Glamor Truck From Planet 8: The 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier

Summary

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.”

1954 Chevrolet 3100 pickup truck (blue) front 3q by Steve Glover (CC BY 2.0)

The 1954 Chevrolet truck line had seven-year-old styling and did not yet offer power steering, power brakes, or overdrive, although automatic transmission was newly optional. Sole power for 3100 series (half-ton) models was the 235.5 cu. in. (3,859 cc) Thriftmaster Six with gross ratings of 112 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 83.5 kW and 271.2 N-m); Chevrolet also quoted net ratings of 105 hp and 195 lb-ft (equivalent to about 78.3 kW and 264.4 N-m). (Photo: “Chevrolet 3100 Truck (1954)” by Steve Glover, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

1955 Chevrolet 3100 pickup (red 1st series) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Although the First Series 1955 Model 3104 pickup looked much the same as the 1954 model, it had a number of mechanical changes, including an open driveshaft rather than the torque tube previously used on half-ton models. The fully redesigned Second Series “Task Force” arrived in March 1955, about five months after the debut of the First Series. (Photo: “1955 Chevrolet 3100 Pick-Up” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1955 Chevrolet 3200 pickup truck (red) front 3q by peterolthof (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Introduced with the Second Series 1955 models, Chevrolet Model 3200 trucks had a 123.3-inch (3,130-mm) wheelbase, compared to 114 inches (2,896 mm) for the Model 3100. With its 90-inch (2,286-mm) bed, a Model 3204 pickup truck boasted about 15% more usable load area than did the short-wheelbase Model 3100, although since gross weight rating was unchanged and the long-wheelbase chassis was heavier, maximum payload was about 100 lb (45 kg) less when comparably equipped. Note the standard Bombay Ivory painted grille; a chrome grille was optional on 3000 series trucks (and standard on the Cameo Carrier). (Photo: “1955 Chevrolet 3200 Pick-up” by peterolthof, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license)

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.

1955 Chevrolet 3100 pickup truck (red 2nd series) side by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Stretching 193.5 inches (4,915 mm) overall, a Second Series 1955 Model 3104 pickup was about 2.2 inches (56 mm) longer overall than a comparable First Series 1955 or 1954 Chevrolet truck, but the 114-inch (2,896-mm) wheelbase was 2 inches (51 mm) shorter, reducing the turning radius. Although the running boards were now vestigial, light trucks had integral steps concealed by the doors, a clever touch. (Photo: “1955 Chevrolet 3100 Pick-Up” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1955 Chevrolet 3100 pickup truck (red 2nd series with bed rails) rear 3q by Bill McChesney (CC BY 2.0)

Surviving trucks of this vintage tend to acquire various non-stock accessories, like this truck’s roof lights, bed rails, taillights, and chrome exhaust tips (not to mention the chrome wheels and the toolbox in the forward part of the bed). Note the rear window, which, while over 20% bigger than the back window on 1954 and First Series 1955 trucks, still creates substantial blind spots. In contrast, the wraparound rear window, standard on the Cameo Carrier and optional on other models, provides expansive if somewhat distorted all-around visibility. (Photo: “1287 1955 Chevrolet 3100 Pickup” by Bill McChesney, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1955 Chevrolet 5700 Low Cab Forward truck (green) by Juriën Minke, recropped by Hedwig in Washington (CC BY 2.0)

For reasons of production economy, heavy-duty Chevrolet trucks, like this 2-ton Model 5703 Low Cab Forward (LCF) truck, shared the center cab structure of lighter models, although the bigger trucks had a different grille, different exterior sheet metal, and broader front fenders to accommodate the greater track width. With the arrival of the Second Series 1955 models, the 265 cu. in. (4,344 cc) V-8 engine became standard on 5000 series trucks, replacing the 261 cu. in. (4,276 cc) Jobmaster six, which remained available on 6000 series models. (Photo: “Oldtimer event Waalwijk 2012 (8113562936): 1955 Chevrolet Task Force LCF (Low-Cab-Forward) 5700” by Juriën Minke, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; modified (recropped) 2014 by Hedwig in Washington, with this modified version licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license; resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

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.

1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier pickup truck front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Like other Second Series 1955 trucks in the half-ton series, the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier stood about 78.8 inches (2,000 mm) tall unladen. Note the chrome strip at the leading edge of the flush-sided bed — intended to distract the eye from the gap between the cab and the bed, which was necessary for structural reasons — and the inside bed walls, painted Commercial Red to match the roof pillar trim. (Photo: “55 Chevrolet 3100 Cameo 1/2 Ton Pick-Up” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1956 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier dashboard by Valder137 (CC BY 2.0)

The Cameo Carrier boasted a deluxe “custom cab” treatment, but it still looks Spartan by today’s standards. This is actually a 1956 Cameo Carrier, although the only significant interior changes from 1955 were a new steering wheel and a greater choice of colors. In addition to this truck’s red and beige, the 1956 Model 3124 (and other half-ton trucks with the custom cab option) could be ordered with a blue, green, or charcoal interior. (Photo: “Chevrolet_Cameo_1956_Pickup_Cockpit_Lake_Mirror_Cassic_16Oct2010” by Valder137, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

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.

1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier pickup truck rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

The 1955 Cameo Carrier looked most different from lesser 1955 Chevrolet 3000 series trucks from the rear, revealing its fiberglass outer panels, unique tailgate and rear bumper treatment, and special taillights. Despite the flush sides, the Cameo Carrier had the same inner bed structure as other Model 3100 pickups, with painted steel sides, a wooden floor, and a total bed volume of 39.7 cubic feet (about 1,124 liters). (Photo: “1955 Chevrolet 3100 Cameo 1/2 Ton Pick-Up” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; modified (recropped) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, with this modified version licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license)

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.

1955 Chevrolet Corvette (front 3q) by Sicnag (CC BY 2.0)

Both the Cameo Carrier and the Chevrolet Corvette had fiberglass body panels made by the same company, Moulded Fiberglass of Ashtabula, Ohio. (Photo: “1955 Chevrolet C1 Corvette Roadster” by Sicnag, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

9 Comments

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  1. Aaron – I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to read your work. I think all gearheads will echo my feelings. Back to the point – as a small child in a small town dealership, we were all involved with Dad’s business. We knew the other kids of dealer owners and the wives all hung out together, too. Therefore we heard what the consensus of the adults usually was. The local Chevrolet dealer loved the styling of the Cameo, but deemed it sale-proof. So, to increase the visibility, he would have the parts department drive one as the delivery truck. I remember seeing a plaque on his wall a few years later noting his excellence in truck sales. We also saw one that had been customized with Cragar wheels and two-toned paint down the sides. As was customary in 1956, it had the words “Tall Cool One” on the flanks. That was a very fun time to grow up as every day was new ground. Now, 60 years later, the little girl who played with my sisters still owns that Chevrolet store. The American Dream.

    1. As regards sales potential, I think there’s some parallel (as mentioned in the text) with the postwar American coupe-utilities. (The limiting factor in sales of the Ranchero and El Camino was not that American buyers didn’t like the look or the idea, but that translating that aesthetic or conceptual appeal into sales was challenging: Yes, a Ranchero or El Camino was car-like, but having NO back seat was a tough compromise for a lot of people, and if you actually needed a pickup, it was hard to get around the fact that an actual pickup was a better value, particularly once the Japanese compact trucks became more widely available.)

  2. Glad to have you back with your beautiful insights…

  3. Aaron,

    Thanks so much for the Cameo article! This is one of my all time favorite trucks. I have read most of the material on Ate Up With Motor, some of it twice. I appreciate your writing style and details you provide.

    Thanks!

  4. SO glad to finally see some brand new content instead of simply retooling the existing stories. I was frankly worried that you were considering winding the whole site down. Looking forward to seeing your next story about the “rope-drive” Tempest…

  5. I just want to echo others in letting you know how much we appreciate new content from you, as well as your continued maintenance of this site, Aaron! It’s an invaluable resource, and here’s hoping greater clarity arrives with regards to some of the laws that have been vexing you over the past few years!

    I wonder if you might reach out to the owners of some other resource sites, like Paul Niedermeyer’s Curbside Classic, who might have spoken with their own attorneys about these regulations.

    1. Honestly, it all seems pretty hopeless, and I haven’t been able to get any help at all. It feels like I’m just running out the clock. I’ve been trying to finish the rope-drive Tempest article, but beyond that, I don’t know.

  6. Loved the article Aaron. I’ve often read about HOA’s banning pickup trucks from parking in driveways where cars would be allowed – “uncouth” indeed! I wonder if that has changed after decades of them being mainstream transport or whether those rules are just ignored/not enforced now?

    1. At the very least, they’ve become harder to enforce in some places. In California, for instance, a rule like that might be considered a form of unlawful housing discrimination. (I’m no lawyer, but current state laws on housing discrimination are expansive, and I believe they include a prohibition on housing discrimination based on someone’s lawful source of income. So, an HOA rule that would have the effect of discriminating against people who work as plumbers, carpenters, or contractors seems like it might be on shaky ground, legally speaking.)

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