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Back in the Day: Evolution of working sedan

Car-based trucks offered style and comfort for commercial users in niche market

Published March 28, 2013

The car-based sedan delivery and pickup body styles were a pair of niche markets developed for light commercial applications.

The sedan delivery had its beginnings in about 1930. Its popularity continued until the 1960s, when vans took over the market. Car-based pickups such as the Ford Ranchero or Chevrolet El Camino, which came on the market in the 1950s, were interesting vehicles, but their value as work trucks was minimal.

In the 1930s, automakers built the sedan delivery models on their car lines, vehicles that were essentially station wagons with no side windows and a one-piece door at the rear replacing the two-piece wagon tailgate.

They were entry-level vehicles, devoid of any comforts or trim packages found in their respective car lines, used by tradesmen and delivery services. Quite often, the only seat in a sedan delivery was for the driver.

This style was found on both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from the Ford, Plymouth and Chevrolet versions found in North America, several British and European makers built these little trucks, including Austin, Renault, and Mercedes-Benz. Although Plymouth dropped its version in the early 1940s, others continued to produce small quantities well into the 1970s.

Of interest to Canadians were sedan deliveries unique to our market. The Meteor was produced in Canada from 1949 until the mid-1970s to fill what was considered a marketing gap in the lineup for Mercury dealers. The brand was based on the Ford, and was available in a full range of models, including a sedan delivery. Very few of these Meteors were built, and are quite rare.

Another Canadian-only sedan delivery was the Pontiac. Although GM built them in the U.S. from 1949 to 1953, a Canadian version of the little Pontiac truck was built from 1938 to 1958, producing about 13,000 in total, about three times the U.S. output.

Although the Canadian cars resembled their U.S. counterparts, all Pontiacs, including those built in Oshawa, were Chevrolets under the skin, with Chevy frames, engines and running gear. Some GMC six-cylinder truck engines were also used.

By 1960, U.S. makers had adopted the Volkswagen Transporter platform of a boxy configuration with large and convenient side-loading doors, and the sedan delivery was doomed to this more-efficient vehicle.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler built thousands of Econolines, G-Series, and A-100 vans respectively, although Chevy did build the Corvair-based Greenbriar van in the early 1960s.

Abroad, several British and European makes continued to build the small vans in quantity. In the early 1970s, Chevy built a small van based on its compact Vega, and Ford built a Pinto-based van in the mid-1970s. But these were built in very low numbers.

Another vehicle adapted from a car platform was the car-based pickup truck, also known as a sedan pickup or coupe pickup.

Chevy and Plymouth built small pickup boxes into the backs of coupes in the late 1930s, as did Studebaker and Hudson, but this body style became popular in the late 1950s as the Ford Ranchero and the Chevy El Camino.

The Ranchero was first, introduced in 1957. The little truck was first built on a full-size Ford, came in two trim levels, and was marketed as a utility vehicle for farming and trades purposes.

For a vehicle with questionable hauling capabilities, Ford sold a lot of Rancheros between 1957 and 1959; so many that Chevrolet introduced its version, the El Camino, in 1959. These vehicles offered an upscale ride from the very utilitarian regular pickup truck, which offered little in the way of options, colours or creature comforts.

Ford built the Ranchero until 1979, but in five variations. From 1960 to 1965, the Ranchero was established on Ford’s compact Falcon. It grew in size in 1966, when it was based on the Fairlane, and then the Torino, starting in 1968. For the final years of 1977-’79, it used the mid-size Ford LTD II chassis, engines and running gear.

You could purchase an entry-level Ranchero with meagre six-cylinder power, but buyers opted for lots of options and big V8 engines. Some models of the mid-1960s were muscle cars with a pickup box in the rear. In 1968, a Ranchero could be ordered with Ford’s potent 428-cubic inch (7.0-litre) Cobra Jet V8 engine.

Chevy offered high-end and powerful El Caminos right from the start. Although the initial 1959 sales run was promising, sales for 1960 were poor and the vehicle was dropped until 1964, when it returned as a Chevelle product. As GM changed the Chevelle through the next dozen years, the El Camino reflected these changes. The final generation of 1978-’87 was Malibu-based.

And like the Ranchero, an El Camino could be ordered with the hottest engine setup of the day. There was an SS (Super Sport) version, which matched its car brethren with special paint, suspension, rims, and the division’s biggest engine ever, the 454-cubic inch (7.43-litre) big block V8.

Some Ranchero models were produced at Ford’s Oakville plant, as well as a handful of Meteor Rancheros in 1958. GM’s Oshawa plant produced El Caminos starting in 1964.

Ford and Chevrolet were not the only North American firms to build these half-car, half-truck vehicles. A Volkswagen Rabbit pickup was built from 1979-’82, when the German automaker was producing vehicles at its plant in Pennsylvania.

Today, sedan deliveries are hard to find, as most were treated as a work vehicle and suffered more than a regular family passenger car. Quite a few went down the drag strip in highly-modified form, since they were light and offered good weight transfer compared to their sedan siblings.

Most Rancheros and El Caminos that survived have been restored and are a prized possession for their owners.

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