Monthly Archives: October 2014

My kingdom for a Ute

1978-79 Chevrolet El Camino, spotted in Hull, Quebec.

1978-79 Chevrolet El Camino, spotted in Hull, Quebec.

Of all the extinct American cars I’d like to see resurrected, the Chevrolet El Camino tops the list (the Lincoln Continental, ideally with suicide doors, is a close second).

It’s been 27 years since the last El Caminos rolled off U.S. assembly lines, bringing an end to the car-pickup era. Despite having been produced since 1959 (with a gap between ’60 and ’64), by the end of its life the midsize sedan-turned-pickup had gained a somewhat undeserved stigma as the ride du jour of hillbillies and moonshiners.

Designed to compete with the Ford Ranchero (introduced in 1957), the El Camino was initially based off the full-size Impala for ’59-60, before switching to the mid-size Chevelle platform from ’64 onwards. From 1978 to 1987, a slightly lengthened Malibu platform was put to work underpinning the fifth and last generation of El Camino. Despite being associated with the U.S. (especially the Southern U.S.), the car-pickup – aka the coupé utility, aka the ‘ute’ – was an invention and treasured automotive oddity of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth of Australia.

First marketed by Ford of Australia in 1934, the new body style was created in response to a 1932 letter from a lady who asked if they could build her a vehicle that could drive her to church on Sunday, while still being able to haul livestock on Monday.

2010-2011 Holden Ute. Since the mid-1930s, GM's Australian division has been cranking out Utes without stopping (image: OSX/Wikimedia Commons)

2010-2011 Holden Ute. Since the mid-1930s, GM’s Australian division has been cranking out Utes without stopping (image: OSX/Wikimedia Commons)

The need to compete with this strange new vehicle hybrid led General Motors subsidiary Holden to bring a ute to market the following year. The Holden Ute is still in existence, and speculation has been neverending about a Chevrolet-badged version coming to our shores.*

(* Note: while I love the idea of a returning El Camino – something that probably won’t happen for years, if ever – I despise the Holden Ute’s roofline. That pinched effect where the door frame and C-pillar meet turns me off. Having the door integrated into a solid sail panel, like on El Caminos of the 60s and 70s, would eliminate this effect, and I could go back to loving it completely.)

American or Australian, the intent of the ute was to offer buyers a comfortable, car-like ride with a side of utility, made affordable by using as many existing parts as possible. And that’s the way things stayed for the El Camino (and its twin, the GMC Sprint/Caballero), though the muscle car era saw the Chevelle-based El Camino adopt the same hot powerplants and paint as its stablemate.

The El Camino Royal Knight. Just like a Trans Am. Only based on a Malibu. With a pickup bed.

The El Camino Royal Knight. Just like a Trans Am. Only based on a Malibu. With a pickup bed.

The fifth and final generation of El Camino saw the ute slimmed down (as was the style in the late ’70s), now based on the midsize Malibu platform. The wheelbase gained an inch over the Malibu, but otherwise, the tradition of make do with what you have carried on. The front end of the ’78-’87 El Camino was pure Malibu.

The long doors were borrowed from the Monte Carlo coupe, while the rear tailgate was sourced from the Malibu wagon. Under the hood, the El Camino reflected the lean times it found itself in. For ’78, the base engine was a 200-cubic-inch inline six making a paltry 95 horsepower. The upgrade was the respectable and long-lived 305 cid V-8, making 145 horsepower.

A ballsy 350 c.i.d. small-block V-8 topped the range, and was the engine of choice if you were the type who longed for an eagle painted on your hood.

Three and four-speed manual transmissions came standard in lower trim levels, though most buyers opted to let the ubiquitous 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic do the shifting for them. In ’79, the El Camino saw the stopgap 267 c.i.d. V-8 join the engine lineup, while in 1980 the base engine was dropped in favour of a 229 c.i.d. V-6 making 115 horsepower. The 350 option was also dropped that year.

The 1981 model is my favourite from this generation, mainly because Chevy ditched the egg-crate grill and went with horizontal chrome bars. Desperate to please the EPA and meet their stringent emissions requirements, GM joined most other automakers that year in adding a lockup torque convertor to their 3-speed automatic in an effort to boost highway mileage.

The following year, 1982, saw the El Camino adopt the quad-headlights and blunt front end of the refreshed Malibu, a style it would carry to its demise. GM’s notorious 350 c.i.d. diesel  was offered from ’82-’84, while the 267 was dropped.

The ad says 'Chevy Trucks', but the El Camino was all car underneath.

The ad says ‘Chevy Trucks’, but the El Camino was all car underneath.

Despite strong initial sales of the fifth generation El Camino, buyers drifted away and the model withered on the GM vine through most of the 1980s.

As the top photo shows, this model of El Camino (especially the pre-1982s) had some style to work with, and made the best of a two-tone paint job. Despite the stigma that grew mostly after the car ceased production, a lower-end El Camino with a V-6 and three-person bench dished out a fair bit of practicality and would have been useful in a number of situations.

And wasn’t this the original intent of the body style all those years ago in Australia?

Whether or not the El Camino rises from the ashes in North America is a question for gamblers. I figure if there was real demand for the vehicle, it would have happened by now.

Maybe the body style is too polarizing for modern sensibilities (mention the El Camino at a party and you’ll quickly see it’s either ridiculed or revered), or, maybe there are just too many new vehicles today that already have room to haul our stuff.

I’d still like to see it come back one day. And not solely as a limited-edition performance car, either – that would be GM thumbing its nose at history and the intention of the model.

Motoring for the masses

A long-term look at Chevy’s global compact


Sadly, the Eco doesn't come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

Sadly, the Eco doesn’t come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

It’s been four years since Chevrolet began erasing the sins of the past with the help of its compact Cruze sedan.

In the fall of 2010, a freshly bailed out GM sprung a new model into the marketplace designed to compete, rather than just show up for participation marks. The Cruze rolled out with a splashy advertising campaign crafted by nervous executives and their secretly terrified underlings, designed to make people forget about the blandmobile that preceded it (and the one that came before that).

Offered strictly as a four-door sedan positioned on the large side of the compact spectrum, the Cruze was engineered to be everything the Cobalt and Cavalier weren’t. More rigidity, more spaciousness, more technology and more miles to the gallon was needed to wage war with the perennially popular Civic and Corolla, as well as lower volume offerings like the Focus, Sentra and Jetta.

Unlike the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 twins (as well as the Cavalier/Sunfire that came before them), the Cruze was truly a global car, manufactured in four continents and sold in five. Only in Australia was the Chevrolet nameplate shoved aside to make way for a regional GM division name – in this case, the Holden Cruze.

With a ho-hum yet competitive 1.8-litre four-banger serving as a base North American engine, the Cruze raised eyebrows by offering only 6-speed transmissions (both manual and automatic) – a game-changer for the compact field. GM took a risk by offering, as an uplevel powerplant, an engine smaller than that of its base model – a 1.4-litre turbo making the same horsepower (138), but with more torque (148 ft-lbs versus 125).

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

The cheap gas of the 1990s and 2000’s was by then no more, thanks to the oil spike of mid-2010, but memories of the big engine displacements it fostered were still fresh. A volume engine in a roughly 3,100-pound car that displaced less that a litre-and-a-half was a foreign concept for GM, and America as a whole.

The public would no doubt question it. Would it pull its own weight? Would a driver used to brawny V-6’s be able to tolerate this motorcycle-worthy 1,364cc mill? Was the car as a whole a flimsy piece of junk?

The passage of time told the story. The Cruze sold well as gas prices remained elevated for years amid a struggling economy, while the automotive industry quickly moved in the direction of smaller displacement turbos and transmissions with economy gearing aimed at wringing more MPG’s out of their lineup.

Horsepower sells, but so does gas mileage when money’s in short supply.

First contact

In November of 2011, a younger (but no more idealistic) version of myself wanted to drive one of those new sedans. Not surprisingly, I ended up with a volume LT model as a tester, equipped with the 1.4-litre turbo and automatic.

My review was published in a now-defunct chain of Ottawa-area weekly newspapers.

Going into the Cruze, I recalled driving a base Chevy Cobalt rental in the Rocky Mountains the year before. While the 2.2-litre engine made decent power, its antiquated 4-speed automatic put the ‘S’ in slushbox and made mountainous driving an irritating chore.

The 6-speed in the Cruze didn’t need the accelerator to be floored in order to necessitate a downshift, and the tiny engine pulled with surprising ease. As well, the interior of the Cruze put the never-ending soft-touch plastic of the Cobalt to shame, thanks to its two-tone fabric inserts in the doors and dash.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

A tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a 6-way driver’s seat (that travels an incredibly long way rearward) made it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel, even with my 6’4″ frame.

The driving dynamics of the Cruze, from steering to braking and cornering, were substantially improved over the Cobalt. While I didn’t mention it at the time, the design of the Cruze, though cautious, was reasonably attractive and promised a long shelf life.

With the Cruze only just out of the gate at the time, and with GM compacts steeped in negative stigma, I pretty much declared the new model a winner in terms of value and content.

As it turns out, a lot of people chose to hand their money to GM in return for a Cruze. The 3 millionth Cruze rolled off assembly lines in Ohio in August of 2014.

Of those sedans that rolled out of Lordstown over the past four years, one was mine.

2011 Chevy Cruze Eco

The Cruze Eco was Chevy’s ‘Wow – look at those numbers!’ model.

With a triple overdrive 6-speed manual mated to the 1.4-litre engine, in addition to significant weight savings, aerodynamic improvements (including grille shutters that close above 20 km/h), and low rolling resistance tires, the Eco was designed to deliver head-turning mileage numbers.

The high-mileage model was a phenomenon that soon became common place for domestic auto manufacturers. Ford and Dodge soon had theirs in the form of the Fiesta SFE and Dart Aero, respectively.

Don't think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen...

Don’t think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen…

The highway mileage figure for these cars is great for use in advertisements – you’ll see them preceded by the words ‘up to’.

The Cruze Eco, which seemed to only be sold in the colour red, subtly improved on the appearance of the base LS and volume LT models with chrome-plated 17-inch alloy wheels and a low-profile rear lip spoiler.

Inside, the two-tone upholstery (black and red seems popular!) is complemented by a similar motif on the doors and dashboard. There, the somewhat cheap-looking black plastic is broken up by fabric mesh inserts that are pleasing to the eye and seem durable enough.

The centre stack and console is trimmed in bright silver plastic that won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s aluminum, but makes for a brighter, more engaging interior nonetheless.

With the Cruze now an established presence, deals can easily be found on used and off-lease models. The Eco no longer carries a price premium after three years (it seems), making it a good deal for mileage-conscious shoppers.

Hence why I got into one.

The Drive

I’ve mentioned the comfortable driving position and handling characteristics of the Cruze already (Hey, how ’bout that turning radius?!), so we don’t need to venture into that. For a compact car, backseat space is acceptable, and a 15 cubic foot trunk puts it near the top of its class in terms of cargo volume.

As a past owner of several GM sedans, going back to the early ’90s, I was happy to see that the horrific 1st generation anti-lock braking system had been tossed on the trash heap of history. A ’93 Chevy Corsica and 2003 Pontiac Grand Am came equipped with them, and I loathed every second I spent trying to come to a full and complete stop.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

The anti-lock system on the Cruze, which featured rear drums for weight savings, stops far faster and with far less pedal pulsation that the older GMs. On ice and snow the difference is even more noticeable – slick conditions confused those earlier brakes, and both cars had a tendency to give up on slowing down if the surface was slick, even with the brake pedal to the floor).

Traction control keeps the Cruze planted while cornering (at reasonable speeds) on snow and gravel, and can be shut off in order to slog through the deeper drifts.

At low to moderate speeds, the Cruze’s steering is just what you want it to be. Precise and power assisted at low speeds, the steering firms up nicely as speed rises.

On the highway, travelling on straight stretches, I take issue with the need to perform minor, ongoing steering corrections, due to an otherwise firm wheel that offers a little bit of play – play that translates into unwelcome trajectory changes. With your hands off the wheel, the car doesn’t wander, but with a two-hand grip, you’ll find yourself constantly making subtle corrections.

Most of the time these actions are subconscious, but it’s still an issue that should be addressed in the second-generation Cruze.

The Cruze's design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The Cruze’s design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The triple overdrive gear set on the Eco’s 6-speed manual can take most of the credit for the model’s great highway fuel economy, but it does make around-town driving a little tricky. Don’t think that dropping a gear in any situation (even on the highway) is going to make an appreciable difference in acceleration.

Given the loftiness of those top three gears, dropping two ratios is almost always required to perform your average ‘manoeuvre’. The mileage that comes from that gearbox and all the other fuel-saving gizmos is appreciated, though, especially when you see the price at the pumps.

GM lists the Cruze Eco’s highway fuel economy at 4.6 L/100km, or 61 MPG (Imp.), which is 11 MPG more than the least efficient Cruze model.

On a 163-kilometre drive from the rural Valley town of Killaloe to my driveway in downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed to average 66.5 MPG, or 4.25 L/100km. The trip was made on secondary highways and a four-lane highway, and I kept to the speed limit (but didn’t drop below).

Driving normally, highway jaunts usually return mileage in the 57-58 MPG range.

The Cruze was a big step up in late 2010 and it’s still a capable, competitive vehicle. I’ll be interested to see the specs on the second generation model, which comes out next year as a 1016 model.

Big and topless

1968 Dodge Monaco 500 convertible, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

1968 Dodge Monaco 500 convertible, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

I’ve said it for years – there’s something about Chrysler products from the late ’60s/early ’70s that make them seen invincible.

It just feels that regardless of what damage they could sustain – even a frame bent 90 degrees – the menacing Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodges would just get mad… and then get even.

Too many car chase movies in my youth, I guess.

The example of Mopar muscle seen here – a slightly battered 1968 Dodge Monaco 500 droptop – was once the pinnacle of luxury motoring for the Dodge division. Not just any Monaco, the massive, top-level 500 was two tonnes of compliant driving enjoyment.

Luxury conveniences were plentiful, while the power any driver of a menacing Hippie-era Dodge needed was instantly on tap. A 383-cubic inch V-8 making 330 horsepower was mated to a bulletproof 3-speed Torqueflight automatic with console shifter.

The Monaco and Monaco 500 coupes, sedans and convertibles were all based on the forgettable Dodge Custom 880 (the division’s hastily-prepared full-size offering), which ran from 1962 to 1965. The Monaco replaced the 880 in the U.S. market in 1966, and in Canada in 1967.

While the American Monaco had a 383 as the standard engine, the thrifty Canadian marketplace demanded that it also come with the 318, as well as the 225 Slant-6.

Doing what a '74 Monaco always seemed to do best (image:

Doing what a ’74 Monaco always seemed to do best… (image:

Looking at the bruised-but-still-kicking convertible pictured above, some of the menace fades from its visage when you imagine a Valiant-worthy Slant 6 under its hood.

While the Monaco soldiered on well into the Malaise Era (earning it lasting fame as The Blues Brothers’ car), the 500 option was scrapped after 1971. After splitting the nameplate into ‘Monaco’ (formerly, the Coronet) and full-size ‘Royal Monaco’ in 1977, a bankruptcy-bound Chrysler Corporation was forced to kill off both the following year.

Serving as the ubiquitous cop car in countless 1970s films and TV shows, the stodgy-but-tough Monaco saw its media presence last well into the ’80s, thanks to its durability and cheap resale value. Look to any episode of The Dukes of Hazzard for proof of this.