Your narrator grew up in rural Michigan, where livestock outnumber people tenfold, and every household has at least one truck. My family wasn’t particularly brand loyal, but our trucks were always made in the USA, and were always single-cab bench-seat rubber-floor-mat work truck specials. Our trucks, be they Ram, Silverado, or F-150, had an AM/FM radio, maybe a tape deck if you were lucky, a pair of tinny speakers in the doors, a trio of safety belts, and an American V8 engine powering the rear wheels. Even four-wheel-drive was too fancy for our old farm. These trucks were used and abused, hammering through the fields, hauling hay, sheep, firewood, etc., but they were a necessary part of our daily operation.
What Trucks Mean To Me
Language shifts and changes to fit. It is occasionally possible for a word to completely have its meaning changed to be an antonym of its original meaning. Remember that decade or so when when ‘bad’ actually meant ‘good’? The connotation of the word ‘truck’ has wound its way through a strange journey from ‘inexpensive utilitarian transport, often on par with farming implements, used primarily to transport goods’ to the contemporary definition ‘exorbitantly priced luxury vehicle, often with all of the modern tech and seating for 6, used primarily to commute to an office building’. The trucks of now are too large, overpowered, and far too expensive.
Thanks to consumer demands for leather and premium audio, as well as legislative demands for active safety tech, the average price of a full-size pickup truck these days is in excess of $50,000. Where the truck was once an American institution, manufacturers have pushed prices well beyond what the average person can afford. Furthermore, if you’re spending fifty-grand on your truck, how likely are you to treat your truck as a tool to get the job done, rather than luxury barges to ferry your entire clan across town, usually with nothing in the bed.
In preparation for the launch of the new Silverado, Chevrolet invited us down to Texas to check out their ‘100 years of Chevy Trucks’ event. As part of the event, we were given ride-alongs in race-prepared autocross trucks, we had a chance to ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. a question, we got to drive the new Tahoe RST performance SUV, and we were in the crowd to witness the unveiling of the 2019 Chevy full-size. All of that paled in comparison to one particular aspect of the program; Chevrolet pulled a few trucks out of their Heritage Collection and we were afforded an opportunity to get behind the wheel.
The quartet of vintage trucks on hand perfectly exemplify what trucks have, until recently, meant to us.
The 1926 Chevrolet Superior X Stake Truck
This is ‘truck’ at its most pure and unaltered form. This Superior X was only about 10 years removed from motor cars overtaking horse-drawn carriage as America’s primary transport, and in many off-the-beaten places they were still quite common, especially for agricultural use.
This truck made hauling supplies a slightly more rapid affair. Unladen it can probably hit about 45 miles per hour, but we were told by the heritage collection folks that they aren’t allowed to take it to that speed because it starts shaking itself apart. Oh, and by the way, the truck only has a pair of drum brakes on the rear axle. Okay then, 30 MPH is just fine, thanks.
The single-carburetor side-valve 4-cylinder engine under the split folding hood makes a whopping 35 horsepower, and the floor shifted 3-speed transmission was cutting edge tech for the time. Even more opulent, this particular model was fitted with optional electric start. Even in Texas, the December cold has crept in, and the optional heater doesn’t seem to be doing much in the truck’s doorless cabin. Even loaded up with all of those options, this truck was just $550 when new (which equates to about $7600 today, when inflation is accounted for).
This Chevrolet has far more in common with a farming implement than it does a modern truck.
The 1956 Chevrolet 3100 Series
“I’ve worked at the Heritage Collection a long time, and this is maybe the second time I’ve seen this truck taken anywhere,” says Louis, the ultra-low-mile truck’s assigned handler for the day. This a pretty special occasion, then. From new this black beauty has been driven just 7,000 miles. It remains unrestored, but Louis said they occasionally replace old seals or rubber brake lines as needed.
This is, in our opinion, the most stylish truck Chevrolet has ever built, and that’s for a reason. In the early 1950s Chevrolet learned that their trucks were, by and large, being sold to small business owners. When the 1955 truck was designed, they asked their customers what they wanted. Many of them felt that a truck with advanced, modern, and eye-catching passenger-car-inspired design would help them to promote their services. You’ll find a lot of these old trucks with hand-lettered business names and telephone numbers on the doors, and that’s by design.
The spread between this 3100 and the Superior X is astonishing. Huge progress was made in the 30 years separating the two. More than just the fact that the 3100 Series has doors, it’s incredibly comfortable, like cruising a sofa down the road. Granted, the drive route to test these trucks was short, only a few miles at best, but with a stunning 162-horsepower small block V8 under the hood acceleration is slightly more expedient than glacial.
The 1971 Chevrolet Cheyenne Half-ton
Floaty, bouncy, and vague are good descriptors for this truck. The steering wheel takes your inputs as suggestions and metes out a calm instruction to the front wheels to turn when they feel like it. You have to treat this truck as though it is an aircraft carrier. The throttle pedal is similarly lethargic in providing response from the engine through the chunky, slow-shifting automatic back to the rear wheels.
By modern standards it is an objectively worse driving experience than anything sold today, but were it not for that wave of nostalgia rushing over us with the first click of the driver’s door button. This is the kind of truck we grew up on, and the pure simplicity is endearing. The olive-painted dashboard matches one of the two exterior tones, and likely a Sears Coldspot refrigerator hauled home in the bed matched, too.
The seat is an overstuffed couch cushion that would take years of sitting to permanently imprint our bum. This low-mile truck has barely been worn in, and while not exactly uncomfortable, the seat springs still held enough of their original sproing to force our legs up into the bottom of the large rimmed steering tiller with every dip or crack in the road surface. The truck angles slightly forward, just begging for a bit of weight over those rear wheels. This Cheyenne was meant for hauling, and not much else.
The 1978 Chevrolet Silverado 4×4 Regular Cab
This is the pinnacle of truck. Even through the late 1970s, most trucks were two-wheel driven affairs, so a four-wheeler pickup like this Silverado was a specialty. This particular truck has been modified in a way that many of us would love to have it in our own garage.
Chevrolet Performance built this truck for the SEMA show back in 2013, and unlike most of the gaudy pseudo monster trucks they show off there, this tasteful truck cuts a practical figure. After living its life as a well cared for farm truck in Wisconsin, this 4×4 was treated to a full frame-off restoration. There are very few deviations from stock with this truck, excepting the choice of drivetrain – now powered by a 5.3L E-Rod V8 crate motor mated to a modern 4L70E automatic – and a 2-inch suspension lift. It looks mean and meaty with a set of 16×8 wheels on all four corners.
With very few miles since the restoration, this truck felt showroom fresh with tight suspension and steering no more numb than it likely would have been new. There’s still a bit of bounce over road imperfections, but it’s not nearly as floaty as the 1971 felt.
At partial throttle, you’d never guess this truck is anything but late 70s iconic pickup, but as soon as foot is matted into the loud pedal, hold on. With the E-Rod’s 336 horsepower available, this mega truck will scoot a fair sight better than it ever would have from new. In 1978, the most powerful small block available in this line of truck would have been the 400ci with a whopping 185 horses.
Progress is good, up to a point, but it feels like current production trucks are being made bigger and ostensibly better for the sake of ever bigger towing numbers. Chevrolet makes a point of noting that their Duramax HD trucks now have a bonkers 910 lb/ft of torque, and a hellacious price tag to go along with it. Does anyone really need a $70,000 truck with a 20,000 pound towing capacity?
This modern engine in a vintage platform feels like what trucks should have become. The average truck owner does not need anything more than this perfectly capable four wheel drive pickup. Like the majority of sports car owners that will never set rubber to race track, we’re convinced that the majority of truck buyers will never haul or tow anything close to what their truck is capable of, and would be perfectly happy with a right-sized moderate truck like this one.
Chevrolet may have brought us to Texas in an effort to convince us how great their new truck is going to be. By putting us at the wheel of some of their greatest hits, though, we’re now more convinced than ever that buying an old truck is the right move. For the average new truck price, you could buy a fleet of old work trucks, and an E-Rod LS3 for good measure.
[Overhead “100” photo supplied by Chevrolet – All other photos copyright Bradley C. Brownell/Redusernab]