-8 remained available. The ’84 El Camino actually survived because its sales kept Chevy ahead of Ford as America’s highest-volume producer of trucks.
The 1985 El Camino received a new 4.3-liter V-6 and a new instrument panel was added in 1986, but these changes didn’t improve its sales figures. By this time, the sales of Chevrolet’s new S-10 compact pickup truck were taking a toll on the El Camino, as buyers preferred the S-10’s wider range of capabilities.
The 1987 El Camino catalog promised the utility of a pickup with the beauty of a Sport Coupe, but this combination was no longer in demand. Only 15,589 were made. After a few hundred more were built in the first four months of 1988, the El Camino was dropped.
Today there’s speculation that GM might once again offer an El Camino in the not too distant future. This new El Camino would be based on GM’s new Zeta rear-wheel-drive platform that serves as the platform for Holden Commodore Utes in Australia. It’s actually the same vehicle architecture that will be used for the retro-styled 2009 Camaro. Strangely enough, this good-looking design proposal is like a revival of the Australian Ute and the El Camino all in one!