Ron Cherry: A simple ’55 Studebaker pickup
June 15, 2018
When John Stiarwalt built his '55 Studebaker pickup, his philosophy was basic: "It gets me from point A to point B."
That's not to say that what he drives doesn't matter, but that he isn't interested in what it looks like or how it runs, but the things that are primary to many, if not most hot rodders, don't matter to him.
Keeping it simple
He doesn't want to have the shiniest paint or the brightest chrome. Minimalism is the key word for "bling" with John. And he doesn't want a fire-breathing big-block engine. It just has to run well and get him where he's going.
"I don't need to get there first," he said. "Let someone else do that. I just want to get there, thank you very much."
With that view of automotive building, rat rods, cars built like guys did back when they had more mechanical inventiveness than money, are John's cup of tea.
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John's first rat rod was a '49 Ford. His first car was a '49 Ford, given to him when he was 13 years old by his brother.
"I never drove it legally," he said. "I sold it when I was 16 to a drummer in a band I was lead singer in." Then he said with regret, "I quit the band before they played at Coconut Grove in Santa Cruz."
His second '49 Ford was a bit of a disappointment.
"Everything I did on it opened another can of worms," he said.
After too many breakdowns, he came to a realization.
"The reason I liked it was because my brother had given me the first one, not because I liked the car," he said. "I still have my brother, so I got rid of the car."
That meant John needed to find another "fun" ride. One vehicle he had long liked was the early '50s Studebaker pickup.
"I liked the rounded-look of the body style from 1949 to 1959," he said. "I liked that there was an inner panel on the bed so dents inside didn't show outside."
That was rare for step-style or well-body pickup beds like on the Studebaker.
A friend had one John admired and the friend found him one sitting across from the Nevada County Fairgrounds. It had a broken front spring, some damage to the right front fender and no engine, but it was what John wanted. He hauled it home and set to work.
Time to work
First, he pulled the original trans and rearend, trading them to a Studebaker parts supplier in Yuba City for parts he needed. He bought a small-block Chevy crate engine from a supplier that put out 195 horsepower and found a 2006 Ford Ranger rearend with 3.55:1 gears and no posi at a wrecking yard.
"The drum brakes were still good," he said. "I don't have to have the biggest motor or the baddest rearend. That's a waste of money for me."
For a trans, he located a 200R4 overdrive auto online and had it delivered. As for the front suspension, he installed one from a '94 Aerostar van that was similar to a Mustang II, but less costly.
To get the right ride height, he went for coil-over-shocks. Instead of hydraulic power steering, he used an electric-assist unit from a 2003-2007 Saturn ute.
"There's no possibility of leaks or a broken belt," he said. "Plus it was cheaper."
As an illustration of John's concept of cars, he pulled off an Edelbrock carb and installed a Fitech throttle-body fuel injection system.
"It worked okay, but I realized I'd have to go back to school to get the most out of it," he said. "I didn't like it, so I pulled it off and put an Edelbrock back on."
Some questioned why he would take off an expensive and state-of-the-art fuel system.
"I don't let the cost of the product rule what I do," he said. "But in reverse, I don't build my cars for "the guys." I build for me."
The body was relatively rust free, so the main repair John did was to pull the dents out of the front fender.
The grill had a lot of damage and he felt it was too large, so he found one from a '49 to '53 pickup that fit because the basic body had not changed over the 10 years of the truck's production. The grill that came on the truck surrounded the headlights and the "new" one did not, so he used chrome-headed bumper bolts to fill the holes.
For a bumper, he found that one from a '71 Camaro had the same V-shape as the truck. He cut off the ends that wrapped around a Camaro's fenders, gave it a rattle-can finish and mounted it on the Studebaker. A sheet of diamond plate aluminum went into the floor of the truck bed. He left the patina light rust on the faded paint on the body.
Inside, he used a third-row seat from a late '90s Chevy van that he pulled at a Pick-n-Pull for the pickup.
"It gave more room in the cab and, as the third seat, it was seldom used," he said. "I may re-upholster it someday, but it has no rips or tears."
The windshield and rear window were good, so he just reinstalled them with new rubber gaskets. He did have to replace the side windows and wind wings, though.
John did not install a radio.
"I used to be in a rock band in the '60s, so I can sing to myself," he said.
He did use Classic Instrument gauges, except for the tach. He chose a two inch tach that he mounted on the dash.
"It has a fancy blue backlight," he said with a laugh. "It cost $9, delivered to my door from China."
It took about a year for John to finish his pickup. Although he has considered putting a rust inhibitor on the fenders, he probably won't since they've survived "Mother Nature" decently so far.
"I love this truck way more than the '49 Ford I had before," he said.
His Studebaker is just what he wants: a simple, dependable vehicle that, to use John's favorite expression, gets him "from point A to point B, thank you very much."
Ron Cherry's books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, "The St. Christopher Murders," is a Fourth of July mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.