VIEWS: 7 PAGES: 9 POSTED ON: 8/19/2011
1951 CHEVY SUBURBAN RESTORATION MEMOIR by Stuart Guy Sanderson Slipping back to when I first found the truck, I guess what I remember most was the overpowering smell; the perfume of old grease, stately moldering seat stuffing and what my novice restorer's instincts tricked me into thinking I smelled - a gleaming new paint job. In reality, what I inhaled was a disgusting blend of spilled hypoid oil (literally a gallon or more) and a good twenty years of pack rat manure. As I bullied the door hinges open the feted wave of superheated air hit me like a truck (no pun intended). I was in love. To actually be chosen as the savior and restorer of this1951 Suburban's former glory was truly inspirational. The truck had sat interred with a companion, a 1958 Apache Fleetside, behind a chain link fence at a feed store in Hereford, AZ. It was late on Sunday afternoon and the place was closed, but somebody was puttering around inside when my brother-in-law, Rick and I managed to get their attention. As the lady walked over I shouted, " Is the truck for sale?" "Oh yes! ," she shouted back, "Five hundred dollars." Now, as my knees buckled and I tried to decide if my right arm would be a sufficient deposit as I raced, one armed, to the bank machine and back, she delivered the coup de grace. "My husband will never sell that old Suburban, but he really wants to get this pickup out of here." Like a blow out at 60 mph, I was shattered. "Oh." (At least that's what I thought I moned.) Then, trying to recover a shred of dignity, I asked if we could take a look at the trucks. The lady let us in and said we could poke around while she went off to find her husband. I made a bee-line for the Suburban and gave it the inspection which I have already described. Not one to give up easily, I began planning my attack. As my sworn enemy, the current owner, came towards us, I managed to croak out "I can give you seventeen fifty for the two of them," hoping that he couldn't see that my eyeballs were rattling around in my head like two greasy old bolts in a tin can. As if quoting from a script he and his wife had collaborated on through the years he said, "I'll never sell that old Suburban." I was getting angry now. "Then why the hell did you park it out here where everyone can see it!," I muttered under my breath. He went on, "I'm going to restore that myself just as soon as I get some free time." Ah YEEEEESSS! Like a lamb to slaughter, he had delivered himself into my hands. Looking around at the complete disarray of the feed store lot, I could see that this guy was never going to get some free time. Rick and I asked him some questions to be polite and I slipped him my phone number. "Call me if you ever want to sell it." I said and we drove away. After dinner I sat by the phone and wondered if I had been deluding myself about the whole thing. Maybe the guy really was going to keep the Suburban until it returned to the earth in a great pile of rat poop and rust. Perhaps I would just have to be satisfied with restoring a VW like everybody else. Then, unbelievably, the phone rang and my new good buddy the soon-to-be previous owner of the Suburban said his wife thought he better sell it to me. Thank you, Mrs. Feed Store! I explained that my brother-in-law no longer wanted the Fleetside buy I'd gladly pay twelve fifty for the Suburban and we arranged a day to pick it up. Rick had the ways and means to get the Suburban out of enemy territory before someone had a change of heart, so it was winched up onto a flatbed trailer and hauled over to his place. As the truck sat at his house in Hereford, my mother-in-law upon seeing it asked me in her thick German accent "Shtuard, it iss zo ruined, aaahr you crrazy?" "Yep, you betcha!," is the answer I now know I should have given. But God takes care of feeble- minded folks, they say. Little did I know when I spotted the Suburban that it belonged to a breed of old iron that is highly desirable and very restorable. The 1947-55 Chevy/GMC trucks are simple in the extreme, not much in the way of fancy trim work and impossible to find engine do-dads. Some rejuvenated versions of these Advanced Design Chevys are commanding five figures at the classic auto auctions. And it didn't take me long to collect a stack of catalogs full of reproduction and NOS (new old stock) parts for these vintage trucks. To this day I cannot recall what gave me the notion to fix up an old car. My old man had always been a car nut. He has restored everything from Hillmans to Porches. When I was six he gave me his "auto" scrapbook. It was a homemade ring binder with pages and pages of cut outs from magazines of every kind of twenties, thirties, forties and fifties cars. Man, I sure wish I still had that book. When I was a teen, he was always involved in one restoration project or another. I always admired the way friends and potential buyers would lust after his finished vehicles. Likewise, I had always gotten a kick out of taking something that looked hopelessly ruined and buffing it back into shape. My other brother-in-law, Gene (my California surf mate) had always lusted after a "woody" to drive down to the surf and it seemed I secretly had too. But wooden bodied cars are very expensive and difficult to restore. Hardly a good first time project. Fortunately the Suburban style body uses a huge plank of plywood as a rear floor, not to mention its nine passenger surf safari capabilities. While I waited for the cash to tow the truck ninety miles to my house to materialize, I determined to bone up on the restoration hobby. I'm a rural mail carrier and my route takes me through a hundered miles of outback Arizona, prime country for vintage tin. While searching for a suitable project car, I had gotten to know quite a few folks along my mail route, which seems to be strewn with old vehicles and their enthusiastic owners. One pair of brothers in particular had a huge shop where they simultaneously ran a trucking business and restored all manner of old cars. I went to see Hienz and Rolf and they tipped me off to the many parts catalogs for GM trucks. Offered in most of them was a great book by Tom Brownell, "How to Restore your Chevrolet Pickup". Perfect! I spent the better part of a month reading and then highlighting everything I thought was important. I went down to the lumber yard and got some bargain studs and wafer-boards to build two huge sets of shelves, big and strong enough to hold fenders, doors, transmissions etc. My wife said they'd be great as bunk beds if we wanted to start an underground railroad for illegal aliens, we'd be able to get a couple a dozen folks stuffed into them. I begged and pleaded with her to let me loose in the tool department at Sears and I came home with a tool set that was on sale (and an air compressor thrown in for good measure). I had also convinced myself that a cutting torch was going to be a prime necessity. Fortunately I never got as far as buying the gas tanks for the torch I did buy, because I never used it. I was just easier to have the welding jobs done by the guys I got to know who made their living using welding equipment I finally sold it to the guy who did the machine work on the engine. I also became a regular customer at the local Harbor Freight tool store where you can: 1) buy the specialized tool you need for a job, 2) use it once or twice before it breaks 3) then return it if you're feeling lucky; and all of this for the price it would cost to have a seasoned professional do it for you. I spent long hours at the computer making up a comparative list of the parts I would be replacing, checking to see which catalog had the cheapest price. Finally I purchased a factory assembly manual, had the truck brought over to my place and I was on my way. But, the suburban sat at our house for a time while I puzzled out where to begin. One fine morning as I poked around inside the cab, I noticed a bunch of dog turds on the floor of the truck. "Damn!" says I, "there's stray dogs living in my truck at night." I swept up the poop and didn't think any more about it. A couple of days later I was inside the truck again and my god, there was more poop on the floor than the last time! How the hell are they getting in here? I mean, I had a busted drivers side window but those dogs would have to be refugees from a circus to jump that high. The transmission floor covering was missing but they would have to be half snake to wiggle through that hole. As I looked around for a dog size space, I noticed more stuffing was missing from the already shabby seats and bingo, the penny dropped - it's rats! YUCK! The little buggers had been taking my hound dogs leavings and squirreling them away in a nice dry place for their late night snacking. I set traps and caught two huge pack rats, most likely well on their way to conceiving a race of turd eating progeny. Thinking that I might kill myself by contracting Hunta virus, I resoved to disassemble the truck as soon as possible. Who knows what might happen next? Using ziplock baggies, labels, permanent ink markers and the assembly manual I began the task of reducing the beast to its myriad parts. As per the book, I was to unfasten the front clip (hood, inner and outer fenders, etc.) from the rest of the truck. I forgot to mention that while I was researching the task of restoration, I used up at least three cans of WD40 on every nut, bolt, screw, j-nut, clutch screw, set screw, cage nut, cotter pin, blah-blah-blah that I could see. Every morning I would go out and give Dot (for "dirty old truck"), the moniker my three-year-old son gave the beast, her half hour shower of penetrating oil. As a result of this diligence, almost every fastener came out the way it had gone in 45 years before. A good whack with a ballpean hammer, a turn with the appropriate tool and a small shower of oil-saturated rust would yield two pieces of old rusty metal and eventually two or more parts of Dot. Now, this truck is not some modern uni-body, plastic and nylon computer designed wonder. The guys who designed these trucks knew what hardware meant. By the time I could see the engine and frame unimpeded by body parts, I had a pile of boxes full of ziplock bags, which were in turn full of nuts and bolts. I could see that the Ace hardware guy and I were going to be on a first name basis. It was then, also, that I began to have my first reality checks about what I had gotten myself into. Yet bravely (foolishly), I pressed on. The shelves I had constructed began to fill up with pieces big and small. I conscientiously labeled, bagged or boxed everything. I mean everything. Even if it was the rattiest, rottenest, shrunken, moldering chunk of whatever-that-is. And a couple of years latter, I am sure glad I did. Getting measurements off of a small slice of rubber or a sliver of metal is better than measuring thin air. Pretty soon I had the entire body stripped to a bare shell and was ready to remove it from the frame. Time to call an expert. I telephoned my father and he was more than happy to finally get a chance to pitch in. And contrary to our past cooperative ventures we didn't employ our vast catalog of expletives on each other in the process. To get the cab off the frame without an over head hoist took a bit of genius and daring do. First, we supported the cab with blocks of wood. Then the wheels and rims came off one at a time and the chassis was lowered to the concrete drive on the brake drums. The objective was to drag the chassis out from under the body. Unfortunately the only blocks of wood that were not in the way were at the rear of the truck. So we dragged the chassis forward a few feet at a time, repositioned the supports and did it all over again until the body sat on its own and the chassis was out in the driveway. One snag turned out to be the gas tank which I slithered up to and dropped out of the way. The other was a little more challenging. It seems that the transmission decided to lock up somewhere along the way. So I had a kind of immovable sculpture in the middle of the driveway blocking all arrivals and departures. Dad and I popped the top off the tranny case and twiddled the shift forks back and forth for about a half and hour before we finally hit the right combination and the beast with four wheels rolled to its resting place. Restoring an old truck from the ground up in a two car garage where two cars already reside and while trying to raise a three year old is, to say the least, a challenge. As I said, I had put up monster shelves to hold parts and resigned my daily driver truck to the outdoors, but entertaining a kid while dismantling that truck was no mean feat. I had taken to giving him a wrench and some old bolts to improve his fine motor skills, but this never seemed to satisfy for very long. So I started to come up with actual tasks that he could do to get a feeling of accomplishment and participation. One day while I was pulling the front bumper off , I put one side of the rear axle up a little, blocked and chocked it to beat the band and gave Chuck a 3/4 inch socket on a 1/2 drive and told him I needed the rear wheel off. "That ought to hold you for a while" I said sotto vocce. Later, as I was cranking away at a particularly stubborn bumper bolt, I heard, in a small yet demanding little voice, "Daddy, need a little help." Thinking he probably needed me to get the lug nuts started for him, I dropped my tools and went around the side of the truck. I found my son had not only managed to remove the lug nuts, but had pulled the tire and wheel off the axle. But it hadn't stopped there, the combination of his strength and the momentum of the wheel had landed it on top of him. He lay there, spread eagle, with that big old 16 inch rim and 29 inch tire covering everything but two feet, two hands and a head. He looked up at me cool and calm and said, "Have a little problem." After separating chassis and cab, the next step was to get 45 years of grease and road grit off the undercarriage. My old man had a cheesy 1000 lb. pressure washer, so I cranked up the water heater to max. and hooked it up to the washer. Most of what I blasted off the chassis and engine shot up on me - good thing it was a 100 degree plus day. I was soaked from head to toe and covered with little gooey bits of crud. What was left behind had to be literally cold chiseled off. Man, I whacked away with a ball pean and a 1-1/2 inch blade chisel for days! Finally, after pulling off yet more tons of vital parts, I had a bare ass naked frame to sand blast. Hurrah! Let the Restoration begin! Just to show you how thrifty (translate as "cheap") and yet true to original standards I am trying to be with this project, I'll relate my line of thinking on the seat upholstery. Mr. Feedstore had done me the big favor of leaving the Suburban's rear seat out in the elements for its entire stay with him. Needless to say that the thing was in the advanced stages of returning to the dust from which it was forged. All the coverings as well as the stuffing had long since been used to comfort little fledgling birdies in their nests. The springs no longer had a patina of rust, no, they were reduced to a substance which had all the resilient properties of four day old stale bread. At a touch the brown curly cues sort of crumbled and bent. The frame itself had faired a little better. It was just severely pitted with rust and bent to beat the band as years of junk had been tossed on top of it. The seats left inside Dot were not too bad by comparison. At least the coverings were more or less intact as was the stuffing and springs. The cotton batting that was used as padding, before foam rubber became common, was clearly visible through gaping holes in the covers. Cousins of the rats which had left those surprise little doggie droppings inside had also taken liberties with the batting, using it to stuff things that had no business being stuffed, i.e. the glovebox, inside the doors, the headliner and the dome light. The springs, though rusty, were at least still springs and just in need of a cleaning and a coat of paint. So it was apparent that I was going to have to get rear seat springs, come up with a source for new cotton batting and find a good seat cover man. I soon found out the going rate on salvage yard seat springs was, to use genteel language "quite" rediculous. Cotton batting was a little easier to puzzle out. I found that the futon makers in town had it by the roll. But it still wasn't cheap. And since I live within sight of Mexico, seat covers via cheap yet dependable labor were a given. And then one day while taking the family garbage can to the dump, I spotted an old, I mean really old mattress box spring. The thing was made entirely of metal and weighed in at at least a hundred pounds. But it was the perfect source material to bang together a couple of spring sets for the rear seat. Many hours with a hack saw and welding torch and I would have a serviceable place to rest my backside in the rear of the bus. I wrestled, dragged, pushed, shoved and cursed it into the back of my pickup and hauled it home. This turned out to be an exercise and lesson in the futility, heartbreak and pain of restoring an old truck, as unbelievably, just days later a bonified set of old truck seat springs (in just the right size) turned up at the same dump. Well, out with the old springs and in with the new. I had learned a lesson though. That dump was a gold mine. Besides shelving, tarps, various useful pieces of metal, rubber, etc. etc.; I found a wheel rim for the spare (six bolt Chevy with cap clips), cotton batting galore from old mattresses and box springs for the seat upholstery and trully serendipitous, a 216 cid valve cover to camouflage my 235 cid engine modification. While your involved in a restoration, like in most hobbies and clubs, you tend to get together with people that you may have, under normal circumstances, avoided at all costs. Now I'm not saying that Terry was one of those people, but to look at him you might conclude that he was the meanest looking guy you ever laid eyes on. Weathered, in the roughest application of the word, large, in an intimidating kind of way, gravely voiced, bearded, tattooed and pig tailed all describe his exterior appearance well. Inside, well that was different. I better guy you'll never meet. A tough bargainer, but nice as pie. Terry had accumulated over the years, a few complete Advanced design pickups and a yard full of bits and pieces to boot. Living out in the sticks is a real plus if you're going to run your own private wrecking yard. I bravely introduced myself to him one day after being sent down a sandy dirt track to his place on vague directions from another enthusiast. "He's got a death grip on those trucks and parts, good luck," was the guy's parting shot. The Navajo Indians have a custom that may seem quaint to some "get it done now" folks, but it makes good sense. When you pull up to somebody's hogan out in the toolies, you just sit there and let the visited compose, arrange and otherwise defend themselves while you wait patiently for them to make the first move. Sound advice. When you're living in the middle of nowhere you can see a visitor coming for miles and you may not feel up to visiting. Sitting in the cab of my truck seemed a safe and prudent choice as Terry opened his door and I got my first look at him. But after having my ear pleasantly bent about "old cars I have owned and fixed up" for 45 minutes, it was clear that Terry was going to be a valuable friend. This proved itself out one day when I found the carcass of a 1949 GMC pickup that on inspection seemed to have enough left on it to warrant a $50 price tag. I desperately needed its 60lb. oil pressure gauge to replace the 30lb. splash oiler gauge I had. Enlisting Terry, his 2 ton tow truck and dolly and the vast acreage of his yard, I devised a plan to get the wreck to his place for dismantling and storage. His profit lay in the dubious remains of the truck. Well, Murphy's Law was applied many times to this plan, I'll tell you. First off, the tow truck took a tank. Terry and his son Bear began an amiable yet heated discussion as to the cause of the starting problem. Copious amounts of gas were poured down the carb as Terry berated Bear to "Keep pumping the $#&%$ gas pedal!" Bear would roll his eyes, shake his head sagely from side to side and mutter, " It's the fuel pump. I keep telling him, it's the fuel pump." Yup! Two days later and one fuel pump and it started on the first crank. Then Terry tossed his back out for five, count 'em, five weeks. During this hiatus, I tried to make the wrecked truck as towable as possible. But after we finally pulled in and put it up on the tow truck it was clear that I had failed miserably. I'd pulled the locked tranny, released the frozen parking brake, raised the rear end out of the mud and blocked up the rear axle from the frame (the left side spring had long since collapsed) and mounted a set of inflated tires. All for nothing. It seems the rear drums and shoes had fused into a solid and immovable mass. So, with his still mending back, Terry supervised and I got the truck up on a dolly with an amazingly sparse amount of tools. Rolling back down the road to his place and nervously glancing repeatedly in the rear view mirror, Terry looked over at me and asked in all seriousness, "So how much did the old man pay you to take that piece of #@%$# out of there?" In my embarrassment, "Uh . . ." was all I managed to get out . Guessing my dilemma, Terry said very diplomatically, "Don't worry Stu, I've done stupid things in my life too." I smiled. Thanks, Terry. Well I'm about to enter the truck in its first show. This feels a little anticlimactic and weird actually. I mean I've been waiting to do just this for a long time, yet it is just the chassis that I'm entering. I told Heinz about it the other day thinking he might like to see the work in progress and he said "the chassis?!" and looked at me like I might be missing a screw or two. But Dave McKnight thought it was a great idea, thinking it would generate a fair amount of interest with restorers and rubes. So I spent a couple of days putting the steering gear back on and greasing up all those dry ball joints and spring hangers. Filled all those empty cavities with 90 wt gear oil and tightened down the many loose nuts and bolts left loose. I'll let the air out of the rear tires as I'm going to haul it over on a two wheel come along. Hopefully that will keep it from jumping all over the road. I hope I don't get a bunch of know-it-alls coming up to me and depressing me with their "this is how you should have done it" stories. Oh well, goes with the territory I guess. Well, the show went great. There seemed to be a small crowd of people around the truck all the time. Even the club members were encouraging in their assessment of the work so far. I especially liked hearing a bunch of kudos from Paul this guy who seriously restores old iron. He was the one who I first hit up for valid information on what to restore and what I was getting myself into. But it didn't go off without a hitch by any means. First off, I had to get the Toyota back at 8:30am for my brother to use on the mail route. Well it seems the grounds keepers at the country club weren't going to let anything onto the grass until the sun hit it and melted the frost. That wasn't going to happen until 9:00. So the chassis was going to sit off in a corner by itself far from its show place destination while I returned the mail truck. I couldn't get the car caddy turned around with the chassis on it as you then have 3 nonsteering axles on the road and they won't turn without jackknifing. Of course I'd pulled into a place that I couldn't back out of. ARRRGH! Had to unhitch and push the damn thing, with my five year old son, Charlie, back and forth about ten times to get it turned around. We finally got the chassis off and the Toyota on its way. My old man gave me a lift back to the show with his entry, a '91 Buick Reatta. And with the enthusiastic help of four or five clubbers and shouts of "look out we ain't got no brakes!", the chassis was rolled down to its show spot. But the highlight of the day was when the entire field was empty and I could get the car caddy down to load up the chassis, it broke the tie downs, jumped over the caddy coming to rest on top of the darn thing. Luckily with its high clearance, it suffered only a bent shock mount bolt. Almost everyone was gone and within minutes the automatic sprinklers were going to give the whole place a thorough watering. Oh my ears and whiskers! Unbelievably a few stragglers and well wishers helped get the chassis back over the caddy and I got home without further troubles. But that truck ain't moving a damn inch again unless I'm driving it! Well I'm on the way to a primed and ready to paint cab and then the money will begin to flow from my pockets like a green river into the coffers of the repro parts dealers. But that will be fun, right? Right!? . . . to be continued.
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