Four-By-Four for Town and Country

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In the 1950s four-wheel-drive was not available from the factories, even though returned servicemen who had experienced it wanted it.

In 1955 General Motors (GM) released its Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks, the second generation since the end of the war. As with previous generations the 3100 model was the half-ton and a short bed; the 3600 was the three-quarter ton with a long bed. GMC and Chevrolet also released a model called the 3200, being a long-bed version with the thicker frame of the 3600 but only the suspension of the half-ton. Our subject vehicle here wears the 3200 badges but is in fact a 3100 model.

 

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While the GMC and Chevrolets look much the same, the GMCs were more squarely aimed at commercial customers and over the years have featured stronger brakes, suspension, and transmissions, as well as a slightly higher level of trim for the extra cost.

The half-ton truck here is a four-wheel-drive 1955 Chevrolet owned by Murray Robinson, a car enthusiast who has owned many American cars, following in the footsteps of his parents who have owned even more. Murray's first car was a 1952 Chevrolet which he still owns. He also owns a 1956 panel truck that featured in the Daily Driver section of a recent issue of New Zealand Classic Car.

The '55-'59 Task Force pickups and trucks, which also featured a panel van and station wagon in the range, have always been popular and downright cool. They were among the first to offer car-like interior comfort and room as well as stylish signatures like wraparound screens, funky headlight surrounds, and a toothy chromed grin.

YOU WANT FOUR-WHEEL WHAT?
What a lot of people don't know is that four-wheel drive was a rarity on earl US trucks and pickups. Sure, they had vehicles like the Dodge Power Wagons, a hangover from US military production during World War II. They were originally built for the rigours of the battlefield in deserts and muddy roads, much the same way the Jeep was.

Yet in the early 1950s this level of off-road capability was not available from the factories, even though returned servicemen who had experienced four-wheel drive wanted it at home on the farm. Initially Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet offered it as an aftermarket add-on, usually at the dealership or at a specialist. Ford outsourced this work to Marmon-Herrington (M-H) for conversions of its pickups using a Dana 44 closed-knuckle front axle. Ford only started offering four-wheel drive as a factory option from 1959.

Napco was good enough to supply a riveted panel for the dashboard so that owners would know which gear position was what, given the lack of knowledge of four-wheel drive at the time.

 

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Chevrolet had a similar arrangement with a company called Napco (Northwestern Auto Parts Company). Napco was a small upfitter from Minneapolis that began life in 1918. During World War Il it was contracted to provide four-wheel-drive systems, dump truck bodies, transmissions, winches, and other items so after the war it carried on specialising in providing a Powr-Pak 4x4 conversion for GMC and Chevrolet pickups to meet the new demand. It was sold to customers via GM dealers and Napco shops for US$995 in the 1940s. Seems pretty reasonable - but a whole new pickup truck cost around US$1500 back then.

The Powr-Pak was simple and easy to install utilising 85 per cent GM parts. A GMC or Chevrolet pickup truck could be converted to four-wheel drive by drilling four holes into the frame and modifying the front axles. The transfer case was connected to the truck's transmission.

FOUR-BY-FOUR BY NAPCO
Until the arrival of the second generation in 1955 only one ton and three-quarter ton GMC and Chevrolet trucks could be converted using the Napco kit. This was because the first-generation truck used a torque-tube-style driveshaft which wasn't easily adapted to the transfer case. The second-generation truck did without the torque tube set-up and so Napco conversion kits could be applied to the new half-tons too.

GMC and Chevrolet offered the half-ton kit at dealerships in 1956 and by 1957 the entire kit could be installed at the dealership. In 1960 the pickup truck was redesigned to include four-wheel drive as standard from the factory. Napco continued to produce conversion kits for large trucks but it was bought out by the Dana Axle Company in the 1960s. Four-wheel-drive Ford Broncos, International Scouts, and Chevrolet Blazers followed soon after.

 

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Murray and his late father bought this truck, a half-ton stepside body style with a wheel base of 114 inches, from a chap in Wellington in 2014. It had recently come into New Zealand from the US where it had been stored in a barn for over 30 years. The brakes were rebuilt and the 15x8 aftermarket rims fitted with 32x11.5 Falken Wildpeak A/T tyres.

Murray decided to keep the light patina. He sanded the truck down and covered it using a two-pack clear coat with a flattening additive.

At some stage the original engine had been swapped out for a 350 Chev small block with M/T valve covers and a 600 Edelbrock carb and intake that delivers a healthy level of power.

The engine is largely stock with a Chevrolet high-energy ignition (HEI) distributor and some rusty but trustworthy headers.

The transmission is a heavy-duty synchromesh four-speed on the floor along with the four-wheel-drive selector. The rear diff has a 4.11:1 ratio and it is believed that the front diff is a modified version of the same. Both needed to be tough as nails to cope with the rough and tumble owners threw at it off the beaten track. There are free-wheeling front hubs typical of the technology of the time for engaging four-wheel drive.

Apparently when it landed in New Zealand, Customs smashed out the wooden deck looking for snakes, drugs, insects, or other unwanted immigrants. None was found.

Murray is a seasoned panel and paint man and runs The Shed Panelbeaters so he was well-placed to upgrade the panels and paint on the truck. Murray removed the stepside and had the chassis blasted. He then painted the chassis black and friend Mike Khull cut out and fitted the new timber for the deck. While getting ready for VINing, Bim Oxnam removed some dubious house wiring from under the dash and in the engine bay and replaced it with proper motor vehicle wiring.

Murray repaired some rust, installed seat belts, and fitted new mufflers to make the most of its rumbling V8. Although Murray makes his living from spray painting and body preparation he decided to leave this vehicle as is, in a gentle patina. To do this properly meant that he had to sand the truck down and cover it with a two-pack clear coat with a flattening additive to kill the shine and protect the patina.

The seats and hood lining were completed by Ross at Foxton Auto and Marine Interiors.

 

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PASSING MODESTLY
Murray had it street legal by mid January 2015. It cruises nicely at 60mph and has enough poke to pull out and pass but with the modesty that's appropriate to sitting tall in the saddle on suspension designed 70 years ago. Last year Murray's nephew Dominic Cooper rebuilt the rear diff.

Murray is not aware of any other Napco 1955 Chevrolet pickups in New Zealand and even in the good ole US of A they are rare. These trucks were built to work hard in rugged country. When they were pensioned off, they were either scrapped or bought second-hand for more hard treatment by hunters and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts of the time.

This truck is in great original condition, with its original Napco parts still on and the various add-ons emblazoned as such. Napco was good enough to supply a riveted panel for the dashboard so that owners would know which gear position was what, given the lack of knowledge of four-wheel drive at the time.

 

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Its working interior and exterior means that Murray doesn't have to worry about it getting scratched or dirty. However, he has been working on a number of film sets in and around Wellington of late and some of his American, vehicles have been used to suggest American settings. The truck has just been used in Ti West's upcoming horror movie X.

Murray doesn't intend to change anything on the truck but he would like to thank his wife Sue for allowing him to have so many cool cars and trucks, and a car shed bigger than their house.

 

Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine.
Read more New Zealand Classic Car content here on themotorhood.com.

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