That’s utes, in this case, not youths, your honor.
The car-based pickup, also known as the “ute,” has always been a bit of an oddball. That’s certainly the case in the U.S., at least. Legend has it that in the mid-1930s, a farmer’s wife in Australia was tired of Down Under dust blowing into her Ford roadster pickup on the way to church. She requested one with a metal top and wind-up windows. It caught on, and the ute became an Australian automotive institution.
The concept has witnessed its peaks and valleys of popularity in North America. Utes can work pretty well as cars or trucks, but they’ve never really excelled at either task. During the muscle car years of the 1960s, high-powered utes held a certain appeal; they could hit the hardware store or tow a trailer and also dust commuter cars between stop lights. By the time the 1970s were underway, though, big performance was gone. Small, plucky pickups from the likes of Toyota were gaining favor. By the end of the 1980s, utes were a thing of the past on these shores. The oddball 2003–06 Subaru Baja is the only one we’ve had since.
Although we’ve written at length about the mustache muscle phenomenon, ’80s cars, and vintage trucks, we haven’t checked in on the market for this last gasp of car-based pickups. So here’s the lowdown on three domestic utes, plus one famous Japanese upstart.
(As a side note for you Mopar maniacs, we didn’t forget about the short-lived 1982–84 Dodge Rampage/Plymouth Scamp. We just don’t track them in our price guide because of insufficient data; there really aren’t many left and they hardly pop up for sale.)
Ford Ranchero (1972–76, 1977–79)
Despite the ute’s Australian roots going back to the 1930s, this clever concept didn’t come to America in full force until more than 20 years later—with the 1957 Ford Ranchero (which means, you guessed it, “Rancher” in Spanish).
“More Than A Car! More Than A Truck!” the Ford ads exclaimed. And though the Ranchero morphed quite a bit over the years, moving from a full-sized platform to the compact Falcon and back up to the Torino and finally the LTD II, it always combined the good looks and occasional sportiness of a car with the utility of a pickup.
By 1972, though, the sixth-generation Ranchero started to gain that early ’70s bulk, and its most prominent design cue was the gaping semi-oval grille it shared with the Torino. Engines started with a 250-cubic inch six, but myriad V-8 options included a 302, Cleveland and Windsor 351s, a new 400-cubic-inch V-8, and a 429. That year also marked the change from gross to net horsepower ratings, so even the two biggest V-8s technically only pumped out 168 and 205 horsepower, respectively, while the hottest Ranchero of the mid-’70s emissions era was the 1974, 4-barrel 351 with 255 hp.
The 1973 Ranchero sprouted bigger 5-mph bumpers, while 1974 brought a new 460-cu-in, 220-hp V-8, and 1975 brought catalytic converters. Trim for the 1974–76 Ranchero included the 500, the GT, the 500 GT, and the woodgrain-wearing Squire.
The final-gen 1977–79 Ranchero got downsized and shared its platform with the mid-size LTD II, abandoning coke-bottle contours for a more squared-off appearance and stacked rectangular headlights. There were three V-8s available (302-, 351-, and 400-cubic inches), all with two-barrel carburetion, and three trim levels (500, GT, and Squire). Ford read the tea leaves and saw that the brighter future in the American market was with compact pickups rather than car-based utes. The company pivoted in that direction, starting with the Mazda-built Ford Courier and ultimately replacing that with the home-grown Ranger. Ford hasn’t sold a ute here in the States since.
As they transitioned to become classics, late Rancheros have quietly but consistently crept up in value—less than many classic trucks but more than most malaise-era cars. The median-condition #2 (Excellent) value for a 1972–76 Ranchero is $20,900, up 101 percent over the past 10 years. Naturally, those with the hottest engines and highest trim command the most money, but driver-quality cars can still be had in the mid-teens.
The 1977–79 Ranchero is cheaper still, and though the median condition #2 value is up 81 percent over the past decade, it’s still just $15,700. Some #3 driver-quality values are in the four-figure range. The most we’ve seen somebody pay for a stock Ranchero of either of these generations is $37,500, and that happened back in 2015. Buyer interest for Rancheros of this era also skews slightly older than the collector car market as a whole, so there isn’t an infusion of younger enthusiasts snatching these up. Malaise era Rancheros also have a natural buffer in that they’ll never be worth more than the sexier, faster, earlier versions from the muscle car era.
Chevrolet El Camino (1973-77, 1978-87)
Ask the average person on the street to name a car-based pickup, and chances are they’ll either look at you funny and walk away or answer “El Camino.” It’s the American ute that lasted the longest, sold the best, and spawned the most memorable offerings.
The GM ute’s origins have a familiar story: like with the Mustang and Bronco, Ford’s Ranchero tapped into a fresh segment of the market, forcing GM to play catch-up with a version of its own. The El Camino (Spanish for “the way” or “the path”) arrived in 1959, two years after the Ford. After some initial success, sales plummeted in 1960 and Chevrolet discontinued the model, only to revive it for 1964. From 1964–77 it was based on the Chevelle, and from 1978–87 it shared the GM A- and G-body platform with the Malibu and Monte Carlo, Olds Cutlass, Buick Regal, and others.
The 1973 model year brought GM’s all-new “Colonnade” look for its mid-size cars. As with the Ranchero, this was the largest era of El Camino, with big bumpers and larger overall dimensions despite shrinking performance. Engines for the 1973-77 generation ranged from the base 307/115-hp 2-barrel V-8 up to 400- and 454-cubic-inch V-8s. The SS, as always, was the sporty option and could be had with either the 350 or 454, but only made up about 10 percent of production in most years.
A new El Camino arrived for 1978 with slimmed-down looks and smaller engines, with Chevrolet or (in California) Buick V-6s at the bottom and 305- or 350-cubic inch small-blocks at the top. The SS continued as the sporty offering, while other special models included the two-tone Conquista as well as the Black Knight/Royal Knight, which were appearances had enough stripes and winged hood decals to give a screaming chicken Trans Am a run for its money. There was also a 1983–87 Choo Choo Customs El Camino—a spiced up SS built by a Chattanooga aftermarket shop. The Choo Choo packages added sportier wheels and mirrors, a Monte Carlo SS polyurethane nose and, of course, decals. The El Camino was even available with the efficient but unreliable Oldsmobile diesel engine, but chances of finding one of those today are slim.
Obviously, these later El Caminos lack the classic status of their tire-spinning descendants from the ’60s and early ’70s, but they’re a way to get a distinctive, relatively practical and fun old car for cheap. The median condition #2 value for both generations is still under $20K despite a spike over the past two years, and all #3 values are under $15K. Expect to pay more for the bigger engines and for loud and proud paint schemes like the Royal/Black Knights or Choo Choo SS. As with the Ranchero, buyer interest for the malaise era El Camino skews slightly older and the serious money chases the high-spec cars from the ’60s, so these will likely always be attainable classics.