Mid-size Chevys were down-sized in 1978. Chevy truck engineers felt that making the El Camino Classic Malibu-sized would have compromised its limited cargo capacity. Instead, the new wheelbase was made about an inch longer than the old one, although the body was several inches shorter and weight was reduced by 200-300 pounds. Interior head and legroom grew. The Conquista and SS options were carried over and joined by a new Royal Knight package. Full-frame construction was retained. The base engine was a thrifty V6. Other selling features included a standard front stabilizer bar, extensive corrosion-resisting treatments, 14 noise-insulating body mounts (for a quieter ride) and double-panel doors, hood and deck lid construction.
The GMC Caballero debuted in 1978. Gone was the SP package offered on the Sprint. It was replaced with an exterior treatment called Diablo that was similar to the El Camino's Conquista option. Caballero Diablos featured a demon sticker on the hood and Diablo decals on the rocker panels.
El Camino and Caballero would stick around until 1987 with mostly minor updates and some engine changes.
A new 267-cid V8 was introduced in 1979, though it wasn’t available in California. A V6 was standard. A new lock-up automatic transmission arrived in 1980. Computer Command Control was new in 1981. That year a 3.8-liter V6 was standard. Options included 4.4-liter and 5.0-liter V8s. In California, a 3.8-liter V6 was standard and a 5.0-liter V8 was optional.
The 1982 El Camino used the Malibu’s new Caprice-style grille and side-by-side dual rectangular headlamps. The seating and instrument panel were revised. A “Smart Switch” was added to the steering column. A 1983 option was a 5.7-liter diesel V8.
Chevrolet dropped the mid-sized Malibu in 1983, but continued making El Caminos. The 1984 version was a luxurious vehicle with dual, side-by-side, rectangular headlights on either side of a cross-hatch grille and long, narrow parking lights directly below the headlights. The bumper was a simple, straight-across design. A 5.7-liter gas V8 returned and the 5.7-liter diesel V8 remained available. The ’84 El Camino survived because its sales kept Chevy ahead of Ford as America’s number one truck maker.
The 1985 El Camino received a new 4.3-liter V6 and a new instrument panel was added in 1986, but these changes didn’t improve its sales figures. By this time sales of Chevrolet's new S-10 compact pickup truck were taking a toll on the El Camino, as buyers preferred the S-10's wider range of capabilities.
The 1987 El Camino catalog promised the utility of a pickup with the beauty of a Sport Coupe, but this combination was no longer in demand. Only 15,589 were made. After a few hundred more were built in the first four months of 1988, the El Camino was dropped.
About the time the El Camino vanished, the GM-H Ute did, too. Ford, originator of the Ute, was the only builder of Australian versions, as it continued to sell its Aussie Falcon. GM knew it goofed and brought back Ute versions of the Holden Commodore coupe and sedan, but it was too late. The Falcon Longreach Ute was “king” by then.
There are other “modern” coupe-express vehicles that deserve mention. The Subaru BRAT of 1978-1987 (U.S. market) was developed directly from the Japanese automaker’s 1600 four-wheel-drive station wagon and was another Ranchero/El Camino-like vehicle.
Others in the group include the 1982-1984 Dodge Rampage and 1983-only Plymouth Scamp. These were based on the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon front-drivers, but their low-powered 2.2-liter four and front wheel drive configurations couldn't compete with El Camino’s truck-engine choices and hauling performance. The last year of Rampage production saw the offering of a unique Shelby appearance package that shared components with the 1984 Dodge Shelby Charger. A high performance Rampage was planned for 1985 but it was killed when Rampage production ended.
In 2002, Subaru tested the coupe-express market once again with the Baja, a truck based on the Outback that enthusiasts soon dubbed “Son of BRAT." Available in crew cab configuration only, Subaru Baja production ended in 2006.
Today there's speculation that GM might once again offer an El Camino in the not too distant future, based on GM's new Zeta rear wheel drive platform that underpins Holden Commodore Utes in Australia. It's the same architecture that will be used for the return of the Chevrolet Camaro in 2009. It’s like a revival of the Aussie Ute and the El Camino all in one!