As far back as I can remember, I've loved trucks. As I grew into my teen years, I worked helping a neighbor harvest Christmas trees. He would let me drive his old International farm truck around the field and in the tree lot as he and his men loaded the trees. I was really something, or so I thought. My sixteenth birthday brought a driver's license and freedom like I had never known before. We had a neighbor who was retired and was always good about paying us kids a few bucks to do things around his house. We would clean out the garage or the gutters, clear brush, or paint the fence. I always tried to get the jobs that required a trip to the dump. He had a neat old '48 Ford F-1 with a Flathead, floor-shift, and "Smitty" mufflers. Homer would always just send us to the dump and stay behind. He must have known how much we loved driving that old truck and hearing those "Smittys" talk when we downshifted to second. I think subconsciously that's when my love for old trucks began.
I'd keep that old truck clean for him; it was always washed and swept out, and the tires were scrubbed clean. This was decades before the shiny tire stuff and the detailing supplies of today; we used Ajax cleaner, Tide detergent, and Brillo pads. Several years later after I was married and struggling to raise two kids and pay the bills, Homer offered me that old truck for free. It wasn't running anymore and needed a good deal of repair. I wanted it so badly I could taste it, but I didn't have the time to fix it or the room to keep it. I couldn't afford to do the work, pay the insurance, or buy the parts. I was having a hard enough time keeping the junk I already had running. Groceries and kids were more important. I've always regretted telling him no, and I was determined from that point to some day have an old truck to rework.
Over the years I owned a couple of Ford trucks that I worked at fixing up, but it was really just cosmetic work, nothing really custom. After the kids were grown and gone and my financial situation had improved, I started my search. For about two years the only things I found were complete trucks that I couldn't afford or trucks advertised as "ready for a restoration." This usually meant that granddaddy's truck had been sitting out behind the barn for 30 years with no windows, was riddled with bullet holes, had a pine sapling growing out of the engine compartment, had two tons of scrap lumber piled in the now non-existent bed, and they only wanted $3,000 for it. Also, inevitably, the words, "This is a classic," would work their way into the negotiating.
Finally, I found an old truck that I could afford, a '53 F-100 in "reasonable" condition, which meant all the parts were there or close by. I paid my $400, winched it up on the trailer, hauled it home, and unloaded it. I didn't really have a plan at that point, I just knew that I wanted to build it. I started by dismantling it, which was a major task in itself. Every nut, bolt, or screw (that was remaining) was rusted tight or so badly damaged by the elements that the only removal tools that worked were a torch or chisel. It was a lot of work, but I didn't care; I had my truck, and I was having fun.
After it was in several piles on my driveway, I did a survey of what was salvageable. I knew I wanted a new engine and transmission, so the old Y-block was scrapped. The bed and tailgate were beyond repair, but the rest of the sheetmetal was useable. Seeing all these parts and pieces laying in piles, I knew right away that I was in need of a plan. I tried to divide the random piles into associated piles. Knowing the capabilities of my memory, I decided to label everything, bag up the small stuff with tags, and box up the larger stuff. This took a lot longer than I would have imagined. The larger pieces--fenders, doors, hood, bumpers, etc.--were stored in a shed out back 'til I could get to them.
I had been reading CLASSIC TRUCKS magazines for the past couple of years and seen several trucks that I liked, but now I needed to decide just how I was going to build my own truck. The decision to do a restoration versus a street rod buildup would determine my path. Restorations are beautiful things, but to me they are a lot more work than building a custom truck. Everything must be perfect and exactly as the manufacturer built it, such as decals, paint marks, and cloth-covered wiring. It's much too hard and restrictive. I envy the dedication, patience, and energy (or obsession?) the restoration guys have. With a street rod build, you can customize as little or as much as you want. I knew I wanted a truck that looked like a '53 F-100, but it was going to be my idea of how one should look. So I made my first decision; it would be customized. I've tried to put some thoughts together as I worked on my truck that might help fellow gearheads, especially if they're rookies like me.
ITEM NUMBER ONE--GET A PLAN
You need to decide what you want to build. Without this piece of the puzzle, the rest won't fit together. Don't say, "I'll think about that later." Think about it now! It will save you time, money, acetylene gas, and much frustration later.
Now that I have a plan, what do I do with these piles of stuff? The decision to build a "street truck" changed the shape and sizes of my piles (I mean collection of parts). I started looking at pictures in the magazines again to see what I really liked and what was just "okay." A picture started forming in my mind of MY truck. I took one idea from one truck and another idea from another. I made sure not to just look at '53-56 F-100s; I looked at all the trucks I could. Yes, there are ideas on a Chevy that a Ford owner can use (although they may not admit where they found it). I was only limited by my imagination. The next part was a reality check; I started putting prices with my plans.
Whoa! Time for Plan B! Time to figure out what I had to have and what I could live without. You should factor this equation if you've never done anything like this and your abilities are limited. So, what you "can't do" enters the list as "purchased services" or "bartered help." I started a description of the finished product in a spreadsheet estimating cost and other factors. When I looked at the completed list, I was totally blown away. What had I started here and how would I ever finish it? To say I was disillusioned would be like saying the Grand Canyon was a ditch.
ITEM NUMBER TWO--BUDGET
Once you have an idea of how you want to build your truck, sit down and come up with a realistic estimate of the cost. Heed the word "realistic." It's amazing how guessing and research can differ at the bottom line. And if you sit down with a detailed list of parts, pieces, and work to be done, your estimate will be considerably more accurate. You can ask friends, use the Internet and vendor catalogs for resources, or talk to others who have built custom cars and trucks. Don't let the size of the total project scare you. Think of it as a lot of smaller, less-expensive projects. It will save your sanity, especially if you've never tried this type of project before. And, one more thing about cost, never try to calculate your hours into the equation. Even at three cents an hour, it will drive the price through the roof.
ITEM NUMBER THREE--SEQUENCE OF WORK
I've had enough experience with complicated computer projects at work to realize that it needed to be broken down into smaller tasks. I had to organize this formidable project into bite-size pieces. For instance, since everything is built up from the frame, it seemed like the frame--the bottom--should be the starting point.
Write down a sequence of work or a plan of attack. Start another spreadsheet or notebook entry listing assemblies. Number 1-Frame and Suspension (decisions about front and rear suspension are made here). Number 2-Engine and Transmission (this has to be worked in conjunction with number 1). Next comes bodywork, what to fix, and what to buy new. Then you need to think about electrical, plumbing, interior, paint, and on and on. That may seem like a lot, but each one is a manageable task. A computer is not absolutely necessary, although, it does make calculations much easier. A simple spiral-bound notebook will suffice.
This brings up another point I didn't mention earlier. When you're disassembling your beauty, if you're not sure you'll remember the sequence of assembly or how something is wired, draw a sketch with written details. Photographs are great also. Tape them to a page and write down measurements, details on how things fit together, etc. Digital cameras can be purchased reasonably, and they do a good job on "memory retention." Plus, you have the advantage of being able to load them on your computer, share them, or print as many copies as you want. I've also used digital pictures to show a vendor a problem I needed a solution to. Whatever your method, do something! Two or three years down the road, you'll be glad you did--especially if you have a memory as intermittent as mine.
I'm fortunate enough to have some good friends that have answered a gazillion questions and helped me tremendously with fabrication and bodywork. They offered a lot of good ideas, asked questions that I hadn't even considered, and have worked as hard or harder on this project than I have. I owe lots of favors. One of my most able and knowledgeable resources has been the Ford Truck Enthusiasts Internet Group (www.ford-trucks.com). This collection of experts, dabblers, rookies (me), and Ford truck lovers has been an invaluable source of information, ideas, and encouragement.
ITEM NUMBER FOUR--TIME
Time is a major consideration in any project. There is no "extra" time. You can't build it, you can't buy it, and sometimes you think you can steal it, but you pay for it somewhere else. "Ya gets what ya gets," and that's all. Whatever you estimate to be an adequate amount of time to complete a job, double it. Then when you add it all up, it will only take twice that long to complete it. When my wife asks ,"How much longer are you going to work on that truck?" (thinking that I've got ANY kind of accurate idea), I've gotten into a habit of making a quick guess and then doubling it. I'm sure she doubles that figure and makes her plans accordingly. Besides, late-night dinners are romantic, aren't they?
ITEM NUMBER FIVE--FRUSTRATION
As my project sits in the garage, I walk past it doing other necessary chores. I'm itching to stop what I'm doing and just hook up the brake cables; it'll only take a couple of hours. But I don't. With a full-time job and my off days promised to my wife, it's hard to scratch out a few minutes, much less an hour to work on my truck. I take vacation days to devote time to it, but inevitably something seems to fill them up as well. It's very frustrating, and sometimes you'll just want to forget it, figuring that you'll never finish. Don't! The time will be found eventually. You don't need to play golf today; you need to work on your truck. Think about how badly you want to drive it.
When you first start this type of "rodstoration," you want to hurry up and get it done. Your impatience and enthusiasm are pushing you hard. But after a while, when reality snatches you up by the collar and things start to take shape and actually look like something drivable, you realize what's involved in time and money and your thinking starts to change. You decide to do it "just right." You're a little more patient. You'll still get frustrated, but you're willing to wait and save the money to buy that part that's way out of your budget or add that modification that will take so much longer but will make the whole truck that much better--in your eyes at least. There's a lot of ego to be dealt with here. Whether or not we want to admit it, this truck will be an extension of our personality. Enthusiasm might get it built, but pride will keep it perfect.
ITEM NUMBER SIX--TECHNICAL SUPPORT
As I mentioned earlier, there are several sources of technical support available for you. The vendors who sell aftermarket accessories and parts are a wellspring of information. They're not only very familiar with their specific products and how they apply to different models, but many are builders themselves, and I've never found one who wouldn't share his knowledge. The Internet and its user groups are invaluable; they offer practical solutions and experience that's priceless. Don't forget the library and bookstore. Find a local club and join. When they're getting together to help a member work on a project, join in. You'll find they're much more open and willing to share time and talent with one who does the same. You might only be able to hold a wrench or a part while it's being bolted on, but it needed holding and you were there. Most will do the same for you.
I haven't done every single thing to my truck. I'm not nearly as smart or talented enough to do that. I've had some expert help from some great guys. Some I paid for and some of it was free, but every hammer blow, weld, and grind was perfect. It's very important to understand the value of someone else's time and talent. If they're willing to take a day off or afternoon to do something for you, don't consider it a gift. The time and, at very least, the energy should be repaid. It's very rude (and should be illegal) to take advantage of someone that way. I owe some folks big time. I make sure, however, they all know that anything I have and any time I can offer is theirs for the asking.
ITEM NUMBER SEVEN--EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
On a scale of importance, this one is probably higher than technical support. One particular person has been very important in my project: my wife. Her initial reservation about my commitment to this has faded quickly, and now she's quite a supporter. She has endured several trips to the SuperNationals and walked for hours while I poured over every detail of 600-plus trucks. She has bought parts and pieces for me. In fact, she's a major financial contributor. But the most important part she has played is supporting what I wanted to do. We go to truck shows and cruise-ins, and she's very vocal about what she wants and doesn't want to see on "our" truck. I've learned to listen carefully to her, as she has much better taste than I do. There's no way to calculate how much your mate's support will mean in getting it finished. If you're working against her/him or at odds about it, even if/when you finish it, it'll be a sore spot and you'll never really get the enjoyment you'll deserve from it. The commitment of time and money is something that must be agreeable to everyone.
ITEM NUMBER EIGHT--PATIENCE
I've had several setbacks. I've started some things that I later decided I didn't want to do. So I'd burn it off and grind it smooth and start over. I've also tried to do some things that were far beyond my capability or patience level. So I'd stop and seek some assistance (sometimes having to wait a while for someone else's schedule to clear enough to help me). My old truck has taught me so much. One of the most important things is patience. It's never been one of my best qualities, but I quickly learned that quality work and perfection takes time. I've increased my technical and mechanical knowledge a hundred-fold, but more than that, my confidence in my ability has increased. I'm willing to try things now that I'd never have even considered a few years ago. That in itself was worth all the work, frustration, and problems.
I'm about half-finished with my project. I have a rolling chassis that's complete. The bodywork is finished on the cab. A new bed, tailgate, and rear fenders are in the garage waiting to be installed. A fiberglass tilt front end was installed and is in the process of being "fitted" to the cab. I never had any idea that to "build" a truck as a frame-off project, that you would actually have to assemble and disassemble the pieces at least four times. The cab has been on and off the frame at least five times, and the doors installed and aligned at least twice. The fiberglass front end has been lifted on and off a minimum of 300 times, I swear.
I'm about four years into this venture with probably a couple more 'til it's on the road. If I had it to do again, knowing what I know now, I might have borrowed the money and bought a complete truck. I could then make whatever changes I wanted as time allowed and be driving it now. Nah, this is the only way to do it: make every decision, plan every move, and build it just like you want it. Because when you're done, no one will have a truck just like yours.
I've said before that considering the speed I'm working, my new grandson will have to help me finish this project. I've decided that would be just fine; it'll be his truck one day. I think it's been one of the best things I've ever attempted; I've grown in a lot of ways. It's actually been therapeutic. When I'm in the garage working on my truck, all of the problems and worries that wait outside that door stay outside. Now, granted they're still there when I close the door, but my attitude is adjusted to deal with them later. I've made some really good friends on whom I know I can depend, and who know the same of me. All and all, it will be much more than just a truck when it's complete. I think it'll be right behind my marriage to this truck-loving (or tolerating) woman and the birth of my kids and grandson as one of the best experiences in my life.
So if you're leaning towards a truck project and want my advice: go for it! Don't wait; start watching the want ads today. Hey, in fact, I just may know where there's a beauty. It's sitting in this elderly lady's garage and is only $5,000. And, it's "ready to be restored." It's a steal. It's a "CLASSIC." Give me a call, and I'll give you her number.