It started off building them; now it’s driving them. There’s no easy retirement for this septuagenarian cab-over – it looks set to be spending its whole…
Words: Dave Smith, photography: Chris Jones
It always puzzles me how some rods and customs don’t seem to get used. I speak to people who tell me that they drive their cars to local shows and that’s about it. Okay, I understand that some street/strip cars might be a bit taxing when they do 4mpg and get a trifle warm in traffic jams, but the more streetable rods were built to be driven. If you don’t want to drive it… why did you build it? I don’t understand.
One guy who’s not afraid of putting some miles under his wheels is Calvin Evans, from Southampton. His ’46 Chevy COE gets everywhere, and not just for shows. It wouldn’t surprise me if he drove it up to my local Tesco – a piffling 300+ mile round trip – because he had a coupon for 4p off baked beans.
“I’d been Googling for a while, looking for a cab-over,” says Calvin, “and I’d decided I wanted a Chevy. Around that time, I had to go on a course for work up in north Wales, and, on the way, I spotted a garage in Whitchurch with some old cars in the window. On the way back, I stopped for a look through the window, and when I spotted the nose of this truck poking around a corner, I was hopping up and down on the spot!
“The garage was closed, so I knocked on the door of the bungalow around the back. The lady who answered said that it was her husband’s garage, and that he’d just imported it and was going to do the truck himself. I went home deflated. Four or five weeks later, I spotted that someone had posted a picture of it on an old trucks forum, with the message ‘A local garage owner is selling his truck.’ After much messing about, scrolling through the whole forum, I found the poster’s email address and contacted him, asking if he’d pass my details along to the seller.
“The seller contacted me, and told me he’d had quite a bit of interest, but that I sounded really keen and he’d hold it for me until Saturday. I went around to my local trailer hire place, but they had a low-loader and told me they’d rent that to me, so I set off back to Whitchurch on the Saturday morning. The guy’s garage was full of old cars and projects, and we spent an hour talking about them before he said ‘You’ve not even looked at the truck yet!’ I told him there was no need, as I knew Id be buying it…
“He’d bought it from a scrapyard in Arizona – he’d got a friend out there who would send him interesting stuff. He hadn’t done that much to it yet, but he’d got the engine running, and when he backed it out of his workshop, it just looked fantastic. I didn’t care if it was rusty or knackered, but having the engine running was a Godsend. I bought it right then.
“I got it road-ready, MoTed and registered. On the way back from the MoT test, I was backing it into my garage, and I was heaving on the steering wheel – no power steering, of course – and sheared one of the tapers clean off a ball joint! There’s no way the test could have picked it up, but I’m glad it happened while I was reversing at low speed.
“It was just a chassis-cab. It had once had a tar bowser for road-building on the back, but this had been cut off with an oxy-torch, at some point. The chassis underneath was covered with rock-hard lumps of tar, but I chipped them off with a hammer and the chassis underneath was immaculate! I washed it, then painted it – it didn’t need anything.
“There was no rust in the cab either; the only welding I needed to do was to weld up the holes where things had been bolted on and then removed over the years. It had been filled and primed at some point, so I bare-metalled it and covered it in old engine oil. All the glass had been smashed, but Mark Grant at Chatsworth Glass cut me some new glass – he’s a hot rodder too, and we’re always up to something.
“I ran it like that for about six years, but the missus was complaining that every time she got in and out, she ended up covered in oil. I switched to Ankor Wax for a while, but I wasn’t that impressed with it so I’ll go back to using old engine oil.
“The gearbox was horrendous. It was the old 216ci straight six with a four speed, but you’d pull away in second, go straight into third, then be flat out in fourth at 45mph. I wanted a daily driver, so I bought a Transit from an old gypsy guy, took the engine and gearbox out, then the old guy bought the rest back for scrap! It’s only a 2.5, but the engine is canted over so it didn’t fit in between the chassis rails – I had to notch the chassis to clear the turbo.
“For the last seven years, I’ve tinkered with it constantly, and improved things along the way. To begin with, it had the twin rear wheels and a flatbed, and I used it to carry my motorbike around. A few years ago, I got inspired by old American artic wagons and horse boxes – our horse boxes are as ugly as sin, but the American ones are handsome. I found an old American horse box – I don’t know how old it is, but they stopped making these in 1985 and this is from well before that – and cut it up. The frame was on the outside, and I wanted it on the inside, which took about five months of work, then I bolted it onto the back of the truck.
“I don’t call it a camper conversion; it’s a working truck. I carry my bike, my boat or my stationary engines to wherever I’m going, unload them, then kip on a mattress in the back! I just have a kettle back there, and an old Coke coolbox sunk into the floor. There’s an electric winch under the floor, and a pair of folding 14′ ramps to get the bikes and things in and out. The ‘camper’ box is bolted on, so it could be unbolted and put back to how it was, but it never will be.
“I’m always at autojumbles, and that’s where most of the little extras and touches in the truck are from. I’ve recently redone all the ‘oilfield maintenance’ signwriting, and those are proper enamel reproduction signs on the doors.
“The rear axle is 6:1, but those tyres are 40″ tall, so it drives like a Transit. I’ve seen 85mph out of it in short bursts, on empty motorways! I wanted an old truck, so it still has all the original steering and brakes. It drives the way you’d expect a truck of this age to drive, although when I first got it, it was 10 times worse! Those rear drums are 18” in diameter, and quite easy to lock up. I also had to put some much softer leaf springs on the back, as it’s never going to carry 20 tons of tar again…
“I’ve been everywhere in this truck. I’ve been to Land’s End, I’ve been to John O’Groats, I’ve been around France… I just put my bike in the back so I have something to run around on when I get there. I’ve done around 30,000 miles in it over the past few years; the run to Scotland was 2,000 miles, because I did the Hot Rods & Hills run on the way back. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to drive around the perimeter of Wales. It occurred to me while I was driving through a place called Wales in America that I’ve driven 50,000 miles around the USA but I’ve only been exploring the UK for the past five years or so. Motorways are no fun, though, I like to get off the grid and find old buildings, canals and railways.
“I hate ‘catalogue cars,’ I think everything should be unique. I’ve even hot-rodded my stationary engines. I have one old British one with polished brass covers and bolts, and a candy yellow flywheel, and an American one with polished stainless and a metalflake silver flywheel. It’s my first event with them this weekend, and they may well hang me – the public will love them, but all the old codgers will hate them! All this isn’t just a hobby; it’s an obsession.”