It’s Back. Yesteryear’s Small, Car-Based Pickup Truck – Leith Cars

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Depending on when you were born, visions of strange car-truck hybrids that once roamed American suburbs, small towns, and country roads, may or may not be part of your personal memory bank. Yes, the small, car-based pickup truck of yesteryear, is coming back thanks to Ford. So if you were lucky enough to have lived during the time of the Ranchero and El Camino among others…rejoice. Or, if you’re a bit newer to this automotive oddity of sophisticated utilitarianism, here’s a brief history of what the car-truck phenomenon was about and where it may be headed next.

One of the Most Versatile Cars (or Trucks) on the Road

Why though, would anyone want a small truck that’s also half-a car, you might be asking? Well, it’s a question that was originally asked back in the mid-nineteen-fifties and was successfully answered with the arrival of the first half-car/half-truck, the 1957 Ford Ranchero. Take a sleekly styled 2-door American sedan, incorporate a utilitarian pick-up truck type bed in the rear, and “voila”, you now have a “Ranchero.”

This was a new kind of vehicle that quite possibly was one of the most versatile cars (or trucks) on the road at the time. Offering you the ability to take a small family of three on a trip across town or haul a couple of bales of hay back to the family farm, in fact, Ranchero could do either task at the same time and do it in style and comfort but without the over-size bruteness of a big, full-size pickup truck.

The Equivalent of an “Automotive Mullet”

Even though the early Ranchero was based on Ford’s new Custom sedan, it was basically a truck version of the Ranch Wagon Station Wagon model, but with a truck bed and it’s own unique rear window behind the passenger compartment. If you walked into a Ford showroom back in those days, you wouldn’t find the Ranchero amongst the other Ford sedans and coupes, it was sold alongside the Ford Trucks on dealer lots.

Not to be outdone by its cross-town rival, Chevrolet entered the car-truck fray in 1959 with a version of its own called the Chevrolet El Camino. The El Camino was also derived by taking a full-size, 2-door Chevy, lopping off half the roof, back seat, and trunk, then dropping in a custom-designed pickup truck bed. Thus, the equivalent of an “automotive mullet” was born, “party in the front, business in the back.”


In the early 1970s, thanks to the oil crisis and skyrocketing gas prices at the pump, domestic car manufacturers like Chevy and Ford needed to add to the car-like, truck-like El Camino and Ranchero stable by offering more fuel-efficient, small-lightweight trucks too. These little mighty-mites weren’t just car-based trucks however, these trucks were tiny, 4 cylinder cab-on-frame, light-weight pickup trucks imported from Japan but sold under their domestic owner’s nameplates.

The Isuzu Faster in 1972 became the Chevy LUV, “Light-Utility-Vehicle” and over at the “Blue Oval”, the Mazda B-Series small pickup, (imported from Japan for Ford) was sold to American buyers as the Ford Courier from 1972 to 1985. Ford designed its first small, lightweight truck, the all-new Ford Ranger for a 1983 domestic debut, ultimately replacing the imported Courier. The new Ranger also replaced the previously mentioned car/truck model known as the Ranchero which had already ended production in 1979.

“The Only USAC Certified Sports Pickup”

Ford, Chevrolet, and Japanese import brands weren’t the only manufacturers wearing a “Jersey tuxedo” to the “trucklet” dance in the early 1980s. MOPAR brands Dodge and Plymouth created their own car-truck hybrid in the form of the “Rampage” and “Scamp.” The Scamp only saw life during the 1983 model year while the Dodge variant saw production from 1982 to 1984. Both cars, er, trucks were based on Chrysler Corporation’s front-wheel-drive-transaxle cars, the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon but with the removal of the back seat and the addition of a custom truck bed and roof treatment. In fact, the Rampage version was touted by Dodge as being “the only pickup ever to be sanctioned as a Sports Pickup by the United States Auto Club.”

“Marty McFly” Drove One

While domestic car brands like Ford, Chevy, and Dodge imported small pickups to re-badge as their own, the Japanese manufacturers were importing a wide variety of light-duty trucks into the U.S. from the early 1970s to the mid-90s.

In fact, the award for pioneering the small imported pickup truck market in the United States, goes to the Datsun 1000, first seen on our shores in 1960. By the late-seventies, the American small pickup truck market offered the likes of the Subaru BRAT (Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter) featuring a couple of rear-facing seats in the truck bed, and the rotary-powered Mazda REPU with it’s “piston-less” 110 horsepower Wankel engine. Mainstream entries like the Toyota “Truck” with its upscale SR5 trim became famous in the mid-1980s when the movie character “Marty McFly” drove one in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Toyota’s Tacoma and Nissan’s Frontier

The success of the small domestic and imported light-duty trucks of the late-seventies to mid-nineteen-eighties along with increasing government fuel efficiency requirements and rising manufacturing costs spelled the end of car-trucks like the El Camino (1987) and Ranchero (1979).

By the new millennium, even the “small” Japanese light-duty truck of yesteryear had grown into a much larger mid-size truck that American truck buyers were more attracted to. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, domestic mid-size trucks from Ford, Chevy, and Dodge had all vanished in favor of larger full-size pickup truck models, now available in a 2-door or 4-door configuration and with a multitude of drivetrain, payload, and hauling capabilities. Only Toyota’s Tacoma and Nissan’s Frontier mid-size trucks remained on sale domestically.

Ford, is Ready to Lead the Charge Again

New mid-size trucks from General Motors re-emerged onto the truck scene just a few years ago to once again take-on Toyota and Nissan while a new mid-size truck from Dodge/RAM is also rumored. Ford just reintroduced the venerable Ranger to America in 2019 (after selling the same model overseas for several years) and is about to drop a new light-duty SUV using the iconic “Bronco” nameplate soon. What about the small, adorable light-duty truck or even car-truck of yesteryear, you may be asking? Well, it seems that Ford, just like they did with the Ranchero back in 1957, is ready to lead the charge again.

Rumors, spy photos, and news from foreign markets about a new “small truck” from Ford started circulating in U.S. automotive press circles around March 2020. The “scoop” is that a 2022 small Ford truck, named “Maverick” will be built off a version of Ford’s new CUV (car-based) unibody platform shared with the upcoming Bronco Sport (the new Ford Bronco’s little brother). Several other new Fords, all Crossover-Utility-Vehicles including the upcoming Focus, the third-generation Escape, and first-generation Lincoln Corsair also use this same platform.

Whatever this new Ford “Maverick” looks like, it will undoubtedly have four-doors and still offer the promise of the original car-truck or small light-duty truck from back in the day. Until then, you may search some of the current truck offerings from Ford, including the new Ranger and the venerable F-150 at Leith Ford in Wendell, N.C.

Written by Mark Arsen for


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