TRIALS OF A FIRST TIME BUILDER
OR
(are you ever gonna finish that thing ??)

by
John Niolon

 

As far back as I can remember, I've loved trucks. I can't begin to count the hours I spent as a child, standing beside the road pumping my arm up and down as hard as I could, ( while this is a military signal for double time…it is the universal 8 year olds signal for blow your horn) trying to get the truckers to blow their shiny long air horns. We had a running contest between friends as to who could get the most horns blown in a day. It was strictly on the honor system and we all exaggerated our numbers. Also about that time, strip mining was a major business in our area. Literally hundreds of coal trucks were flying down the highways and county roads. They transported the thousands of tons of coal that the huge Peabody and Drummond shovels scooped from the earth twenty four hours a day, every day. In the summer we'd sit on a high bank overlooking the road they traveled and count them as they passed, feeling the hot breeze they stirred as they blasted past us, well over the speed and weight limits. We loved it.

As I grew into my teen years, I worked sometimes helping a neighbor harvest Christmas trees. He would let me drive his farm truck around the field and in the tree lot as he and his men loaded the trees on the bed of that old International pickup and the trailer that it towed. I was really something.. or so I thought. My sixteenth birthday brought a brand new drivers 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 pickup with a flathead engine , floor shift and "Smitty" mufflers. Homer would always just send us to the dump and stay behind… he knew how much we loved driving that old truck and hearing those "Smittys" talk when you downshifted to second. I think subconsciously that's when my love of old trucks began. I'd keep that old truck cleaned up for him… it was always washed and swept out , and the tires 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, pay the bills and buy the groceries, 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 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 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.

It took a lot of years and I owned a couple of Ford trucks that I worked at fixing up… larger engines, new paint… but really just cosmetic work, nothing really custom. After the kids were grown and gone and my financial situation had improved, I started my search. I scanned the want ads and car trader magazines. For about two years the only things I found were complete trucks that I couldn't afford to buy or the 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, riddled with bullet holes, a six inch long leaf pine sapling growing out of the engine compartment and two tons of scrap lumber and bean poles piled in the now non-existent bed. The rats, squirrels and wasps had made this their home and feeding ground for several decades, and they only wanted $3000.00 for it… it was a steal. Invariable the words… "This is a classic !" would work their way into the negotiating also.

Finally I found a old truck that I could afford… a '53 Ford in 'reasonable' condition… which means 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, just that I wanted to build it back. I started by dismantling it. This 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 tool would be a torch or chisel. One good resource was an impact wrench set to tighten. Cranked them down till they broke off. It worked well. It was a lot of work but I didn't care.. I had my truck and I was having fun. After it was 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 272 was scrap. The bed and tail gate were beyond repair, but everything else was useable. Seeing all these parts and pieces laying in piles, I knew right away that I needed a plan… badly. I tried to divide the random piles into associated piles. Knowing my memory, I decided to label everything, bag up the small stuff with tags or labels and box up the larger stuff with labels on the boxes. This took a lot longer than I would have imagined. The larger pieces, sheet metal, cab doors, hood, bumpers , etc were stored in a shed out back till I could get to them. I had been reading several old truck magazines for the past couple of years, but I knew now was the time I needed to decide just how I was going to build my truck back.

The decision to do a restoration versus a street truck buildup would determine my path. Restorations are beautiful things. But, to me they are much more work than building a custom truck. Everything must be perfect, exactly as the manufacturer built it…decals and paint marks and cloth covered wiring. It's much too hard and restrictive for me. I envy the dedication, patience and energy the restoration guys have. Or is it obsession? With a street truck you can customize as little or as much as you want. You can change engines, suspensions, interior and exterior details. I knew I wanted a truck that looked like a 1953 Ford F-100, but it was going to be my idea of a '53 F-100. So my first decision was that I wanted a customized '53 F-100 not a restoration. I've tried to put some thoughts together as I've worked on my truck that might help you with your project, especially if you're a rookie like me.

Item Number One - 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 and much frustration later.

So… I've got these piles of stuff. The decision to build a "street truck" changed the shape and sizes of my piles… ah.. collection of parts. I started looking at pictures in the magazines and trucks in the area to see what I really liked and what was just "ok". A picture started forming in my mind of MY truck. I took one idea from one truck and another idea from another. And, don't just look at your make and model truck, look at all the trucks you can. Yes… there are ideas on a Chevy that a Ford owner can use !! This part of the process was the fun part. I was only limited by my imagination. The next part was a reality check. I started putting prices with my plans.

Whoa, Dude !!!! PLAN- B !!! What do I HAVE to have and what can I live without. You should also factor into this equation if you've never done anything like this and your abilities are limited. So, what you "can't do" goes onto the list entered as 'purchased services' or 'bartered help'. Using my computer, I started a description of the finished product in an Excel 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…. Cost Once you have an idea of how you want to build, 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 … repeat … 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 project before. And, one more thing about cost… never 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. That was the next part of the puzzle. I had to organize this formidable project into bite size pieces. For instance, since everything piles up on the frame ..it seemed like the frame, the bottom, should be the starting point.

Write down a sequence of work or plan of attack. Start another spread sheet or notebook entry listing assemblies. # 1 - Frame and suspension… decisions about front and rear suspension are made here. # 2 - Engine and Transmission … this has to be worked in conjunction with #1. Next comes body work, what to fix and what to buy new. Then electrical, plumbing, interior, paint and on and on… many small pieces, but each one a manageable task. A computer is not absolutely necessary, although, it does make calculations much easier. A simple spiral wound 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. The new 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 p.c. and 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 or even to get help porting heads. 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 am 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 have been an invaluable source of information, ideas, and encouragement. They have always been there to help solve a problem, offer suggestions, give a little dig for some dumb thing done, but always in a helpful friendly way. These guys are great.

As you formulate your plan and run into what I call "dead spaces in my head", refer to your knowledge base.. ask your friends, or your internet contacts or find a book and research what others have done. Chances are that someone somewhere has hit the same dead space as you and figured out the sequence that works.

 

Item Number Four - Time This is a major consideration in any project…time. There is no "extra" time. You can't build it, you can't buy it, 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.

I wish my boss would pay me for the actual time a job takes, but I only had to work the number of hours I estimated it would take. The truck project is the same way… when my wife asks "How much longer are you going to work" (thinking I've got ANY kind of accurate idea) … I've gotten into a habit of making a quick guess then doubling it… then 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 for her business, it's hard to scratch out a few minutes much less an hour to work on my truck. I take vacation days to devote to it, but invariably something seems to fill them up also. It's very frustrating and sometimes you'll just want to forget it…it seeming like 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 around in that smooth ride.

When you first start this type 'rodsteration' 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 drive-able; you realize what is 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 is 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 is 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 after market accessories and parts are a wellspring of information. They are 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 the bookstores. There are literally hundreds of good publications written by experts that will give you the broad stroke or the precise detail you're looking for. Find a local club and join. When they are getting together to help a member work on a project, join in. You'll find they are 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 smart or talented enough to do that. I've had some really really expert help from some great guys. Some I paid for, some was for 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 are willing to take an off day or afternoon to do something for you, don't consider it a gift. The time and at very least the energy (lacking the talent) should be repaid. It's very rude (and should be illegal) to take advantage of someone that way. . Like I said before, I owe some folks big time. They all do know however that anything I have and any time I can offer is theirs for the asking. A couple have let me know …it better be !

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 Supernationals at Pigeon Forge, walking for hours while I poured over every detail of 600+ trucks. She's bought parts and pieces for me. In fact, she's a major financial contributor to my venture. But the most important part she's 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. She's even shown some interest in building a '40 Ford coupe or maybe a nice sedan for her… "After we get this truck finished". There is no way to calculate how much your mate's support will mean to getting it finished. If you're working against her/him or at odds about it , even if/when you finish it …it will 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 it affects in time and money. It's hard enough when EVERYONE wants it. One thing I look so forward to is driving it with my wife to Pigeon Forge that first time.

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…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, 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 one-half finished with my project. I have a rolling chassis that is complete. The body work 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 is installed and is in the process of being 'fitted' to the cab. Brake plumbing is almost complete, gas tank installed. I never had any idea that to 'build' a truck as a frame off project that you would actually assemble and disassemble the pieces at least 4 times. The cab has been on and off the frame at least 5 times, and the doors installed and aligned at least twice. The bed and rear fenders have been installed twice already and are back off now. The fiberglass front end was lifted on and off a minimum of three hundred times…. I swear.

I'm about 4 years into this venture with probably a couple more till 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 what ever 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. No one … 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 will 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 there. Now, granted they are still there when I close the door, but my attitude is adjusted to deal with them. 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 will 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 that way or sorta interested in a truck project and want my advice ? Go for it !! Don't wait .. start watching the want ads today.. hey !… I know where there's a beauty … it's sitting in this elderly lady's garage… it's only $5000.00. And, its "ready to be restored". It's a steal. This thing is "A CLASSIC". Give me a call and I'll give you her number.

 

Copyright © 2000 John Niolon, All International Rights Reserved. This document may not be copied or published without prior written consent of the author.

jniolon@bham.rr.com