At the recent W. Yoder Auction in Wautoma, Wis., approximately 70 vehicles crossed the block and most sold. We noticed that an above-average percentage were Chevrolet El Caminos and realized that the great majority of those were final-generation 1978 to 1987 models. That sounds like a new car-collecting trend to us.
1978 El Camino
Full-size Chevrolet passenger cars were downsized in 1977 and the mid-size cars received the same treatment in 1978. With the new body came other changes — the 1977 Chevelle became the 1978 Malibu and the previous year’s Chevelle Malibu became the Malibu Classic. There was also a shuffling of the El Camino “sedan pickup” line, which had been based on the Chevelle/Malibu since 1964. In 1977, there was the base El Camino, the El Camino Classic and the El Camino SS. For 1978, the base El Camino and El Camino SS option returned and were joined by new Conquista and Black Knight editions. GM was sued over the name “Black Knight” so the package was renamed Royal Knight for 1979.
According to Chevrolet, divisional truck engineers felt that a complete down-sizing of the 1978 El Camino Classic to the 108-in. wheelbase used under all the new Malibus would have over compromised the car-based pickup’s already limited cargo capacity. Instead, the downsized El Camino was given a unique 117-in. wheelbase that was actually 1 in. longer than the previous model. However, the 1978 El Camino was several inches shorter than the ’77. With the shorter body, the weight was reduced by 200-300 lbs. Interior head and legroom were actually increased.
The base El Camino engine was a thrifty V-6. There were several engine options and for this muscle-oriented article, we are only focusing on the more powerful V-8 engines offered each year. Full-frame construction was retained for El Caminos. They also had a standard front stabilizer bar, extensive corrosion-resisting treatments, 14 noise-insulating body mounts (for a quieter ride) and double-panel door, hood and deck lid construction.
The El Camino was Model 80 in Chevy’s W Series and the SS package was Regular Production Option (RPO) Z15. In addition to features of the base El Camino, the El Camino Super Sport (SS) came with a large front air dam, matching sport mirrors, a special black paint treatment around the grille openings, a choice of accent colors on the lower body, decal stripes to accent the paint-break lines, Rally wheels painted to match the lower body color, black quarter window moldings and Super Sport identification via decals. According to figures in “Ward’s Automotive Yearbook 1979,” 40.2 percent had 350-cid V-8s and 47.6 percent of 1978 El Caminos had 305-cid V-8s.
The El Camino SS carried a factory price of $5,022 and tipped the scales at 3,076 lbs. Total El Camino production was 54,286 units with no separate breakout of production for the SS, Conquista or Black Knight, although 1200 of the latter are believed to have been built. The El Camino could be purchased with a V-6 or one of the V-8s.
The top option was a 350-cid (5.7-liter) V-8 that had an 8.2:1 compression ratio and a Rochester M4MC four-barrel carburetor. It developed 170 net hp at 2400 rpm. The El Camino transmissions started with a three-speed stick shift with synchromesh. A four-speed manual gearbox and automatic transmission were optional.
Buyers seemed to like the new El Camino’s longer 117-in. wheelbase and shorter 201.6-in. overall length. The new down-sized El Camino handily outsold the Ford Ranchero, which was in its next-to-last appearance in 1978.
Adding to the strong sales were the Conquista and Black Knight option packages. The El Camino Conquista content was highlighted by a striking stainless molding and paint treatment. The body color appeared on the roof, upper portion of the pickup box, lower body sides and tailgate. The center section of the body side, the hood and the lower portion of the tailgate were set off by an accent color. Also featured were bright paint break moldings along the upper side of the pickup box and tailgate, bright moldings along the lower body sides and wheel opening moldings. A Conquista decal was on the tailgate.
1979 El Camino
The Royal Knight package replaced the Black Knight for the 1979 model year. It featured a distinctive exterior décor treatment like the El Camino SS. Most apparent was a large, bold hood decal. Other content included color-keyed side striping, a large front air dam, matching sport mirrors and rally wheels. “Royal Knight” was on a fender decal.
The grille went from an egg-crate design in 1978 to more ofa “Mercedes” style grille for 1979 with eight distinct horizontal segments formed by bright moldings that ran horizontally, three across, with a thin one down the center. The grille was surrounded by a chrome molding that was thicker on the top where a six-sided red badge held a gold Chevy bow-tie emblem. The grille was again flanked by large, single rectangular headlamps with the upright parking lamps notched into the body corners. A 267-cid V-8 (not available in California) was new.
In addition to base El Camino features, the SS came with a large front air dam, matching sport mirrors, a special black paint treatment around the grille openings, a choice of seven paint accent colors on the lower body, decal stripes to accent the paint-break lines, Rally wheels painted to match the lower body color, black quarter window moldings and large Supper Sport door graphics. The 1979 El Camino listed for $5,579 and weighed in at 3,242 lbs. Total El Camino production was 58,008 units, again with no Super Sport breakout. Engine installations were: 267-cid V-8 engine (22.2 percent), 305-cid V-8 engine (58.2 percent), 350-cid V-8 engine (3.6 percent); and both V-6s (16 percent).
The 350-cid V-8, the “big” engine for the year, offered 165-170-hp with a Rochester four-barrel carburetor. It had a 4.00 x 3.48 bore and stroke and with the 8.2:1 compression ratio used this year, it developed 260-270 lbs.-ft. of net torque.
1980 El Camino
“You won’t believe you’re in a pickup,” said the 1980 El Camino sales brochure. Chevrolet’s latest car-based pickup had a brighter, vertical-emphasis grille. Larger and bolder headlamp bezels, larger side marker lamps and a new 3.8-liter standard V-6 were the year’s major revisions. A stand-up hood ornament with a red, six-sided badge centered by a gold Chevrolet bow-tie sat atop the header panel.
The windshield washer system worked more precisely than previously and Rally wheels were a new option. The base V-6 and optional 5.0-liter V-8 could be had with a new automatic transmission that incorporated a “lock-up” torque converter.
The 1980 El Camino (SS) had most of the same features as the 1979 version. There was a choice of eight paint accent colors on the lower body this year and smaller Super Sport lettering on the right lower portion of the tailgate. The price of the SS model was increased to $6,128. The weight dropped by four pounds. Production also dropped to 40,952 for all El Caminos despite the fact that its main direct competitor, the Ford Ranchero, wasn’t offered in the 1980 model year. The biggest available engine this year was the 305-cid V-8 that produced 155 net hp at 4000 rpm and 240 lbs.-ft. of torque.
1981 El Camino
El Caminos were mostly unchanged in 1981, but had a minor grille redesign with eight prominent horizontal elements that “veed” outwards in the middle. The word “Chevrolet” in chrome block letters again decorated the lower left-hand corner. The stand-up hood ornament returned.
The major mechanical change was the adoption of General Motors’ CCC (Computer Command Control) system for engine management, particularly of exhaust emission control by electronic means. The base 3.8-liter (229-cid) V-6 with a two-barrel carburetor was available with a three-speed manual or automatic transmission. Only the automatic gearbox was offered with the optional 4.4-liter (267-cid) and 5.0-liter (305-cid) V-8s. California El Caminos received the Buick-based 3.8-liter (231-cid) V-6 or could be optioned with the 5.0-liter V-8; the 4.4-liter V-8 was no longer available in that state. Higher-pressure radial tires were standard for improved fuel economy. Conquista, Royal Knight and SS packages were offered once again.
The 1981 El Camino SS was promoted as a blend of basic El Camino value with a sporty character. The model option included a new “Super Sport” dashboard nameplate, but there was still no SS identification on the radiator grille. The base price jumped more than $1,000 to $7,217. The weight was unchanged. Overall El Camino production was 37,533 units. The 305 was again the top engine option and was rated at 150 net hp this year.
1982 El Camino
The 1982 El Camino adopted the Malibu’s new Caprice-style grille and side-by-side dual rectangular headlamps. The grille had three thin horizontal bars and 15 vertical bars. The Chevrolet name appeared at the lower left side and a stand-up hood ornament was seen again. The bumper was of a simple, straight-across design. Also revised was the seating and instrument panel, and a new “Smart Switch” was added to the steering column. The SS model saw another stiff price increase to $8,244 and its weight changed to 3,300 lbs. The 305-cid V-8 was cut to 145 net hp. A diesel 350 was available for the first time, but developed a reputation for poor service.
1983 El Camino
Styling-wise, the El Camino was little changed. This the last year for the Royal Knight package. There were few revisions to the SS version. Base price was $8,445 and the SS gained 37 lbs. Total El Camino production dropped to 22,429 units.
1984 El Camino
For 1984, Chevrolet dropped the mid-sized Malibu, which had shared many interior and exterior components with the El Camino since 1964. However, Chevrolet continued producing the relatively low-production El Camino sedan-pickup. The 1984 El Camino remained rather luxurious for a truck. The 5.7-liter 105-hp diesel V-8 also remained available.
Beginning this year, the El Camino SS was built via a joint venture with Choo-Choo Customs of Chattanooga, Tenn. The Choo-Choo Customs El Camino SS featured the same front clip as the Monte Carlo SS coupe, but didn’t get the hot Monte Carlo SS “high output 305” engine. Instead, a 305-cid 190-hp V-8 was used. The annual price bump brought the El Camino SS to $8,781 and the weight went down a tad. Total output was up slightly to 24,244 El Caminos.
1985 El Camino
By 1985, the El Camino was living on borrowed time, but must have been considered an important part of Chevy’s truck arsenal. The Malibu that the sedan-pickup was based upon had been dropped after 1983, but Chevy kept making the El Camino because it was a unique product. After all, sales of the El Camino and Suburban were helping to keep Chevrolet ahead of Ford in the all-important race for the title of America’s number one truck maker. In addition to last year’s standard equipment, the 1985 El Camino had a new 4.3-liter V-6.
The latest Choo-Choo Customs El Camino SS also shared its aerodynamic-style plastic nose cap with the high-performance Monte Carlo SS. The package also included dual SS decal striping, “Super Sport” decal identification on the doors above the lower body feature line and Rally wheels. A non-functional blister hood, dummy side pipes and pickup bed rails were optional. The SS came in one of five distinctive two-tone paint combinations.
The Choo-Choo Customs El Camino SS was now base priced at $9,198 and tipped the scale at 3,263 lbs. A 305-cid 165-hp engine with a four-barrel carburetor was the sole V-8 and 77.3 percent of El Caminos received it. Total production was 25,482 units.
1986 El Camino
The 1986 El Camino featured a new instrument panel and revised gauge cluster graphics to modernize it. It continued to offer 35.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity and a 1,250-lb. payload. The Choo-Choo Customs-built El Camino SS still shared its aerodynamic-style plastic nose cap with the Monte Carlo SS. The SS package also included dual sport mirrors, SS decal striping, “Super Sport” decal identification on the front air dam and doors above the lower body feature line and rally wheels. A non-functional blister hood, dummy side pipes and pickup bed rails were optional. Five distinctive two-tone exterior color combinations were again offered.
At $9,885, the El Camino SS was getting expensive. It weighed 3,239 lbs. No wonder only 16,229 El Caminos were built in total. An even 76 percent of them had the gasoline-fueled 305-cid 150-hp V-8. The other 24 percent had the 4.3-liter (262-cid) 140-hp V-6
1987 El Camino
The 1987 El Camino still combined the utility of a pickup with the beauty of a sport coupe. Apparently, this was a combination that was no longer in great demand, as 1987 was the last full year for El Camino production. A few hundred were built in the first four months of 1988 before the model was dropped. Chevrolet’s separate sales catalog for the 1987 El Camino said, “The end product makes a uniquely bold, personal statement.” The El Camino’s trim lines and sleek good looks were still offered in three ways: base, Conquista and SS.
The “no-holds-barred SS Sport Decor model” again incorporated a front air dam, dual aerodynamic mirrors, a lower body accent color emphasized by a pin striping decal, Rally wheels and blacked-out trim. They came in a limited number of two-tone color choices.
Shown on back of the 1987 sales catalog was the optional El Camino SS in white with a decorative hood treatment, aero-style front fascia, non-functional side pipes and box side rails. The upgrades were again provided by independent supplier Choo-Choo Customs that marketed this package through authorized Chevrolet dealers.
Pricewise the last El Camino SS started at $10,784 for a 3,244-lb. vehicle. Chevy built 15,589 El Caminos for the model’s last year, but the SS portion of that number isn’t available. The top engine for the year was again the 5.0-liter (305-cid) V-8 good for 150 hp at 4000 rpm and 240 lbs.-ft. of torque. This engine was used in 84 percent of all 1987 El Caminos.
The El Caminos sold at the Yoder auction referenced earlier include the following examples:
Lot 1010: 1978 El Camino Custom. Mileage: 95,000. Color: Silver-Blue. Engine: 350-cid V-8.
Options: Automatic transmission. Floor shift. Power steering. Power brakes. Power windows. Power door locks. Tilt steering. Cowl induction hood. Custom interior. Runs and drives great. Soft brakes. General condition: No. 3. Sold: $4,000.
Lot 1023. 1978 El Camino Custom. Mileage: 90,000. Color: Light Brown/Tan. Engine: 305-cid V-8. Options: Automatic transmission. Power steering. Power brakes. Engine rebuilt at 82,000 miles. Original paint. New front tires only. Said to run and drive like it should. General condition: No. 3. Sold: $3,900.
Lot 1030. 1985 El Camino Custom. Mileage: 8,671 (showing). Color: Black. Interior: Gray. Engine: 350-cid V-8. Options: Automatic transmission. Power steering. Power brakes. Power windows. Power door locks. A rubber bed mat was installed to protect paint underneath. Tonneau cover. Said to run and drive well. Brake line leaks. General condition: No. 4. Sold: $3,100.
Based on collector pricing estimates and auction results, it appears that a down-sized El Camino in No. 3 to No. 4 condition could be bought from local private owners or local auctions for as little as $3,000-$4,000. After a bit of upgrading with a fix-up job or complete restoration, the same model will net about $6,500 to $14,100 at larger collector car auctions (eliminating highest and lowest prices). This seems to agree with the “Collector Car Price Guide” book that indicates a price range between $2,700 for a No. 4 El Camino and $14,500 for a No. 1 example.
So, should you buy an El Camino?
These down-sized El Caminos are models to keep an eye on in the marketplace. Things to look for are the SS package (or Conquista or Royal Knight packages). Examples with a factory-original 350-cid V-8 are also more desirable. The Choo-Choo Customs Super Sports are probably worth a bit more than the “Collector Car Price Guide” suggests. Naturally, the more factory options any model has, the more it will be worth.
From the W. Yoder descriptions, you can tell how much condition and especially mechanical problems (such as brake line leaks) negatively affect prices. The cost of repairs — especially serious or numerous small repairs — can quickly add up and then eclipse the vehicle’s value, and most buyers know that.
We’re in the “purist” camp and feel that original cars with 100 percent original equipment have a certain charm that modifieds give up. At the same time, we’ve noticed that many of the down-sized El Caminos we see have been customized or hot rodded, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an affect on their value. In fact, there are certain cases where a bigger engine, fatter tires or aftermarket goodies in general might actually increase an El Camino’s value. Let’s face it — some people like vehicles that look sportier or go faster than they did when they were new.
El Caminos have always been special whether they are full-size, compact-size, mid-size or down-sized. Historians trace the concept to Australian Utes, but we’ve always thought that they look more like station wagons that someone cut the rear roof off of to create a custom pickup. To us, they are All-American cool and Made-in-the-USA practical for U.S. highways. And a lot of collectors seem to agree with us.