Bob Whitaker first became fascinated with his father’s toolshed when Bob was 5 years old.
The story goes that Whitaker would take whatever he could find that wasn’t in use — nuts, bolts, washers, soup cans and so on — and weld them together to create miniature farm equipment. As he got older, Bob was allowed to help his father with farm machinery repair.
Then, one day, Whitaker’s father purchased a 1955 Chevrolet pickup. Shortly after that, Whitaker’s neighbor purchased one.
Those two pickup trucks started Whitaker on a 20-year quest to find a truck like those, followed by a 10-year quest to restore the pickup truck he found.
The result is Whitaker’s red and black 1955 Chevy 3100 pickup, restored from rusting in a field to showroom condition, though with some improvements not found in 1955 pickup trucks.
Chevrolet manufactured two separate models of 1955 pickups. The first design had been built since 1947 as General Motors’ first post-World War II vehicle design. The second ’55, introduced in March, emulated the ’55 Chevy cars as a response to new pickup designs by Ford in 1953 and Dodge in 1954.
The truck was equipped like most pickup trucks of the day — for work. It had Chevy’s 230-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine and a three-speed manual transmission, the shifter for which was on the steering column.
It took Whitaker, an ASE-certified mechanic who owns Whitaker Repair LLC on North Oak Street in Platteville, 20 years of watching farm fields, searching through junkyards and watching vehicle auctions to find a first-series ’55. The one Whitaker found was in a barnyard. He purchased it at a farm sale in June 2009.
“It ran, but not very well,” he said. The engine had oil pressure, but it “missed like crazy.” On the other hand, “all the front end parts were in perfect shape.”
Whitaker said the project was “pretty much a frame-off” restoration, meaning most of the body was taken off the frame to repair or replace parts.
Whitaker does not consider it a “restomod,” where the engine, transmission and other parts are replaced with more modern equipment. The engine — which he will remind visitors was also in the first Chevrolet Corvette — was rebuilt and now produces about 30 horsepower more than stock. An overdrive unit was added to the transmission, controlled through what used to be the floor-mounted starter switch next to the accelerator pedal. The truck has radial tires, as opposed to original bias-ply tires. He also upgraded to a 12-volt electrical system from the original six-volt system.
“I can drive it down the road at 70 mph and it isn’t screaming at you,” he said.
While Whitaker had to work on the existing parts, and found parts that came from other Chevy pickups in junkyards and swap meets, in many cases he also had to work on the new parts he purchased to replace the existing parts.
“They’re aftermarket; they don’t fit very well,” he said.
Whitaker also added air conditioning and an aftermarket radio, mounted in the glove box. The power bucket seats are from a 2002 GMC Envoy SUV and are much more comfortable than the original vinyl-covered bench seat. He also installed modern halogen headlights and larger taillights.
One part of the truck he didn’t touch was the bed, because he intended to use it to haul items.
Ten years later, the truck starts immediately like a modern fuel-injected car. It isn’t designed to be driven hard, but Whitaker drives it to the monthly car shows at A&W in Lancaster and to Dubuque. Last weekend he drove it to and from a car show in Elkhorn.
Whitaker also owns a 1957 Chevy Bel Air sedan with the original 283 Power Pack V8 engine, though he updated it with a modern automatic overdrive transmission. He purchased the Bel Air, which like the truck was assembled at the former Chevrolet assembly plant in Janesville, on Independence Day 1968, and decided to restore it seven years ago after it sat for 42 years.