1959-1960 Chevy El Camino History
Article by Mark Trotta
Longer, lower, wider, all-new sheet metal, wrap-around windshield, batwing rear fenders and cat's eye tail-lamps - full-size Chevys for 1959 were a completely new design. While the truck line remained essentially unchanged from the prior year, all was not lost for folks looking for a stylish new truck. Enter the El Camino.
Chevy Cameo Carrier
In 1955, Chevrolet designers took a half-ton pickup and added smooth, fiberglass bed sides, two-tone paint, creature comforts such as power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission, and their new small-block V-8 engine. The result was the legendary Cameo Carrier. Although groundbreaking, Cameo sales were low.
In response to the Cameo, Ford introduced the Ranchero in 1957. By essentially cutting the rear roof off a full-size station wagon, a pickup truck was made from a car body. The Ranchero was less expensive and rode better, and sold enough for Chevrolet to build a similar model of their own.
The Camino was based on the new-for-1959 Brookwood two-door station wagon. An X-frame chassis, introduced on the 1958 full-size Chevys, used coil suspension front and rear. Wheelbase was 119-inches, overall length 210-inches. The pickup bed floor was a corrugated sheet metal insert, which would be the first Chevy pickup built with a steel floor instead of wood. Cargo box capacity was about 33 cubic feet.
1959 El Camino
Because it was built on the same platform, the 1959 El Camino was offered with any trim level and options found on Chevy's passenger cars, including the top-of-the-line Impala. The Camino buyer could add power steering, power brakes, power windows, air conditioning, power seats, and a push-button radio.
Exterior options included whitewall tires, full wheel covers, rear fender skirts, and two-tone paint schemes.
Above the standard 235ci six-cylinder, two versions of Chevy's small-block V-8 were available. The 283ci with a two-barrel carburetor produced 185 horsepower, and the "Super Turbo-Fire" 283 V-8 with a four-barrel carb with 230 horsepower.
As the Ford Ranchero could be had with the hottest Thunderbird engines, the Camino could similarly be ordered with Chevy's hottest mills. The 348ci big-block, with a single four-barrel carburetor and hydraulic cam, produced 315 horsepower.
Rare indeed, is the optional three-carb Tri-power option, which included a solid-lifter cam. The "Super Turbo-Thrust" 348 cid V8 produced 335 horsepower.
Like full-size Chevy cars, a three-speed manual with column-mounted shifter was the standard transmission. Optional were the Powerglide and Turboglide automatics, and a floor-shift, four-speed Borg-Warner T-10.
1960 El Camino
With styling toned down a bit, full-size Chevys and Caminos now sported a cleaner front end, and the large cats-eye taillamps were replaced by small red 'bullet' lenses.
The base 283-cid V8 was rated slightly lower at 170 horsepower, with the "Super Turbo-Thrust" 348 motor still optional.
Second-year sales fell sharply, no doubt contributing to Chevrolet's decision to discontinue it after 1960. But in four years time, the El Camino would resurface on the popular mid-size Chevelle A-body platform.
Production Figures and Survival Rate
A total of 22,246 El Caminos were produced for 1959, compared to Ford's 14,169 Rancheros. In 1960, Ford sold 21,027 Rancheros, outselling the 14,163 El Caminos produced.
Early Caminos have long been customizers' favorites, but with nicely optioned, clean examples selling at record highs, any projects or basket cases that are still out there will most likely end up restored to original.
With most of them seeing commercial service through their lives, first-generation Caminos didn't have a very high survival rate. The good news is there are plenty of aftermarket manufacturers offering just about any replacement part, including most sheet metal panels.