Curbside Outtake: GMC “New Design” COE Bookmobile – Well-Traveled and Well-Read

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I had nothing to contribute to Big Rig Week, and I wasn’t very happy about it.  Then, I decided to go for a walk, and found this classic less than a mile from where I live.

It looked like it hadn’t moved in quite a while. I had to wonder how many times I had driven past it without noticing. When I finally took notice of the old GMC, the first word that went through my mind was “Cannonball.” That was the name of a Canadian TV series that originally aired in the late 50s which chronicled the adventures of a pair of  long-haul truckers whose big rig of choice was a COE (Cab Over Engine) GMC.

Paul Birch played Mike “Cannonball” Malone, the gruff-but-likable elder driver, and William Campbell played his youthful sidekick, Jerry Austin. In old movies and TV shows, gruff-but-likable characters were always named either “Mike” or “Gus.” I suppose a coin was typically tossed in order to determine which of the two names would be used.

Paul Birch later had a recurring role on the TV series The Fugitive (which starred David Janssen) and many of you will remember William Campbell from his two guest appearances on the original Star Trek: Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos,” and the Klingon Captain Kolos in “The Trouble With Tribbles.”

If Wikipedia can be trusted, the truck in the series was a Model 950 diesel tractor.  The bookmobile, on the other hand appears to have been built on a two-ton chassis.

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In either case, “Cannonball” could easily refer to the truck itself.  The abruptly-curved hood does make the front end look a bit like a cannonball.  If you’re the sort who always gives his car or truck a name, you’d probably be tempted to call an old GMC “Gus” or “Mike,” since these truck have such a gruff-but-likable quality.  They grunt, they groan and they moan, and they won’t get you there in style or get you there very quickly.  But they will get you there eventually, along with lots and lots of really heavy stuff.  Two tons is a lot of books.

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At first, I thought this particular cannonball was that rarest of all vehicles:  a non-Divco milk truck.  I suppose it was the lack of side windows that led to this preliminary conclusion.  However, the faded paint says “Pierce County Public Library,” and libraries traditionally do not deliver milk.  Nope, they delivered books, and I’m glad that they did.  I have many fond childhood memories of books borrowed from the local bookmobile.

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One thing that puzzles me is this decorative plate.  “Historic Carlisle Pennsylvania?”  Pierce County is right here in Washington State.   At what point in this truck’s history did it make a transcontinental trip from Pennsylvania to Washington?  Or is there some better, simpler explanation for that plate?

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I’ve found it very difficult to pin-point the year of this truck.  The Chevrolet Advance Design and GMC New Design trucks came out in 1947 and continued through the early part of the 1955 model year, with only incremental changes along the way.  Normally, I would look for the presence or absence of vent windows on the doors, and look at the door handles to see if they’re the old kind that you had to twist, or the newer kind with a push-button handle.  I’d also check for the location of the gas tank filler cap.  None of these possible clues apply to this truck with its school-bus style door.   My only clue is the two-pieced windshield, which would eliminate the ’54 and early ’55 models which had a curved, one-pieced windshield.

Regardless of the year or any of the other details that we love to nit-pick here at Curbside Classic, it’s a Bookmobile, and it makes this gruff (and hopefully likeable) old guy smile.