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.
Running Gear and Engines
Other than its fiberglass body panels, the Model 3124’s only significant mechanical departures from the contemporary light truck norm were its station wagon-style locking tailgate, supported on self-retracting cables rather than chains, and its fiberglass spare tire carrier, which was tidily concealed behind the center section of the rear bumper.
In most other respects, the Cameo Carrier was a standard half-ton Chevrolet pickup, sharing the line’s new-for-’55 mechanical features, which included an open driveshaft and Hotchkiss drive in place of the old torque tube, a new plenum chamber ventilation system, and a standard 12-volt electrical system. The Cameo Carrier could also be ordered with both power steering and power brakes, which were now optional across the line.
As with all 3000 series trucks, the Cameo Carrier’s standard engine was the familiar 235.5 cu. in. (3,859 cc) Thriftmaster Six (“Stovebolt” to its friends), which now claimed 123 gross horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to 91.7 kW and 281 N-m). Later in the model year, however, the new 265 cu. in. (4,344 cc) Chevrolet V-8 engine became optionally available on 3000 series trucks, boasting 145 gross horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to 108.1 kW and 323 N-m). The V-8 did not yet offer a commanding power advantage — it was only slightly more powerful than the 261 cu. in. (4,276 cc) Jobmaster Six offered in heavy-duty Chevrolet trucks — but its development was just beginning, and it finally gave Chevrolet parity with Ford, whose trucks had offered V-8 power for many years.
(Those intrigued by the eternal puzzle of gross versus net horsepower ratings may be interested to know that in addition to the advertised gross ratings, Chevrolet also published net output ratings for its fifties truck engines. In the official Second Series 1955 truck specifications, the net output of the Thriftmaster Six is listed as 109 hp and 195 lb-ft (equivalent to 81.3 kW and 264.4 N-m respectively), while the net output of the V-8 is listed as 126 hp and 220 lb-ft (equivalent to 94.0 kW and 298.3 N-m). While the six claimed more power and torque than in 1954 and the First Series 1955 models, Chevrolet indicated that the differences were due mostly to more liberal testing methodology than on earlier models.)
Both engines could be ordered with an intriguing mechanical option not offered on Chevrolet passenger cars: Hydra-Matic transmission. Except for sedan deliveries, which of course were passenger-car based, Chevrolet trucks of this era didn’t offer the division’s two-speed Powerglide transmission, but the four-speed Hydra-Matic had become available in 1954 (and on some GMC models the year before that), offering overdrive-like flexibility with fully automatic shifting. However, Hydra-Matic was very expensive — at least $175 — and so most buyers stuck with the standard three-speed manual transmission, which was newly available with optional Borg-Warner overdrive.
Heavy-duty three- and four-speed manual transmissions were also on the regular production options list, but the latter
was a “granny geared” truck transmission with a heroic 7.06:1 low gear and a power takeoff for running auxiliary
equipment like pumps or winches — not, alas, the fully synchronized Borg-Warner T-10 later offered for the Corvette and various other American sporty cars, which would have made for an intriguing combination in Chevrolet light trucks.
While the heavy-duty four-speed was overkill for most, a buyer who expected their new Cameo Carrier (or any 3000 series Chevrolet truck) to work for a living was well-advised to make careful study of the options list. Despite the 3000 series’ nominal half-ton rating, the standard four-ply tires allowed a gross weight of only 4,000 lb (1,814 kg), which, given the Model 3124’s 3,495 lb (1,585 kg) base curb weight, made simultaneously carrying both passengers and cargo a dicey proposition. Specifying 6.50-16 six-ply tires and the optional eight-leaf rear springs brought maximum gross vehicle weight to 5,000 lb (2,268 kg), although the heavy-duty rear springs meant a stiffer ride, especially with no load in the bed.
A Pricey Show Pony
In a later era, one could reasonably assume that a customer willing to lay out the fairly hefty asking price of a Cameo Carrier would not be particularly inclined to splatter its white fenders with mud or risk staining the neat color-keyed upholstery with grease. However, in 1955, the prospect of buying a pickup truck as a show pony rather than a workhorse was not an idea familiar to most American buyers.
Even taking into account 65 years of inflation, a Cameo Carrier wasn’t nearly as expensive as high-end modern trucks, but it also wasn’t cheap. List price was $1,835 FOB Detroit in six-cylinder form, at a time when a half-ton pickup truck typically started at around $1,500. A thoroughly gentrified Model 3124, with V-8 engine, Hydra-Matic, power steering and brakes, heater, radio, and other desirable options, could top $2,400, which in 1955 was enough to put the discerning shopper into a Buick Special.
A Cameo Carrier thus equipped was as well-suited for the suburbs as any pickup truck then available in the U.S. Once you acclimated to the higher center of gravity and somewhat jittery unladen ride, it was wieldy enough — across the rear fenders, the Model 3124 was about 3 inches (76 mm) wider than a 1955 Chevrolet sedan, but its overall length and turning radius were very similar, and its steering was actually a bit quicker. However, there was still the question of what the neighbors might think, particularly if they heard how much your fancy white truck cost.
Chevrolet was not expecting the Cameo Carrier to be a runaway sales success, and it wasn’t: Only 5,219 (by some reports, 5,220) were sold in 1955, which was also its best year. Sales of the 1956 model, which offered a bit more power and a wider choice of colors, fell by almost half, to 2,154. The 1957 model, which featured a new grille and a redesigned spare tire carrier with a metal cover, sold a modest 2,572 units. For comparison, during these years, Chevrolet was selling more than 300,000 trucks and commercial vehicles per year, about two-thirds of those light trucks with gross weights under 5,000 lb (2,268 kg).
From a commercial standpoint, the Cameo Carrier’s greatest value was probably as showroom bait, capturing the attention of buyers who would eventually select one of the cheaper workaday models. Chevrolet led the field in domestic truck sales throughout this period, with a market share of well over 30 percent.
The Cameo Carrier project also helped to put Chuck Jordan on the map, although he left the truck studio long before the 1955 trucks debuted. In 1953, he became head of a small Special Projects studio, and four years later became the chief designer for Cadillac. (Jordan would eventually become vice president of GM Design from 1986 until his retirement in 1992.)
Rivals and Imitators
Although its design was certainly novel, the Cameo Carrier was not quite alone in the American market. A few months before the Chevrolet Second Series trucks arrived, the Powell Manufacturing Company of Compton, California, introduced the Powell Sport Wagon, a steel- and fiberglass-bodied pickup with slab sides and an unusual retractable storage tube in the right side of the bed.
Powell undercut Chevrolet and GMC in price, starting at only $1,095, but the Sport Wagon could hardly match the GM trucks’ modern features. Under the skin, the Powell trucks used the refurbished chassis and running gear of prewar Plymouth sedans. Distribution was also limited, although some sources claim Powell built around 1,100 Sport Wagons through 1956, which would be a very respectable showing for a small independent company.
The Cameo Carrier also inspired several direct imitators, beginning with its GMC cousin, which, like its Chevrolet relative, arrived in early 1955.
In this era, GMC trucks shared body shells with comparable Chevrolet models, but were mechanically distinct, with different engines and features. Standard power for half-ton trucks in 1955 was a GMC six of 248 cu. in. (4,071 cc) displacement, still using a 6-volt electrical system. A 288 cu. in. (4,706 cc) V-8 engine was newly optional for 1955, but it was a mildly tuned version of the new Pontiac Strato-Streak V-8 rather than a Chevrolet engine.
GMC’s version of the Cameo Carrier featured the same plastic outer panels as its Chevrolet relative and was available with either the GMC six or the V-8. This model was initially advertised as the GMC Town & Country Runabout, but some time during the 1955 model, GMC renamed it “Suburban Pickup,” now treated as simply a deluxe body style in the 100 and 100-8 series. The reasons for the hasty name change are now obscure, but one possible explanation might have been objections from Chrysler, which had been using the “Town & Country” name since 1941.
Under both names, the flush-sided GMC pickup featured prominently in the division’s contemporary advertising, but sales were even more limited than those of the Cameo Carrier. The GM Heritage Center estimates than only about 1,000 Suburban Pickups were built through 1957. For 1957, there was also a one-off show truck called the GMC Palomino, with a 347 cu. in. (5,687 cc) Pontiac engine, Hydra-Matic, cream-over-gold paint with ribbed aluminum trim, and a special leather-clad gold interior.
In April 1957, the International Harvester Company (IHC) launched its redesigned A-100 “Golden Anniversary” pickups, which included a special Golden Jubilee edition, easily identifiable by its flashy white-over-gold two-tone paint job. Like the Cameo Carrier and its GMC cousin, the Golden Jubilee had a slab-sided bed with fiberglass outer panels and a station wagon-style tailgate. (We were unfortunately unable to locate usable photos of the Golden Jubilee for this article.)
Dodge, which was an also-ran in the light truck field in this era, launched its own Cameo Carrier equivalent in May 1957: the Dodge D100 Sweptside, contrived by the division’s Special Equipment Group by grafting the be-finned rear fenders and rear bumper of a two-door Dodge station wagon onto a D100 half-ton pickup.
Neither was a particularly great seller — the Dodge accounted for 1,050 units, the Golden Jubilee probably for fewer than that — but, as with the Chevrolet and GMC trucks, sales volume wasn’t really the point.
True Fleetside Trucks Arrive
A more significant response to the Cameo Carrier came from Ford, which for 1957 introduced a new slab-sided “Styleside” body style to the F-100 truck line. The Styleside body had steel rather than fiberglass fenders, which allowed a bed with a wider usable load area (albeit interrupted by the wheel wells). Significantly, the Styleside body was offered alongside the familiar step-sided models (which Ford now called “Flareside”), and for the same prices — over $300 less than a Chevrolet Cameo Carrier.
Chevrolet naturally had to respond, which they did in mid-1958 with the introduction of a Fleetside body style to the half-ton pickup range, which was now known as Apache, or Series 30. Like the F-100 Styleside, the Apache Fleetside body had a wider steel-walled bed, and it cost only $16 more than a comparable Apache Stepside pickup.
Although the Cameo Carrier had returned at the beginning of the 1958 model year, now featuring dual headlights and an optional 283 cu. in. (4,638 cc) Trademaster V-8 with 160 gross horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 119.3 kW and 366.1 N-m) — 137 hp and 250 lb-ft net (equivalent to about 102.2 kW and 339.0 N-m) — the cheaper, more practical Apache Fleetside made it more or less redundant, so the Model 3124 was discontinued when the Fleetside models debuted. Cameo Carrier sales for the abbreviated 1958 model run were only 375 units, bringing total production to 10,320 over four model years. The Task Force trucks continued for one more year, but the Cameo Carrier did not return for 1959, or for the redesigned 1960 line.
One reason there was no immediate successor to the Cameo Carrier was probably that this period also saw the return to the American market of the coupe-utility, beginning with the 1957 Ford Ranchero, and followed for 1959 by the Chevrolet El Camino. Neither was a great success in the U.S. market in initial form, since they were more expensive and less capable than a conventional half-ton pickup, but they provided a ready answer for a buyer seeking pickup-like load-hauling ability with car-like looks and luxuries. After several subsequent reinventions, these American utes found a sustainable niche; the Ranchero survived until 1979, the El Camino and its eventual GMC Caballero sibling through 1987.
Throughout the sixties, there was growing interest in light trucks among buyers with what the marketers of a later era would call “active lifestyles.” Truck design in this era remained a slow evolutionary process, but the needs of commercial customers now had to be balanced with those of buyers whose interests ran more to camping, fishing, and surfing than load-hauling. Most of the major players in the pickup truck market offered “Custom” trim packages with the same kinds of appointments included on the old Cameo Carrier. They may have been less special than the Cameo Carrier, but they soon outdid the older truck in plushness and luxury. A generation later, it had become difficult to sell trucks without such appointments.