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Stovebolt Sagas

Oral history of Stovebolt Quests, Journeys, Treasures and Dragons

True Grits

By John Luhn

   Just when you think some things should never be... Here's John Luhn with a tale of True Grits: a saga to illustrate the eternal Stovebolt truism that determination, sheer force of will and plain ole dumb luck can always overpower common sense to win the day! The siren song of the rusty Stovebolt, battered and in repose, will never cease to stir the soul enough to risk life, limb and a perfectly fine tow vehicle to bring home ... just ... one ... more ... old ... truck!


The one that should have gotten away...

       Up until a couple months ago, I owned a 1959 3100, and I was always looking for spare parts for it. One day I saw an ad in the local paper for a whole bunch of equipment, and one of the things that caught my eye was "1962 Chevy flat bed, $100." I figured that it was worth a call at least. So I called him up and the man said it was a '62 1/2-ton, with a bad motor, but the $100 was correct.

       So I went to look at, and low and behold, it was actually a 1961 1.5-ton, C-40, with about a 12-foot flatbed. Turns out the engine was rebuilt, but the driver forgot to add oil, so it died.

       When I finally pulled it out about a month later, it appears that it must have thrown four rods simultaneously. The motor was not salvageable and was sent to the junkyard.

       But I'm getting ahead of myself. After I looked at her, I found that it looked good and figured that at $100, I couldn't pass it up. So I bought her on the spot. My justification was, "Well at that price, I can take the door handles off, sell it to the scrap yard for junk steel, and still make money."

Gravity is not your friend

       Since all six tires were flat, the guy used two forklifts under the frame to pick the truck about three feet up in the air and I backed my trailer under it. Getting home was fun, as the trailer was loaded with too little tongue weight and the trailer brakes were not all there -- if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I didn't figure all this out until we were going downhill at about 40 mph and the trailer starts pushing my '59 around.

       When we finally stopped, the trailer axles were on the right shoulder and the truck was at about a 60-degree angle to the road -- in the other lane -- facing the other way -- still hooked up to the trailer! I was almost unable to get out. When I finally did, I went back up the hill to a turn off where I turned around and looked at the damage. The front corner of the trailer ran into the side of the bed and pushed the bottom rear side of the bed in about four inches. The rear bumper was also pushed into the bed but it was a homemade bumper so its loss didn't worry me.

       The hitch on this truck was built by a previous owner. He had used a chunk of 3" x 1" channel to make a rear bumper and had welded in a receiver tube in the center. It appeared that rather than using 2" ID tube for this, he used 2" OD. So no hitch would fit! Rather than fix it, he simply drilled a hole in the top of the tube and bolted a hitch ball to this. The force of the trailer jackknifing bent the top of this tube down about 1/4" but I didn't know it at this point. It also wore flat spots on both my rear tires (which were fairly bald already) but I was not aware of this either.

       After I confirmed that there was no major damage, I proceeded to continue my trip home, except that I now used second gear and drove 15 - 20 mph the whole way. It took some five hours to go about 50 miles. Another thing I found soon after was that the edges of the flatbed happened to be exactly the same height and width as my truck mirrors -- so I couldn't see anything behind me. But that was okay because I wasn't going to pull over because I rather suspect that I would have gotten stuck.

       Now, about an hour and a half later, just when I'm starting to relax, one of the rear tires blows out, due to the tread having been worn off in the wreck. Luckily, I had a spare but it was still not a pleasurable experience.

We're home ...

       All that seemed to be enough excitement. And I was finally home and figured it was downhill (oh, I think I hate that phrase) from here. Well, then I tried to unload the truck. Since all the tires were flat, I had to pull it off which shouldn't have been too hard. Oh yea, right! I had loaded the truck rear end first, so the steering wheels had to go down the ramps first. It is important to remember that the wheels on this truck were right on the edges of the trailer, and consequently on the edges of the ramps.

       Once I got the front wheels about half way down the ramps, I noticed it was veering off. So I started turning the wheel the other way hoping to make it go back on as it went down. Unfortunately, turning the wheels just shifted it right to the point where it just kind of slipped off the ramps. Now I was really in trouble.

       I started by trying to jack the truck up and get the ramps back under it, but it was to no avail. As the truck had shifted, the ramps wouldn't sit right. I then tried putting the wheels on blocks. But that didn't work either. Since it was on sand, they lacked the stability to stand straight. I finally would up jacking the tongue of the trailer up about three feet so that the front wheels were on the ground.

       Now this trailer was homemade and one of the great ideas of the builder was to fit it with a pair of supports on the back corners to hold it up during loading. Unfortunately, with the deck on the ground, the supports were sticking up about two feet and were also directly in the path of the rear wheels. My ultimate solution to this was to simply dig holes under them. The "holes" quickly became "trenches." I was actually pulling the trailer out from under the truck.

       Finally, after something like six hours, I was able to get it off. This was definitely not one of my smarter ideas. Also, I forgot to mention that the trailer was not registered either. Not a good idea.

Monty, I'll take what John has on his trailer!

       Now that I had my new toy home, I started looking at her and found out that she was actually in remarkably good condition. Other that a few dents, the body was in good shape and the tranny felt like it was recently rebuilt. After I realized this, I started looking for a new engine but I couldn't find one. Around about that time, I rolled out my '59 (a blowout in the spare used when the other flat spot blew out). The engine in my '59 was a 327 that I had just rebuilt. So I figured that it made sense to put this in the '61.

       After about a month of on-and-off work, most of which was involved in converting the mechanical clutch '59 bell housing to work with the '61 hydraulic system, I finally installed the engine and got it running. At the moment, my biggest problem was finding a new front mount, as my '59 used the two rods coming down from the front of the engine. The '61 is supposed to have this u-bracket that bolts to the front of the block and sits on a pad. Anyone have one of these lying around?


Meanwhile, back at the campus...

       Well, all that excitement was just from May through October of 2002. In September of that year, I moved from Ridgecrest CA to Davis CA to go to college at the University of California / Davis. At that time, I had stripped the '59 of most usable parts and sent it to a junkyard. I had gotten most of the way through installing the engine from that truck into the '61 flatbed. Given my economic situation at that time, I decided to finish the flatbed, drive it up north, and try to sell it. Let's face it, I had no use for a large, heavy duty flatbed truck. In fact, I had enough trouble trying to find a parking spot for the full size Ford pickup I was using as a daily driver. (Yes, I know it's not a Chevy, but their diesels aren't the best. .)

       Sometime around October, I posted a thread on Stovebolt looking for the front motor mount for the flatbed ( which I was missing) and as an afterthought, I threw in a question as to the rarity of these trucks. My experience at that point (and still) was that '60 / '61's are pretty rare and the larger work trucks even more so. One of the replies I got, however, was from a man (I apologize if you happen to be reading this, but I cannot find any records of your name) somewhere in Benicia CA, who not only had another '61, but it was also a C-40 (except this one was a tow truck and had the deluxe cab option -- large rear window, etc.). Further -- it was for sale! Oh boy!

       After some thought, I decided to go look at it. After all Benicia was only about an hour away. I found that the truck was in pretty decent shape, although it needed some body work and wiring. It did run very well (someone had swapped in a 350) and the tow rigging all worked. I wound up buying it from him for $800. I subsequently repaired the wiring enough to make it drivable.

       At this point, it may seem I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent, but there are two stories worth telling directly related to this truck. The first was that at the time, I was living in the dorms on campus and could not even park my driving truck there, let alone a restoration project. Hence, I needed to find someplace to store it, and preferably someplace that would allow me to work on it.

       I first tried calling a local RV storage yard, who referred me to a farmer who might rent out some space, who in turn referred me to the owner of an auto shop, who rented from him. I subsequently negotiated to store the truck on his lot and also got permission to work on it there. Once I got it there (around February '03), I had some engine work, wiring and some other work things to do.

       The owner of the shop was sufficiently impressed that he asked me if I'd put an engine in one of his projects -- a '74 Landcruiser, in trade for free storage. (This was June by which time I had the '61 flatbed and a '82 Toyota also living there). Shortly afterward, he asked if I'd like to work for him. So I did and am now the shop manager there.

       The other funny story was from when I drove the truck up from Benicia to the shop in Woodland. I had redone much of the wiring but had not completely removed all of the old wiring, as I wanted to get it done quickly. Since I did not have a large enough trailer to haul the truck, I drove it up and had one of my friends follow me in his car. Our chosen route involved taking the 680 freeway over the Benicia Bridge, and then just running straight up I-80. As I was driving along on 680, I noticed the steering seemed to be tightening up, but I dismissed it as imagination. Then, after coming up to the toll booth after crossing the bridge, I made a small turn to line up into a lane and the engine immediately stops. I then coasted up to the toll booth, paid my toll, and proceeded to get out and try to find out what happened.

       It was immediately apparent that the remains of the wiring had gotten tangled in the steering shaft which in turn pulled one of the spark plug wires in, in turn pulling the distributor cap off. Easy fix, but then the engine refused to turn over. I thought it was a dead battery at the time, but subsequently found out it was actually a bad battery cable. So, I was trying to figure out how to get my friend's car around in front to jump her, all the while the toll guy was telling me he'll just call the tow truck. I was trying to explain to him that I could fix it if he would just give me time.

       Then, the driver of a Caltrans dump truck, which was next in line behind my friend, came up and said he would just give me a little push. Okay, but then we had to move my friend's car. So, he went back to do that. And just because -- I tried to start her one more time, and now she starts up just fine.

       Okay, I'm leaving before she dies again. The rest of the drive was much better although I was unable to go over 45 mph due to a bad coil. The really entertaining part, was that after I'd gotten up to Woodland, I rode back down to Benicia with my friend to pick up my truck, (he's from Palo Alto, so I drove down and met him there). We decided to go through the same toll lane coming home. Surprisingly, the same guy was there. So I said something along the lines of "At least we didn't break down this time," which he found confusing for a second until he recognized me from before. So, we chatted for a minute or two and then he said the resident tow truck driver was apparently quiet impressed that I got it fixed. Not every day you manage that.

He who laughs last ...

       Now, back to the flatbed. Through that winter, I had accumulated the few pieces I was missing and fabricated an exhaust system for the truck. As I recall, I also had some difficulty with the DMV paperwork but I got that straightened out. Round about March, I finally got her drivable and then discovered a massive vibration coming from the driveline.

       Apparently when I unloaded the truck oh so long ago, I'd drug her off on the driveline, with consequent damage. So, now we needed a new rear driveline. Oh great, another $150.

       We got that fixed, and wound up driving her up to the first part of June 2003. Given the age and history of the truck, she did surprisingly well and I had no problems on the 400 mile drive.

       One of the interesting things, though is that my little 327 in there, pushing 6000+ pounds of steel at 60-70 mph, (read 4000+ rpm with 5.38 rears) actually got better fuel mileage then when it was in my little '59 1/2-ton. All I can figure is that it took so little power because of the gear ratio she was just basically idling over. Tons of power, too.

       So, now that I had her up here, I proceeded to swap engines, given that I had no desire to sell the 327 I'd just put over $1000 into. I also swapped hoods. The tow truck had a somewhat rusted later '60's unit and I knew there was no way I'd ever find another nice '61 hood -- let along one with the Apache 40 logos on it. (I did actually find another decent '61 hood in a junkyard for $50, but it was a 3/4-ton, and is being kept for a spare.)

       I finally sold the flatbed in February '04 for $1000. Sometimes I think I should have kept her but I think the tow truck is a much more rare truck.. It will look really nice once I get around to restoring her. Right now, she's essentially a shop crane on wheels. But oh man, what a crane. I used the truck as an engine hoist at one point when I was parting out a early '80's Ford pickup. I managed to break an exhaust manifold right in half because I'd forgotten to disconnect it. Never even slowed the truck down.

But he hasn't learned ...

       (After we got this saga done, John sent in a few more "aughs for us." This is quite a postscript and I can't believe he brought home another truck! ~~ Editor)

       In other news, I used the tow truck to tow another project truck home not long ago. On the way home I experienced some "overheating problems." Apparently there was some miss which culminated in the air clearer and it ignited. I pulled off to let her cool off and next thing flames start coming through the shifter hole. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and was able to get everything put out.

       Of course, then I had to take the carb apart to get all the extinguisher stuff out (yuck) while sitting by the side of the road. While I was there, this disreputable looking guy and his sidekick came by and chatted with me for a bit. They asked about having me haul off some of his cars to the wreckers. Umm .... ?? Does this truck look like it's going anywhere soon?? Hello!! People do not normally sit by the side of the road dumping water on their engine to make sure the fire's out.

       Well, I got it all fixed. There appeared to be no damage and I got back on the road again. It turned out the miss I'd been trying to find for three days was actually a pair of switched plug wires. Ug! Sometimes I think I'm starting in on Alzheimer's a few years early.

       What is the difference between Mechanical Engineers and Civil Engineers?

John Luhn
Bolter # 2915

v. January 2006

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