With summer winding down in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to revisit the old American pastime of heading to the lake with the boat in tow for a weekend of fun. In 2023, the ramps are packed with pickups and SUVs lugging pontoons or personal watercraft, and that’s perfectly fine. In the 1960s, however, Chevrolet had something a bit different in mind. And by different, we mean awesome in every possible way.
This is the (deep breath) 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle El Camino Surfer I convertible concept. GM Design recently shared a couple of images on Instagram, and we were so smitten by a roofless El Camino towing a floating, straight-piped V8 that we contacted the General Motors Heritage Archives for more information.
Photo Credit: GM Heritage Archive
The story is pretty straightforward: Chevrolet executives wanted to showcase a new high-performance V8 engine coming out for the 1966 model year. So engineers lopped the roof off an El Camino, dropped the engine into both the car and a cool boat, and sent it out on the auto show circuit.
Of course, there’s way more to the story than that.
Perusing original 1965 press announcements sent to Motor1.com, we learn this project was all about showcasing Chevrolet’s then-new 396 cubic-inch (6.5-liter) V8. The engine was installed in the El Camino, but to give it a bit more visibility (figuratively and literally) it was also used in a custom Gaylord ski boat. Original documents state the engine made 425 horsepower, and in the boat, it was fitted with “individual chrome plated exhaust stacks for efficient exhaust expulsion.” We suspect the straight pipes were also efficient in causing temporary hearing loss, but hey. There are worse ways to bust eardrums.
Photo Credit: GM Heritage Archive
The El Camino tow vehicle, in addition to having its roof lopped off, was also lowered. The custom roof-ectomy required special side pillars that simply ended at the top of the glass, and spotlights were installed on the doors because that’s what everyone did in the ’60s. In keeping with a nautical theme, there’s actual wood trim on the car’s rocker panels, tailgate, and bed. It blends with a pearlescent white exterior and contrasting red interior, and the colors are carried over to the boat as well as the custom-designed trailer.
This eye-catching concept rig not only showcased the new V8, but helped spread the word about Chevrolet’s involvement with marine engines. The archived press information reminds us that the automaker was a major supplier in the marine segment, and the 396 would go on to considerable success in that field. As for this particular straight-piped ski boat, we have no idea if it ever reached the water. If so, our condolences to the ears of anyone within a half-mile radius.
For that matter, we have no idea what happened to the entire Surfer I concept, car and boat. Hand-written notes on the original press release state it was shown at the 1965 Chicago Auto Show and later at the New York World’s Fair. A representative from the GM archives confirms it is not in the company’s collection. Further sleuthing on the internet turned up similar dead ends, which suggests it may have been crushed a long time ago.
But, for one brief moment in the mid-1960s, Chevrolet had a supremely awesome cure for the summertime blues.