Bring Back a Real Car-Truck!

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VW’s new truck – if they build it, which hopefully they will – won’t be the first one.

For a couple of years back in the early ’80s, you could buy a pick-up version of the Rabbit. It was even available with a diesel engine.

Of course, neither of these vehicles are pick-ups, even though they look like pick-ups.

Both the concept Tanoak “truck” on display at the Auto Show up in New York and the Rabbit-based pick-up of the early ‘80s are in fact cars.

With beds, certainly.

But cars, fundamentally.

Front-wheel-drive, for openers – which automatically disqualifies either from entry into the Truck Club.

A front-drive truck is like a gentle Nazi or a fish that doesn’t swim.

FWD is how most cars are built nowadays because it makes sense from a packaging perspective (engine mounted sideways, with the transmission and axle combined into a single unit and bolted directly to the engine) for more room inside the resulting car. It also lightens up the resulting car – which is a desirable thing when it comes to cars nowadays because it means better fuel economy – which the government requires even if buyers don’t particularly care – and less cumbersome handling as well as (usually) peppier pick-up, because there’s less weight to haul.

There is no heavy rear axle, nor similarly heavy leaf springs. These are truck things. And they are heavy. But they are also heavy-duty and exactly what you want if you intend to haul.

FWD/FWD-based vehicles – this includes “crossovers,” which are just jacked-up cars made to look like SUVs based on rear-drive trucks – have low tow ratings and aren’t built to handle the abuse trucks are designed to deal with.

They have all-wheel-drive, sometimes – but never four-wheel-drive, with a two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range gearing.

Those are truck things.

They always have smaller engines – usually fours and sixes.

Never V8s.

All of which brings up something no one in New York talked about when VW brought out its Tanoak concept “truck.”

Why doesn’t someone bring out a real-deal car-truck? A latter-day El Camino? Or even a Ranchero?

Both of these looked like cars – but had much more in common with trucks than either the Tanoak or the Rabbit pick-up.

The El Camino (and Ranchero) had beds, just like the Tanoak and the Ranchero. But they also had V8s and solid rear axles and were rear-wheel-drive in their basic layout.

As trucks are laid out.

As cars were once laid out.

Well, American cars.

Back in the used-to-be days.

The default for most of the history of the American car until the mid-1980s was engine up front (mounted front to rear, not sideways) with a separate transmission bolted to the back of it that transmitted power to a separate rear axle mounted in the rear, via a prop shaft that spanned the distance.

Most of these cars were also beefy body-on-frame construction, again like trucks.

Which – ironically enough – is why the trucks of the past were often “spun off” the cars of the past and – until fairly recently – had much more in common with cars than today’s trucks have in common with cars.

The El Camino of the ’60, ’70s and early ’80s came with (or could be ordered with) the same small-block V8 that powered Chevy trucks. In the early El Caminos, it was even possible to order a big block V8.

The Salad Days.

Then (in 1975) along came CAFE, the federal fatwa decreeing that all cars must use only so much gas, regardless of buying willingness to pay for gas. If a car used more than the fatwa decreed, fines descended.

Within a few short years, the typical American car became like the foreign car: Smaller, lighter – and based on a front-wheel-drive layout.

Body-on-frame and V8-powered/rear-drive American cars like the Chevy Chevelle/Impala/Caprice (which were the basis for the El Camino throughout its production run) received the Chicxulub Treatment. Like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, CAFE killed off rear-drive/body-on-frame and V8 powered American cars, or at least mostly so. The difference being that the Chicxulub asteroid was a natural event while CAFE is a government-created thing.

A few of the old stompers survived – kind of like Loch Ness, which is said to be a Plesiosaur – but only in the isolated backwaters of high-performance (e.g., Camaro, Corvette) and high-end (e.g., Caddy CTS, etc.).

Mass market – affordable – cars of that kind disappeared.

Which is why the El Camino and Ranchero disappeared, too.

Which is too bad, because they make a lot more sense as cars that can do truck-ish things than either the proposed Tanoak or the actual Rabbit “truck.” The El Camino/Ranchero could pull and haul, things the car-based VWs aren’t suited for. Their beds are okay for the dog and light loads. For real work, you want a RWD-based layout and – ideally – a hunky V8 up front.

The problem is there’s no reasonably priced/mass market RWD/V8 passenger car platform to serve as the basis of such a thing. VW hasn’t got one, certainly.

The only one that comes close that’s still in production is the Dodge/Chrysler Charger/300, upon which the sun is already setting. It is doubtful these surviving Plesiosaurs will remain in production much longer; the CAFE Crunch is sealing their doom.

So, we’re left with “trucks” that aren’t really – but sort of look like it.

 . . .

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  1. Back in the late 70s one of dads co workers showed up in our driveway with a GMC Sprint SS, I believe it was a 72. With a factory 454 and 4spd. In black. With red or orange stripes. I’ve never seen another and would really love to have one.

  2. Don’t forget the ’70s Ramchargers and Traildusters with their removable tops. From enclosed vehicle to pickup and back. The tops weren’t camper shells at all, but part of the truck. Four-wheel-drive, big V-8s, what was not to like?

  3. I distinctly remember riding in the back of a neighbor’s Ranchero to the county fair when I was about ten. That thing really wasn’t any different than my dad’s 1974 Gran Torino Wagon — except that it didn’t have a roof over the back or seats in the back.

    Arguably, the wagon was a better vehicle. My dad used his wagon for a lot of “truck” stuff — like hauling firewood with the seats folded down — but unlike the Ranchero he could flip the seats up and haul us kids, with a roof over our heads when it rained.

    My recollection of he 1970s was that the car/trucks were for the hip single guys, real trucks were for farmers, and wagons were for family men. Didn’t the young Bill Clinton have an El Camino with astroturf in the bed for getting laid??

  4. James Bond “Goldfinger” had the Ford Falcon Ranchero — that implausibly held the 2-ton weight of a crushed Continental (that likely held *another* 2 tons of gold in it)

  5. Although the Ranchero and El Camino had RWD and body of frame design, they weren’t “real” trucks.

    I don’t believe they offered 4WD, or suspensions sturdy enough to approach the off-road, towing, or load hauling capacity of a 1/2 ton truck of the era.

    They were “image” cars……kind of passing as trucks for guys who really didn’t need, or even want, an actual one.

    Their configuration “was” perfect however, for one occupational niche, where you saw a lot of them………professional pool cleaners.

    • Hi Mike,

      Hey mang, don’t be hatin’ on one of my faves! 🙂

      You’re right none were 4WD from the factory, but converting them is fairly popular.

      I am determined to own one, eventually. Hear that Quadrajet moan…

      • Dude, I’m not hating’ on em. Nothing wrong with having front seating only but not being a sports car…..or having a bed but not being a truck.

        A Pool Guy is an honorable profession, too. I still say that intentionally or not, this configuration was Built For Them.

        Enough bed to hold those light but cumbersome skimmers and brush poles.

        And here’s the unique (perhaps only) attribute that made them better for this job than the station wagons of the day……if those jugs of chlorine or muriatic acid happened to leak, you REALLY didn’t want any of those fumes floating around inside the car with you. 😉

        • Hi Mike,

          GM made a few in the late ’70s with the 350/Super T-10 four speed combo. This was the same combo used in the Camaro Z28 of the time. Not very powerful or quick, but they were lots of fun to drive. The Super T-10 made great sounds and the 350 could easily be hopped up to make another 50-plus hp in a weekend of wrench turning.

          Damn, I miss those days!

    • Our ’77 SS is close to the same color as the ’76 pictured here, just a bit lighter with more metal. It’s also a trailer tow model and has some serious springs and came with helper shocks instead of air shocks. It will haul quite a load. A friend had one he used to pull a fifth wheel trailer….handily.

      Although GM never produced one with 4 WD I’ve seen some custom made and they looked good plus had IFS half ton Chevy axles and diff’s. With positraction they did a great job of towing, esp. boats which those FWD cars couldn’t hack since they had the weight taken off the front on a boat ramp and would sit there and spin their fronts till some impatient a-hole like me would drop their trailer and pull them out. Nothing like watching a really bad-ass tornadic cloud headed toward you and there’s 50 boats trying to get out of the water and the ramps are quagmired with Eldo’s and Toronado’s spinning away fruitlessly…….bbbbbzzzzzzzzz…..goddamn city boys……..

  6. Too much wishful thing to suggest maybe the Great Orange One will be able to beat back the tree sniffers long enough to “allow” a diesel version of the Tanoak to be sold in the “land of the free”?

    A 4WD diesel version with a manual transmission would be pretty sweet.

  7. Seemed like the frame based cars lead to more variations of a single “model” Today you get a sedan period.

    You used to get a sedan, a two door coupe, sometimes a two door convertible and a station wagon.

    • It’s much easier and less expensive to change the body when the frame is not integral. Studebaker was a master at this, cranking out a pretty large variety of vehicles all sitting on top of their 1953 frame which is the last one engineered by the company. (That’s why the footwells look so strange on the last Studebakers. The company was grafting a more-or-less contemporary 1960s-style body onto that 1953-vintage frame.) This contrasts with Hudson, which could not easily or cheaply make major changes to their 1948 step-down design which used unitized construction.

      • Studebaker used to make a real “Mankiller” called a”Gravely Tractor” too, I sure don’t lament the passing of those things.
        Studebaker had every right to survive, I don’t think Uncle offered them a buyout, all the competition used to spur innovation, now its just “Cookie Cutters” if it were not for the badges and grills, I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, soon enough one or two giant agglomerations will produce the new vehicles( that the majority will not be able to actually afford)
        Whats going to happen when your new Chevy is a rebadged Ford or vice-versa?

  8. Until GM and Ford closed up shop in Australia manufacturing wise both produced pickup cars that in that market are called Utes. They were made up until 2016 or so.

    Sadly they were never sold in the USA and private importing is banned for any less than 25 years old.

    • Those Utes were invented here in Oz for the rural people who went into the city but needed to bring back a lot more supplies than a trad car could hold. They became very popular with trades people. They also came with V8 motors, though small block V8s as large block V8s were never made here, just imported. And sporty utes also could be had. So now these utes are not being imported here as no one else makes them. So small fwd pickups are now the #1 selling vehicles here.


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