Curbside Classic: 1951 Chevrolet 3100 “Advanced Design” Pickup – America’s (And My) Favorite Truck – GM’s Greatest Hit No. 4

(first posted 1/21/2012)    This truck is the archetype of all pickups, in all its simple but beautiful essence. If you grew up in the fifties or sixties, these Chevys are probably as deeply ingrained into your formative years’ memory banks as they are in mine. We moved to Iowa in 1960, and these were everywhere, still hard at work on the small family farms of the time. The facts are that Chevy was the number one seller back then, and by quite a large margin;  Fords, Dodges and Internationals just weren’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as these.

When I moved back to Iowa in 1971, the hippies and kids were all buying them for peanuts from the retiring farmers. At the time when Dylan and Rock was all going country, this was the cool ride to just be seen in or for hauling a load of manure to the organic garden. The placid hum of their 216 cubic inch “stovebolt” sixes was as much a part of the aural background then as Working Man’s Dead. Only once did I hear that venerable motor being abused beyond belief, and I won’t soon forget that:

When we lived a few blocks from the Pacific in Santa Monica in the late seventies, there was a rather volatile young couple who had two of these pickups as well as a small Chevy school bus of the same vintage that they lived in part of the year. They rented a garage facing the alley behind our apartment building, where they spent the winters; in the garage, that is (they were ahead of their times that way).

One night I heard the distinctive sound of a stovebolt six running wide open in first gear, its rpm only limited by valve float. I went out to the back stair landing to see the young woman repeatedly barreling the tortured Chevy up and down the alley, and every time she passed the garage, the guy would throw a piece of their furniture out in front of the truck, presumably in a vain attempt to stop it/her. The combination of cracking wood and the wailing Chevy bumping over mattresses, dressers and chairs are seared into my memory, for obvious reasons. It would make a great scene in a movie, except this wasn’t the result of a creative writer.

Eventually she tired of pounding their furniture into a pulp and drove off. I could hear the screaming Chevy for blocks, until it slowly melded into the background noise. There was quite a mess in the alley the next morning.

The point I’m trying to make is that these old trucks are hard to stop or kill, even in the most trying of domestic circumstances. And rust-free Chevys of this vintage were easy and cheap picking in the agricultural valleys of California until well into the eighties. And now: well, I’ve got about a half a dozen of them in my files, but this is my favorite one by far: just the right amount of patina and ready-to-go-to-work condition. So what made these trucks so wonderful, venerable and indestructible, even in the face of a determined hurler of furniture?

In an interesting preview of GM’s future priorities, the Chevy (and GMC) “Advanced Design” trucks were GM’s first all-new post-war vehicles. They arrived in June 1947, over a year before the new ’49 Chevy cars. And it was a dramatic improvement over its predecessor; cute as the thirties pickups were, their cabs were claustrophobic and lacked visibility. Not so with our featured truck, which has the optional rear-quarter windows. And the cabs were wide enough for three guys whose bodies still reflected a pre-Mega-Gulp diet and plenty of physical work.

They were built right through into 1955, with minimal changes. If my source is correct, this is a ’51 by virtue of having the vent windows (new for that year), but not having the push-button door handles that came in ’52. For that matter, this is a late ’51, because it has eight boards in the bed instead of nine. Not that it matters that much to me, but I don’t want to let the historians down.

Chevy’s engine didn’t need to be redone though; the venerable 92 hp 216 cubic inch OHV six had been around since 1937, and was a well-proven lump, despite endless claims that its non-fully pressurized lubrication system made it less than so.

Given the millions of Chevy trucks that hauled big loads at full throttle day-in and day-out for decades, and the fact that their buyers kept coming back for more, decade-after-decade, suggests rather forcibly that these Chevy sixes were a bit more durable than some seem to suggest.

They churned out a steady flow of torque right from idle speed, as I well remember as a ten year-old driving one a few times at the neighbors of the Mennonite farm where I spent my youthful summers. I was used to dumping the clutch on the Farmalls, and the Chevy took it just as well. It was no joke trying to give it gas and let out the clutch simultaneously while practically standing up to see over the dash and hood.

I could go on all night waxing and reminiscing about these old Chevys, but it’s already 11:42 PM. But this won’t be the last old Chevy truck I post, so we’ll save some of it for then. And you probably have plenty of good stuff to add. Just in case you’re wondering why I drive a ’66 Ford F-100 instead of one of these, look in the bed: I don’t feel like replacing rotted wood boards, or raising splinters with my shovel on them.

But in the Niedermeyer Fantasy Garage, there’s a space for this truck waiting, and in exactly this condition: enough patina to show that it hasn’t forgotten what it was made to do: work. As well as revive lots of good memories. Unless you’re the one who had their furniture run over by one.