Muscle Icons: The ‘Ute’ and its Evolution from Modest Roots

The pickup truck has been the backbone of the automotive world since its infancy. Wrought in many shapes and sizes, the definition and purpose of a pickup truck evolved over the years akin to a bottle of aging bourbon. However, unlike a fine barrel of bourbon, the pickup had no time to ferment and refine itself, as its purpose was to work. What resulted instead, and very much like that same barrel of bourbon, is the hybrid of the pickup truck and the passenger car. While these vehicles existed in the world since the beginning, for the United States only two vehicles revolutionized the ideal and became automotive icons: The Ford Ranchero and the Chevrolet El Camino.

With good intentions and humble beginnings, much like Lindsay Lohan in her early acting career, Ford and Chevrolet brought their “utes” to the United States in order to appeal to ranchers and farm owners. In 1957, Ford was the first and brought their Ranchero to market.

1959 Ford Ranchero Pickup | Russo & Steele photo

“It’s more than a car! It’s more than a truck!” Ford slotted the Ranchero into their fleet to bolster their pickup sales and beat Chevrolet. The idea being that after a long day of work, it was still comfortable and luxurious like a car.

In 1959 Chevrolet answered Ford’s Hee with their Olé and the El Camino was the new hot business in town. These two vehicles would not only keep in competition with one another over the following decades, but with their fast rise in stardom would be right at the forefront of one of the most influential booms in all of automotive Americana: The muscle car boom of the 1960’s.

The 1960’s birthed a golden era for automobiles in America. The only things larger than American dreams were engine displacements; with gasoline in excess, the automotive industry flourished. V8 engines found their home in more and more engine bays, with revolutionaries like John DeLorean solidifying the term “muscle car” for the Pontiac GTO, Hollywood had suddenly moved to Detroit.

Everyone is a star in Hollywood and so every car was a star in Detroit, no engine bay would be complete without eight raging cylinders of American teenage angst. While both the Ranchero and the El Camino wanted taste Hollywood by leaving both the literal and proverbial farmhouse to take a trip of discovery to find fame and fortune.

It’s at this point, where we find the story of the Ranchero’s quest to hit automotive puberty. In the early 60’s, before every car was hitting the muscle gym, Ford decided to base the Ranchero off of their economical Falcon platform. This downsized the Ranchero and differentiated it from the El Camino, which remained a full-sized car.

While the 289 V8 was available, it was never really a performance thing for the little Ford. The El Camino would see a hiatus until 1964, where it could bum itself onto the new A-body Chevelle platform, and Ford with the lapsing sales of the Falcon decided to drop the Ranchero’s line and move it back onto the full-sized Fairlane platform in 1966.

1968 Chevrolet El Camino | ClassicCars.com photo

It’s relevant to point out that while the two pickup crossovers were never huge hits, they had a large enough following to stay in production. A further point to mention is that these little trucklets were not being sold to the ranchers and farmers as originally intended, but rather young single males who wanted something more socially acceptable than a pony car, but less “dad” than a station wagon. This paid off big time for Chevrolet, who knew that using the A-body also meant they could use the all-you-can-eat-buffet of cubic inch V8 engines in their arsenal. The only fields the El Camino and Ranchero were plowing were the drag strip, as both the Ford and the Chevrolet were the workingman’s solution to slaying pony cars, sports cars, and questionably ladies alike.

By 1970, these niche cars hit more mainstream sales numbers, with the El Camino leading in popularity. With the ability to option up to the 454ci V8, it was a force to be reckoned with on or off of the strip. The Ranchero was never quite able to match this but rose in popularity with the introduction of the Torino platform in 1972. All good things must come to an end, and the energy crisis of 1973 sobered up the automotive world. The muscle car era had all but died and the Hollywood magic had packed up and left Detriot. The world was now in peril now, and the people had moved on to compact cars and even worse still, foreign compact cars.

The golden era lingering on those dying threads, the El Camino and Ranchero soldiered through on an insurance technicality, but rather an insurance technicality. Muscle might have been dead, but the Ranchero used it’s old charm and lower insurance rates to win over its customers until Ford cut production in 1979, where it was the dawn of the almighty SUV that took hold of the public desire. In an ironic twist of fate, the El Camino was downsized this time holding the production candle until 1987.

Hollywood might be notorious for making and breaking its celebrities, but Hollywood doesn’t exist in the land of upside-down. Unlike here in the US, where our bourbon barrels ran dry, they did nothing but age with grace and wisdom in Australia. If one compares wisdom to large displacement engines and superchargers. You see, The muscle car era never officially died over there, and as such their Utes were even more ambitious, muscular, and crazy than our own. Vehicles like the HSV (Holden Special Vehicle) Maloo R8 LSA, with GM’s supercharged LSA engine outputting 556 raging thoroughbreds. Malaise is a foreign concept to our hemisphere challenged brethren, and proof the concept of a hybridized pickup truck as a performance “do-all” vehicle is a sound one.

About the author

Brian Brawley

A devoted car guy and Bimmer fan, he owns an ancient BMW 3 series. He dreams of one day owning an E30m3.
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