El Camino Redux?
The Big 2.5 are floundering about, looking for new product ideas. And no wonder. Does anyone really think the beleaguered domestic automakers have the time, talent, energy and money to develop a Camcordima beater? A [profitable] B-segment car that can take on the Fit, Yaris or Versa? A luxury car to rival the Germans? As the founder of Federal Express said, the trick in business is not to do something a little better than the other guy. The trick is to do something different. Anybody remember the El Camino?
The iconic Chevrolet El Camino– half car, half truck– arrived in ’59. The original was based a full-sized Chevrolet Impala, sidewise tailfins and all. In 1964, the El Camino returned from hibernation as a variant of the mid-sized Chevelle/Malibu in ‘64. In ’68, the El was joined by the GMC Sprint, complete with an optional LS6 V8.
As “real” trucks increased in popularity, sales of the GM twins dwindled. Twenty years ago, after producing some 537k "elcos," GM pulled the plug on the Caballero (nee Sprint).
The El Camino was preceded and then mirrored by the Ford Ranchero. From ’57 onwards, the Ranchero’s development followed a similar theme, evolving atop the Fairlane, Falcon, Torino and Thunderbird/LTD platforms. The Ranchero faded from the scene in the mid-‘70’s, probably slinking off the automotive stage from the sheer embarrassment of having to wear imitation wood siding like a Country Squire.
There have been more than a few attempts at a nouveau camino. Most prominently, Subaru offered US consumers the BRAT (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transport) and Baja (which bowed out last April). Chrysler served-up the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp (based on the Omni/Horizon platform). It must be said that none of these models set the American sales charts on fire.
The Honda Ridgeline is, perhaps, the only remaining modern equivalent, and it's WAY too ugly to consider a bona fide member of the "elco" family. Of course, the minivan platform sharing Ridgeline is [officially] a truck, which points to one of the main reasons why the El Camino disappeared from the scene.
When federal CAFE standards were introduced in ’75, the emissions and mileage requirements were far tougher on cars than “light trucks." A burgeoning selection of small pickups (e.g. the Ford Ranger) helped put the last nails in the El Camino's coffin compatible coffin.
New CAFE legislation bases required mileage on a given vehicle’s footprint, rather than averaging out an entire fleet. So, while trucks are still less hampered than cars, an El Camino shaped door has opened. The fact that Ford has completely neglected the Ranger and Dodge has supersized the Dakota only helps matters.
Ford has all the ingredients in its corporate cupboard to resurrect the concept. The Mustang needs only a little rework from the driver’s seat back. Use the same doors, quarter panels and rear floor; chop the roof, add a vertical window and the interior of the load bed, and there you have it. (The ‘Stang’s “antiquated” rear axle would become a genuine advantage/selling point for load luggers.)
For less than FoMoCo pays Carroll Shelby to sign a few autographs, a Ford is born. Call it the Ranchero and brag that it’s the fastest pickup on the market. That would spike up Mustang sales, just in time to help fight off the two C’s (Camaro and Challenger).
Chrysler could also resurrect the genre. The 300/Magnum/Charger platform is rear wheel-drive (a must if a truck is to have any kind of macho credentials) with a wide variety of engine choices. Of these, the Magnum is the best candidate for “caminoization.
Since it was designed as a station wagon (despite whatever DCX wants to call it), the Dodge Magnum already has the required length. Get rid of the back doors, truncate the roof (but keep the “chopped” appearance), and finish off the bed. Voila! Instant niche vehicle. While they’re at it, DCX should reinforce the chassis a bit and offer a towing package. With the Hemi, the Magnamino could easily pull ski boats, jet skis and small camping or utility trailers.
FoMoCo and DCX will have to move fast if they want to be the first on the retro elco block. GM is set to import their Australian division's Holden Commodore as the new Pontiac G6. Holden sells an El Camino-like variant called the Ute that's just begging for an American passport (both the paper and the radar detector). If they don’t badge it a Chevy and sell it as an El Camino, I'm going home. And yet…
The Chevrolet SSR reminds us that niche vehicles are a risky business. But the Big 2.5 have their collective backs against the wall. If they make a few low-cost bold moves sideways, they just might find some of the new product salvation they seek.
More by Bob Elton
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