Some people can look for years for a car that ticks all of the boxes and still never find one. Dean Webb is a little more fortunate than that. He and partner-come-wife Leanne have enjoyed good times with cars over the years, including a Model A roadster pickup, ’64 Olds convertible and an assortment of veedubs. None however were of any real use when it came to their interest in retro fashion markets, where they trade under the guise of Bluebird Retro Rags. It was very much a case of work or play.
“I’ve always loved 70s and 80s vans, and I love 50s cars, so it made sense to look for a 1950s van,” reasons Dean. “I looked for about 12 months. There are very few here, and even in the USA they’re not as easy to find, used and abused, most got destroyed.”
As fate would have it, he chanced upon an example at Yamba Rod Run in 2013, well a photo of one to be precise. “Steve at Borderline Imports had imported it to be his shop truck. It was exactly what I was looking for, we picked it up a week later.”
What Dean and Leanne purchased was a 1955 Chevy panel truck. Now before you take pen to paper to advise us that this is a ’54 model, Dean confirms that it’s actually a 1955 ‘First Series’, essentially a run out of the ’54 model before the all new ’55 trucks were released in March of that year. He likes the fact that it features the one-year-only ’54 grille, and being tagged a ’55 model makes it just that little bit more special.
Given that the truck was a driver, Dean and Leanne set a firm deadline rather than languish with a long term production. The target – their wedding day, scheduled for early June, just seven months away. Needless to say the rebuild began immediately.
The panel was already packing a tri-carb blue flame motor and Muncie four speed. The nostalgic value of that equipment wasn’t lost on Dean, but for this project a V8 and auto were preferred. The cool combo was tucked away for a potential roadster project down the track whilst he bought a decent 350/350 from a Camaro. The gearbox was sent out for a rebuild whilst he and Denis Reginato at DKR Automotive freshened up the engine. The brakes, steering and stock suspension were also given the once over at DKR, mostly in the afternoon after work, Denis generously allowing Dean to use his shop and hoist for the dirty work. Aside from air shocks in the rear, the suspension is stock. “I left the factory I beam in place, that’s how they were driven in the fifties and that’s how I wanted to drive it,” reasons Dean.
“We thought about leaving the truck as it was, six cylinder and patina, but then decided to do it resto rod style, making it look original as we could with a modern driveline. I researched the V8 conversion, to do it properly is not easy. To get the motor to sit low in the engine bay and not modify the tunnel, you have to move it off centre, then there’s no room for exhaust, even block huggers wouldn’t fit. There was a lot more to it than we thought. Every time we fixed something we’d find something else, but it all fits nicely now.”
He glazes over when he recollects about the body prep on the Chevy. “Over my Christmas break I completely stripped the body back to bare metal, which took over a week of hand rubbing and grinding,” he sighs. Fortunately there were no surprises, all he found was one small spot of rust, although the sheet metal on the cargo doors had been hammered.
It was here that Dean called upon another friend, Jim Vanarey. “He’s a great panel beater, I’d go there in the afternoons after work, he taught me a lot,” he says. Armed with his own sheet metal skills and Jim’s advice, Dean reskinned the barn doors and made numerous repairs around the body, before Jim laid down the paint. The coffee and cream combination could almost be factory, but the boys tipped some colour fleck into the coffee pot for some extra sparkle when the light is right.
The devil is in the detail, so those external trimmings that weren’t replaced with new parts were thoroughly renewed. Equipment like the truck style mirrors, visor and artillery wheels with trims and caps are great choices.
The truck had been carpeted and trimmed in the USA, so dealing with the interior was one of the easier parts of the project. Dean did add the plywood panels and a selection of neat accessories, like the Samuel Adams Lager beer tap handle which is now a shift knob. He made his own swan neck shift lever, sleeved the column in stainless and got everything working again thanks to a rewire and TLC.
The story has a happy ending, Dean made it to the church on time, registering the delivery just 48 hours before its scheduled appearance at Coolangatta this year. His efforts paid off, not only in admiring glances, but also in having a classic that really does tick all the boxes. Kudos to Denis, Jim, and friend Graeme who was there with his tow truck whenever the van was in need of transportation.
“It drives like a 50s truck with an I beam,” smiles Dean, “but it still drives great. I drive it to work all the time.”