“Coupe Utility” Redux: Should the El Camino and Ranchero Rise Again?

Since their introduction in the 50's, the El Camino and Ranchero have been favorites for performance enthusiasts and street cruisers alike. Should they return?

Since their introduction in the 50’s, the El Camino and Ranchero have been favorites for performance enthusiasts and street cruisers alike. Should they return?

What would make new models of automobiles more appealing to the consumer in the 21st century? Perhaps the auto manufacturers should once again look to the past to predict what would be hot now. One of the possibilities could be the return of the sport pick-up like that of the Chevrolet El Camino, or Ford Ranchero. These favorites of yesteryear might be a welcome addition to an industry that needs more fire and fun!

Ford kicked off the “coupe utility” movement in 1957 with the debut of the Ranchero. The El Camino found its way to the showroom floor in 1959. It was the time of the great migration to the suburbs so a vehicle capable of carrying all the various things homeowners must haul around became a necessity. But the suburban pioneers didn’t want to be seen tooling around in harsh riding pick-ups and family-friendly station wagons were never quite the same after that first bag of steer manure ruptured inside the cabin. What they had in mind had to be comfortable, stylish and have a secure barrier between their upwardly mobile noses and frequent loads of compost.

It didn’t take long after their appearance on the scene for performance enthusiasts to be drawn to the unconventional but modification friendly platform. Being able to combine the beauty and style of a high performance street machine with the ability to haul parts, tires and tools at a moment’s notice made the Ranchero and El Camino favorites in the hot rod community. As their popularity grew, the availability of custom parts for these applications increased dramatically.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, the two models went in different ways stylistically. The El Camino stayed near to the full-sized configurations even though it was downsized a bit with its incorporation into Chevrolet’s Chevelle platform. Fortunately, the availability of the Chevelle’s SS396 high-performance option along with the almost limitless availability of high performance Chevy small block parts made the El Camino a favorite during the muscle car era.

Ford took the Ranchero in a different direction when in 1960, it adopted the compact Falcon platform. Staying with the standard six-cylinder and three speed manual transmission as its base configuration, Ford opted to focus the Ranchero’s sales on the inexpensive, compact vehicle market. 

Fortunately with the advent of Ford’s 260 and 289 V-8 engines, the lightweight Ranchero began to develop a performance car persona. Modified Rancheros started to appear on the street as boulevard brawlers. As its popularity increased, Ford began to offer more Ranchero options for performance and comfort. The platform was changed to the Fairlane and then Torino configurations so the inclusion of larger engine/powertrain options as well as comfort options was feasible. By the 1976 model year, Rancheros had been offered with Cobra-Jet 351C options as well as 390, 428, 429 and 460 V-8’s.


The question remains though, would the “coupe utility” be a viable model for automotive sales in the 21st century? And if it is, what models would offer a good starting point?

Light pickup trucks are now a huge segment of the automotive market. Their vast improvements in performance, style and comfort over the years have made serious inroads in passenger car sales. They have also become favorites for creating performance street machines and hot rods.

So there may be some question if there is a market for a passenger car/truck product. It should be noted that Chevrolet tested the waters with their “pretty boy” SSR offerings but the combination never really garnered a mass appeal. Even though it eventually became a cool performer once the bugs were worked out, not enough buyers wanted to pony up nearly 50 grand for the retro-modern “truck.” 

However a quick look into the realm of performance car enthusiasts reveals that the popularity of the vintage Ranchero/El Camino is as popular as it ever was. Replica parts are readily available for restorations of both these models. Unfortunately, viable original raw material is becoming more and more scarce. The reintroduction of these models in an updated form could very well be a lucrative revenue stream for auto manufacturers.

Would a full-sized Mopar with Hemi power and the back half opened up interest you?

Choosing a platform to base a new coupe utility vehicle on would make an interesting dilemma. Chevrolet and Ford have a track record in this category so it would be logical to assume that they would rely on full-sized combinations that worked for them in the past. However, if Dodge or Chrysler decided to jump into the mix, that could result in some fun choices. Perhaps a Dodge Charger or Chrysler 300 base with the back half scooped out and powered by a Hemi would be something they should consider? Just a thought!

About the author

Paul Lambert

Paul Lambert is an independent writer who grew up during a time in Southern California car culture when big horsepower and high speed were celebrated above all. He now understands that turning, stopping, appearance and comfort are equal in importance...almost! Paul tries to find something likeable and interesting about anything with wheels and thinks that the people, history, and culture of hot rodding are often as important to the story as the cars and events being featured.
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