Road Rules! Highway Hauler – Loading Up Road-Trip Miles in a ’56 Chevy Pickup
Words and Photos by Steve Sommer
I have always liked the ’55-’56 Chevy pickups, dating back to when I was 12-13 years old and had a paper route. Someone on my route had a nicely done truck with good paint, mag wheels and a naugahyde interior and I knew someday I wanted to have one like it.
When my son Aaron was about 14 years old in 1988, I bought two project pickups from a guy in Boise, Idaho, about 15 miles from where I lived. The idea was to build Aaron a truck to drive to high school. The trucks were a ’56 and a ’58 and both were completely disassembled to the frames. I separated the best parts to use to build the ’56 and resold the ’58 for about what I paid for them both.
As seems to happen with a project like this, the process took way longer than it should have. When Aaron turned 16 the ’56 was just a rolling chassis on which we had installed a Volare front suspension, mounted the 12-bolt rear, and built motor mounts, steering and brakes. At that point we bought him a ’68 GMC C10 short bed that a local body shop owner had just refurbished and painted and that became his first car.
After getting Aaron into the GMC I decided to finish building the ’56 for myself. I made a deal with a friend of a friend who had worked in body shops all his life to do the bodywork and paint utilizing my home shop. This also took a lot more time than I would have thought. Are you noticing a trend here?
By the late ’90s I was drag racing alcohol Funny Cars at a fairly high level and didn’t spend any time working on the ’56. After I got out of racing, I made a deal with my friend Dale Harsin of Boise to do a lot of the final assembly of the truck at his home shop. (At that time his son Bryan was living at home while attending Boise State on a football scholarship; he went on to become the head football coach at BSU and recently accepted the head coaching job at Auburn University!) Dale installed a Ron Francis wiring harness, Dakota Digital dash, and built and installed a 400c.i. small block. I then put in a Glide seat, Old Air A/C, three-point seatbelts, and added ET wheels. By this time, it was early 2009 – two decades had passed and the truck was finally on the road!
I always knew I was going to drive the truck, not just show it. That’s part of the reason it has the Corvette taillights in it – I wanted it lit up so it could be seen on the road. And after all that time building, I was itching to get out and drive. So, with just 125 miles on the odometer, my wife Nancy and I signed up to go on a weeklong hot rod cruise to the Seattle area.
The trip was coordinated by a group of hot rodders known as Cruise Idaho. It’s not a car club, but basically three couples who organized the event for 15 consecutive years – each trip being a week long and to different areas. That first trip was an outstanding time with the exception of low-speed encounter with a deer which broke the grille in the ’56 but didn’t do any other damage. The next year, we again joined the Cruise Idaho group for a trip to the California Redwoods and Crater Lake National Park. Again, an outstanding time!
After that second trip Nancy and I moved to Arizona and took a couple of years off from the cruise. We picked it up again in 2013, driving the ’56 from Arizona to Idaho and then cruising with the group to the Oregon Coast, traveling through central Oregon to Reedsport, up the coast to Astoria, and returning via the Columbia River Gorge and I-84. We drove back to Arizona via Utah Highway 89, which allowed us to stop at Zion National Park and the canyonlands before returning to Gilbert. Altogether, it was approximately 3,500 miles.
In 2016 I got word that the Cruise Idaho guys, Don Wilson, Jim Boyer and Dennis Booth, were planning an “epic” journey as the 15th and final Cruise Idaho road trip. It would leave Idaho and head to Craters of the Moon National Monument, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park and end up at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I had to go!
The timing of this trip coincided with the high school graduation of our oldest grandson, Luke, who is the son of our son Aaron – the kid who was originally supposed to get the ’56! Nancy and I had been trying to figure out what to do for Luke and we decided that me taking him on the cruise would be our graduation gift.
Nancy presented Luke with an itinerary while I prepared for the trip. I then drove from Arizona to Idaho, picked Luke up and joined the cruise. I was pretty nervous about Luke and I spending a week in the confines of the truck cab every day while sharing motel rooms and full-time “togetherness.” I didn’t need to worry. We had an absolute blast! We drove a hot rod, mixed with hot rodders, saw some of the most outstanding country in the U.S., and never had a dull moment.
While in Rapid City the Hemmings Great Race event had a stopover. We all spent the evening in downtown Rapid City, which had been closed off for a Great Race function where they displayed their vehicles, mingled with the crowd, and explained the format of their race to anyone interested. There was also live music, food and drinks, which was a lot of fun. We returned to Idaho via Cody, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park.
Later in 2016 I had a chance to pick up a low-mile LT1 and 4L60E out of a ’97 Z28. The idea of fuel injection and an overdrive appealed to me, so I made the deal and my brother Dave and I completed the swap. We also installed a new aluminum radiator with electric fans, new fuel tank, and I had the rear gear changed to a 3.42:1 Posi. I also got a new Borgeson steering box that was modified to fit the Volare front end. The Borgeson box may be the single best upgrade I’ve made!
Since completing the engine swap I’ve only had the truck out of state once, taking it to New Mexico with Dave and his wife in their ’55 Chevy sedan. We are planning our summer now, which we hope to include the Goodguys Salt Lake Nationals and possibly one (or both) of the Goodguys events in Washington.
This truck was a long time coming together, but it was worth the effort and we have enjoyed every mile since its completion. I don’t know what the future holds with regard to the truck and our ability to travel with it, but you can bet that if we are able we will be doing something and enjoying time behind the wheel!