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El Camino surreal

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It's a car. No, it's a truck. Whatever it is, it's back.

General Motors Corp. has jumped into the auto industry's retro trend, unveiling a half-pickup, half-muscle car amalgamation bearing a striking resemblance to a long-lost classic: the Chevy El Camino.

Introduced this week at the New York International Auto Show, the Pontiac-branded, er, vehicle is a throwback to the "coupe utility" machines that populated high school make-out spots throughout the 1960s and '70s. With its U.S. debut expected by next year, GM is betting that nostalgia for the El Camino, which it stopped making in 1987, will get buyers into showrooms.

The Detroit giant's decision to bring the strange, as-yet-unnamed, Australian-made machine to the U.S. displays the kind of flexibility that only a truly global automaker, with plants in multiple countries, has.

"I think there's a real audience for this kind of thing," said Jack Nerad, analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "In its heyday, the El Camino had some really strong sales."

The name of the new Pontiac will be decided in an online vote. In the meantime, even the suits at GM can't come to consensus on a moniker.

"El Camino is the one name I wouldn't put on that vehicle," said Ed Welburn, GM's vice president of design, insisting that the new Pontiac, with its long hood hiding a powerful V-8 engine and its short, open bed in the back, has nothing to do with the El Camino.

GM's vice chairman and product maven, Bob Lutz, disagreed. "El Camino would be my personal choice," he said. "It has name recognition."

Rapper 50 Cent, who was hired by GM to introduce the vehicle, had a different idea. "We should call it the Curtis," he said, perhaps because his real name is Curtis Jackson.

El Camino means "the road" in Spanish, and GM first built it in 1959 after Ford found success with its Ranchero, a similar car-truck combo built a few years earlier.

Nostalgia-oriented consumers have been salivating as they wait for keys to new versions of the Dodge Challenger, the Ford Mustang and, next year, the Chevrolet Camaro. The Mini Cooper, another nostalgia auto, has been so successful that its maker, BMW, has come out with a second model, the Mini Clubman.

Not all retro attempts have been successes, though. The Thunderbird, resurrected in 2001, was a notable flop, and Ford dropped it after the 2005 model year.

Which way the new Pontiac will go remains to be seen. GM has not yet released pricing or fuel-economy information for it. But with the average price of a gallon of gasoline at a record $3.284 in the U.S. this week -- and 32 cents higher in California -- the automaker is gambling that it can find Americans to buy a two-seat, big-engine vehicle that's as long as a Chevy Tahoe SUV.

"These are definitely more fuel-efficient than a pickup," said Rebecca Lindland, industry analyst at Global Insight. But with rear-wheel drive and 361 horsepower, it's hardly a gas sipper. Add that to the Pontiac's unusual design, and it's likely to be only "a niche product," she said.

Lutz would tend to agree. Although he didn't put a number on projected sales, he said they would be "nowhere near 50,000" and probably far below that, putting it on the very low end of sales volumes for all GM models in North America.

But the costs for GM, he explained, are low. Both the sport truck, and its kissing cousin, the G8 sedan (also coming to the U.S.), are built in Australia, where they are sold under GM's Holden nameplate. The Ute, as the sport truck is called Down Under, is highly popular, and even comes in a stretched crew-cab version.

Because the costs of designing and building them were absorbed by GM years ago, bringing them to the U.S. isn't much more expensive than changing out the badge on the grill, putting them on ships and paying 50 Cent -- and a rock group called the Young Lords -- to introduce the pair at the New York car show.

Still, Lutz admits that GM did "zero market research" before the U.S. introduction, making the sport truck's launch a shot in the dark.

It's a much different approach from what Chrysler did with its Dodge Challenger, which came out as a concept in early 2006 and was launched with much fanfare last month. Chrysler introduced several variations at the show Wednesday. The Challenger starts at $37,320 and gets a combined city and highway average of 15 mpg.

Based very closely on the classic muscle car of the same name, the vehicle is a bet by Chrysler that consumers remember their childhood wheels fondly. It is easily the most attention-grabbing offering in the company's lineup.

So far, demand has been high. Early versions of the Challenger were held by dealers who sold them at a big markup. One, a blue Challenger SRT8, sold on EBay for $228,000 last month.

"The Dodge Challenger is all about having fun," said Jim Press, Chrysler's vice chairman. "This is the American dream."

The original El Camino, along with the nearly identical GMC Caballero, has indubitably earned a niche in popular culture, with references in songs by dozens of bands, including ZZ Top, and appearances in plenty of movies and TV shows, including "My Name Is Earl." During its last three years of production, it was built in Mexico. The band Ween called it an "Aztec machine speeding to the light."

But much of the affection has fallen into the tongue-in-cheek variety, and Kelley Blue Book's Nerad wonders whether the car will appeal only to those who might have owned an El Camino, say, 25 years ago. "Maybe you're just mining that vein and then the vein runs dry," he said.

What about the Ranchero? An executive at Ford said the company had "absolutely no plans to bring the Ranchero back."

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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