Rodding and customizing has always been about blending old and new. Ray Doe, president of RB's Obsolete in Edmonds, Washington, has a strong affinity for '40s and '50s Chevy pickups, panels, and Suburbans. He's owned a variety of them, and his interests are reflected in RB's aftermarket product line. He also likes late-model Chevy pickups, Trailblazers, and Tahoes, so it was a natural for him to combine the two genres.
The last '47-54 Chevy pickup to roll out of RB's shop was the High Tech Hauler '48 Chevy which was won by a lucky Primedia reader. This time, Ray wanted to build a keeper. He was leaning toward a '47-54 Suburban because of its increased functionality.
High Tech Hauler's base truck had a lot of hidden body damage, so Ray was hoping to find as nice of a body as possible. He lucked out when he found an incredibly cherry, rust-free California truck, a '47 Chevy panel.
Even though the panel altered Ray's original Suburban plans, it was simply too nice to pass up. Since the truck was a runner with a decent tan-and-black paint job, Ray's first thought was to build a resto rod with a modern chassis and drivetrain. He was just finishing the development work on RB's new '47-55 (first series '55s) chassis, so dropping the cherry body on a state-of-the-art chassis would be a snap.
The only problem was that Ray still wanted something with more passenger capacity, like a Suburban. It was then that Ray and his son, Scott, started discussing the "what if's" of building a pseudo Suburban. They recruited illustrator Chris Ito who put their ideas (along with his creative input) to paper. Several panel variations were drawn, but when a version was shown with Nomad-style rear windows, Ray knew he had to build it.
Urban Suburban PlanningRB's truck will lean toward the wild side of what can be done with these vehicles-that doesn't mean someone with less ambitious plans can't learn a lot from these articles. At any point of the project there are simpler, less expensive alternatives. One of these trucks can be built in stages as time and funds become available, so don't be put off by the radical body mods, trick drivetrain, or high-tech rolling stock. A safe, fun truck can be built with a stock body, used engine, and moderately priced wheels and tires.
A strong foundation in the form of the new Serious Hardware rolling chassis will be the early focus of this project. In reality, several subassemblies were built more or less concurrently. The new Beck Racing Engines 496ci big-block engine was built while the bodywork was being done. The chassis was assembled at the same time. The average homebuilder is more apt to tackle a single task before moving on to the next part of the project, but the processes are the same.
Just as the gang at RB's Obsolete knew they had a wide range of possible ways to build their panel, anyone contemplating building a street rod out of a '47-54 Chevy/GMC pickup, panel, or Suburban has a lot of choices, too. The Urban Suburban has some radical body modifications, but the components under the wild House of Kolor paint apply to any vehicle. And, the best part is that most of the parts are bolt-on items right out of the big RB's catalog.
Coming to TermsBuilding a '47-54 Chevy/GMC pickup/panel/Suburban can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. Versatility is a great feature of these trucks. For the sake of simplicity we'll usually refer to the series as '47-54 Chevy trucks, instead of mentioning the first-series '55 models and distinguishing between Chevy and GMC products. We prefer the generic "truck" instead of listing the three body styles every time.
First-series '55 models are confusing to many people because of the late introduction (March 1955) of the all-new '55s. The '55-57 models are virtually identical and are the series most people associate with '55 GM half-ton trucks. We're well aware of first-series '55 GM trucks, but it's easier to call them '47-54s.
There are far more similarities than differences for the nine-year model run. Parts interchangeability is great. It doesn't matter if you put a '53 grille on a '54 cab because we're talking about street rods. The long model run and ease of parts swapping mean that there is still lots of raw material available.
A Strong FoundationRB's new Serious Hardware rolling chassis is the most exciting product to come out of this buildup. As plentiful as this series of trucks is, the condition of the chassis is often less than great. With a brand-new chassis all the grunt work associated with a rusty, cracked, and twisted original frame is bypassed. The new Serious Hardware chassis was designed from the ground up to handle modern engines and suspension components.
There's no need to worry about squeezing modern wheels and tires on an old frame. The new Serious Hardware chassis is narrower than stock to accommodate big wheels and tires like the 20x10- and 18x8.5-inch Billet Specialties SLX 01 units and Nitto Extreme ZR Ultra high-performance tires that are going on the panel. Even tough the chassis is narrower than stock, all the cab, body, and bed mounts are correctly positioned. Tubular upper and lower control arms, a TRW power rack, and front antisway bar all contribute to modern handling capabilities.
The chassis accepts either small- or big-block Chevy engines and all the corresponding GM transmissions. Since the chassis was designed as a street rod platform, things like mounting the integrated brake pedal assembly and 9-inch booster dual master cylinder on the outside of the framerails were done to provide easier exhaust routing.
Out back, the Serious Hardware chassis uses a Ford 9-inch rearend and parallel leaf springs. The chassis can be equipped with four-wheel disc brakes for modern stopping power to match the high-tech wheels and tires.
Alternative Truck StylesWork done on the Urban Suburban is representative of what can be done to these trucks. We can't list all the possible variations, but we will discuss a few easier, less expensive alternatives.
Your body style depends on what you like and what you can find. The greater your flexibility, the better your chances are of finding a good deal and a solid starting point. Most people are likely to build a pickup due to their greater availability. The larger number of pickups generally means their prices are lower than those for panels and Suburbans. Given all the current interest in SUVs, prices for early Suburbans have been on an upward swing.
If you have or can find a decent panel or Suburban, a lower-looking profile can be achieved with paint instead of by chopping the top like on the Urban Suburban. A two-tone scheme with black (or another very dark color) above the beltline will make the top look lower. It doesn't even have to be finished paint. Dark primer over lighter primer will work. On a Suburban dark-tinted side windows will contribute to the illusion.
Special glass was needed for the new side windows in the Urban Suburban, but a similar look (at least from a distance) could be achieved by painting Nomad-style "windows" on the side of a panel body. A talented airbrush artist could even paint "chrome" trim around the windows.
Depending on the market in your area, single rear window trucks may be less expensive than the deluxe cabs with their unique, curved quarter-windows. These cabs are commonly referred to as three-window and five-window cabs, respectively. Many builders prefer the three-window cabs, so don't worry about making an unpopular choice.
Differences between Chevy and GMC models are largely a matter of noticeably different grilles and subtly different hoods and tailgates. The tailgates are embossed with either GMC or Chevrolet block letters. The front edge of the GMC hoods is contoured differently in order to fit around the top of the unique GMC grilles. You can bolt a Chevy or GMC hood to the opposite-model truck, but the hoods won't fit the wrong grilles. There are a few minor trim variations, but nothing that concerns anyone outside of a concours judge. Since these trucks are so interchangeable, it's easy to use your favorite grille, regardless of the year or make of the cab.
A wild, high-tech liftgate will replace the original "barn doors" on the back of the RB's truck. A lot of metal fabricating skill was required for this change, so we'd advise most people to stick with the doors that came with the truck. Suburbans were available with either side-hinged barn doors or a station wagon-style tailgate and liftgate. The wagon-style Suburban is much harder to find than the one with barn doors. Panel barn doors can be used on Suburbans and vise versa.
Speaking of doors, the '47-50 models had a single-piece side glass. In 1951, vent windows were added for improved airflow. If you like the simpler early doors, switching doors or converting your doors is pretty easy. In 1954, a single-piece windshield replaced the old two-piece unit with its stainless dividing strip.
Two different styles of left rear fenders were available. The spare tire version was recessed to accept a tire. That was a handy place to carry the spare in 1947, but today, plain left rear fenders are the only way to go. Unless the truck is a strict restoration, don't even consider a spare tire fender.
Avoidance IssuesIt's tough to go very far wrong in your choice of a '47-54 Chevy truck project. Stick with the 1/2-ton models unless you're sure you'll never, ever want to sell the truck. The longer bed 3/4-ton and 1-ton pickups barely show up on the popularity radar screen. One good thing about a long-bed pickup is that it isn't difficult to convert to a short bed.
The Serious Hardware rolling chassis is only for short-bed pickups. The cabs and front sheetmetal are the same among the different-tonnage models, so you could put a nice cab from a long-bed model on the new chassis and add a reproduction short bed or try to find a salvageable original bed. The fenders and tailgate can be used from a long bed on any short bed.
Rust is public enemy number one with these trucks. There are readily available patch panels to handle the various lower body rust problems, but it's so much easier to start with the best possible body. The cab's condition is more important than the hood and fenders. The bed's condition is the least critical because there are good reproduction parts available.
Lower cab areas, such as the rear corners, lower cowl, hinge pockets, and the step area inside the door, are places where rust can be the most insidious. The lower hinge pockets are especially difficult to deal with. There are floorboard replacement kits. The areas around the original passenger-side, under-floor battery box are frequently rusted and corroded. The stock battery location can be used, but many builders relocate the battery.
Any rust in the roof could be problematic. We'd pass on a cab with rust around the windows. Even seemingly minor fender damage can be time consuming and/or expensive to restore to acceptable street rod standards. There is frequently a lot of hidden body damage on the fenders. These trucks were used for work, not pleasure, so any damage was usually fixed as quickly and inexpensively as possible. We've seen fenders with a 1/2-inch of body filler covering old dents. Cracked fenders are difficult to repair right, so we'd shop for replacement fenders if any of them are cracked around the wheel opening.
Given the ever-escalating costs of paint and bodywork, it might pay rust belt residents to travel to less corrosive parts of the country in search of a good body. Buying a long-distance truck and shipping or towing it home may seem like a big expense, but do the math. It doesn't take too much professional rust repair to xceed the cost of even cross-country shipping in a deluxe enclosed carrier.
Since you're building a street rod truck, we wouldn't be concerned about the condition of the engine, transmission, rearend, or chassis components. The only possible chassis problem would be one that was so decrepit that it had sagged and caused the cab to twist. The door fit and gap uniformity weren't all that great when the trucks were brand new.
The original chassis, engine, and transmission were in excellent condition on the RB's '47 Chevy panel, so the package was easily sold to a restorer. Selling off unneeded stock parts is a way to recoup some of the initial investment, but there doesn't seem to be a huge demand for old Stovebolt engines and three-speed manual transmissions.
The accompanying photos show the starting point of the Urban Suburban and, as some good background material, highlight some of the differences among the various years of the '47-54 GM trucks. Check this out and look for some more in-depth coverage next month.