1959 El Camino
About Those Fins
1959 El Camino
1959 was a strange year for Chevrolet. It followed a less-than-successful 1958 styling exercise that wasn't well received by the buying public (we personally like it, and time has been very kind). The 1958 design was seen as having bludgeoned the clean, crisp '57 and Chevrolet's management demanded that the 1959 model fix the problem and lead the company into the 1960s. The result was a very radical car that was longer, lower and wider than its predecessors.
Not only that, the car sported "cat's-eye" (Chevrolet called them "eyebrows") air scoops at the front and deep, long gull wings that ran from the rear of the door opening all the way to the tail. These horizontal wings ended over the taillights, themselves shaped like an enlarged version of the front air scoops. The gull wings were Chevy's final answer to the fins of the 1950s.
Stories about those gull wings abounded back then. The most popular of them was that the rear of the car would start flying at 120 mph. Like most of these stories it was untrue for three reasons: first, the wings were symmetrical (top and bottom) and therefore couldn't generate lift; second, any minimal lift generated wouldn't be enough to raise the rear axle up; and third, no 1959 Chevy could do an honest 120 unless it were built for NASCAR.
The Truck Comes To Suburbia
1959 El Camino
Chevy and Ford both believed that country people wanted some style (read: "class") in their pickup trucks. After all, one might want to unload the cow pies during the day and dress up for the theater on Saturday night. Both companies, therefore, offered upscale pickups. Ford's was called the Ranchero and Chevy called theirs the El Camino. In both cases, these pickup trucks were actually station wagons that were cut down to the configuration of a light-duty truck.
Ford's concept was to call the Ranchero a "sedan-pickup" and the vehicle was sold in standard and upscale trim. Chevy's El Camino, by contrast, was offered only in the bottom-of-the-line Biscayne trim which had basic, gray vinyl upholstery. The base, $2740, El Camino came with a huge list of options, though.
Buyers of these pickups could choose engines from the "Stovebolt" six to a big, 348 cubic-inch V8 with triple carburetors and high compression. Stick and automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, air conditioning and lots of other goodies were available.
How Did It Sell?
Not very well. One of the problems with the 1959 El Camino was with those gull wings. Aside from being a body shop's ultimate nightmare, those wings didn't lend themselves to being sliced to form a tailgate opening. Although the width of the car was 79 inches, the tailgate only opened to 57 inches! Of course, one could get a sheet of plywood into the bed, but the overall "feel" of the car was that it wasted space.
The passenger area of the vehicle was a big greenhouse affair, with a huge wraparound front window and equally large rear window. The 'A' and 'B' pillars were tiny and afforded lots of visibility, but without air conditioning the car would cook its passengers. Buyers stayed away in droves!
Over 20,000 buyers took delivery of El Caminos in 1959 (contrast that with 1.5 million full-sized Chevys) and that didn't impress management. 1960 was worse, with only 14,000 sales, as many potential buyers went over to Ford's more practical, Falcon-based Ranchero. Chevrolet dropped the El Camino from the 1961 product line and redesigned it as a Chevelle for the 1964 model year. This strategy proved to be so popular that it outsold Ford's Ranchero two to one.
Life is filled with irony and the El Camino is another in a long list. The 1959 El Camino is considered today to be quite collectable. It doesn't command prices equal to the Impala hardtops and convertibles, but owning a fully restored one with a 250-horsepower V8 will set you back over $15,000. A nice restorable example can be had for about $3000. El Caminos consistently sell for about 20% more than equal-condition Rancheros.
Interestingly, the El Camino proved to be the harbinger of what was to come in the 90s through today. That is, the super-stylish, super -"civilized", super-expensive pickup truck. Who knew?