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Cowboy Cadillacs: The Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero


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Cowboy Cadillacs: The Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero

Popular Mechanics once dubbed Chevrolet's peculiar hybrid of passenger car and pickup truck "the Cowboy Cadillac." Ford and Chevy prosaically described these crossovers as sedan pickups, while our Australian readers would call them coupe utilities, utilities, or simply "utes." Never overwhelmingly popular in the U.S. market when they were new, they have become curiously iconic, presaging America's infatuation with trucks.

This week, we examine the history of the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino.


What's the difference between a car and a truck? While car/truck "crossovers" are all the rage today, the distinction between passenger cars and light trucks has always been hazy and arbitrary. Cargo-carrying wagons, of course, precede the development of the automobile by many centuries; since most early cars were little more than self-propelled wagons with a driver's seat and a few rudimentary controls, the only major difference between a car and a truck was whether it had seats or a cargo bed.

Consequently, a great many automakers offered trucks in the years prior to the first world war, including some names you might not expect, like Oldsmobile, Buick, and Packard. More precisely, these automakers offered commercial chassis, on which enterprising buyers could install a cargo box, station wagon body, or other addenda. Except for their lack of bodywork, early commercial chassis differed very little from their passenger-car brethren. They might have stiffer springs and perhaps a reinforced frame, but they were otherwise largely indistinguishable from cars. Even if a manufacturer did not offer a commercial version of their cars, it was not a great challenge to remove the rear section of a roadster and install a cargo box in its place, as a fair number of Model T Ford buyers did.

By 1917, some manufacturers had begun to offer bigger heavy-duty chassis, like Ford's Model TT or Chevrolet's cheekily named Model T one-ton truck, but there was still a market for light-duty, car-based trucks. By the mid-twenties, manufacturers were offering factory-built truck bodies for such vehicles. Ford introduced its first factory-built Model T Runabout with Pick-Up Body in 1925. Chevrolet, which had introduced its first commercial chassis in 1918, followed suit a year later, although until 1930, Chevy truck bodies were still made by outside suppliers, principally Indiana's Martin-Parry Company.

These early light trucks, the ancestors of the modern crossover, were essentially standard roadsters or coupes with a small, add-on cargo box in place of a trunk or rumble seat. Other than a slightly stiffer ride, they were no more or less livable than a contemporary car. Many farmers or small shopkeepers used them as their only vehicles, in part because it was often easier to obtain a bank loan to buy a truck than a car.


One of the limitations of the roadster pickups and coupe pickups of this era was that their cargo boxes were much smaller than the beds of most "real" pickups. In the U.S., buyers who needed more room had to move up to a manufacturer's heavy-duty truck line, but Ford's Australian subsidiary developed an interesting and trend-setting alternative: the utility, or "ute."

Ford's first utility was the 1928 Roadster Utility Vehicle. Like its American cousins, it was a light-duty roadster pickup, built on the locally assembled Model A chassis. Unlike most American trucks, however, its flush-sided cargo bed was integral with the cab. This approach was not suited to really heavy loads, which tended to twist the sheet metal at the leading edge of the bed (as Chevrolet discovered when it considered a similar design for its 1955 Cameo pickup), but it offered a wider, longer bed, without the extra expense and running costs of a bigger truck.

The early ute was very popular with Australian farmers and ranchers, although those who used it as their sole form of transportation soon became annoyed with its limited weather protection. In the U.S., Ford had introduced a closed-cab version of the Model A truck, complete with roll-up windows, but Ford Australia had not, perhaps assuming it would be too expensive for the local market.

According to legend (cited by writer Gary Warner in this 1999 article), in 1932, the wife of a local farmer wrote a letter to the Ford factory in Geelong, Victoria, challenging the company to build a vehicle that was equally suited to going to church or carrying goods to market. This letter, we are told, came to the attention of managing director Hubert French and sales manager Scott Ingliss, who decided the lady had a point. They subsequently developed a closed-cab version of the ute, which Ford introduced as the Coupe Utility 302 in 1934.

We're not entirely sure we buy the letter story, which has the flavor of a press-office concoction. The need for closed-cab pickups was becoming readily apparent by 1932 anyway. In the U.S., Chevrolet dropped its roadster pickups in 1932, while Ford's American operation abandoned them in 1934, just as the Coupe Utility went on sale. Ford Australia kept the Roadster Utility in production for a few more years, but the writing was on the wall, and it vanished after 1938.

The Coupe Utility and its eventual imitators became staples of the Australian market, but for some reason, Ford did not offer an equivalent in North America. Henry Ford was certainly aware of the ute, which he supposedly dubbed "Kangaroo Chaser," but the closest Ford came to an integral-bed coupe utility in the States was a limited run of about 300 flush-sided Model A Deluxe pickups, built for a General Electric promotion in 1931.

a lot more of the story at link:


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