The 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier was a special half-ton pickup truck model with a unique “fleetside” body, designed by future GM Styling VP Chuck Jordan. It used fiberglass outer panels to create a slab-sided bed without a step ahead of each rear wheel, which was unusual for pickup trucks of the time. The Cameo Carrier and the equivalent GMC Suburban Pickup also had deluxe trim and interior appointments, making them more luxurious than standard Chevrolet and GMC trucks. High prices meant that the Cameo Carrier and Suburban Pickup sold only in limited numbers through 1958. However, they inspired similar models from several other manufacturers. By the late fifties, most American pickup truck lines offered a similar-looking slab-sided body style.
Hard as it is now to envision, there was a time, still within living memory, when trucks were not readily accepted in American polite society. One of the most significant harbingers of the transition to our modern era of pampered, luxurious utility vehicles was this rare truck: the 1955 to 1958 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier (and its even rarer brother, the GMC Suburban Pickup).
Chevrolet Updates Its Trucks
Well into the 1950s, American trucks suffered an image problem, or, more precisely, a class problem. Driving a pickup truck implied dirty fingernails and muddy work boots, which was too uncouth for most middle-class urbanites or suburban tastemakers. There was a thriving market for trucks of all kinds, but they were predominantly working vehicles, often purchased by commercial operators with little appetite for costly frills or flashy looks.
Although General Motors in that era was as design-conscious as any industrial concern in America, it wasn’t until November 1949 that GM Styling VP Harley Earl established a dedicated studio for truck and commercial vehicle design, headed by Luther W. (Lu) Stier. Unlike the rest of the Styling Section, then based in the General Motors Research Center building (sometimes known as the Argonaut Building, which is no longer owned by GM and today is the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design), Stier’s new studio was consigned, along with the small advanced studio used for orientating new designers, to a section of Fisher Body Plant 8 downtown, known to some of its inhabitants as “Planet 8.”
One of the truck studio’s early recruits was a young designer named Charles M. (Chuck) Jordan, who had joined GM in 1949 and cut his teeth in the advanced studio next door. Jordan was an MIT alumnus who had attracted the attention of GM Styling executives by winning a regional victory in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild design competition during his sophomore year of college.
Like most designers, Jordan loved sports cars, but he also had a lifelong fascination with trucks. That was somewhat unusual in 1949, but Jordan had grown up with trucks on his family’s ranch in Southern California. At MIT, he wrote his graduate thesis on the styling of Mack Trucks.
According to Stier, it was Jordan who was principally responsible for the cab design of Chevrolet’s redesigned 1955 “Task Force Truck Line,” which debuted on March 25, 1955. (They were known internally as the “Second Series” 1955 trucks, since there had been a short-lived “First Series” with carryover styling and some mechanical changes.) As with most production designs, there were other hands involved, including designers Bob Phillips, Al Phillips, and Drew Hare and modeler Clark Whitcomb, but Jordan and Stier shared the design patents for the all-new trucks, which represented the Chevrolet truck line’s first full redesign since 1947.
The new “load-pulling look,” as Chevrolet brochures dubbed it, did not radically change the paradigms of American truck design, but it did look significantly more modern than the outgoing “Advance-Design” trucks, which had soldiered on for over seven years with only minor changes. There was a pleasant family resemblance to the redesigned 1955 Chevrolet passenger car line, although the bulbous hood suggested that Chevrolet trucks hadn’t left the forties aesthetic behind quite as definitely as had the division’s passenger cars.
Perhaps the most striking aesthetic change was substantially greater glass area: up to 2,668 sq. in. (17,213 cm²) on pickups with the optional wraparound back window, over one-third more than in 1954. Visibility with the optional backlight was panoramic, albeit with some distortion in the areas of sharpest curvature. If the latest Chevrolet trucks still weren’t the thing to be seen in, they were much easier to see out of, and somewhat easier to drive as well.
Model 3124 Cameo Carrier
Among the Second Series trucks that debuted in March 1955 was an all-new model: the Chevrolet Cameo Carrier. Catalogued as Model 3124, it was the fanciest and most expensive model in the half-ton pickup line, available only on the shorter 114-inch (2,869-mm) wheelbase. (The Cameo Carrier wasn’t the most expensive half-ton truck; a Second Series 1955 Suburban cost more.)
Seen today, the Cameo Carrier doesn’t appear especially fancy despite its natty Bombay Ivory/Commercial Red two-tone paint (the only color scheme available for 1955), brightwork, and Bel Air-style wheelcovers. By modern standards, its deluxe cab appears positively stark. The interior, attributed to Drew Hare, has some nice touches, like the diamond-shaped speedometer with its tidily integrated secondary gauges, but the dashboard’s broad empty planes are a vivid reminder of how much of the equipment we now take for granted was either optional or unavailable in 1955. The Cameo Carrier’s standard luxuries were more modest: a driver’s door armrest, dual sun visors, and a standard cigarette lighter, all of which were extra-cost options on lesser models, plus a special color-keyed steering wheel.
Ironically, the most distinctive feature of the Cameo Carrier barely registers today unless you’re familiar with the pickup trucks of the forties and fifties: its slab-sided bed and absence of running boards, a style Chevrolet dubbed “Fleetside.” This was almost unheard of among American pickups of the time, most of which retained at least a vestigial running board between the trailing edge of the cab and the leading edge of the rear fender that could serve as a step. Even Australian coupe-utilities (“utes”), which had always used integrated beds, retained separate fenders until well into the fifties.
The Cameo Carrier’s “Fleetside” look was also the inspiration of Chuck Jordan, although it was conceived not in the Plant 8 studio, but rather at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where Jordan was stationed on an Air Force Reserve deployment in 1952. Assigned to a small base art department, Jordan spent his spare time drawing some rather sporty concept trucks with integral fenders and flush sides.
After he returned to Detroit, where he was promoted to assistant chief of the truck studio, Jordan showed these designs to Lu Stier, who responded favorably. Stier subsequently included a scale illustration of the Fleetside truck concept as part of his product planning presentation on the ’55 truck line. The response from division management, including chief engineer Edward N. Cole, general sales manager William E. Fish, and general manager Thomas H. Keating, was very positive. Cole, Keating, and Stier agreed that this new body style could be an attention-grabbing prestige model, a capstone to the redesigned 1955 truck line.
However, Jim Premo, then Ed Cole’s assistant chief engineer, was not sanguine about the designers’ proposal for integrated side panels with no separation between cab and bed. This had been customary for coupe-utilities since the thirties, but Premo warned that the chassis flex in a pickup truck with a ladder frame would cause too much twist between cab and bed. Prototype testing confirmed that the torsional stress was enough to warp the sheet metal under load, and there was no way to damp those forces without major structural changes.
There were also concerns that likely sales of the slab-sided model wouldn’t justify the tooling costs of an additional set of steel fenders. Division management wasn’t oblivious to the promotional value of the new body style, but keeping truck prices down (in 1953 and 1954, a basic Chevrolet chassis-cab started at less than $1,100) demanded sharing as much tooling as possible between models.
The eventual solution was to leave a narrow gap between the cab and the bed, and to create the bed’s distinctive flush sides by bolting outer panels of glass-reinforced plastic to the same inner bed structure used by other half-ton pickups. Production of the fiberglass panels (which also included the tailgate skin and the spare tire carrier) was outsourced to Ohio-based Moulded Fiberglass, which made the bodies for the early Corvette. The flush-sided model did get its own taillights, not shared with other half-ton trucks.
Sacrificing the integrated bed pained the design team, but Premo’s warnings about frame torquing were prescient: When Ford adopted integral side panels for some 1961 F-100 pickups, torsional stress made for a weld-popping structural headache even on light-duty models. Had Chevrolet gone that route in 1955, this stylistic watershed might well have become the truck line’s Waterloo.