A 30-year friendship with a ’56 Suburban
Eric Bickel of Grass Valley may well be setting some records. Not only does he have a pretty rare vehicle, he’s both the second – and the fourth – owner of it, which totals up to 30 years of ownership.
The vehicle in question is a 1956 GMC Suburban 1Ú2-ton pickup, which he bought used in San Francisco in 1969 from a salesman for only $700. While driving around in it, he realized he was being followed by someone in a Cadillac.
“That was my truck,” said the fellow, who turned out to be a San Francisco fireman. “Yeah,” said Bickel, “a pretty good deal for having only 79,000 miles on it. Snorting at that, the man said, “Add a two in front of that, is more like it.” Thus, Bickel got more miles than he bargained for, but the last laugh was on the salesman. The engine, you see, is still going strong, with a grand total of 385,000 miles on it as we speak.
In the owner lineup, Bickel kept the truck through high school and college and marriage, until the wife (who was soon to be an ex-wife) convinced him to sell it because she thought it wasn’t practical. Bickel kept in touch, though, with the buyer, who was another fireman.
Calling his phone number five years later, he was saddened to hear the fireman had died unexpectedly, and his wife was trying to sell the truck. So Bickel bought it back, this time for $2,000. That was in 1985. Thus he fulfilled his karma of being the second and fourth owner.
The rareness of his truck – fewer than 15 are on the road today in this country – is attested to by a Michigan man who was researching 1956 GMC Suburbans, for a good reason.
“He tracked me down 12 years ago,” says Bickel. “Said it was his life’s mission to find everyone who still had one. He had had an original, which burned up in a garage, and the insurance company, which had no idea how rare it was, wanted to pay him only $300 for it.” So Bickel was among those who helped establish its worth.
As to what his truck is worth today, he’s not guesstimating, but he says about 10 years ago he saw one in Hemmings Motor News for $55,000. “It was probably, as Johnny Carson used to say, hermetically sealed in a mason jar.”
While Bickel doesn’t drive the truck much these days, he did humor his feed-yard person when the guy said, “Please bring a truck, and not your van, so I can just toss the bales of hay in.” Once the fellow saw the beautiful truck pull up, he demurred. “I don’t want to throw hay into that thing,” he said appreciatively.
The truck has been through a couple of intense color changes – from faded sea foam when he first bought it, to metallic blue after an old man t-boned him while pulling out of a driveway, to metallic silver after another close encounter. And finally, to Mandarin Red, a factory color. Bickel has rechromed its abundant chrome, as well as refinished the original oak bed, and has had it reupholstered.
The drive train is original, he says, as is the radio, although it no longer works; he had the grace to hide the tape deck in the glove compartment. He converted the vacuum-powered wiper motor to electric after he got tired of having the wipers stop whenever he stepped on the gas. And lastly, he added a smart vinyl tonneau cover on back to make the truck more aerodynamic.
“It’s not 100 percent pure restoration,” says Bickel, but close enough for him. He loves it just the same and even jokes about one day being buried in it.
The truck’s been to Mexico and Canada. It won first place in a San Mateo parade, beating out a Corvette, Bickel adds proudly, and it’s been up to ski country (“Pretty good for a one-wheel drive in all that snow.”)
An avid Three Stooges fan (so much so that he actually has a tattoo of them on his shoulder; after wife Linda set the pace for the family by being the first one to get a tattoo herself – of what and where we don’t know), Bickel is also a collector. Of the 13 motorcycles he owns, only three are modern. He races a 1977 Yamaha TT500 and has been clocked at 103 miles an hour at Cal Expo’s Sacramento Vintage Mile. “Pretty good for an old bike,” says the man, who happily admits he loves speed. (“It’s like a drug they don’t sell.”) His goal in woods riding, on the other hand, is to visit all 50 ghost towns and gold mines on a list he has. Bickel also does model railroads. He figures he’s about a year away from completing a layout of Donner Summit and Truckee for his HO trains (that means 1/87th the size of the real thing), something that fascinates his neighbor, an old dancer from long ago.
He has time to do all this because at the tender age of 50, he is fully retired, having sold the family office-machine company in San Francisco when the fourth generation – his kids – didn’t want it. Doing his own truck maintenance, he says, “It doesn’t take much. The engine is real simple and you can see concrete when you open the hood.” He expects this mighty engine to last for years to come.
Pam Jung covers classic cars for The Union. She welcomes suggestions for stories and can be reached at 265-8064.
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