20 July 2016
1946 GMC 1.5-Ton
From Michael :
Bob, a veteran public works employee, just finished getting the truck started. He left it running and was topping off the master cylinder when I was dropped off at the turn-of-the-century brick storage building to drive my 1946 1.5 ton GMC truck home.
After a walk-around inspection and some truck talk, I thanked Bob and headed for the cab. I was sitting in the cab about to let out the clutch when Bob looked me in the eye and said, "We called her Nellie."
The drive home was short but long enough to learn that I needed to practice the art of double clutching to avoid the embarrassing noises I was making from the transmission.
With a great sense of satisfaction, I pulled into my driveway and I knew I had something special.
The original owner of this old truck is the Village of Kohler, a municipality of about 2,000, located about an hour south of Green Bay, Wisconsin and only a few miles inland from Lake Michigan. Kohler, Wisconsin is known as former company town of Kohler Co., a privately held manufacturer of engines, plumbing products and owner / operator of a resort. I'm told Nellie was one of two GMC 1.5 ton trucks purchased in 1946 and equipped with hydraulic dump bodies for general purpose work.
By the 60s, the truck retired to part-time work and was equipped with a flatbed and large turbine mist blower that drove the streets to control Dutch Elm disease. Based on the rather large dents in the back of cab, I suspect the truck hauled a lot of Elm firewood, too.
At other times, a ladder was mounted to the truck to change out street light bulbs and the truck hauled items like appliances that the garbage truck could not handle.
The 236 engine is original to the truck but was Alpine green (also called Detroit green) indicating it had been rebuilt. Solid compression results confirms this.
After years of storage, the Public Works Department needed the indoor storage space and tried to sell her at a local auction in 1994. The minimum bid was $700 with no bidders. So Nellie went back in storage until the following summer when I discovered her in May of 1995.
The adjacent golf course (Blackwolf Run, my employer) was hosting a Golf Championship and the Public Works Director and I were looking over the storage building as a temporary television production compound for the golf championship. The Director was gracious to sell the truck to me on the spot for $700!
My first of four daughters was born a few weeks later.
I pressured washed the truck to remove the DDT residue, put on new exhaust and a new rear cab window. I drove the truck a few more times and then parked her in an abandoned barn for the next 12 years. When the property with the barn sold, I had to move Nellie to another place and I regretted my storage neglect. Hay from the loft covered much of the truck and smell from the mice urine was bad.
To start the truck, I bought a new battery, replaced the ignition points, rotor and cap and rented a gas powered air compressor to fill up the tires. On a beautiful late summer Sunday evening at sunset, I drove Nellie for the first time in 12 years. Top speed 10 MPH because of the flat spots in the tires and no working brakes.
My wife followed behind in the family van getting a good laugh of the view from behind. My head was leaning out the window for fresh air as engine started heat up the remains of all the critters that called the truck home, as well as the contrail of hay blowing off the truck.
I parked the truck in another abandoned barn for seven more years.
The Village of Kohler celebrated its 100th birthday in July 2012. It seemed the entire community was involved with the planning of a large parade through our quaint village that culminated with a celebration in Lost Woods Park.
My family was thrilled with the thought of driving Nellie in the parade and thus the start of a four-year restoration project was underway.
I was busy at Blackwolf Run, hosting the United States Women's Open in early July 2012, so I paid more than I should have to tow the truck and have it serviced just enough to make the one mile parade route. As a precaution, I requested to be near the end of the parade with the football team behind me!
Nellie ran flawlessly and was re-introduced to the residents of Kohler. My daughters threw candy from the flatbed.
The Restoration Begins
I took the "zone" approach, starting and finishing parts of the truck so I could continue to enjoy using the truck during the warm months. My daughters were growing up a lot faster than I can do restoration work! While quality work is harder to attain and the work requires more time, this approached proved to be a great way to keep all of us "positively engaged" over four years of a continuous outflow of money and time.
With the blessing of my understanding wife, we parked our cars in the driveway and street while I did the restoration work on one side of our 20' x 22' two-car un-heated garage during the winter months. I used the entire garage during the other months.
I rented time at other locations for pressure washing and sandblasting parts. My highest priority was to insure the truck was restored to a "like new" condition mechanically. I don't mind the old truck look, so dents and rust don't bother me. Being towed bothers me.
About half way through the restoration, I had the opportunity to buy an original GM flatbed. The completed GM flatbed is mix old parts and new parts copied from old ones too far gone to restore.
My priorities for this project were to be as self-sufficient as possible with repairs as a personal challenge, and to receive the satisfaction of preserving a great looking truck. Another priority was to know every detail of the truck. How it was designed to work rather than just spending my way out of a project by asking others to do the work I wanted to do.
The most challenging items were the dual performance differential, power brake booster, instrument cluster, carburetor, generator, making a new wiring harness and getting everything to align during assembly.
If you are not familiar with the GMC "wrinkle paint," there are some good close-up pictures of the interior and dash. The picture is from under my two speed instruction plate on the dash. I lightened up the color just a bit to compensate for the original paint darkening over 70 years. One can buy wrinkle paint in cans or most powder paint shops will apply wrinkle paint. I could not find a shop to produce the right color so I went the can route. It was nightmare trying to get the paint to wrinkle evenly. Wrinkle paint was really popular in the 40's. Tool boxes, medical equipment and other items that need to hide the wear and tear.
I hired out the body work on the exterior sheet metal. I kept this a stock restoration with few only a few minor exceptions that do not materially change the way the truck looks, sounds, or operates.
I found a lot of NOS parts from my daily routine of searching Craigslist and eBay for four years.
Many fond memories were made running errands to the local meat market for weekend grilling, spontaneous trips to Dairy Queen, watching July 4th fireworks from the flatbed and making parts runs before this project was completed.
The Art Deco design makes me want to park the truck in my living room and just stare at it.
For me, the enjoyment of driving the truck is experiencing history of a time period I was not a part of. Is there a better icon of hard work in the American workplaces of Agriculture and Industrial Commerce than these old trucks?
Michael has some really neat photo shots of the GMC in his "AFTER" Drop Box. Very "arty" as an Art Deco should be. I think you'll enjoy the before shots and see the transformation of this really beautiful truck. ~ Editor
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