From the El Camino to the Ranchero, from the Chevy SSR to the Subaru Baja, we explore the wild and wonderous world of car/truck mashups.
Sporks, the perfect, not so perfect picnic eating utensils, have their automotive analogues in the form of car/truck mashups like the El Camino and the Subaru Baja. Sadly, the industry has yet to come up with a handy name for these utility vehicles of questionable utility. Simple portmanteaus yield unpalatable combinations like Trar and Cruck. A spork-like solution does not appear in the offing. And we’ve got to admit the acronym SUV has always been a clunky compromise. Perhaps the English language is not yet up to the task of describing these exuberant mixtures of practicality and fun.
In this naming convention vacuum resides some of automotive history’s strangest, most endearingly oddball creations to every roll of an assembly line. The line between truck and car was once fairly faint. Look back 80 years, the differences between a light truck and a heavy sedan could be little more than whether the vehicle in question had a bed in back or seating for four. Today, the divide between car and truck is stark indeed.
And that’s why I find these car-based trucks so intriguing. Seemingly incongruous parts married together in spite of all logic and good sense, and yet producing vehicles of genuine distinction. Car-based trucks exude bravado, personifying the devil-may-care, no compromises attitude of their owners. These are statement making vehicles. Just what specifically they may be saying I’ll leave up to your imagination.
When you think of car-based trucks, it’s probably the El Camino that comes to mind first. This icon of low-slung utility had a great run totaling thirty years. But that first year was rocky for sales of the El Camino and it was quickly discontinued. After a few unsuccessful attempts at redesigns in ’59 and ’60, in 1964 Chevy took the innovative step of pirating the Chevelle’s platform (as seen in Ford’s use of the Falcon architecture for both the Mustang and Ranchero).
Adding some muscle under the hood vastly improved the street cred of the El Camino and sales responded accordingly. But Chevy seemed to have a hard time deciding what the proper looks were for this segment without a name, so the body style of the El Camino changed every year until 1980. The ’69 SS being far and away the rowdiest version.
No, that is not a Ford Ranger Crew Cab you’re looking at. It’s the Ford Explorer Sport Trac (yes, that is the correct spelling according to Ford), an SUV with a truck bed. This bed only happens to be four feet long which limits its usefulness. This is, however, mitigated by the fact that the Sport Trac came with roof rails as a standard feature, so problem solved, right? I understand there’s a fine line between crew cab trucks and SUVs with truck beds. But it’s pretty clear with just a glance that the Explorer Spot Trac, the Lincoln Blackwood, and the Chevy Avalanche are one thing masquerading as another.
The El Camino maybe the most widely known of the car-trucks, but it was Ford’s Ranchero that actually started it all. And though some of the many, many looks of the El Camino were genuinely cool looking, for my money the first and sixth generation Rancheros take the cake. Each epitomizes the aesthetic of their respective decade. The first-generation Ranchero was all 1950’s optimism with fins, two-tone paint jobs, and the ’58 version doubling up on the headlights. Heck, with Cold War existential dread folks needed to keep looking at the glass half-full. The sixth generation was pure seventies excess with its oval grill, hood scoops, and pinstriping. Too bad people today will see you in Ranchero and say, “Hey, cool El Camino!”
No, that’s not the heat shimmer in the distance frying with your visual cortex, it really is a car-truck based on the Cadillac Coupe Deville, appropriately named the Mirage. It’s so rare that you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the car you’re looking at is even real. Cadillac, in an effort to save themselves the prolonged embarrassment of a sustained production run, only made 216 of them. 104 even had a little lockable storage area for your golf bag, cause, ya know, you can’t leave you’re clubs in an open truck bed. All jokes aside, the Mirage is a hyper-rare, hyper cool Caddy. It was even driven by Cab Calloway in the Blues Brothers movie, which again attests to why the Blues Brothers is one of the greatest car movies ever.
They say the camel is an animal designed by committee. In the Chevy SSR, we have the automotive equivalent of a camel; a vehicle with no discernable antecedent in which every suggested feature was accepted no matter how incompatible or incongruous. It’s got a 5.3, and later a 6.0-liter V8, it’s got a truck bed, it’s a convertible, and all this is packaged in retro styling harkening somewhat clumsily back to the 1940s. The design of the camel ends up being its secret to success. Wide padded feet for sand, long eyelashes to keep grit, and an unparalleled ability to travel long distances without food or water.
The SSR similarly combines parts of other vehicles hoping to create something greater than the sum of those parts. It does have a distinctive look, including a body panel matching tonneau cover. It also has a functional truck bed (payload of 1349 lbs.). And its convertible top was designed by Karmann automotive manufacturing of Germany. Whichever engineer designed the convertible top should’ve gotten some award, it’s a super-slick looking hard top and, when it’s up, the seams are almost imperceptible. It’s the camel’s hump of SSR design.
Was this the most annoying of all Subarus, hence the moniker Brat? No, your teenage neighbor’s tricked-out WRX and its shoddy aftermarket exhaust mods is definitely the most annoying Subaru. The Brat on the other hand is a charming little car-truck combo, and its name is actually an acronym for “Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter.” Pretty cool. Of course, the Brat had four-wheel drive, it’s a Subaru after all. It also had T-top roof, which was nice.
And for the first seven years of its production run, the Brat came with seats in the bed. Why you ask, would Subaru reduce the utility of a car-truck of already questionable utility? Because they needed to dodge the 25% import tax on light trucks and work vans. This was known as the “chicken tax” after a trade dispute broke out between Europe, who put duties on US chicken, and the US, who retaliated with a tax on trucks and vans. A decade later this meant Subaru getting their new export classified as a passenger car, hence the seats in the bed. In doing so, Subaru would only be taxed at the more reasonable rate of 2.5%. But these rear seats were not the safest, perhaps because they were a bit of an engineering afterthought, and they were discontinued after 1985.
Even though it was only in production for four years, the Subaru Baja has gained a dedicated cult following (seriously, look at these used Bajas for an idea of their continued popularity). And this is due in no small measure to the fact that the Baja may be the most Subbie of Subarus. That’s because of its adroit combination of practicality (or sincere aspirations thereof) and a metric ton of fun-loving attitude.
Heads turn when a Baja rolls by. People’s common responses goes something like the following, “Is it a car? A truck? An Outback with a bed tacked on the back? I’m deeply confused and loving every second of it!” The Baja is all those things and its own unique thing. Sure, the bed is only 3 ½ ft. but there’s a bed extending fence (also seen on the Explorer Sport Trac) and a passthrough when folding down the rear seats. You thought you’d never get those stolen copper pipes or deep-sea fishing poles in the back of your Baja? Think again! And yes, owning a Baja means getting up to shenanigans and hijinks, whether you intend to or not. People will see you in the Baja and know with certainty that you’ve got stories to tell.
At the end of the day, car-truck combos aren’t about practicality alone. Sure, you can get a little more done than the average car, and considerably less done than the average truck, but these rolling testaments to compromise aversion are about more than their practical applications. They put a smile on people’s faces. They’ve been called the mullet of automobiles, business in front, party in the back. But really that’s got it backward, these are fun first vehicles. Big engines up front, bold designs all around, and a couple of feet worth of practical use in the back. In case your cousin needs you to move their treadmill. You might worry about burdening your friend with the full-size F-150, but you know your buddy with the El Camino will be more than happy to help you move.