Looking Back: The Old Trucks of My Youth
Our current low rider exhibit got me to thinking about the many old trucks I've owned. About 1977, I was riding down Koch Lane in a high school friend's 1955 Chevy pick-up, when it occurred to me that an old truck was just the vehicle for me. Sitting up high looking out over an old style hood, and the ability to move furniture or water heaters or make a run to the dump... I could do anything with an old pick-up. The 1980s were my bachelor years, and during that period I fixed-up a great many old trucks. I enjoyed driving them and using them for yard work and other odd jobs I picked up. These old vehicles stood out on the street, and yet they weren't so uncommon or desirable that a near-broke college kid couldn't afford one. Ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s, I owned a mix of Chevy's, Fords, and Dodges. My opinion is that Chevy's tend to look the nicest, while the Dodge's seem to be better built. There are many other makes out there of course, though I've found these three to be the most common.
Image on Left: I bought my first truck in 1979. It was a 1957 Ford with a "Ford-o-matic" transmission, which was helpful when taking my driver's license test. I paid $400 and an old clock for it.
Image on right: The '57 Ford wasn't old enough for me though, and in 1981 I purchased a 1951 Chevy for just under $1000. It was a temperamental starter though, if you pumped the gas even once, the carburetor would flood and refuse to start. This issue actually prevented the truck from being stolen on one occasion. I don't have any photos of the truck, so I'm filling in with this cartoon. The front section was all in red primer. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: My third truck was a 1935 Dodge which I purchased in 1982 from Wheels and Deals when it was on Bascom Avenue. As a student at SJCC and SJSU, my income came from doing yard work and odd jobs. There was no curbside pick up of yard waste in those days, so most of my trucks made regular trips to the local dump. With it's wire spoke rims, front side-mount spare, strong flathead six, and hydraulic brakes (other makes of from that year were still using mechanical brakes), this truck was one of my favorites. I sold it for a measly $3500.
Image on Right: This 1937 Ford stake bed was my fourth truck, which I purchased in 1983. It had a strong V-8 engine, though it leaked so much that I had to carry a drip-pan with me everywhere I went. All of my trucks from the 1920s through the 1940s had windshields that would open out, which was great on hot summer days. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: This 1925 Dodge was purchased in 1984 for $1200 by my girlfriend. It had a rebuilt flathead four engine, and only needed four new tires to get it moving. It ran on a 12 volt system as I recall (most were 6 volt until the 1950s), and had a unique combination starter-generator with a "silent start." We'd been told that this had belonged to a grocery store in Tonopah, Nevada, and there was a faded four digit phone number painted on the cab. I eventually located copies of the Tonopah Daily Times on microfilm in Carson City and was able to find 1920s advertisements from a grocer with that number offering free delivery.
Image on Right: My dad and I take the truck out for a spin around the neighborhood. My girlfriend later sold the truck for $3000, it would be fun to know where it is now! Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: My fifth truck was a 1927 Chevrolet 1 ton stake-side. I used to cruise around town at a maximum 40 mph. I paid $1700 for the truck in 1983 as a partially completed frame-off restoration, with my most difficult task being the fabrication of the wood cab. These trucks were available from the factory without cabs, and this one was likely used as a cab-less orchard truck. I based my design on period photos, and built the cab out of oak with the assistance of a local cabinet shop. The truck had an electric starter, but also started easily with a half turn of the hand-crank.
Image on Right: My sister asked me to draw a cartoon of her driving the truck to commemorate my teaching her to drive it. These old trucks not only have manual transmissions, but square cut gears that require a double-clutching technique. I eventually sold the truck to a hotel owner near Cannery Row in Monterey. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: Here my mom (on the running board) and sister pose with my sixth truck, a 1952 Dodge. Purchased in 1986 for $600, this old work-horse required little maintenance, and I remember seeing it cruising around town for years after selling it.
Image on Right: I also purchased this 1938 Chevrolet 1 1/2 ton in 1986. On my first excursion with the truck, I used it to transport a washer and dryer over Hecker Pass at night with my dad and brother scrunched up in the cab with me. On the trip back, the crankshaft let go on Monterey Road. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: My eighth truck was a 1946 Chevy which I picked up for $1250 in 1987. This was one of my favorites and I probably shouldn't have sold it. It had the original 6 cylinder engine which I rebuilt at Quality Machine Shop when it was still on North 10th Street. My cousin Bonnie poses here with the truck during a move.
Image on Right: My future wife poses with my second 1951 Chevy which I purchased in 1990. I sold the truck a few years later, and I wouldn't own another for twenty years. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Image on Left: Here's my current truck, a 1948 Dodge which I purchase in July of 2013 for $1800. That's a pretty good price these days, though the Dodges don't seem to command the same prices as the more popular Chevys and Fords. The flathead 6 had been rebuilt, but I needed to replace the tires, brake system, clutch, bed wood, and a variety of miscellaneous items. Most of the work was done with the help of my dad, who came over for a few hours every week for about a year.
Image on Right: Here's the finished product in Coyote Valley. I painted my grandfather's names on the sideboards; local orchardist Frank Pearce, and Los Gatos Police Chief Ralph Phillips who had the ЯR Ranch off Blossom Hill Road. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce
Besides old pick-up trucks being a lot more expensive these days (supply and demand), another big difference is the availability of parts. In the 1980s I relied upon local shops that still stocked older parts and the hobby's bible Hemmings Motor News. Nowadays, the internet makes it much easier to locate parts, though it's harder to locate parts locally and also harder to find mechanics that are willing to work on these old vehicles. A couple of local resources that have been very helpful are Ace Automotive and Fuel Systems in Santa Clara, and Willow Glen Auto Electric on Almaden Road. Another tremendous resource specifically for old Dodge trucks has been the Mopar Flathead Truck Forum.
Image: So here I am forty years later, still cruisin' down Koch Lane in an old pick-up. Photo ©Ralph M. Pearce
Further Reading in the California Room:
- California Room Index: Automobile
- Looking Back: Fill 'er Up! Our Remaining Pre-war Service Stations
- Pickups: Classic American Trucks by William Bennett Seitz and Harry Moses
- Classic Pickups of the 1950s by Mike Mueller