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A Big Bolt brings you the Big Bar

By Tom and Kathy Truhlar

      Tom Truhlar contacted The Stovebolt Page last year concerning his 1953 Chevy stepvan. Tom and his wife, Kathy, had quite a project before them, but when they finished ... what an accomplishment!

      Tom and Kathy own a small dairy plant in southern Wisconsin and handmake a popular ice cream bar called the BIG BAR. They take their bars on the road to car shows throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Their goal was to have their Stovebolt ready for one of their largest events -- the Spring Jefferson Swap and Car Show in Jefferson, WI April 23-24, 2005.

      And they did!

Factory specs

      This Stovebolt is a 1953 Chevrolet model 3742 3/4-ton forward control chassis with 235 6-cylinder engine, updraft Carter single barrel carburetor, 4-speed transmission, 5.14 rearend and 17.5" tires. It has a Grumman all-aluminum body with sliding doors (roll down windows), single pedestal seat, add-on heater, vacuum wipers, add-on horn, add-on signal lights and dual rear doors.


A little history

      This old truck's past history includes being used as a bread delivery truck in Stoughton, WI and then later used by a greenhouse in Fitchburg, WI. The greenhouse used this truck as a mobile unit to sell plants at flea markets calling themselves the "Plant Pedlar." The last date of service is unknown. However, there is a record of an oil change performed in July 1981 with the current odometer reading less than 1000 miles after that. It sat for at least 20 years behind a block building in Stoughton, WI. It appeared to have become a storage shed for car parts, mice and hornets. Where it had been parked, it had a wonderful southern exposure through the delaminating windshield and grape vines and blackberry bushes grew up in the cab area (including heating ducts).

      In early April 2004, we learned of the truck's existence through a friend, John, a retired GM mechanic. He had worked on the truck in past years and had known the "Plant Pedlar" people. We drove over to Stoughton to look at it. Although it looked to be in sad shape, the fact the entire body (including the floor) is aluminum gave us something to think about. We made a second trip back over to look at it again and began to really think about its potential use for our business. The fact the owner had just installed over $400 worth of new tires and the asking price was $500, was a pretty good nudge for us. So, on May 4th, we decided to purchase it. We had the truck trailered to John's house and began digging into the mechanicals right away. This picture to the right is the "before" interior ... ugh!


Getting her road-ready

      Fortunately, most of the mechanical parts cross over to the '47-'53 Chevy 3/4-ton pickup and the local NAPA could get just about anything we needed. The interior is very spartan with a single seat on a pedestal and a simple set of Chevy gauges. The sliding doors have roll-down windows, which we have since found to be rather rare. The interior dash, seat, wiring and panels all needed attention. The body was riddled with bolt holes from shelf units which had been bolted in. The driver-side rear curved corner aluminum was smashed in and one rear door was junk. We handmade a rear door, filled all the holes and hand rolled a piece of aluminum to replace the smashed curved area.

      On May 7th, while on our way to a popular old car cruise-in, we happened to see a similar style stepvan behind a barn just west of East Troy, WI. Upon finding the owner, we learned the truck was a 1964 Ford chassis with the same style Grumman body. Since our truck had a dire need for a parts donor, we inquired to buy the Ford. It had been built as a camper and had many modern features like power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission and even a radio. The most important item we wanted was the very hard to find curved corner windshield glass pair (ours was shot - literally and we knew that all of the glass would have to be replaced). It took four weeks, but we convinced the Ford owner to sell the truck to us. On June 3rd, we trailered the Ford to John's house where we promptly removed the curved glass pieces and gently stored them away. Here's a picture of the parts donor van on the right.

      Right away, we knew that this truck's restoration would be a working-class restoration and not a show car restoration. Throughout the summer, one day a week was set aside for the hour drive to John's house to rebuild the engine, transmission and brakes. We rebuilt the original 235 engine and 4-speed manual transmission in place. A complete brake rebuild was also done. Once we learned the truck had 5.14 gears, we found that 3/4-ton pickups had the same style of rear end. A 1963 Chevrolet 3/4-ton "camper special" donated its 4.56 gears. With some grinding of the original axle shafts, we were ready for a test drive. It will go 50 mph now, but the top-end speed had to be around 35 - 40 mph with the stock gears. We also replaced the heavy diamond plate rear bumper with a much smaller new bumper.

      On August 19th we drove the truck home, but the real work was just beginning. Other than the new glass, the soda-blasting and the welding, we did all the work ourselves (yes, Kathy knows what a 'DA' sander is).

      August and September are our busiest times of the year, so work on the truck was slow during this stretch. Once our season was coming to a close in October, we really worked hard on the project. We drove it to our welder's shop in Whitewater, WI where we worked on it for two days. Work included cutting in a "selling window," a roof vent, welded 40 or 50 holes shut (there were signs and shelving bolted to the sides at one time), hand-built one new rear door, hand-rolled one new rear curved corner and repaired many various areas.

      Two days after we drove it home, Paul Wimmer from PS Auto Glass in Janesville, WI came to take out all the glass. He would template the old (including the broken side windows) and install new glass with new gasket material a few weeks later. He carefully installed the two, used curved pieces as well.

      Paul was also able to replicate the complicated gasket materials for the front and the roll-down windows. Some modern stepvan supplies (like the door handles, sliding door hardware and gaskets and floor screws) are still in use today, so they were no problem finding new. Before he installed the new glass, however, we had a big project ahead of us.

      At the Fall Jefferson Swap Meet on September 25-26th, we met Rick Foley from Sodaworks in Highland, WI. He owns a mobile baking soda paint removal unit and after he explained that it was the best way to remove paint from aluminum without warping, we decided to have Rick come over. On October 23rd, Rick worked 7.5 hours and used 1100 pounds of baking soda to make our truck's body look like a raw soda can. Since there was no glass in the truck and we had a huge selling window cut in, the baking soda found its way everywhere. We washed the inside, outside and underside of the truck four times after Rick finished. To clean up the interior, we used an oxyalum product that really took care of the oxidation, then we took a buffer to the inside panels to shine it up.

      After some bodywork and Paul returning to put the glass in, we drove the truck to a friend' s grain farm (Steve) near Milton, WI. Steve restores tractors as a hobby. He had volunteered to allow us to use his paint booth while he was harvesting as he had no time to work on tractors at that time. His paint booth was tall enough to get our truck in. We had decided to paint the truck tri-color to really keep the 1950's theme. We drove it into the paint booth on October 29th and drove it home on November 3rd. We painted it in a single stage urethane for ease of minor fix-ups. We opted for a white roof over a 1960 Ford light green with Oliver tractor dark green accents. 

      With Wisconsin winters the way they are, we did not accomplish much else during the winter other than to accumulate new pieces and parts for the spring rush to get it done in time for the Spring Jefferson Swap Meet on April 23 - 24th, 2005.  A week before the show, we finally finished it up and put on graphics with a very 1950's theme (the telephone number on the sliding doors of the stepvan was Kent's Ice Cream's number in the 1950's; the "mobile unit" number is a recreation of the painted graphics that were on the truck from the "Plant Pedlar"). With nice April weather, we were able to get the truck ready for the swap meet with two days to spare. Many items tackled those last few weeks included: rebuilding the dash, wiring, painting the wheel wells, cleaning and painting the frame with POR15, wiring the freezers, graphics and building the selling window.      

     Since we are car nuts, like many of our customers, we enjoyed the work we put into this old truck and made sure some history is maintained. We hoped it would be a big a hit with the car show crowd. We already were getting a lot of attention with our 1972 Chevrolet 3-door Suburban (left) which we use to haul our other vending trailer. We purchased the Suburban at the Spring Jefferson Swap Meet in 2001 and we remain good friends with the person, Randy Johnson, we bought it from. (Randy is a big fan of one of our most popular flavors, Toffee. We have many regular customers we consider good friends. Ask any of them, they can confirm our passion is to make the best product we can for them.)

      A "stovebolt" side note to this truck: Chevy forward control chassis and COE trucks used a special intake/exhaust manifold and carb setup. The manifold is completely upside down compared to a pickup's manifold and the carb is a single barrel updraft unit more like a tractor carb (Carter BB-1). This was done to keep the height of the engine and components no higher than the valve cover. There also was a special 2" tube that routed around the back of the engine and then to the opposite side where there was just enough room for the standard pickup air cleaner to be positioned. I am looking for this tubing, air cleaner and brackets as I currently use a small air cleaner clamped on horizontally directly to the carb. I did locate an extra intake/exhaust and carb as these are fairly hard to find.


What we do -- the Big Bar story

      These old trucks were a common sight in the '50's and '60's but they are extremely rare to see in use today. Many reasons exist for this including the salvage of aluminum, but the main reason has to be the cost of restoring them and availability of parts. We spent more than what is logical on this project. However, we have the perfect business for the use of this vehicle. We own Kent's Ice Cream in Fort Atkinson, WI. It was founded in 1941 and was a popular hangout into the 1970's. Kent's Ice Cream moved to our present location in the '70's.

      About 1980, the promoter of the hugely popular Jefferson Swap Meets in Jefferson, WI requested Kent's to bring their popular, handmade, ice cream to his spring and fall meets. The owners of Kent's, Jim & Donna Fiedler, developed an ice cream bar over the next several years. Once they became popular at the Jefferson Swap Meets, the Fiedlers began to attend other events with their handmade ice cream bars. They became so busy with an event schedule, it was decided to close the retail store in the mid 1980's.

      In 1999, the Fiedlers were looking to retire. We purchased the business from them and have just begun our sixth year producing and selling this regionally popular product called the BIG BAR. We moved from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Fort Atkinson to continue the tradition of the BIG BAR. We were big fans of the BIG BAR many years before we became caretakers of the product. In the winter, if you live in the UP of Michigan, you need a hobby. We turned to restoring an old car every winter so that included attending swap meets for parts. Our favorite swap meets included the spring and fall Jefferson meets. We each would have three BIG BARS a day, as we couldn't get them anywhere else. In the fall of 1999, we saw the "for sale" sign and we were hooked. Surprisingly, the Fiedlers had the business for sale for over a year. Many people were interested in it but when they found out the business requires total devotion and is hard work, interest waned. We knew what the product meant to people. We felt honored to be able to continue the tradition of the BIG BAR.

      Today, Kent's Ice Cream, a registered Wisconsin Dairy Plant, maintains our location in Fort Atkinson and only produces the BIG BAR. It is a company of two people, Tom & Kathy Truhlar. We make each bar by hand and continue to use the old recipes that made Kent's Ice Cream famous. We've added several flavors over the years and have expanded our event schedule to include more car shows, swap meets and tractor/threshing events. We have a simple website so our loyal customers can check our show schedule and see what's new.

Tom & Kathy Truhlar
Kent's Ice Cream, Inc.
916 Madison Avenue
Fort Atkinson, WI 53538

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