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"Overpowered by the perfume of old grease"

Stu scores a 'Burb

By Stuart Guy Sanderson

        A tale of true endurance, survival and perseverance ~~ a classic Saga. Stu provided us with one of our first saga's and now, we have the continuation! Stu started a '51 Suburban ground-up restoration, and somewhere in between restored a '62 Chevy II station wagon for a daily driver. Then a Mercedes enters the scene .... Read on ...


         Slipping back to when I first found the truck, I guess what I remember most was the overpowering smell -- the perfume of old grease, stately moldering seat stuffing and what my novice restorer's instincts tricked me into thinking I smelled -- a gleaming new paint job.

         In reality, what I inhaled was a disgusting blend of spilled hypoid oil (literally a gallon or more) and a good 20 years of pack rat manure. As I bullied the door hinges open, the feted wave of superheated air hit me like a truck (no pun intended). I was in love. To actually be chosen as the savior and restorer of this1951 Suburban to its former glory was truly inspirational.

The 'ole bait and ...

         The truck sat interred with a companion, a 1958 Apache Fleetside, behind a chain link fence at a feed store in Hereford, Arizona. It was late on Sunday afternoon and the place was closed, but somebody was puttering around inside when my brother-in-law, Rick, and I managed to get their attention. As the lady walked over I shouted, "Is the truck for sale?"

         "Oh yes!" she shouted back. "Five hundred dollars."

         Now, as my knees buckled and I tried to decide if my right arm would be a sufficient deposit as I raced, one armed, to the bank machine and back, she delivered the coup de grace.

         "My husband will never sell that old Suburban, but he really wants to get this pickup out of here."

         Like a blow out at 60 mph, I was shattered. "Oh." (At least that's what I thought I moaned.) Then, trying to recover a shred of dignity, I asked if we could take a look at the trucks. The lady let us in and said we could poke around while she went off to find her husband. I made a bee-line for the Suburban and gave it the inspection which I have already described. Not one to give up easily, I began planning my attack. As my sworn enemy -- the current owner -- came toward us, I managed to croak out "I can give you seventeen-fifty for the two of them," hoping that he couldn't see that my eyeballs were rattling around in my head like two greasy old bolts in a tin can.

         As if quoting from a script he and his wife had collaborated on through the years he said, "I'll never sell that old Suburban." I was getting angry now. "Then why the hell did you park it out here where everyone can see it!" I muttered under my breath.

         He went on, "I'm going to restore that myself just as soon as I get some free time." Ah YEEEEESSS! Like a lamb to slaughter, he had delivered himself into my hands. Looking around at the complete disarray of the feed store lot, I could see that this guy was never going to get some free time. Rick and I asked him some questions to be polite and I slipped him my phone number.

         "Call me if you ever want to sell it," I said and we drove away.

         After dinner I sat by the phone and wondered if I had been deluding myself about the whole thing. Maybe the guy really was going to keep the Suburban until it returned to the earth in a great pile of rat poop and rust. Perhaps I would just have to be satisfied with restoring a VW like everybody else. Then, unbelievably, the phone rang and my new good buddy, -- the soon-to-be previous owner of the Suburban -- said his wife thought he better sell it to me. Thank you, Mrs. Feed Store!

         I explained that my brother-in-law no longer wanted the Fleetside but I'd gladly pay twelve-fifty for the Suburban and we arranged a day to pick it up. Rick had the ways and means to get the Suburban out of enemy territory before someone had a change of heart. So it was winched up onto a flatbed trailer and hauled over to his place.

A good first time project -- "are you crazy?"

         As the truck sat at his house in Hereford, my mother-in-law, upon seeing it, asked me in her thick German accent "Shtuard, it iss zo ruined, aaahr you crrazy?"

         "Yep, you betcha!" is the answer I now know I should have given. But God takes care of feeble-minded folks, they say. Little did I know when I spotted the Suburban that it belonged to a breed of old iron that is highly desirable and very restorable. The 1947-55 Chevy/GMC trucks are simple in the extreme, not much in the way of fancy trim work and impossible to find engine do-dads. Some rejuvenated versions of these Advanced Design Chevys are commanding five figures at the classic auto auctions. And it didn't take me long to collect a stack of catalogs full of reproduction and NOS (new old stock) parts for these vintage trucks.

         To this day I cannot recall what gave me the notion to fix up an old car. My old man had always been a car nut. He has restored everything from Hillmans to Porches. When I was six, he gave me his "auto" scrapbook. It was a homemade ring binder with pages and pages of cut outs from magazines of every kind of 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's cars. Man, I sure wish I still had that book. When I was a teen, he was always involved in one restoration project or another. I always admired the way friends and potential buyers would lust after his finished vehicles. Likewise, I had always gotten a kick out of taking something that looked hopelessly ruined and buffing it back into shape.

         My other brother-in-law, Gene (my California surf mate) had always lusted after a "woody" to drive down to the surf and it seemed I secretly had too. But wooden bodied cars are very expensive and difficult to restore. Hardly a good first time project. Fortunately, the Suburban style body uses a huge plank of plywood as a rear floor, not to mention its nine passenger surf safari capabilities.

Stu hits the books

         While I waited for the cash to tow the truck 90 miles to my house to materialize, I determined to bone up on the restoration hobby. I'm a rural mail carrier and my route takes me through 100 miles of outback Arizona, prime country for vintage tin. While searching for a suitable project car, I had gotten to know quite a few folks along my mail route, which seems to be strewn with old vehicles and their enthusiastic owners.

         One pair of brothers in particular had a huge shop where they simultaneously ran a trucking business and restored all manner of old cars. I went to see Hienz and Rolf and they tipped me off to the many parts catalogs for GM trucks. Offered in most of them was a great book by Tom Brownell, "How to Restore your Chevrolet Pickup." Perfect! I spent the better part of a month reading and then highlighting everything I thought was important.

Lumber and ... (gasp!) Harbor Freight???

         I went down to the lumber yard and got some bargain studs and wafer-boards to build two huge sets of shelves -- big and strong enough to hold fenders, doors, transmissions etc. My wife said they'd be great as bunk beds if we wanted to start an underground railroad for illegal aliens. We'd be able to get a couple a dozen folks stuffed into them. I begged and pleaded with her to let me loose in the tool department at Sears and I came home with a tool set that was on sale (and an air compressor thrown in for good measure).

         I had also convinced myself that a cutting torch was going to be a prime necessity. Fortunately, I never got as far as buying the gas tanks for the torch I did buy, because I never used it. I was just easier to have the welding jobs done by the guys I got to know who made their living using welding equipment. I finally sold it to the guy who did the machine work on the engine.

         I also became a regular customer at the local Harbor Freight tool store where you can

    1. buy the specialized tool you need for a job
    2. use it once or twice before it breaks
    3. return it if you're feeling lucky

         And all of this for the price it would cost to have a seasoned professional do it for you.

         I spent long hours at the computer making up a comparative list of the parts I would be replacing, checking to see which catalog had the cheapest price. Finally, I purchased a factory assembly manual, had the truck brought over to my place and I was on my way. But, the Suburban sat at our house for a time while I puzzled out where to begin.

Stu Smells a Rat

         One fine morning as I poked around inside the cab, I noticed a bunch of dog turds on the floor of the truck. "Damn!" says I. "There's stray dogs living in my truck at night." I swept up the poop and didn't think any more about it.

         A couple of days later, I was inside the truck again and my God, there was more poop on the floor than the last time! How the hell are they getting in here? I mean, I had a busted drivers side window but those dogs would have to be refugees from a circus to jump that high. The transmission floor covering was missing but they would have to be half snake to wiggle through that hole. As I looked around for a dog-sized space, I noticed more stuffing was missing from the already shabby seats and bingo, the penny dropped - it's rats! YUCK! The little buggers had been taking my hound dogs "leavings" and squirreling them away in a nice dry place for their late night snacking. I set traps and caught two huge pack rats, most likely well on their way to conceiving a race of turd-eating progeny.

         Thinking that I might kill myself by contracting Hunta virus, I resolved to disassemble the truck as soon as possible. Who knows what might happen next?

The Restorer's favorite tool

         Using ziplock baggies, labels, permanent ink markers and the assembly manual, I began the task of reducing the beast to its myriad parts. As per the book, I was to unfasten the front clip (hood, inner and outer fenders, etc.) from the rest of the truck. I forgot to mention that while I was researching the task of restoration, I used up at least three cans of WD40 on every nut, bolt, screw, j-nut, clutch screw, set screw, cage nut, cotter pin, blah-blah-blah that I could see.

         Every morning I would go out and give Dot (for "dirty old truck" -- the moniker my three-year-old son gave the beast) her half hour shower of penetrating oil. As a result of this diligence, almost every fastener came out the way it had gone in 45 years before. A good whack with a ballpean hammer and a turn with the appropriate tool, taa daa : a small shower of oil-saturated rust would yield two pieces of old rusty metal and eventually two or more parts of Dot.

         Now, this truck is not some modern uni-body, plastic and nylon computer-designed wonder. The guys who designed these trucks knew what hardware meant. By the time I could see the engine and frame unimpeded by body parts, I had a pile of boxes full of ziplock bags, which were in turn full of nuts and bolts. I could see that the Ace hardware guy and I were going to be on a first name basis.

Calling in an expert

         It was then that I began to have my first reality checks about what I had gotten myself into. Yet bravely (foolishly), I pressed on. The shelves I had constructed began to fill up with pieces big and small. I conscientiously labeled, bagged or boxed everything. I mean everything. Even if it was the rattiest, rottenest, shrunken, moldering chunk of whatever-that-is. And a couple of years latter, I am sure glad I did. Getting measurements off of a small slice of rubber or a sliver of metal is better than measuring thin air.

         Pretty soon I had the entire body stripped to a bare shell and was ready to remove it from the frame. Time to call an expert. I telephoned my father and he was more than happy to finally get a chance to pitch in. And contrary to our past cooperative ventures, we didn't employ our vast catalog of expletives on each other in the process.

         To get the cab off the frame without an over head hoist took a bit of genius and daring do. First, we supported the cab with blocks of wood. Then the wheels and rims came off one at a time and the chassis was lowered to the concrete drive on the brake drums. The objective was to drag the chassis out from under the body. Unfortunately the only blocks of wood that were not in the way were at the rear of the truck. So we dragged the chassis forward a few feet at a time, repositioned the supports and did it all over again until the body sat on its own and the chassis was out in the driveway.

         One snag turned out to be the gas tank which I slithered up to and dropped out of the way. The other was a little more challenging. It seems that the transmission decided to lock up somewhere along the way. So I had a kind of immovable sculpture in the middle of the driveway blocking all arrivals and departures. Dad and I popped the top off the tranny case and twiddled the shift forks back and forth for about a half and hour before we finally hit the right combination and the beast with four wheels rolled to its resting place.

Stu's little helper meets 'Mr. Tire'

         Restoring an old truck from the ground up in a two-car garage where two cars already reside and while trying to raise a three year old is, to say the least, a challenge. As I said, I had put up monster shelves to hold parts and resigned my daily driver truck to the outdoors. But entertaining a kid while dismantling that truck was no mean feat. I had taken to giving him a wrench and some old bolts to improve his fine motor skills. But this never seemed to satisfy for very long. So I started to come up with actual tasks that he could do to get a feeling of accomplishment and participation.

         One day while I was pulling the front bumper off, I put one side of the rear axle up a little, blocked and chocked it to beat the band and gave Chuck a 3/4-inch socket on a 1/2-drive and told him I needed the rear wheel off. "That ought to hold you for a while" I said sotto vocce. Later, as I was cranking away at a particularly stubborn bumper bolt, I heard, in a small yet demanding little voice, "Daddy, need a little help."

         Thinking he probably needed me to get the lug nuts started for him, I dropped my tools and went around the side of the truck. I found my son had not only managed to remove the lug nuts, but had pulled the tire and wheel off the axle. But it hadn't stopped there. The combination of his strength and momentum, the wheel landed on top of him. He lay there, spread eagle, with that big old 16-inch rim and 29-inch tire covering everything but two feet, two hands and a head. He looked up at me cool and calm and said, "Have a little problem."

The pain and suffering, laughs and tears -- and fortune!

         After separating chassis and cab, the next step was to get 45 years of grease and road grit off the undercarriage. My old man had a cheesy 1,000 lb. pressure washer, so I cranked up the water heater to max and hooked it up to the washer. Most of what I blasted off the chassis and engine shot up on me - good thing it was a 100 degree plus day. I was soaked from head to toe and covered with little gooey bits of crud. What was left behind had to be literally cold chiseled off. Man, I whacked away with a ball pean and a 1-1/2-inch blade chisel for days!

         Finally, after pulling off yet more tons of vital parts, I had a bare naked frame to sand blast. Hurrah! Let the Restoration begin!

         Just to show you how thrifty (translate as "cheap") and yet true to original standards I am trying to be with this project, I'll relate my line of thinking on the seat upholstery.

         Mr. Feedstore had done me the big favor of leaving the Suburban's rear seat out in the elements for its entire stay with him. Needless to say that the thing was in the advanced stages of returning to the dust from which it was forged. All the coverings, as well as the stuffing, had long since been used to comfort little fledgling birdies in their nests. The springs no longer had a patina of rust. No, they were reduced to a substance which had all the resilient properties of four day old stale bread. At a touch, the brown curly cues sort of crumbled and bent.

         The frame itself had faired a little better. It was just severely pitted with rust and bent to beat the band as years of junk had been tossed on top of it. The seats left inside Dot were not too bad by comparison. At least the coverings were more or less intact as was the stuffing and springs.

         The cotton batting that was used as padding, before foam rubber became common, was clearly visible through gaping holes in the covers. Cousins of the rats which had left those surprise little doggie droppings inside had also taken liberties with the batting, using it to stuff things that had no business being stuffed, i.e. the glovebox, inside the doors, the headliner and the dome light.

         The springs, though rusty, were at least still springs and just in need of a cleaning and a coat of paint. So it was apparent that I was going to have to get rear seat springs, come up with a source for new cotton batting and find a good seat cover man.

         I soon found out the going rate on salvage yard seat springs was, to use genteel language "quite" ridiculous. Cotton batting was a little easier to puzzle out. I found that the futon makers in town had it by the roll. But it still wasn't cheap. And since I live within sight of Mexico, seat covers via cheap yet dependable labor were a given.

         And then one day while taking the family garbage can to the dump, I spotted an old, I mean really old, mattress box spring. The thing was made entirely of metal and weighed in at at least a 100 pounds. But it was the perfect source material to bang together a couple of spring sets for the rear seat. Many hours with a hack saw and welding torch and I would have a serviceable place to rest my backside in the rear of the bus. I wrestled, dragged, pushed, shoved and cursed it into the back of my pickup and hauled it home.

         This turned out to be an exercise and lesson in the futility, heartbreak and pain of restoring an old truck, as unbelievably, just days later a bona fide set of old truck seat springs (in just the right size) turned up at the same dump. Well, out with the old springs and in with the new.

         I had learned a lesson though -- That dump was a gold mine.

         Besides shelving, tarps, various useful pieces of metal, rubber, etc. etc., I found a wheel rim for the spare (six-bolt Chevy with cap clips), cotton batting galore from old mattresses and box springs for the seat upholstery and truly serendipitous, a 216 cid valve cover to camouflage my 235 cid engine modification.

"Resto people"

         While you're involved in a restoration, like in most hobbies and clubs, you tend to get together with people that you may have, under normal circumstances, avoided at all costs. Now I'm not saying that Terry was one of those people, but to look at him you might conclude that he was the meanest looking guy you ever laid eyes on. Weathered (in the roughest application of the word), large (in an intimidating kind of way), gravely voiced, bearded, tattooed and pig tailed all describe his exterior appearance well. Inside, that was different. I better guy you'll never meet. A tough bargainer, but nice as pie.

         Terry had accumulated over the years, a few complete Advanced Design pickups and a yard full of bits and pieces to boot. Living out in the sticks is a real plus if you're going to run your own private wrecking yard. I bravely introduced myself to him one day after being sent down a sandy dirt track to his place on vague directions from another enthusiast.

         "He's got a death grip on those trucks and parts, good luck," was the guy's parting shot.

         The Navajo Indians have a custom that may seem quaint to some "get it done now" folks, but it makes good sense. When you pull up to somebody's hogan out in the toolies, you just sit there and let the visited compose, arrange and otherwise defend themselves while you wait patiently for them to make the first move.

         Sound advice.

         When you're living in the middle of nowhere, you can see a visitor coming for miles and you may not feel up to visiting. Sitting in the cab of my truck seemed a safe and prudent choice as Terry opened his door and I got my first look at him. But after having my ear pleasantly bent about "old cars I have owned and fixed up" for 45 minutes, it was clear that Terry was going to be a valuable friend.

The parts truck

         This friendship proved itself out one day when I found the carcass of a 1949 GMC pickup that on inspection seemed to have enough left on it to warrant a $50 price tag. I desperately needed its 60 lb. oil pressure gauge to replace the 30 lb. splash oiler gauge I had. Enlisting Terry, his 2-ton tow truck and dolly and the vast acreage of his yard, I devised a plan to get the wreck to his place for dismantling and storage. His profit lay in the dubious remains of the truck.

         Well, Murphy's Law was applied many times to this plan, I'll tell you. First off, the tow truck took a tank. Terry and his son Bear began an amiable yet heated discussion as to the cause of the starting problem. Copious amounts of gas were poured down the carb as Terry berated Bear to "Keep pumping the $#&%$ gas pedal!"

         Bear would roll his eyes, shake his head sagely from side to side and mutter, " It's the fuel pump. I keep telling him, it's the fuel pump." Yup! Two days later and one fuel pump, it started on the first crank.

         Then Terry tossed his back out for five, count 'em, five weeks.

         During this hiatus, I tried to make the wrecked truck as towable as possible. But after we finally pulled in and put it up on the tow truck, it was clear that I had failed miserably. I'd pulled the locked tranny, released the frozen parking brake, raised the rear end out of the mud and blocked up the rear axle from the frame (the left side spring had long since collapsed) and mounted a set of inflated tires.

         All for nothing.

         It seems the rear drums and shoes had fused into a solid and immovable mass. So, with his still mending back, Terry supervised and I got the truck up on a dolly with an amazingly sparse amount of tools. Rolling back down the road to his place and nervously glancing repeatedly in the rear view mirror, Terry looked over at me and asked in all seriousness, "So how much did the old man pay you to take that piece of #@%$# out of there?"

         In my embarrassment, "Uh . . ." was all I managed to get out. Guessing my dilemma, Terry said very diplomatically, "Don't worry Stu, I've done stupid things in my life too." I smiled. Thanks, Terry.

Another side of treasure hunting

          I think one of the most interesting parts of treasure hunting is uncovering the history that accompanies the treasure.  I can still remember digging through the seat cushions, the glove box and every other nook and cranny, searching out the clues to my Suburban's mysterious past. 

         Besides a few not so old coins, the seats did little to pull back the  misty veils.  But in the glove box among the valve stem caps, toasted fuses, dried up pens and the grunge of 45 years, were two bits of gold in the forms of an envelope from a butane gas company and a mileage/gas log. The log began on August 25, 1965 ‑ 13.6 gallons for $4.87 (that's 35 cents a gallon, sports fans!) with 18,532 miles on the odometer, and ended on February 27, 1976 ‑ 5 gallons for 56.9 cents a gallon ( the odometer had apparently busted at 92,007 miles in October 1971).

         Well, that kind of gave me an idea of what it cost to run a car in the good old days before OPEC. The last tags on the plates matched up with the last entries and it was cool to have a written record of the truck's passing into decrepitude. But it wasn't much in the way of a narrative. 

         The butane company envelope was instantly recognizable as ancient. It was water stained and moldy, with a tell‑tale three cent, first class Pitney Bose meter mark from November 12, 1956. The address was simply, D.J. Stoner, Hereford, Arizona. No zip code. No street. Nada. Now Hereford these days is not big. It rates its own Post Office, mini‑market and bar but that's the sum of its urbanity. But back in 1956, as evidenced by the scanty address, it must have been small indeed.

         I got out the Cochise county phone book and looked up Stoner and low and behold found one in Hereford.  I screwed up my courage and called. I'm glad I did.  On the phone D.J. 's son told me his father had passed away recently at the age of 93. He had been the second owner of the Suburban and had bought it in 1953.  D.J. had bussed his mining cronies over to the famous Lavender Pit copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona. 

         So that meant the truck had been a native and a local for its entire life. Before and after I bought the truck, I drove the same roads many times. I can just imagine the Suburban loaded down with 8 hefty miners headed to work with their gear and their hangovers.

         The most anecdotal piece of info that D.J.'s son related was about  the memorable spanking that Dad had given him and his siblings when they had danced on the roof of the truck, "because we liked the sound it made!"  It took me months to get those 36 square feet of roof smoothed out . . . and it's still sort of wavy in spots.

 

Why we hate rust

         Now, the whole time that I've been toiling away on the truck and even before I thought about buying it, I've had this ace in the hole.  His name is Dave and he runs a heavy equipment refurbishing and resale shop. That translates into lots of tools, space to work, industrial sandblasting, arbor presses, welding, etc. To kick that up a notch, he is very much into vintage tin restoration. A cooler guy you'll never meet. Dave has been an unbelievable resource for me. I can truthfully say that without his help, this truck would be in some one else's hands after I had given up. Really. I can also tell you this, that restore is really an acronym:

Rust Effort inSanity Torture lots-O-money Rust Elbowgrease

         Rust gets two billings because I have been there man and it ain't pretty. The Suburban was the poster child for surface rust promotion and if not for Dave's industrial blaster I would still be derusting the body. On the day that I decided to start the blasting, I called my Dad, enlisted his help in towing the cab to the blaster and borrowed Dave's 3/4-ton pickup and trailer. We winched the cab up onto the trailer bed, sliding it on sheets of plywood. After strapping it all down we trundled off to Dave's place.

         The phrase "easier said than done" never applied more appropriately to anything as is does to sandblasting.  It is one nasty, dirty and dangerous job.  When preparing to blast, I would don two layers of clothing to protect my flesh from being annihilated should I slip up. Next a ten pound, rocket man style helmet and respirator went over my head and heavy leather gloves on my hands. All this did absolutely nothing to keep out the minute particles of exploded blasting media.  When I had finished a session and stripped off my clothing, my sweat soaked body (it was summer and 110 degrees) was plastered with black mud.  I would dig it out from under my finger and toe nails for days. The usual trick played by the restorer's mind of jumping from a "ruin" to a "show stopper" has especially foul consequences when your sandblasting. I would literally breakdown in frustration while working when I realized how many planes, angles and surfaces exist on an automobile body as I painstakingly etched each and every stinking one of them.

The joy of body work

         After getting the cab back home from Dave's, we backed it slowly into the garage and I began the very long project of getting the body parts painted. This is, bar none, the longest, most laborious and heartbreaking part of the restoration. It doesn't take much imagination to conceive of the number of dents, scratches and contusions this thing has picked up over 45 years of use and abuse.  I ran a DA sander with 80 grit over the entire cab and other body components to smooth up the damage done by the blasting. I then cleaned up the surfaces before wiping them down with metal wash to remove the grease and penetrating oil, followed by acid for promoting paint adhesion. With the DA sander,  all the indentations remained rough and dull as compared with the smooth (i.e. the unraveged surfaces) or the very shiny high spots.  This left me with a good indication of the places needing body work. And they were numerous, believe me.  I now get to whack away with dolly and hammer.  Actually it's more like tap and squeeze, slap and push, nudge‑nudge, wink‑wink, etc. etc. Body work, you know?

The first show

         Well, I'm about to enter the truck in its first show.  This feels a little anticlimactic and weird actually. I mean I've been waiting to do just this for a long time, yet it is just the chassis that I'm entering.  I told Heinz about it the other day thinking he might like to see the work in progress and he said, "The chassis?" and looked at me like I might be missing a screw or two. But Dave thought it was a great idea, thinking it would generate a fair amount of interest with restorers and rubes.  So I spent a couple of days putting the steering gear back on and greasing up all those dry ball joints and spring hangers. I filled all those empty cavities with 90 weight gear oil and tightened down the many loose nuts and bolts.  I let the air out of the rear tires to haul it over on a two wheel come along behind my Toyota pickup. I hoped that would keep it from jumping all over the road. I also hoped I wouldn't get a bunch of know‑it‑alls coming up to me and depressing me with their "this is how you should have done it" stories. Oh well, goes with the territory I guess.

         But it didn't go off without a hitch by any means. First off, I had to get the Toyota back at 8:30 a.m. for my substitute to use on the mail route. Well, the grounds keepers at the country club weren't going to let anything on to the grass until the sun hit it and melted the frost.  That wasn't going to happen until 9:00 a.m.  So the chassis was going to sit off in a corner by itself, far from its show place destination, while I returned the mail truck.  I couldn't get the car caddy turned around with the chassis on it as you then have three nonsteering axles on the road and they won't turn without jackknifing. Of course, I had pulled into a place that I couldn't back out of. ARRRGH! I had to unhitch and push the damn thing, with my five year old son, Charlie, back and forth about ten times to get it turned around.

         We finally got the chassis off and the Toyota on its way. My old man gave me a lift back to the show with his entry, a '91 Buick Reatta. And with the enthusiastic help of four or five clubbers and shouts of "look out we ain't got no brakes!",  the chassis was rolled down to its show spot.

        Turns out, the show went great. There seemed to be a small crowd of people around the truck all the time. Even the club members were encouraging in their assessment of the work so far.  I especially liked hearing a bunch of kudos from Paul, this guy who seriously restores old iron.  He was the one who I first hit up for valid information on what to restore and what I was getting myself into.

         But the highlight of the day was when  the entire field was empty and I could get the car caddy down to load up the chassis, it broke the tie downs, jumped over the caddy coming to rest on top of  the darn thing. Luckily with its high clearance, it suffered only a bent shock mount bolt. Almost everyone was gone and within minutes the automatic sprinklers were  going to give the whole place a thorough watering. Oh my ears and whiskers!  Unbelievably, a few stragglers and well wishers helped get the chassis back over the caddy and I got home without further troubles. But that truck ain't moving a damn inch again unless I'm driving it! 

         So I'm moving towards a primed and ready to paint body and  then the money will begin to flow from my pockets like a green river into the coffers of the repro parts dealers. But that will be fun, right? Right!?
 
The allure of another project

         Well heck. Now I'm four years into the restoration, the annual local car show is in a week and the magnum opus is at a virtual stand still.  Once I got the cab and body parts primed and sanded down with 400, I stopped dead in my tracks. Not only that but I made the fatal error of starting another project as well. Here's my tale of woe, recanted so that you, dear reader, can profit by my folly.

         After 10 years and 290,000 miles of faithful service hauling mail, my '84 Toyota pick up and I are breaking up. I think I'm having my mid‑life crisis early. To say that the beau geste shown me by the faithful "toy" has been taken for granted, that I'm now spoiled, is putting it mildly. I have totaled over a quarter million miles on the same engine with very little peripheral repair. But men are easily bored they say and I have had my head turned by a '62 Chevy II Nova Station wagon. After coughing up $750 and enduring five days of intense negotiations with a very crafty, 80 year old lady, I got a one owner classic with very little rust. And it's running.

Keep in mind "spectator value"

         All this happened I believe, because I balked at painting the Suburban when the weather turned cold and wet. My mind began convoluted logic contortions which lead me to ignore the truck and search out more misadventures in the realm of auto restoration. But heck, I spend the better part of the work day in a car and I was getting tired of driving a non-descript imported piece of iron with no real passenger flexibility, no eye appeal and certainly no spectator value. I was bored with my Toyota and I wanted a fun driver. And this, the Suburban will never be. I will probably have to take valium every time it leaves the garage. And God help the first person that scratches it.

         So getting into a fun, collectable driver seemed a good idea.  That is until the reality of having five cars -- their insurance, maintenance and costs -- hanging around my neck like a mill stone sunk in. The stable now has:

    1. 1951 suburban (in pieces)
    2. 1992 minivan (Mommy's mover)
    3. 1998 Nissan (still unsold)
    4. 1962 Chevy II wagon (soon to be mail hauler)
    5. 1984 Toyota pickup (soon to be sold mail hauler)

         But you see, the wagon refuses to run as well as it did before I replaced the fuel pump, carburetor and ignition. What's up with that? Keep reading and you'll find out.

 

         So far I've not put the station wagon into service.  Thus the Toyota and I are still a couple, wary and suspicious, yet still chained together. Every day, I expect to hear a hellish noise from under the hood signifying its death throes.  Meanwhile, parts are flowing in and money flowing out for the wagon.  Carpet, seatbelts, floor mats, speedometer and other essentials are piling up in the garage (on top of the Suburban's chassis), while I tinker with the engine and ponder the ramifications of a head rebuild or perhaps the entire engine. This of course would entail an engine bay detail, transmission rebuild and  . . . GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE! Arrgggghhh. I'm doomed, dooooooomed.

The saga continues

         Well hey, it's been six months and a fair chunk of change since the last time I picked up pen and paper (keyboard and spellchecker). I have had, as you have read, more pressing matters to attend to.  The stable is now down to three vehicles (four, if a large assortment of '51 Suburban parts counts) and the light has finally appeared at the end of the tunnel. 

         After a long stretch of misadventures with the '62 Nova wagon and its mysterious poor gas mileage, I am about to let someone else put a coat of paint on it and then I'll start using it everyday to deliver mail. My wife had informed me upon her first sight of the Nova that she "won't be riding in it until it has a new paint job." Well heck, fair enough! 

         The sucking vortex of auto restoration was going full tilt when the wagon drifted onto the scene and it pretty much hasn't stopped.  I ripped off the front end of the car, yanked the motor and tranny for rebuilds, detailed the bay, rebuilt the entire brake system, doodled with various and sundry parts while the rebuilds were being done and slapped it all back together again when all the parts came back. As a cure for the poor fuel economy, all this was done to no avail (save having brand new stuff) and to great and mind numbing consternation.  When fired up and running, the beast got a walloping 10 miles to the gallon.  This was not what I expected after installing an economy cam, electronic ignition conversion and Holly factory remanufactured carb.  Three different carburetors, heart ache galore, calls to factory tech men,  sessions with crusty old school mechanics and small mechanical adjustments had no effect.  Finally, and just as I was about to take an offer to sell it, the Nova was saved by some guys in a little carb and injection shop with the use of some gray cells and the help of a $1.50 carb to manifold  gasket with a hole that didn't block vacuum pickup to the accelerator pump. Instantly the wagon gains 10 to 12 more miles per gallon, gets to stay in the stable and goes in for new paint.

         If there's a lesson here it's ‑ LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED. If I had just asked the right person, i.e. Rick, my infamous brother‑in‑law, the common "wrong gasket" problem would have been solved a whole lot quicker. For upon giving him three guesses as to the nature of my problem, he proceeded to hit the nail on the head with his second guess, stating,  "Oh yeah, happened all the time. There's lots of those gaskets that are different."

A little spin-doctoring

         Now that the Nova is on the road and we're back to an authentic count of three vehicles, it has been necessary to scramble and backtrack with one of them, namely the ol' Burb. Frankly, after touring the done and not-done parts following this 12-month hiatus, I'm scared stiff. How the hell did I get all that work done and My God! There's still a ton of stuff left.  It's going to take some genuine baby steps to get back into the swing of things, because just looking at one of those 4 x 8 shelves full of rusty, dusty and musty antique pieces is terrorizing. I guess if I look with an unjaundiced eye at the amount of effort that has gone into the Nova, I'll realize that the situation is not as bad as it looks. I know that many folks would consider the Nova a "restored" car, while to me it's just a number three or four driver. So by some standards, I've done a restoration in less than a year.  Whoohoo! I am one mean spin doctor.

         I went down to the spray shop the other day to witness the progress on the Nova. Now I've either made a big mistake or I'm doing the right thing and only time will tell, but it is a harrowing experience to see your car with its guts ripped out and chemical stripper slathered all over it looking like the only logical next step is the crusher.  But you can't get to there (new paint) from here (wreck) with out looking like Joan Rivers fresh out of  face lift surgery.

         I've told you that I live in very close proximity to Mexico and its large low-cost labor pool.  Well, that translates into two paint job benefits for me:

    1. lower costs on high manual labor
    2. dubious adherence to EPA regulations for hazardous substances

         The Nova had a few coats of paint on it and every one of them was in decrepit condition.  Old Earl Shibe wanted a grand and my name at the bottom of five pages of disclaimer statements to even touch the car.  The manager guy flat out told me I'd be seeing those checks and cracks in the paint again in the not so distant future. So I headed down to a shop that Dave recommended and got a price of $850 to take it to the metal, weld some cracks, do door and tail gate insides and two tone the exterior (red above the roof rail) in base coat clear coat, not to mention the body work to fix 40 years of dings and nearsighted old lady driving. Not bad, eh?

         So, when I go down to see the developments, there is this one guy slogging away at the wagon -- stripping, blocking and sanding, smearing on minuscule (thank God) amounts of filler.  One guy, doing one job, getting ( Lord knows) a very small amount of compensation.  I think I'll have to supplement his income with a couple of six packs to assuage my conscience. 

Just a piece of a puzzle

         Okay, so I sold the Toyota and I got the Nova to a point where I could drive it with the mail in it and not worry about if I would make it to the next destination or not.  It took some doing mind you.  It seems that the valve spring sets that were installed were defective and the machine shop had to replace them two times ... yikes!  Twice I was driving along singing a song then, put-put-put-patooie. It died a strange and whimpering death.  By the second time I knew what was going on, but gee it turned my stomach over.

         And as with all rebuild/restorations, there was always something I wanted to do to make it better.  So before I completely lost my marbles I sold it on eBay for just a hair more than I had in it.  A married couple of kids, who wanted to have a real car and had been looking for just this exact station wagon for years, bought it. (Sometimes you feel that a much higher power is running the show and you are but a small piece in a huge and incomprehensible puzzle.)   The love and labor I spent on this car didn't go to waste on the next owner. That's my consolation prize.

"The Wall"

         Fate had other plans for the Suburban though.   A rich uncle (really!) passed away and we were given the means to move ourselves into new digs.  I went out into the garage one day and there it sat, like a pit bull crouched in a corner with a really bad attitude, snarling and daring me to move it just one damned inch. Didn't I vow NEVER to move this thing again?! I really must have some deep-seated problem.  Well, I wrapped and packed all those rusty parts in labeled boxes again. I winched, dragged and towed the rest to the new place and filled up a large two car garage with a 1951 Chevy Suburban and its myriad parts ... and then I got into some serious trouble.

         "The Wall" is an obstacle that many restorers hit somewhere along the restoration path.  It may be a lack of money, perhaps boredom, an irate spouse, sheer exhaustion or a debilitating combination of these and other ailments that cause a complete loss of interest in the project.  This ain't no hobby for sissies, man. With me, I believe it is all this and some form of dementia that creeps into my head saying, "Own many four wheeled things and be happy."

         "Okay," I reply and Frankenstein-like I wobble around with my arms outstretched going AUUURRRGGHH, UUURRRGGGHH until I see the car of my desire and then I go AMMMMMHHHMMM, goooood.

         This time I really bit off a whole lot more that I could chew.  On eBay, (don't laugh, don't even crack a smile, buddy!) I saw a 1978 Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC. This is a car that sold for $40,000 1978 dollars. That's about $90K in 2005 dollars. For $4500 it was too sweet to pass on. 

         Now I'm not a complete idiot, just mostly.  I did find this really nice one and researched the heck out of the model's pitfalls.  And with a car this complicated (get this, a 1978 model year with fiber optics delivering the dash lights their glow. Mien Got -- those Germans can really over engineer things), there are an infinite number of pitfalls. And yet, as in a slow motion scene in a Schwartzenegger film, I moved though the nightmare that was the inspection, purchase and delivery of this, my ABSOLUTELY last project car. And I won't even tell you about the repairs I had to make to get this thing on the road. Someone call a shrink.

         As I was in the midst of removing and welding up a broken exhaust manifold on the Benz (a part, packing a whopping $700 price tag), I decided that the Suburban had to go and go NOW! I was so sick of looking at it, sitting there whining at me ... "Look at me.  We used to spend all our time together. Now you won't even look at me.  You hate me. Boo hoo hoo."

         "Yeah I hate you. You #$%@#. I wish I had never set eyes on you. Why don't you go far far away?  We'll play a game. I'll turn around, close my eyes and when I look again you will be GONE!"

         Is that shrink here yet?

         So I marched back into the house, fired up the computer and put that thing in the Swap Meet section of the Stovebolt Page. Twelve grand and it's all yours brother. It's 70% done and lots of spare parts to boot. Low and behold, I got some bites and they all wanted to see pictures.  Geez, I really didn't think anyone was as nuts as me.  Maybe I'm being hasty. 

         So I procrastinated when it came to taking those all-important photos. Then a fellow Bolter gave me a heads up.  "Earth to Stu."  "Go take a look at the prices that Suburbans are getting at the Barrett-Jackson Auction right there in Scottsdale up the road from you," is what he said. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the Saints. $50,000! Needless to say, I went back out to the garage and groveled for forgiveness from my fat fendered mistress and turned my back on the Teutonic hussy.

         So here I am right back where I started with four cars in the barn:

  1. a mostly built and time consuming Suburban
  2. a sweet yet temperamental and outrageously high maintenance fun car
  3. a driver
  4. another driver

         Two "drivers" -- at least I learned something and got two new ones with warranties and all. Does anyone else see a dog chasing its tail here?

Eleven years and lots 'o tears

         Thanks to the guy who posted that little link to me. FINALLY got off my duff and here's some shots of the work in progress.

            My thanks go out to all the people who have been dragged along on this quest i.e. my wife, Dave McKnight and of course John, Peg and all the other bolters who make this community up. Not without you! 

Stuart Sanderson

v November 2005



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