Having driven a less-than-classic Chevrolet El Camino throughout high school – a slick blue 1987, nothing fancy but it was so light it would move without me even touching the pedal – I have a soft spot for Chevy’s take on the now extinct “pickup car.” However, while the El Camino is still a widely discussed nameplate among the diehard muscle car fans, Ford’s early entry into this niche-crossover market is a car that seems to have been lost in the annals of automotive history.
The Ranchero was actually the first such hybrid to hit the market – nearly two years before the El Camino in 1957 – and it gave American consumers their first taste of the benefits of a car with a truck bed. This car was born from the merger of the Falcon and Fairlane full-size car platforms and was a modified wagon that the designers scooped the rear out of and stretched.
There were originally two basic trim levels of the Ford Ranchero when it was first introduced during the late 1950s. The cheapest, bare-boned Ranchero was essentially marketed to American farmers – a demographic that would in the future prove less fruitful for the company than the very young hot rod market. On the other end of the design spectrum was the upscale Custom model, which featured all of the car-centric detailing of the Fairlane, including two-toned paneling on the sides and slick chrome decals.
The first Ranchero was unique in that you could outfit it with any engine in Ford’s lineup at the time, making it an extremely versatile model – not to mention good looking, as it had the handsome squared-off silhouette of the sedans it was based on.
The car was so popular from the outset that it inspired General Motors – Ford’s then and current arch rival – to produce the El Camino. While Ford actually beat General Motors to the punch by putting a pickup car on the streets, legend has it that such a concept had long been mulled over by the head design brass at General Motors. According to stylist Chuck Jordan, Harley Earl – the brains behind many of GM’s most iconic models – had proposed that designers attempt sketching up such a truck back in 1952.
Unlike the more conservative looking Ranchero – which featured the taut and tame styling of the Fairlane – the El Camino had a much more flamboyant look, with exterior detailing that was borrowed from the curvaceous, flair-heavy Bel Air and interior styling lifted out of the full-sized Biscayne wagon and sedan line of cars. Both of these models were based off of all-new offerings from their parent companies, but, despite being only two years apart in age, each first model looks like it is from a completely different generation.
With these two models, you have yet another instance where Ford beat Chevy to the punch but Chevy came from behind to one-up the competition. While the Ranchero maintained strong sales from the outset, Chevy was able to trump Ford in the El Camino’s first year on the market, with the Ranchero selling roughly 19,000 units compared to Chevy’s almost 23,000.
Each of these models would eventually go through several different incarnations over their lifetime – from lengthenings, to goofy phases to eventual platform shortenings over the course of roughly 30 years.
The El Camino would ultimately outlive the Ranchero, which exited the market in 1979 compared to almost a decade later in 1987 for the Chevy. That doesn’t mean that the El Camino was necessarily the better of the two models. Which pickup car do you prefer?
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