So when I found out this month we would be talking about classic trucks I put my hands together and rubbed them quickly thinking “oh yes” as classic trucks are yet another genre of vehicles im a big fan of. As you might tell by now i’m a fan of pretty much all genres of cars, except “stanced” cars as they are silly, but to each their own! So one of the things I like about older classic trucks is they hold true to what trucks were originally designed for which is work. They are utilitarian in nature and are built to be used. Trucks have strayed from this over the years and understably so. They have become mobile offices for those who use them in the trades as well as they pull multiple duties with consumers. They can pull boats, campers, run kids to school and practices, get groceries, or run door to door with sports cars these days. They have evolved into arguably the most versatile vehicle you can buy but new trucks are a discussion for another day.
For me it’s hard to beat a classic truck for styling and usefulness. Usefulness in that you can use a classic truck and not worry about beating it up so much, unless of course it’s a restored garage queen and those are cool too. New trucks are so damn expensive anymore that I think older trucks are coming back more and more in popularity and they are also getting more and more expensive for cleaner versions. Remember, trucks are built to be used and many get abused as well. Finding clean older used trucks for a decent price is getting harder and harder by the day depending on what decade you are looking at. I think some of the best decades for trucks were the 70’s and 80’s but that’s not to say previous versions were not attractive either. Some of the best American automotive styling came from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and that includes the pickup trucks.
The 1940s were a time of turmoil and perseverance for the United States and many other countries on account of the second world war. As the war came to an end in 1945 Dodge released a version of their ¾ ton WC series trucks which were heavily used in the war. The Power Wagon was the first mass produced four-wheel-drive medium duty truck for the civilian market and was in production for almost 20 years but Dodge had been building the trucks for military use since 1934 or so. A 1950 Dodge brochure was titled “It’s development ranges from the battlefield to the fields of peace!” People were running to dealerships to buy the rugged war tested pickup truck. The Power Wagon trucks were all 1 tons and utilitarian work vehicles. They were first offered with a 230 cubic-inch flathead six cylinder engine and four speed manual transmission. They had a 8,700lb GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) and payload capacity of 3,000 lbs. The flathead six was a reliable engine that was cheap to fix and with steep gearing power was never an issue for work. The Power Wagon didn’t see a whole lot of evolution over its lifespan and the first iterations looked the coolest in my opinion. Today, Legacy Classic trucks build restored and upgraded Power Wagons and they are gorgeous! These trucks are completely redone with today’s best components and feature multiple engine choices from a 3.9L 4BT Cummins diesel to a supercharged 620hp LSA. They are not even close to cheap with the cheapest version starting at 195k but if I had the money i’d definitely buy one!
Speaking of Legacy trucks, they also build a completely restored and custom version of this next truck. By far, my favorite truck from the 50’s was the NAPCO Chevy/GMC which we have talked about in past newsletters but I’m ok with a revisit! NAPCO (Northwest Auto Parts Company) had been in business since 1918 and specialized in mechanical parts. They ended up specializing in four-wheel-drive systems and the consumer could buy a complete 4×4 conversion through the dealership for their 2wd truck they just ordered. NAPCO would send the system in a crate and with only a few holes drilled the system would bolt right up turning your new truck into a mountain goat! The system was also designed with a divorced transfer case driven via a shaft off the transmission so the stock drivetrain didn’t need altering. Before 1955 only heavy duty trucks could use NAPCOs conversion kits due to the torque tube drive shaft used on light duty trucks which was not as easily adapted to a transfer case. GMC offered the “Powr Pak 4×4” from the factory in 1956 and Chevrolet followed suite in 1957 but the GMC offered amenities like an automatic transmission and V-8 with its trucks. GM offered their own inhouse four-wheel-drive system starting in the early sixties. These trucks look amazing and restorations are growing in popularity.
With all the hoopla going on with the new Jeep Gladiator, many don’t know that there has already been a Gladiator in Jeeps lineup 50 years ago! That’s right, Jeep introduced the gladiator or J-series in 1962 as a pickup truck based off another classic, the Wagoneer. The J-series sold for 26 years until it was cancelled in 1988. The Gladiator came in short and long wheelbase configurations, rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive powertrains, as well as a dual rear wheel version that looked pretty sweet! Interestingly, the 230 cu in Tornado straight six offered as standard in the J-series was the first overhead cam engine offered in a light duty truck or SUV here in the states. In 1965 the Gladiator could be had with an optional 5.5L AMC V-8 good for 250 hp and 340 ft lbs of torque which was a far cry from the 140 hp Tornado straight six which was also replaced that year with an American Motors version. In 1968 the AMC 327 was joined by a Buick 350 as an optional engine and a few years later after AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep’s automobile business a 360 and 401 cu in engine was offered as optional equipment. After AMC acquired the brand the Gladiator name was dropped and the truck simply became known as the Jeep truck or J-series and continued production for another 17 years.
So I have to throw in an oddball here and I could keep going with the domestic classics but there was one little guy designed by a Japanese company just for the American domestic market that most people have forgotten about, The Mazda Rotary Pickup. Introduced in 1974 the REPU was the world’s first and only Wankel powered pickup truck ever made. It was designed specifically for the North American market and based on the B series pickup truck. The rotary engine was a 1.3L unit known as the 13B and it was good for 110 hp and would run past 7,000 rpm! The truck was sub 3,000 lbs and with the right gearing it was a pretty decent performer in its class. The little mini truck was only produced for 3 years with the majority of those 15,000 units were built for the ‘74 production year. Sales petered off in 1976 causing Mazda to discontinue the REPU. Props to Mazda though for trying something different and pushing their rotary technology. I’m not a huge fan of the rotary engine but it was pretty cool technology nonetheless.
Classic trucks hold a special place in my heart not just because I consider myself a truck guy but because they were built for a single purpose and that was work. They weren’t fancy and they didn’t try to pull double and triple duty like they do nowadays. For a long time you could only get single cab trucks so forget toting the family around! Their designs were timeless and let’s face it the square body trucks were just the best! Trucks of the past were heavy and built with maximum use in mind. They were solid axle with manual transfer cases and lockout hubs, they were a man’s truck. In today’s day in age of 70,000 dollar half tons with heated massaging seats and self trailer backup modes the old guys still reign supreme in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, the new trucks are nice and more capable than ever but there are few things more enjoyable to me that a ride home to my family in an old truck with one arm out the window after a good days work. From all of us here at Gearbox, have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!