The area of Michigan that I call home is flatter than week-old Faygo. While fertile sugar beet fields are perhaps poor substitutes for what others might consider to be breathtaking vistas, that doesn’t mean we don’t know beauty in our neck of the not woods (thanks, Paul Bunyan). Come autumn, small farms dust off their ancient sugar beet haulers and air up the decades old tires for slow trips to the processing plants. Yes, wobbly wheels and exhaust leaks are the sights and sounds of home to me.
At least half of my daily commute is so comparatively free of traffic that I get to know my fellow travelers too well. I know the ones who can’t hold a speed, the ones who accelerate rapidly to superlegal speeds and coast down, and the ones who panic at four-way stops (the ultimate intelligence test, I always say). I get to join my occasional companion, the morning star Venus, when it’s still dark enough to enjoy such things. On October afternoons, however, the real fun begins: sugar-beet truck spotting. It’s not the big 18 wheelers with tandem trailers that I anticipate with such enthusiasm, but the old mediums, the stake trucks, the chassis-cabs with dump beds. Some are weather-beaten and weary, audibly struggling against their loads. Others, like a certain Sweptline-era Dodge I admire, are polished and maintained to a degree of which I’m envious.
It’s never advisable to daydream and drive, but I often imagine myself commuting to work in a ’60s beet truck. I don’t work on a farm and I don’t haul beets, but it would do the job admirably, if not a little more slowly than I’m accustomed to.
Back home in town, a small used car dealer is currently taunting beet truck dreamers with these two, parked near the street where anybody can see them, slam on the brakes, and run around like a crazy man taking pictures. The 1961 Dodge 500 caught my eye immediately. Its “Sweptline” styling has perhaps some gawky angles, but so do I. Anyone who doesn’t fall for this big red Dodge a little bit should check themselves for a heart.
Speaking of hearts, I was surprised to find a Chrysler flathead six under the hood. Filing this fact under “you learn something every day,” I raced home to research 1961 Dodge trucks. I found that this is a 251 cubic-inch version of the familiar old engine, and it was available for a couple years in medium-duty trucks after the introduction of the slant six. An old, reliable Carter BBS mixes the fuel, and the universal radiator flexi-hose tells you that either a resourceful farmer owned the truck or that parts are hard to source locally for a 60-year-old Dodge.
It’s going to need some work on the battery tray, and, let’s face it, probably everything else.
The data tag certainly offers more information than the usual color and trim options. The net horsepower rating of 115 guarantees that your fellow commuters’ patience will be tested, but the “Dependable Dodge” tagline of old almost certainly holds true. You’ll eventually get where you’re going.
The truck is in pretty good shape, albeit a little damp inside. The necker’s knob is a useful addition for those long trips to the beet piles with your sweetheart. The odometer reads 83,000 miles, which seems accurate based upon the general condition of everything.
I’d be a little nervous about buying six big new tires. Like many old car owners, I replace my tires based on age rather than tread life, and these look like they might have seen an orbit or two.
I was so excited about the Dodge that I barely noticed this 1968 Chevy 50 parked beside it, although I’d probably prefer it as a working vehicle. These cabover Chevrolets, like their Ford counterparts, have a timeless appeal. Their basic styling lasted for years, a shining example of industrial design.
The “spec sheet” in the front window lists 26,000 miles and a Chevy 350 under the cab. Although I enjoy driving just about anything, I prefer a V8 in my old cars. My research shows that this truck probably came with a 327, but many engines were offered in medium-duty Chevrolets of this era – everything from inline sixes to Detroit Diesels were available depending on the model the customer ordered.
Like the Dodge, the Chevy is in nice shape. The doors were locked on this one, but the dealer is asking $7495 for it, and I have no idea if that’s a good deal or not. The Dodge doesn’t yet have a price in the window – it’s a relatively new addition to the lot.
The interior looks good from here, and I didn’t see much rust, either. Both trucks pass the initial inspection, but I’m accustomed to a list of problems on anything I buy.
Now that I’m in my forties, I’ve started thinking about different jobs I could try when I decide to retire. Based on my daydreams, I’ve long said I was going to drive beet trucks, and like many things I say and think, I don’t know how much I’m kidding, if at all. Time could be worse spent than continuing my rural fantasy commute behind the wheel of one of these neat old trucks. But which one?