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The Summer of 1966: The Big Yellow Truck

Hi all, I’m back, with a tale from my past. Summer is definitely here and I’m reminded of one particular summer that will forever remain in my mind. Because of its length, I’m breaking the story into a three-part post. Hope you enjoy and will stick around for all three sections. As always, thanks for stopping by.

The Summer of 1966: The Big Yellow Truck

Like many guys in the 1960s, my two older brothers and I were car junkies. Mention of four wheels, cubic inches, horsepower, and style earned our undivided attention. 1965 marked my sixteenth birthday, a milestone highlighted by obtaining my driver’s license. No longer confined to passenger status, I felt liberated. Adventures awaited me on the open road. The following year I shared the experience of revitalizing a worn-out parcel van with my brother Gene. 1966 was the more memorable year.

The fun began one overcast, morning––another wish-the-sun-would-come-out kind of start to a chilly but hopeful spring day in Affton, Missouri. Gene later informed me that he and his friends, Bob and Tom, had been cruising around in Tom’s 1955 Ford, trying to find something to do that involved the least amount of trouble or expense. When they spotted a well-past-retired and neglected Mac Tool truck parked in a driveway on Heege Rd., inspiration struck and Tom pulled over. The three pals ogled the relic and agreed that with some serious elbow grease, the former workhorse would make a great camper––if it was for­­ sale.

Following a brief but convincing exchange with the owner, the ambitious trio purchased the 1946 Studebaker parcel van for $25.00. The dialogue that followed went something like this:

“What about a key?” Bob asked.

“Lost both of ‘em,” the previous owner replied.

“How do we crank the starter and fire it up without a key?” Tom inquired.

“Connect the battery cable, then clip those jumper wires together under the dash and see if it’ll crank over. If not, put it in gear, let it roll down the driveway and pop the clutch––but be ready to hit the brakes.”

“Where’s the battery?” Gene said.

With his driveway about to be vacated, the elderly man holding the cash smiled. “Battery’s under the floor panel there. Starter’s that button next to it––to the right, below the accelerator.”

A successful bump-start ritual later, Tom followed Gene and Bob as the pair drove the big van to our house on Rambler Dr., which, to the surprise of my mother––and father once he arrived from work––had been appointed its new home. But that scenario was nothing new. Antique cars had a habit of finding a temporary residence at our place, all of them somehow connected to Gene––until the total gearhead sprouted within me. But that’s another tale.

I first spotted the truck through our living room window. The homely beast in our driveway stood at least ten-feet tall, by twelve to fourteen-feet long and bore badly-faded, yellow-orange paint––a big steel box with rounded corners and two sliding doors on wheels. On the driver’s side, a spotlight poked off-kilter from the roof. Centered below the huge, split-glass windshield, an elongated, 1930s-style metal grill grabbed my attention. Single round headlamps bugged from either side. Twenty-inch, split-rim truck tires supported the entire collection of––well…for the moment I reserved judgment and thought, Wow, that thing’s kinda cool, I guess. Wonder what the hell they’re doing in there? And what do they plan to do with that beast? If it’s another vehicle to plug the back yard, or jockey around in the driveway, Dad ain’t gonna be happy.

Gene and Bob scrambled inside the old van and finally remembered how to shut it off as I approached. Once the engine jerked to a halt, I inquired, “So…?”

“Cool isn’t it?” Gene replied. “Once we trash all the shelving, there’ll be plenty of space. Clean it up and paint it, and TA-DA––a low-budget camper.”

“Uh-huh. Should be fun––especially after Dad gets home.”

Though tarnished by hare-brained ambition, Gene’s logic behind the purchase allowed me to accept the geriatric Studebaker as a variation in the line-up of vehicular projects that we’d––he’d––started, but for one reason or another––usually limited cash flow––never quite finished. On the other hand, I hadn’t invested a penny and had nothing to lose. So, why not? Plus, there were three owners involved in this automotive project. It actually bore promise.

Because the Studebaker bunked at our house, and because Gene was the only member of the aspiring threesome who, by turning twenty-one that year had been chronologically deemed responsible, the trio agreed that the vehicle title should be registered in Gene’s name. Of course, that decision retained the understanding of trilateral ownership and the purchase price of $8.33 each, plus sales tax and license fees––if the project got that far.

After Dad came home that evening and the dust settled over the whats, whos, and whys regarding the truck’s new home, the work began. The first priority: strip the van bare inside.

Gutting the Studebaker’s interior of the many display shelf remnants from its tool sales era produced a substantial pile of bent metal and splintered wood. But we could clean that up tomorrow, right? More importantly, we needed to consider a scheme to convert the truck from vacated tool warehouse to spiffy camper. Rain that night diverted all focus to a more urgent problem––multiple roof leaks, which also explained the musty odor.

Once the sun returned, Gene spent several afternoons scraping, sanding, and applying a half dozen––maybe more––fiberglass body repair kits around the roof’s center panel before the ceiling was declared watertight. In the meantime, Tom busied himself nosing around the electrics inside of the van, while Bob and I applied bright-silver paint to the wheels, grill and bumpers that simulated chrome plating. Not as shiny as chrome, perhaps, but better than rusty gray and orange. Content with our accomplishment, we began scrawling assorted graphics on the outside body panels. Mom, Dad and some of our neighbors frowned upon our slightly off-color illustrations. But, hey, we were young and impetuous. They were funny to us. Besides, our artwork would be concealed once a color scheme for the truck body was realized––and enough money pooled to buy the paint.

While awaiting that decision, the non-functional ignition switch and the accessories it operated became the next priority. Delving into this next phase, anyone familiar with automotive repair––and probably a good many that aren’t––will no doubt wonder, Why didn’t you just buy a new ignition switch? Looking back, other than the limited cash flow issue, I have absolutely no idea. Replacement, generic switches couldn’t have been that expensive. Then again, maybe we were plagued by the too-easy-where’s-the-challenge-in-that syndrome. Regardless, toggle switches were accumulated from numerous sources. Items of necessity––and some not––were wired or rewired and obtained power from the voltage regulator’s battery terminal. Not the wisest idea but it worked. The individual toggles were attached to a 1X8X12 inch board that became the master control panel, mounted to the driver’s left. Sitting in the driver’s seat simulated the role of airline pilot, with banks of switches that had to be flipped or checked before takeoff. Of course, with no key to operate the original ignition switch, one of the toggles had to wake up the ignition system––which also meant that anyone entering the truck that knew how to read could flick the appropriate toggle switch and drive away. Taking into consideration the van’s overall appearance, plus its unconventional method of starting, we never considered that issue as a serious threat.

Between repair sessions, test drives in the old Studebaker became the norm. Each incident was usually a challenge. Although most wiring issues were remedied and the battery held a steady charge, like many parts on the old-timer, the starter motor remained tired and couldn’t spin the engine fast enough to fire it up. Bump-starting (rolling downhill, in gear and popping the clutch) rotated the power plant with enough force to convince it to run, and became another routine before each brief adventure.

Once ignited, the engine performed well. However, unless you were on an incline, you didn’t dare stall it or shut it off. Bump-starting also led to the discovery of another feature: Our new toy could “pop wheelies.” Yep, being a heavy-duty truck, its gear ratios were so low that when the clutch was released too quickly in first gear, the front wheels momentarily left the ground. Proud of that realization, we often demonstrated the feat to the joy and amazement of others.  But popping wheelies wasn’t the only unique aspect of our motorized behemoth.

One warm, sunny afternoon a friend of mine spotted me in the van and reminded me that he’d wanted to ride along for some time. Because I’d just finished tinkering, I told him to hop in. Once bump-started, the Studebaker roared to life and we took it for a spin around the block. Of course I popped a wheelie for him––probably two or three––but that wasn’t the real highlight of this test run.

Cruising down Althea Ave. the Studebaker’s pre-paint persona must have appeared foreboding. Before my friend and I neared a house on the right, a woman rushed from her porch, snatched her child from a tricycle in the front yard, then scurried inside, and slammed the door. The sight both startled and amused my friend and me as we passed. I had to agree, comparing the parcel van’s styling to automotive classics was definitely pushing the limits, but, geez, none of us considered the thing demonic. Maybe it was the way I’d been grinning behind the wheel.

During the Studebaker’s rebirth as a camper, many friends and relatives contributed to the project––some of them more than others. Mom, for instance, donated the leftover pastel-green, latex paint that she’d used to redecorate the living and dining room walls in our house. The satin-finish offering proved enough to apply two coats over the van’s entire interior. (Honest, we told Mom about depleting her supply after we were done.)

That year Mom also had the living room/dining room carpet replaced shortly after the big van’s arrival. Before the installers bundled the path-worn rug and padding for disposal, we seized the best sections of each, rolled them up and headed for the truck. After some careful trimming, the camper boasted light-gray, wool blend, wall-to-wall carpeting––which also reduced the irritating echo inside.

An engineer for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, our Uncle Jim dropped by one day to check on our progress on his way home from work. He squinted at the truck’s hastily scrawled graphics and said, “You need some paint.” Next morning he stopped by again with a gallon of Frisco yellow he’d conned from the maintenance crew. The Studebaker’s exterior color was settled.

Gene and I expressed our gratitude, grabbed brushes and rollers, and swabbed the entire exterior of the van. All evidence of prior crudeness on the outside panels succumbed to the bright yellow. Following the last brush stroke, Gene and I stood back and admired our handiwork.

“Kinda looks like Real Lemon’s version of the Oscar Meyer Weiner mobile,” I said.

“More so than a camper,” Gene replied. “Our paint scheme needs a diversion.”

In the mid-1960s, Mustangs were hot items in the automotive world. The GT versions featured unique racing stripes that spanned the lower quarter panels––three horizontal stripes, with the wider center stripe interrupted by GT 350 or GT 500 near the front wheel wells. Racing stripes seemed just the thing to offset the enormous, golden glow parked in our driveway.

Next day, armed with brushes, masking tape, and gloss-black paint, Gene and I adorned the van with stripes between the front and rear wheel wells. But a quandary developed when we stared at the blank spots that, on the Mustangs, read GT 350.

“What should we paint in here?”

Unable to propose something truly clever I suggested, “How ‘bout right and left?”

And so it came to be. Our camper’s racing stripes read LEFT on the left side and RIGHT on the right side. We considered switching them around to see if anyone would notice––perhaps think we were driving backwards––but decided to keep it simple and avoid confusion. Some folks snickered and viewed our automotive artwork with the same sarcasm in which it was applied. Others nodded or rolled their eyes, and moved on.

The camper van’s makeover neared its conclusion. Still, there were a couple items missing from this project.

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