Ron Cherry: Gasser of a ’59 Chevy Pickup
February 9, 2018
In the late '50s until the early '70s, the A/Gas class race cars, gassers, were the hottest stock-looking drag cars on the strip. Rick Mullen's brother, the late Rod Mullen, built a '51 Studebaker pickup in the gasser style, with a Chevy small-block engine bored to 406 cubic inch engine and dual quads mounted on a tunnel ram intake. He even ran the truck on the track a few times. Rick had helped him build it and that's where the inspiration for having one for himself arose.
"Something to give him a little competition," Rick said.
In 2011, a fellow Roamin Angel Car Club member showed him a flyer for a '59 Chevy step-side pickup for sale. Rick checked it out.
"I went and looked at it. It was a total basket case," he said. "I forgot about it, then went and looked at it again and made a deal."
A diamond in the rough
It was a four-wheel drive with a 454 cubic inch engine and lots of rust in the bed. But, as the car-lover saying goes, it had potential.
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Rick pulled the body off the frame and set to work. As a true gearhead, Rick did all the work on it himself. He stripped off all of the running gear, selling the engine.
In the rear, he installed a Ford 9.3 inch 3.50:1 Posi rearend from a one-ton truck, using 31-spline axles for strength. He added five-foot ladder bars to keep the tires on the ground during acceleration.
In the front, he went with a straight axle like gassers used, with 11 inch disc brakes. An ididit tilt steering column turned the gear in a Chevy S10 steering box.
For a mill, he used a 1966 396 cubic inch engine he had built for a '55 Chevy and had pulled before selling the car.
"I had the motor on an engine stand for about two years and decided I needed to put it into something," he said.
He had bored to 408 cubic inches and had '72 LS5 oval port heads from a 454. Inside it, he had used 10.5:1 pistons and a Comp cam with a gear drive. Most cars use either a chain or belt drive to turn the cam, but the gear drive makes a distinctive whine when the engine is revved.
On top, he used a Weiand aluminum tunnel ram intake with two Edelbrock 600 cubic feet per minute four-barrel carbs. A shotgun scoop with eyeballs painted on the flappers added a cool look. For free breathing, he used fender-well headers with 3 inch exhaust to a pair of Flowmaster mufflers.
"It puts out 425, maybe 450 horsepower," he said.
Knocking off the rust
Keeping to the racing theme, Rick used a scattershield bell housing to cover a hydraulic clutch. Although he originally used a Muncie 4-speed trans, he later changed it to a Saginaw to get the gear ratios he wanted. For putting the rubber on the road, he went for American 5-spoke 10X15 inch wheels in the rear and Rocket 10-spoke 5X15 inch wheels in the front.
Although the body from the cab forward was in good shape, the bed and rear fenders were so rusty that Rick replaced them.
"I bought a lot of pieces and parts," he said, "I picked out what I wanted to use."
They tubbed the bed, widening the wheel wells inside the bed to accommodate wide cheater slicks. Rick replaced all the door latches and window regulators with new ones. All the body and paint were done by Rod and Rick, painting it Outrageous Orange in suede paint that wouldn't need waxing. Rick replaced all the glass and rubber in the truck, as well as using new chrome parts, such as the grill and headlight doors.
Inside, Rick opted for a pair of power seats from a Ford Explorer and re-upholstered them and the headliner in leather. He redid the dash with Stewart-Warner Wing gauges, making his own wiring harness for the truck's electrical system. It took five years to build.
Rick kept the truck fairly basic, following the gasser theme.
"It's got a heater," he said, "but no air conditioning, power steering or power brakes." Needless to say, it's not built for long trips.
Wife Margie has only ridden in it a couple of times.
"It's too loud for her," he said. "Between the big exhaust and the gear drive, it's just too noisy."
But he enjoys local cruises. Often he takes it to Cars and Coffee, which happens every Saturday from 8-10 a.m. at the K-mart parking lot off McKnight. It's a great place to hang with other car lovers and shoot the breeze. Fortunately, he has a cool '39 Chevy street rod he built with lots of creature comforts for long runs with his wife.
While his Chevy looks like a gasser, Rick has never raced his truck.
"I don't want to take a chance of breaking anything," he said. "But it's fun to drive. I get a lot of looks."
You might say it's a gasser that's a real gas to drive.
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. Nicholas Murders," is a Christmas 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.
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