Chevrolet Introduces the El Camino
October 16, 1958
On October 16, 1958, Chevrolet begins to sell a car-truck hybrid that it calls the El Camino. Inspired by the Ford Ranchero, which had already been on the market for two years, the El Camino was a combination sedan-pickup truck built on the Impala body, with the same “cat’s eye” taillights and dramatic rear fins. It was, ads trilled, “the most beautiful thing that ever shouldered a load!” “It rides and handles like a convertible,” Chevy said, “yet hauls and hustles like the workingest thing on wheels.”
Ford’s Ranchero was the first “car-truck” sold in the United States, but it was not a new idea. Since the 1930s, Australian farmers had been driving what they called “utes”—short for “coupé utility”—all around the outback. Legend has it that a farmer’s wife from rural Victoria had written a letter to Ford Australia, asking the company to build a car that could carry her to church on Sundays and her husband’s pigs to market on Mondays. In response, Ford engineer Lewis Brandt designed a low-slung sedan-based vehicle that was a ritzy passenger car in the front, with wind-up windows and comfortable seats and a rough-and-tumble pickup in back. The ute was a huge hit; eventually, virtually every company that sold cars Down Under made its own version.
In the United States, however, ute-type vehicles were slower to catch on. Though the Ranchero was a steady seller, the first incarnation of the El Camino was not and Chevy discontinued it after just two years. In 1964, the company introduced a new version, this one built on the brawnier Chevelle platform. In 1968, the more powerful SS engine made the El Camino into one of the iconic muscle cars of the late 1960s and 1970s.
In 1987, Chevrolet dropped the El Camino from its lineup for good. Today, the car is a cult classic. In 2008, Pontiac announced plans to introduce an El-Camino–inspired “sport truck” and even considered naming it the El Camino, before settling on the shorter G8 ST. In 2009, however, GM’s financial difficulties forced the carmaker to postpone production of its new models; it also announced plans to eliminate the Pontiac brand altogether by 2010.
China Joins A-Bomb Club
October 16, 1964
The People’s Republic of China joins the rank of nations with atomic bomb capability, after a successful nuclear test on this day in 1964. China is the fifth member of this exclusive club, joining the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France.
U.S. officials were not terribly surprised by the test; intelligence reports since the 1950s indicated that China was working to develop an atomic bomb, possibly aided by Soviet technicians and scientists. Nevertheless, the successful test did cause concern in the U.S. government. During the early 1960s, China took a particularly radical stance that advocated worldwide revolution against the forces of capitalism, working strenuously to extend its influence in Asia and the new nations of Africa. The test, coming just two months after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (a congressional resolution giving President Lyndon B. Johnson the power to respond to communist aggression in Vietnam) created a frightening specter of nuclear confrontation and conflict in Southeast Asia.
The test also concerned the Soviet Union; the split between the USSR and communist China over ideological and strategic issues had widened considerably by 1964. The Chinese acquisition of nuclear capabilities only heightened the tensions between the two nations. Indeed, the test might have been a spur to the Soviets to pursue greater efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons; in 1968, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Little wonder that the Soviets would wish to see China’s nuclear force limited, since the first Chinese intermediate-range missiles were pointedly aimed at Russia. The Cold War nuclear arms race had just become a good deal more complicated.
Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
October 16, 1973
Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Paris peace accords. Kissinger accepted, but Tho declined the award until such time as “peace is truly established.”
Baby Jessica Rescued from a Well as the World Watches
October 16, 1987
On this day in 1987, in an event that had viewers around the world glued to their televisions, 18-month-old Jessica McClure is rescued after being trapped for 58 hours in an abandoned water well in Midland, Texas.
The drama unfolded on the morning of October 14, 1987, when McClure fell through the 8-inch-wide opening of an abandoned well while playing with other children in the backyard of her aunt’s home day-care center. After dropping about 22 feet into the well, the little girl became stuck. Over the next two-and-a-half days, crews of rescue workers, mining experts and local volunteers labored around the clock to drill a shaft parallel to the one in which McClure was trapped. They then tunneled horizontally through dense rock to connect the two shafts. A microphone was lowered into the well to keep tabs on the toddler, who could be heard crying, humming and singing throughout the ordeal.
On the night of October 16, a bandaged and dirt-covered but alert Baby Jessica, as she became widely known, was safely pulled out of the well by paramedics. By that time, scores of journalists had descended on Midland, a West Texas oil city, and the rescue was carried out on live television before a massive audience.
After her rescue, McClure was hospitalized for more than a month and lost a toe to gangrene. She and her family were flooded with gifts and cards from well-wishers, and received a visit from Vice President George H.W. Bush and a phone call from President Ronald Reagan. Once out of the hospital, McClure went on to lead a normal life, spent largely out of the public spotlight. She graduated from high school in 2004, married two years later and became a mother. In 2011, at age 25, she gained access to a trust fund—reportedly worth at least $800,000—that was established following her rescue and made up of donations from people around the world.
Life proved more challenging for others involved in the Baby Jessica saga. McClure’s parents divorced several years after her accident, rescue workers in Midland feuded over a potential Hollywood movie deal and in 1995, a paramedic who played a key role in helping to save McClure committed suicide, possibly as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.