Trials Of A First Time Builder

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you ever gonna finish that thing ??)



As far
back as I can remember, I’ve loved trucks. I can’t begin to count
the hours I spent as a child, standing beside the road pumping my arm
up and down as hard as I could, ( while this is a military signal for
double time…it is the universal 8 year olds signal for blow
your horn) trying to get the truckers to blow their shiny long air
horns. We had a running contest between friends as to who could get
the most horns blown in a day. It was strictly on the honor system
and we all exaggerated our numbers. Also about that time, strip
mining was a major business in our area. Literally hundreds of coal
trucks were flying down the highways and county roads. They
transported the thousands of tons of coal that the huge Peabody and
Drummond shovels scooped from the earth twenty four hours a day,
every day. In the summer we’d sit on a high bank overlooking the
road they traveled and count them as they passed, feeling the hot
breeze they stirred as they blasted past us, well over the speed and
weight limits. We loved it.

As I grew
into my teen years, I worked sometimes helping a neighbor harvest
Christmas trees. He would let me drive his farm truck around the
field and in the tree lot as he and his men loaded the trees on the
bed of that old International pickup and the trailer that it towed.
I was really something.. or so I thought. My sixteenth birthday
brought a brand new drivers license and freedom like I had never
known before. We had a neighbor who was retired and was always good
about paying us kids a few bucks to do things around his house. We
would clean out the garage or the gutters, clear brush or paint the
fence. I always tried to get the jobs that required a trip to the
dump. He had a neat old ’48 Ford pickup with a flathead engine ,
floor shift and "Smitty" mufflers. Homer would always just
send us to the dump and stay behind… he knew how much we loved
driving that old truck and hearing those "Smittys" talk
when you downshifted to second. I think subconsciously that’s when
my love of old trucks began. I’d keep that old truck cleaned up for
him… it was always washed and swept out , and the tires
scrubbed clean. This was decades before the shiny tire stuff and the
‘detailing’ supplies of today.. We used Ajax cleaner, Tide detergent
and Brillo pads. Several years later after I was married and
struggling to raise two kids, pay the bills and buy the groceries,
Homer offered me that old truck for free. It wasn’t running anymore
and needed a good deal of repair. I wanted it so badly I could taste
it, but I didn’t have the time to fix it or room to keep it. I
couldn’t afford to do the work, pay the insurance or buy the parts. I
was having a hard enough time keeping the junk I had running.
Groceries and kids were more important. I’ve always regretted
telling him no and I was determined from that point to some day have
an old truck to rework.

It took a
lot of years and I owned a couple of Ford trucks that I worked at
fixing up… larger engines, new paint… but really just
cosmetic work, nothing really custom. After the kids were grown and
gone and my financial situation had improved, I started my search. I
scanned the want ads and car trader magazines. For about two years
the only things I found were complete trucks that I couldn’t afford
to buy or the trucks advertised as "ready for a restoration".
This usually meant that granddaddy’s truck had been sitting out
behind the barn for 30 years with no windows, riddled with bullet
holes, a six inch long leaf pine sapling growing out of the engine
compartment and two tons of scrap lumber and bean poles piled in the
now non-existent bed. The rats, squirrels and wasps had made this
their home and feeding ground for several decades, and they only
wanted $3000.00 for it… it was a steal. Invariable the words…
"This is a classic !" would work their way into the
negotiating also.

I found a old truck that I could afford… a ’53 Ford in
‘reasonable’ condition… which means all the parts were there …
or close by. I paid my $400, winched it up on the trailer, hauled
it home and unloaded it. I didn’t really have a plan at that point,
just that I wanted to build it back. I started by dismantling it.
This was a major task in itself. Every nut, bolt or screw (that was
remaining) was rusted tight or so badly damaged by the elements that
the only removal tool would be a torch or chisel. One good resource
was an impact wrench set to tighten. Cranked them down till they
broke off. It worked well. It was a lot of work but I didn’t care..
I had my truck and I was having fun. After it was several piles on
my driveway, I did a survey of what was salvageable. I knew I wanted
a new engine and transmission so the old 272 was scrap. The bed
and tail gate were beyond repair, but everything else was useable.
Seeing all these parts and pieces laying in piles, I knew right away
that I needed a plan… badly. I tried to divide the random
piles into associated piles. Knowing my memory, I decided to label
everything, bag up the small stuff with tags or labels and box up the
larger stuff with labels on the boxes. This took a lot longer than I
would have imagined. The larger pieces, sheet metal, cab doors,
hood, bumpers , etc were stored in a shed out back till I could get
to them. I had been reading several old truck magazines for the past
couple of years, but I knew now was the time I needed to decide just
how I was going to build my truck back.

decision to do a restoration versus a street truck buildup would
determine my path. Restorations are beautiful things. But, to me
they are much more work than building a custom truck. Everything
must be perfect, exactly as the manufacturer built it…decals
and paint marks and cloth covered wiring. It’s much too hard and
restrictive for me. I envy the dedication, patience and energy the
restoration guys have. Or is it obsession? With a street truck you
can customize as little or as much as you want. You can change
engines, suspensions, interior and exterior details. I knew I wanted
a truck that looked like a 1953 Ford F-100, but it was going to be my
idea of a ’53 F-100. So my first decision was that I wanted a
customized ’53 F-100 not a restoration. I’ve tried to put some
thoughts together as I’ve worked on my truck that might help you with
your project, especially if you’re a rookie like me.

Number One
– Plan You need to decide what you want to
build. Without this piece of the puzzle, the rest won’t fit together.
Don’t say "I’ll think about that later"… Think
about it now ! It will save you time, money, acetylene and much
frustration later.

I’ve got these piles of stuff. The decision to build a "street
truck" changed the shape and sizes of my piles… ah..
collection of parts. I started looking at pictures in the magazines
and trucks in the area to see what I really liked and what was just
"ok". A picture started forming in my mind of MY truck. I
took one idea from one truck and another idea from another. And,
don’t just look at your make and model truck, look at all the trucks
you can. Yes… there are ideas on a Chevy that a Ford owner
can use !! This part of the process was the fun part. I was only
limited by my imagination. The next part was a reality check. I
started putting prices with my plans.

Dude !!!! PLAN- B !!! What do I HAVE to have and what can I live
without. You should also factor into this equation if you’ve never
done anything like this and your abilities are limited. So, what
you "can’t do" goes onto the list entered as ‘purchased
services’ or ‘bartered help’. Using my computer, I started a
description of the finished product in an Excel spreadsheet
estimating cost and other factors. When I looked at the completed
list, I was totally blown away !! What had I started here and how
would I ever finish it ? To say I was disillusioned would be like
saying the Grand Canyon was a ditch.

Number Two
…. Cost Once you have an idea of how
you want to build, sit down and come up with a realistic estimate of
the cost. Heed the word "realistic". It’s amazing how
guessing and research can differ at the bottom line. And if you sit
down with a detailed list of parts, pieces and work to be done your
estimate will be considerably more accurate. You can ask friends,
use the internet and vendor catalogs for resources, or talk to
others who have built custom cars and trucks. Don’t …
repeat … DON’T let the size of the total project scare you.
Think of it as a lot of smaller less expensive projects. It will
save your sanity, especially if you’ve never tried this type project
before. And, one more thing about cost… never NEVER
try to calculate your hours into the equation…. Even at three
cents an hour…it will drive the price through the roof.

Number Three
Sequence of Work. I’ve had enough
experience with complicated computer projects at work to realize that
it needed to be broken down into smaller tasks. That was the next
part of the puzzle. I had to organize this formidable project into
bite size pieces. For instance, since everything piles up on the
frame seemed like the frame, the bottom, should be the starting

down a sequence of work or plan of attack. Start another spread
sheet or notebook entry listing assemblies. # 1 – Frame and
suspension… decisions about front and rear suspension are made
here. # 2 – Engine and Transmission … this has to be worked
in conjunction with #1. Next comes body work, what to fix and what
to buy new. Then electrical, plumbing, interior, paint and on and on…
many small pieces, but each one a manageable task. A computer is
not absolutely necessary, although, it does make calculations much
easier. A simple spiral wound notebook will suffice.

brings up another point I didn’t mention earlier.. When you’re
disassembling your beauty, if you’re not sure you’ll remember the
sequence of assembly or how something is wired, draw a sketch with
written details. Photographs are great also. Tape them to a page
and write down measurements, details on how things fit together, etc.
The new digital cameras can be purchased reasonably and they do a
good job on "memory retention". Plus, you have the
advantage of being able to load them on your p.c. and share them or
print as many copies as you want. I’ve also used digital pictures to
show a vendor a problem I needed a solution to or even to get help
porting heads. Whatever your method…do something ! Two or
three years down the road you’ll be glad you did, especially if you
have a memory as intermittent as mine.

I am
fortunate enough to have some good friends that have answered a
gazillion questions and helped me tremendously with fabrication and
bodywork. They offered a lot of good ideas, asked questions that I
hadn’t even considered and have worked as hard or harder on this
project than I have. I owe lots of favors ! One of my most able and
knowledgeable resources has been the Ford Truck Enthusiasts Internet
Group. ( This collection of experts, dabblers,
rookies (me) and Ford truck lovers have been an invaluable source of
information, ideas, and encouragement. They have always been there
to help solve a problem, offer suggestions, give a little dig for
some dumb thing done, but always in a helpful friendly way. These
guys are great.

As you
formulate your plan and run into what I call "dead spaces in my
head", refer to your knowledge base.. ask your friends, or your
internet contacts or find a book and research what others have done.
Chances are that someone somewhere has hit the same dead space as you
and figured out the sequence that works.

Number Four – Time
This is a major consideration in any
project…time. There is no "extra" time. You can’t
build it, you can’t buy it, sometimes you think you can steal it, but
you pay for it somewhere else. "Ya gets what ya gets" and
that’s all. Whatever you estimate to be an adequate amount of time to
complete a job….. double it. Then when you add it all up, it
will only take twice that long to complete it.

I wish my
boss would pay me for the actual time a job takes, but I only had to
work the number of hours I estimated it would take. The truck
project is the same way… when my wife asks "How much
longer are you going to work" (thinking I’ve got ANY kind of
accurate idea) … I’ve gotten into a habit of making a quick
guess then doubling it… then I’m sure she doubles that figure
and makes her plans accordingly. Besides, late night dinners are
romantic, aren’t they

Number Five – Frustration
As my project sits in the garage, I
walk past it doing other necessary chores. I’m itching to stop what
I ‘m doing and just hook up the brake cables, it’ll only take a
couple of hours. But I don’t. With a full time job and my off days
promised to my wife for her business, it’s hard to scratch out a few
minutes much less an hour to work on my truck. I take vacation days
to devote to it, but invariably something seems to fill them up also.
It’s very frustrating and sometimes you’ll just want to forget it…it
seeming like you’ll never finish. Don’t !! The time will be found
eventually…you don’t need to play golf today… you need
to work on your truck !! Think about how badly you want to drive
around in that smooth ride.

When you
first start this type ‘rodsteration’ you want to hurry up and get it
done. Your impatience and enthusiasm are pushing you hard. But
after a while when reality snatches you up by the collar and things
start to take shape and actually look like something drive-able; you
realize what is involved in time and money, and your thinking starts
to change. You decide to do it "just right". You’re a
little more patient. You’ll still get frustrated but you’re willing
to wait and save the money to buy that part that is way out of your
budget or add that modification that will take so much longer but
will make the whole truck that much better… in your eyes at
least. There is a lot of ego to be dealt with here. Whether or not
we want to admit it… this truck will be an extension of our…..
personality. Enthusiasm might get it built, but pride will keep it

Number Six – Technical Support
As I mentioned earlier, there are
several sources of technical support available for you. The vendors
who sell after market accessories and parts are a wellspring of
information. They are not only very familiar with their specific
products and how they apply to different models, but many are
builders themselves and I’ve never found one who wouldn’t share his
knowledge. The internet and its user groups are invaluable, they
offer practical solutions and experience that’s priceless. Don’t
forget the library and the bookstores. There are literally hundreds
of good publications written by experts that will give you the broad
stroke or the precise detail you’re looking for. Find a local club
and join. When they are getting together to help a member work on a
project, join in. You’ll find they are much more open and willing to
share time and talent with one who does the same. You might only be
able to hold a wrench or a part while it’s being bolted on…
but it needed holding and you were there… most will do the
same for you.

I haven’t
done every single thing to my truck. I’m not nearly smart or
talented enough to do that. I’ve had some really really expert help
from some great guys. Some I paid for, some was for free, but every
hammer blow, weld and grind was perfect. It’s very important to
understand the value of someone else’s time and talent. If they are
willing to take an off day or afternoon to do something for you,
don’t consider it a gift. The time and at very least the energy
(lacking the talent) should be repaid. It’s very rude (and should be
illegal) to take advantage of someone that way. . Like I said
before, I owe some folks big time. They all do know however that
anything I have and any time I can offer is theirs for the asking. A
couple have let me know …it better be !

Number Seven – Emotional Support
On a scale of importance this
one is probably higher than technical support. One particular person
has been very important in my project. My wife. Her initial
reservation about my commitment to this has faded quickly and now
she’s quite a supporter. She has endured several Supernationals at
Pigeon Forge, walking for hours while I poured over every detail of
600+ trucks. She’s bought parts and pieces for me. In fact, she’s a
major financial contributor to my venture. But the most important
part she’s played is supporting what I wanted to do. We go to truck
shows and cruise-ins and she’s very vocal about what she wants and
doesn’t want to see on ‘our’ truck. I’ve learned to listen carefully
to her, as she has much better taste than I do. She’s even shown
some interest in building a ’40 Ford coupe or maybe a nice sedan for
her… "After we get this truck finished". There is
no way to calculate how much your mate’s support will mean to getting
it finished. If you’re working against her/him or at odds about it ,
even if/when you finish it …it will be a sore spot and you’ll
never really get the enjoyment you’ll deserve from it. The
commitment of time and money is something that must be agreeable to
everyone it affects in time and money. It’s hard enough when
EVERYONE wants it. One thing I look so forward to is driving it with
my wife
to Pigeon Forge that first time.

I’ve had
several setbacks. I’ve started some things that I later decided I
didn’t want to do…So I’d burn it off and grind it
smooth…start over. I’ve also tried to do some things that
were far beyond my capability or patience level. So I’d stop and
seek some assistance.. sometimes having to wait a while for someone
else’s schedule to clear enough to help me. My old truck has taught
me so much. One of the most important things is patience. It’s never
been one of my best qualities. But, quality work and perfection
takes time. I’ve increased my technical and mechanical knowledge a
hundred fold. But more than that, my confidence in my ability has
increased. I’m willing to try things now that I’d never have even
considered a few years ago. That, in itself, was worth all the work,
frustration and problems.

I’m about
one-half finished with my project. I have a rolling chassis that is
complete. The body work is finished on the cab. A new bed, tailgate
and rear fenders are in the garage waiting to be installed. A
fiberglass tilt front end is installed and is in the process of being
‘fitted’ to the cab. Brake plumbing is almost complete, gas tank
installed. I never had any idea that to ‘build’ a truck as a frame
off project that you would actually assemble and disassemble the
pieces at least 4 times. The cab has been on and off the frame at
least 5 times, and the doors installed and aligned at least twice.
The bed and rear fenders have been installed twice already and are
back off now. The fiberglass front end was lifted on and off a
minimum of three hundred times…. I swear.

I’m about
4 years into this venture with probably a couple more till it’s on
the road. If I had it to do again… knowing what I know now, I
might have borrowed the money and bought a complete truck. I could
then make what ever changes I wanted as time allowed and be driving
it now……. Nah… this is the only way to do it.
Make every decision, plan every move and build it just like you want
it. No one … NO ONE will have a truck just like yours.

I’ve said
before that considering the speed I’m working, my new grandson will
have to help me finish this project. I’ve decided that would be just
fine… it will be his truck one day. I think it’s been one of
the best things I’ve ever attempted… I’ve grown in a lot of
ways. It’s actually been therapeutic. When I’m in the garage working
on my truck, all of the problems and worries that wait outside that
door… stay there. Now, granted they are still there when I
close the door, but my attitude is adjusted to deal with them. I’ve
made some really good friends on whom I know I can depend, and who
know the same of me. All and all it will be much more than just a
truck when it’s complete. I think it will be right behind my
marriage to this truck loving ( or tolerating) woman and the birth of
my kids and grandson as one of the best experiences in my life.

if you’re leaning that way or sorta interested in a truck project and
want my advice ? Go for it !! Don’t wait .. start watching the
want ads today.. hey !… I know where there’s a beauty …
it’s sitting in this elderly lady’s garage… it’s only
$5000.00. And, its "ready to be restored". It’s a steal.
This thing is "A CLASSIC". Give me a call and I’ll
give you her number.

© 2000 John Niolon, All International Rights Reserved. This
document may not be copied or published without prior written consent
of the author. Used with Permission.

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