They may be the best-selling vehicles in America, but we still largely think of trucks as work vehicles – it’s just that the definition of work has changed. People still expect their pickups to be reliable, easy to work on, able to take a beating, and haul just about anything they can throw at it. But they also expect them to be sporty, comfortable, good-looking, and modern. With trucks from virtually every automaker finally catching up to – and in some cases surpassing – cars in terms of comfort and all mod cons, we might think of this trend as a uniquely modern one. But Chevrolet tried its hand at a stylish, comfortable, more livable pickup over 60 years ago. Known as the Cameo, it was a sales flop, but has since gone on to become of the most legendary pickups of all time.
In many ways, the 1950s were the golden age for General Motors, and the middle of the decade ushered in a renaissance for Chevy. All of GM’s brands were benefitting from advanced styling trickling down from a seemingly endless line of Motorama concept cars, and the introduction of the all-new 1955 Chevrolet cars, with their available V8 engine, made Chevy the most popular car company in America. Times were good in Detroit, and automakers were willing to take risks on new projects.
It was a long time coming for Chevy too. Its sedans languished in the early postwar years because the demand was higher for pickups; in fact, the company couldn’t build its 1948-’54 Advance Design trucks fast enough. But the trucks were beginning to show their age, and 1955 was the year when its lineup – car and truck – would largely change over. Chevy was confident that its new car would be successful, but with the new truck, some designers began to wonder whether or not an increasingly affluent America was ready for a more civilized pickup model.
In 1954, Chuck Jordan (who would go on to become vice president of GM design) presented Chevy executives with a design for a new luxury truck. It was based on the all-new Task Force trucks, but with different bumpers, and a smooth-sided bed attached to the cab. They quickly gave the truck the green light.
The production Cameo (sold as the Cameo Carrier) differed from Jordan’s original design in a few ways. Bean counters were resistant to a bed attached to the cab, citing high tooling costs, so the bed stayed separate, albeit with a chrome ring around it. And engineers objected to the slab-sides. The standard step-side bed would remain commonplace for the next few years, and they felt that the long sheetmetal would ripple over time, and be too expensive to build new tooling for. So Chevrolet contracted Molded Fiber Glass of Ohio to build the panels out of fiberglass, right alongside the Corvette. Taillights from the outgoing ’54 Bel Air would cap small tailfins out back. Chrome Bel Air hub caps, whitewall tires, contrast-colored B-pillar, and stylish (for a pickup) fiberglass and chrome bumpers capped things off.
Inside, the Cameo was about as luxurious as a pickup could get. Carpeting, a two-tone dash and bench seat, and a radio were radical to see in the cab of a truck in 1955. It was only offered in Bombay Ivory, with the B-pillar and inner bed painted Commercial Red – a nod to the still mostly white and red Corvette. The base 235.5 cubic inch straight six and column-mounted three-speed manual were available, but most buyers opted for the all-new 145 horsepower 265 cubic inch V8 mounted to the four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission.
Despite its high price – $1,835 versus $1,400 for a base half-ton – the Cameo was an initial success for Chevy. Over 5,000 buyers brought the trucks home, and their more car-like manners inspired some serious hot-rodding. In 1956, NASCAR legend Smokey Yunick modified and raced a Cameo at the Daytona Speed Trials, setting a class record. That year, Motor Trend ran a test on a supercharged Cameo that could run a quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds and go from zero to 60 in 8.6 seconds – unheard of for a pickup of that era.
But in 1956, the Cameo began to lose its luster, with sales dropping to just 1,460. More colors and options were added for ’57, as well as the 185 horsepower 283 cubic inch V8, but despite a slight jump in sales (2,240 units) it was too little too late. The rest of the truck market had caught up with Chevy, and the Cameo was beginning to look expensive and ordinary. Ford introduced the “Styleside” slab-sided trucks in ’57, and Dodge followed with the “Sweptside” models. By the time Chevy released its own steel slab-side bed that was dramatically cheaper that the Cameo in ’58, it was all over for the luxury truck. In its final year, just 1,405 were built.
Today, the Cameo’s radical “car-like” styling and comforts seem trivial compared to modern pickups. But it’s been ultimately vindicated by history; 1950s America wasn’t ready for an expensive, comfortable pickup, but 2010s America can’t buy enough of them. The Cameo formula is now the standard for the full-size pickup segment. Instead of a range of work trucks, they’ve largely been relegated to a single model or two while the rest of the range offers conveniences that wouldn’t be out of place on a luxury car from just a few years ago.
As for the Cameo (and the nearly identical but rarer GMC Suburban Carryall), their beautiful styling and high price ensured that many owners held onto them, and today, a good number of the 10,000 built survive. They largely carry a premium over other Task Force trucks – a 1958 model with just 1.3 miles on the odometer fetched $140,000 at auction in 2015. But most importantly, it reminds us of a time when car companies weren’t afraid to take risks on unproven models and untested segments.