Few vehicles have left their mark on American automobile history like Chevrolet’s El Camino. Since it was in production, people have been asking the all-important question — is the El Camino a car, a truck or something else? All you need to know is that the El Camino’s unique appearance has captured the hearts and imaginations of people of all ages and lifestyles, from pop culture icons and presidents to farmers and performance car enthusiasts.
Let’s take a look at the El Camino through the years. The El Camino evolution tells the story of how one of America’s most unique cars has changed with the times. Whether or not you like the instantly recognizable body style, you have to admit that each of the El Camino generations is a sight to behold. Now, sit back, relax and learn how this unique car from Chevy has experienced popularity far beyond the last year the El Camino was made by going over the El Camino models by year.
The History of the Chevy El Camino
Before the 1950s, the idea of a hybrid vehicle was far from anyone’s mind. It was simple — you either had a truck or you had a car, and you either had a performance vehicle or you had something more economical. At this point, car manufacturers had yet to try blending any of these categories. That changed when Ford released the Ranchero in 1957. Unlike anything that came before it on the American market, the Ranchero looked like a coupe in the front and a pickup truck in the back.
Ford may have received their inspiration for these “utility cars” or “car-truck hybrids” from Australian vehicles called “utes,” meaning “coupe utility vehicles.” According to legend, back in the 1930s, the wife of an Australian farmer wrote a letter to Ford asking for them to produce a vehicle that she could drive to church on Sunday and use to take her husband’s livestock to the market on Monday. This request was for the first hybrid vehicle — a car with two purposes.
While it’s hard to know if this legend is fact or fiction, the truth remains that the Ranchero changed the idea of what an automobile could be. But today, more people know about the El Camino than they do the Ranchero. Chevy knew they could make a vehicle that could rival the Ranchero and even surpass it. By 1959, Chevy had created the El Camino, which would go on to become an American automobile icon and one of Chevy’s most recognizable models to date.
First Generation: 1959 to 1960
The first El Camino rolled off the assembly line in 1959 to positive reviews. It had a Bel Air exterior and rested on a modified Brookwood station wagon platform. People seemed to like what they saw, and El Camino’s first year on the market saw good sales. In fact, it outsold Ford’s Ranchero immediately, reaching 22,246 units sold compared to the Ranchero’s 14,169.
Customers had several engines and drivetrain options to choose from during these initial El Camino years. The standard engine was a 235 cubic inch inline-6 that reached 135 horsepower, a fair amount of power for 1959. The first optional engine was a 283 small-block V8, and the other was the more powerful 348 big-block V8, which could reach an impressive 348 horsepower.
Chevy created several sub-models of the small-block 283 V8, as they wanted to make sure their customers were getting exactly what they wanted from their new and unusual car-truck hybrid. There was a 185 horsepower, two-barrel version of the 283, and a four-barrel version reaching 230 horsepower. Chevy also produced a rare four-barrel variety of the 283 that could hit 270 horsepower. The final option was a fuel-injected 283 with 290 horsepower, which is rare and fetches a high price at today’s car auctions.
Unfortunately, sales of the El Camino stalled in 1960, marking a reversal to the success of the El Camino’s first year. Some car historians think this plummet in sales had to do with Ford’s release of a much smaller Ford Ranchero that sold for a lower price. Others chalk up the decline in El Camino sales to Chevy’s use of a smaller engine that only hit 110 horsepower. Whatever the reason, the El Camino and Ranchero seemed to swap positions in sales in 1960 — the El Camino only sold 14,163 units compared to the new Ranchero’s 21,027 units.
After these poor sales figures, Chevy pulled the El Camino from the market after only two years of production. The next two years passed in silence as people wondered if the El Camino nameplate would go down in history as a short-lived flop from Chevrolet.
Second Generation: 1964 to 1967
Chevy still believed they could win the car-truck battle with the El Camino. Therefore, they had to rethink their approach to compete with the downsized Ford Ranchero. As it turns out, Chevy spent the next three years redesigning the El Camino. By 1964, they were confident they had reached their goals and released the second-generation El Camino. Chevy rested it on the proven Chevelle platform, giving the El Camino a more practical appearance and better performance capabilities.
Once again, Chevy gave their customers plenty of engine options to choose from for the 1964 El Camino. The lowest-power model was the inline-6 that came in a 194 cubic inch, 120-horsepower model and a 230 cubic inch, 155-horsepower model. The mid-tier engine was the V8 283 that reached 220 horsepower, while the top-power engine option was a 327 V8 that reached 300 horsepower. While it lacked the strength of the previous model’s big-block 348, it was still an impressive performer for a car that was also a truck.
The second-generation El Camino had a few other upgrades that made some waves when it re-entered its battle with the Ford Ranchero. One example is the addition of air shocks which helped compensate for heavy loads. Additionally, by 1965, the El Camino had several transmission styles, including a three-speed manual, four-speed manual, Powerglide automatic and TH350 or 400 automatic.
Third Generation: 1968 to 1972
El Camino’s third generation saw the utility car make the jump to a sporty performance vehicle. The new El Caminos were bigger than any model that had come before. Chevy built it on a four-door sedan wheelbase, increasing its length and size. Despite these increases, the third-generation El Caminos weighed less than the previous generations thanks to lighter construction and a front-end restyle. The El Camino now had a more muscular body, flashier wheels and quad-stacked headlights.
Under the hood is where the third-generation El Camino showed that it was ready for the muscle car market. Chevy gave it a Super Sport (SS) model at launch and offered customers two exciting big-block 454 V8s to choose between. The first could push 360 horsepower, which was already more powerful than the top-tier engine from the first generation. And to silence any naysayers, Chevy made the other engine option to hit 450 horsepower — their most powerful engine available at the time.
Then, in 1971, the United States government released new mandates that required vehicles to use lower-octane fuel to decrease emissions. This regulation was a step toward a more sustainable environment, but it was a step back for vehicle performance across all American makes and models. Both horsepower and compression suffered from the mandates. For instance, the 1972 El Camino’s V8 engine could only hit 270 horsepower. This change was a disappointment compared to the more powerful engines available a few short years before.
Fourth Generation: 1973 to 1977
The El Camino’s decrease in performance continued into its fourth generation. The 1973 El Camino was sluggish to drive, being the largest and heaviest model yet with some of its least impressive engines ever under the hood. While the body style had some nice curves and was pleasant to look at, it had lost some of its signature flair. Additionally, muscle car enthusiasts wanted their car-truck to house some great engines, but the engines were lackluster at this point, to say the least.
For instance, the 1975 El Camino’s base model was an inline-6 that only reached 105 horsepower. The 1975 model was also the last year to offer the famed 454 V8, but this year’s V8 could only reach 215 horsepower instead of hitting record-high numbers. That was a genuine disappointment to fans of the more powerful versions of the car-truck hybrid.
The situation kept getting worse. In 1976, Chevy tried to make the El Camino more appealing with minor aesthetic adjustments like vertical-stacked headlights. However, the engine situation was far from remedial. After dropping the 454, the El Camino’s new V8 engine tapped out at 140 horsepower. Even more dismal in the eyes of performance enthusiasts, Chevy dropped the manual transmission on the new V8 engines. It seemed like the El Camino nameplate was on its way to fizzling out for good.
Fifth Generation: 1978 to 1987
Even with the decline in power, the El Camino still had some life left on the market. The fifth-generation model would be the last of the Chevy El Camino years, but it would also be the longest-lasting. When Chevy was just getting started on their hybrid’s fifth generation, Ford was putting the Ranchero to sleep. By 1979, the Ranchero hit the history books, leaving the El Camino as the dominant option for consumers who still had an interest in the unique crossover.
On the outside, the fifth-generation El Camino looked smaller and sleeker than previous models and touted a sharper design and styling. Chevy launched new trim levels for new El Caminos, including the Classic, Black Knight, Royal Knight and Conquista. Chevy simplified the front end by giving the El Camino a single headlight design. The new aesthetics were enough to keep them looking modern at the turn of the decade. For many people, El Caminos are as synonymous with the 1980s as they are with the 1970s.
The base engine for the fifth-generation El Camino was a 3.3-liter V6 with 95 horsepower. While it was shockingly weak, it was also the first time Chevy put a V6 in an El Camino. Customers had the option of two upgraded engines — the first was a 305 cubic-inch V8 that touched 145 horsepower, and the second was a 350 cubic-inch V8 with 170 horsepower, which was still a stretch from the powerful engines of old models.
Over the next few years, Chevy made few changes to the body and engines of the El Camino. Chevy brought back the quad headlights in 1982 and made slight variations on their engine options. The El Camino did receive options for diesel engines from 1982 to 1984, but their poor repair record led to Chevy removing them as an option even though they got good gas mileage.
Chevy restyled the front end of the El Camino before the end of its run and even moved production to Mexico in 1985 to cut costs. That said, with the advent of Chevy’s S-10 midsize pickup, the El Camino would meet its final end, and 1987 marked the last year of the El Camino.
Chevy El Camino Restoration Parts From Raybuck Auto Body Parts
Raybuck Auto Body Parts has all the heavy gauge stamped steel parts you need to restore your vintage Chevrolet El Camino. A full restore demands parts of all shapes, sizes and uses, and we have the El Camino parts you need to get the job done. Here are some of the parts we offer:
- Panels: Show off your El Camino at the next car show in style with a great-looking exterior. Raybuck has the exterior body parts you need to achieve a stunning appearance. Our El Camino doors, high-quality exterior trim and heavy-gauge steel fenders will help you make your El Camino look good as new.
- Suspension: Enjoy every mile you ride in your Chevy El Camino. Raybuck has the suspension replacement parts you need to hit the road in your El Camino with confidence and pleasure.
- Tailgates and truck bed parts: We know the El Camino’s truck features are some of its most defining characteristics. That’s why we offer heavy gauge steel tailgates and truck bed panels to get the rear of your El Camino ready to haul heavy loads once again.
- Interior pieces: You want your El Camino to look striking on the inside and the outside. Our El Camino interior parts will meet your needs to help you have the most comfortable and enjoyable ride possible.
Get All the Parts You Need From Raybuck
Whether it’s a car or a truck, the El Camino is an American vehicle unlike any other. Restoring a vintage car like the Chevy El Camino is a labor of love, and we at Raybuck want to come alongside you to help you achieve your goals. Browse our easy-to-navigate selection to find all the parts you can need for your vehicle restoration project.
Contact us today online or by phone for more information. We look forward to serving you and helping you restore your Chevy El Camino!