Decades ago, car buyers in America had access to a truck that combined the best traits of a truck with the best parts of a car. The coupé utility had a practical bed like a pickup truck but was also still a car that you could use as your goin’ to town rig. Today, the ute is a dying breed, seemingly replaced by pickup trucks. Ford bowed out of American utes in 1979 with the end of the famous Ranchero. However, people were still buying coupe utilities, so another ute would wear the blue oval. That year, Ford and National Coach Products produced the Durango, a Ford Fairmont Futura coupe converted into a truck. Yep, there was a Fox Body pickup truck, and depending on who you ask, only a couple hundred were ever built.
Last time on Holy Grails, we hopped on a boat and sailed over to Europe, somehow finding ourselves in the 1980s along the way. I have to stop booking these timeships. While we were in the past, we took a look at the Peugeot 309 GTi 16. Some of the car journalists of today say that the Peugeot 205 GTi was one of the best hot hatches of all time. Others say the 205 GTi stole the light from its slightly larger, but still competent siblings, the 309 GTi and 309 GTi 16. Taking its 160 HP 1.9-liter engine from the 405, the Peugeot 309 GTi 16 was technically faster than the 205 GTi, but always lived in that car’s shadows. Depending on where you live, the 309 GTi 16 could be quite rare.
This week, I’ve found myself unable to fix my time machine and we’re stuck in the 1980s for a little longer. Thankfully, I was able to convince an airline that my fancy 21st century money was legitimate and got us some plane tickets back to America. I’ve taken refuge in sunny California for the time being.
The 1980s marked an interesting period for the coupé utility in America, Ford was getting out of the pool while Chrysler’s brands were just getting their feet wet. General Motors’ utes were in a fresh generation while competition was coming in from the likes of the Subaru BRAT and the Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup. Then, by the end of the decade, it was all over. The El Camino fizzled out in 1988, long after Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Volkswagen, and Subaru had thrown in their respective towels. From then on, the car-based pickup became a rarer sight, punctuated by Subaru Bajas and Chevrolet SSRs. You could say the type is sort of making a comeback today with pickups like the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz.
Ford’s American Coupé Utility
In the early decades of motoring, you could buy cars that had truck beds. A good example was the Ford Model T, which you were able to have with a bed. There was also the roadster utility, which combined a stylish roadster with a utility bed. Ford Australia reportedly answered the calls of farmers when Ford Geelong engineer Lewis Bandt created a two-door body with a tray in the back and riding on a Ford Model A chassis.
In the decades since automakers all over the world introduced their own interpretations of the same concept. Here in America, we tried our hand with Coupé utilities in the 1930s with the likes of the Chevrolet Coupe Delivery and the Studebaker Coupe Express.
For this piece, I won’t go through Ford Australia’s work on the ute. Instead, we’re honing in on what Americans were able to buy. Ford counts the Ranchero as part of its illustrious truck history.
When Ford unveiled the Ranchero in December 1956, the F-Series was in its third generation. Ford marketed the Ranchero as being more than a car while also being more than a truck. The premise was that the Ranchero was a glamorous car and a hard-working truck all in the same package. Ford also noted that the Ranchero’s over half-ton payload was more than some of the trucks on the market at the time. In fact, the trucklet even bested the half-ton F-Series by about 50 pounds of payload. The Ranchero appeared to be the best of both worlds. It was low-slung, allowing both easier bed loading and better handling. Ford also boasted about the Ranchero’s car-like looks, which meant it could be welcome places a work truck couldn’t. Today, Ford calls the Ranchero its first compact pickup.
The first Ranchero was based on the 116-inch wheelbase Ranch Wagon and Courier Sedan Delivery. The trucklet featured a reinforced bed and at launch, the smallest engine available was a 223 cubic inch six-cylinder making 144 HP while the largest was a 292 cubic inch V8 making 212 HP.
The Ranchero would evolve over the years. In 1960, the ute would shrink before growing into a muscle car into the 1970s. Rancheros eventually found themselves housing firepower such as the 360 HP 429 Thunder Jet and the 370 HP 429 Cobra Jet engines. The latter had a “shaker” ram-air scoop. You could even equip your Ranchero with an engine as large as a chunky 460 V8.
Unfortunately, while the Ranchero did fill a niche, it wasn’t as successful as the ute was in other countries. Ford sold 508,355 units over 22 years. Officially, the Ranchero died in 1979 as a variation of the 220-inch wheelbase LTD II. As Hagerty notes, the Ranchero came first, but Chevy’s El Camino was more popular and got to live a little longer. Ultimately, Ford decided to focus its small truck efforts on the Courier and the then-upcoming Ranger.
This is not where the story of the Ranchero ended. As I said before, the Ranchero’s contemporaries continued into the 1980s. According to Mac’s Motor City Garage and 1981-82 Durango: The Should-Have-Been Ranchero Replacement, an article in the February 1995 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine, Ford designer Dick Nesbitt decided to draw up a replacement for the Ranchero.
The designer, who had a portfolio including the Mustang II and Carousel concept van, saw potential in the Fairmont Futura. Just the year before, the Fairmont was one of the first cars to ride on Ford’s then-new Fox platform. As I’ve written before, the Fox platform was supposed to be a sort of “One Ford” platform where the brand could make all sorts of cars all around the world on just a single platform. Ford would reduce its production costs and cut out unnecessary, redundant models with one platform. This didn’t happen, but the Fox platform did become a versatile platform for Mustang fans and hot rodders alike.
The Fox platform did get used for a variety of body styles from coupes to sedans and wagons. If you want a Fox Body truck? Well, you have just one choice, the Ford Durango. LTDScott, a reader with a number of Grail suggestions, slipped this one in a comment in the story about the 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R:
Reminds me of the Ford Durango (which would be a good candidate for a Holy Grail here too). It was a Ford Fairmont Futura coupe which a coachbuilder chopped the back off and installed a fiberglass bed to create a newer Ranchero. My friend had one and when he pulled the fiberglass bed insert out he was surprised to see the rear seatbelts still installed underneath.
This vehicle was mentioned briefly about a week ago in a Bishop piece, and I think it deserves its own standalone article.
As Mac’s Motor City Garage writes, Nesbitt saw the lines of the Fairmont Futura coupe and envisioned it as a pickup truck from the B-pillar back. Nesbitt penned a sporty truck from the Futura and submitted it to Ford brass. Apparently, Ford declined to put it into production. That didn’t stop Barris Kustom shop alum Jim Stephenson and his son, Bill Stephenson. The men, with help from others, ripped out the back of a Futura coupe and replaced the rear end with a fiberglass mold forming a pickup bed. A person claiming to be Bill Stephenson explains some of the work that went into the build:
The original “Durango” was built in our own shop in Sylmar, Ca with the intention to offer it as a replacement for Ford’s “Ranchero” after that was dropped from their line. Among those who helped were my older brother, Jim, George and Katie Gowdy of G&K Fiberglass (they also did the funny car bodies for many of the famous names at that time), and George Price, a very talented “body man”, did most of the finish work on the original plugs used to make the bed molds. He was one of the best “Bondo” men in the business.
I did a lot of the metal work on the bed and I helped design and build the tailgate and the hinges. The metal work I did was used to make the the plugs for the fiberglass molds for the production parts.
The tailgate turned out to be one of the toughest design issues we ran up against. There was no good way to move the taillights to the rear quarter panels because they were too narrow and it was too expensive to create an all knew taillight, so we used the factory taillights in a fiberglass tailgate and had to make it swing out and away from the bed so it was level with the bed floor when opened.
The team took the prototype to National Coach Products, a Gardena, California-based builder. Reportedly, National Coach continued the Ranchero’s southwest theme by calling the resulting vehicle the Durango.
Fairmont Futuras would be converted and sold by participating Ford dealerships. Reportedly, design work was finished in 1979, but Jim Stephenson suffered from kidney failure, binning the project for about two years. A majority of Durangos were built in 1981 with production ending in 1982. Some quirks came with the conversion. As LTDScott says above, apparently at least one example still had rear seatbelts installed under the fiberglass bed. The truck’s taillights were also on its tailgate. So, you couldn’t drive the truck with the tailgate open unless you found some way to reroute the taillights.
In addition to the steel and double-walled fiberglass box, National Coach advertised Durango-specific features such as a concealed storage compartment under the bed, tonneau cover, bedliner, and fiberglass camper shell. Other goodies included an optional pop-op sunroof, custom wheels, air-adjustable shocks, cargo rails, and tie-downs, plus an opening rear cab window. National Coach said that as a truck, the Durango had a payload capacity of up to 1,450 pounds.
According to an archived brochure, the Durango was available with a 2.3-liter inline-four, a 3.3-liter straight six, and a 4.2-liter V8. Reportedly, most Durangos were powered by the 3.3-liter Thriftpower Six and an automatic transmission. This should have been good for 88 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque. A larger 4.2-liter V8 was available with 115 HP and 195 lb-ft of torque on tap.
Nobody seems to know how many of these were sold. Ford doesn’t even mention the little truck’s existence in its history. Most estimates place production at somewhere around 212 units. Myron Vernis had a 1979 Durango as a shop truck! The Ford Durango also appears to be one of those vehicles where rare does not translate to valuable. I have not found a single example for sale, but archived listings suggest that if you were able to find one of these for sale, you’d probably get it for under $10,000.
Today crossover-based pickup trucks have seemingly replaced the concept of the coupé utility. A Ford Maverick is about as close as you’re getting to buying a new Ranchero. Four decades ago? It was a different story. Perhaps the saddest part is that it seems the Ranchero and Durango died quietly in the night; no celebration for Ford’s combo car and truck. If you’re lucky and find one of these, the party doesn’t have to end.
With that said if you did or do own one of these, how was it?
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
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