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.
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.
It’s tempting to overstate the impact and historical significance of the Cameo Carrier. It did foreshadow the modern age of cushy personal-use trucks and utility vehicles, but it did not bring about an immediate sea change in the social standing of light trucks, nor did it spark a new vogue for luxury pickups. Both of these things eventually happened, but the transition was both gradual and protracted. The Cameo Carrier did provide an auspicious American introduction to the “Fleetside” body style, which proved very popular once it became available in all-steel form, but the popularity of that body style probably had as much to do with the practical advantages of the wider bed — something the Cameo Carrier couldn’t offer — as anything else.
Still, as a truck expressly designed to appeal more to the eye and the ego than to practical sensibilities, the Cameo Carrier was decades ahead of its time.
NOTES ON SOURCES
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