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Author of "Notes from the Corrosion Lab"
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Preservation and Restoration

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Cars for Sale
How to Buy an Old Truck
Part 2 of a Series
by Bob Adler

Notes From the Corrrosion Lab.

Two automobile dealers were arrested for turning back odometers on their vehicles in separate incidents in the Albany, New York, area recently. Mileage is important when you're shopping for a vehicle for everyday transportation; however, it should be a minor consideration when you are inspecting an old truck to buy. The following indicators of truck value are much more important than miles and provide several points to consider when you're deciding whether to complete a truck deal or walk away.

When I was looking to buy the 1938 Chevrolet Suburban which is illustrated in Part 1 of this series in the September/October issue, my first impression was positive because I saw four original hubcaps. Don't laugh. Sure, new reproduction hubcaps are readily available, but finding hubcaps still attached after 62 years is an indicator that the truck was treated with respect.

A closer inspection showed that the truck also wore its original wheels. Only 1937-38 Chevy cars and half-ton trucks came with eight short-spoke wheels, and this Suburban had them at all four corners. This is another indication that either the vehicle has low miles or was treated with care when its tires were changed.

part2a.jpg - 7595 Bytes
Grooves worn in the leaf springs
indicate wear and tear.
Note the eight short spokes on
this original 1938 Chevy wheel.

Since bad tires were frequently swapped with good tires on different rims, the eight-spoke feature could easily have been lost. Thus, at first glance this specimen had two indicators of low miles or conscientious use and neither was based on its odometer reading.

Rust is always a consideration when buying an old truck. This Suburban had four solid fenders when viewed from the outside. Rust-out, however, starts in dead cavities or where two or three layers of metal are sandwiched together. The fenders may be rotted where they attach to the body, and the body may be rotted at the fender mounting line.

Without removing the Suburban's fenders it was not easy to be sure they weren't rotted. Looking up around the wheels did not reveal any holes. There was obvious rot-through on the door bottoms and quarter panels behind the doors.

A bead runs along both panels, which takes some skill to fabricate in 18-gauge sheet metal. My chances of finding good replacement doors were slim, even though the Hollander interchange manual indicated the same doors were used on all 1937-38 Chevy trucks. Since it was doubtful that I could find good, used quarter-panel bottoms, I figured I would concentrate on fabricating and welding repair panels. When the outer panels are rotted through, most likely there will be some rot-through on the associated inner panels. On cursory inspection, the rot-out seemed manageable.

The fenders, where some black paint was evident, had mostly surface rust. The body was covered with thin green paint with about 20 percent surface rust. Interestingly, there was a double pinstripe along the belt line. I suspected it was a factory stripe, which is usually covered during a repaint. With no other indications of a repaint, I surmised this was the original paint and, subsequently, that there could be no hidden bodywork, good or bad.

The grille was in terrible condition, but all 1938 Chevy trucks used the same grille and good quality reproductions are available, so that was not a major concern. The original headlights were intriguing. They had never been converted to sealed beams.

Sealed beam headlights were introduced industry wide in 1940. The reflector was brighter in a sealed beam because it did not tarnish unless the adhesive seal between the reflector and lens deteriorated (totally glass sealed beam headlights were developed in the early 1950s). During the 1940s, retrofit kits were sold to update older vehicles to sealed beams. This Suburban's headlights did not get the popular update, which made it a good candidate for factory-authentic restoration. It was also another indicator that the vehicle did not have high mileage.

All the windows had glass (and no bullet holes!). Some glass was cracked and some was delaminating from the plastic safety layer, but these conditions indicated that the vehicle spent most of its time indoors, away from vandals. I surmised that only flat glass, which can be easily cut at a glass shop, would have to be replaced. Curved glass on newer trucks is more challenging to find.

The liftgate, tailgate, and rear bumper are the rarest items on this Suburban, so it was important that they work. The liftgate went up, which indicated that the hinges worked and the hinge mounting was not rotted out. The tailgate was a bit sloppy, indicating it needed work. Research in GM's 1938 specifications book (see “Restoration Sourcebooks” in the July/August 1999 issue of This Old Truck to help decide what's factory original) indicated the ‘37 and ‘38 panels used rear “barn” doors that swing out side to side. The canopy express used a tailgate similar to the suburban, but the upper part was a curtain. Suburbans came with either “barn” doors or the tailgate/liftgate combination. In any case, chances of finding another rear-door setup were zero, which meant these parts would have to be repairable. Both rear gates had wood frames with a sheet-metal skin nailed onto them. The door wiggled, which could mean there was rot within the wood and/or some of the nails had worked loose. The rear bumper was covered with rust but straight and, hopefully, could be rechromed.

By opening the driver's door a few inches, I tried to find out if there was any sag. This door gets the most wear, and if the hinge and lock were not oiled regularly, the door might start drooping. The driver can either oil the moving parts or slam the door harder, which accelerates wear. I noted while gently closing the door whether the guide had to pull it back up into place. This door did not have any sag, another positive point toward purchase.

While we are on the subject of doors, it is my observation that people are either closers or slammers. The difference is whether the person holds onto the handle as the door latches. Slammers tend to push the door harder and faster than necessary, which accelerates wear. It's best to find just the right amount of force needed to latch a door, and not use any more. I hold onto the handle as I close an old door and give a bit of upward lift to further minimize wear. Be courteous to your slammer friends or family; close the door for them.

Inside, check the driver's seat for wear and feel for broken springs. Seats are easily repaired, but an original covering in good shape is another excellent “buy” indicator. Gauges also reflect truck condition. Look to see if the faces are faded. The mechanical Bourdon tube temperature gauges Chevy used until 1955 are fragile. Does the temperature gauge on a cold engine register at the low end? If it indicates a temperature above ambient, it is broken. The capillary tube to the engine frequently breaks from years of vibration fatigue or twists off when the bulb is unscrewed during engine work. (When installing a temperature gauge to the head, put anti-seize lubricant on the threads where the bulb seats on the nut and where the capillary tube passes through. Then the nut will turn without twisting off the bulb or the tube. If this tip is too late, there are people who specialize in rebuilding and recalibrating this type of temperature gauge.)

The condition of the seats tells how much wear the whole truck endured; and If you can see rot on the outside of the lower body panels, the inner panels will need welding, too.
The condition of the seats tells how
much wear the whole truck endured.
If you can see rot on the outside
of the lower body panels, the inner
panels will need welding, too.

To inspect floors, remove the mats and check for holes from above. This truck had no mats and the wood floor was intact. Carpets and mats hold water and invite critters. Mats, like a battery, are best removed from a truck for long-term storage.

I did not get a good look at the Suburban's undercarriage because the tires were soft. Checking the undercarriage is difficult if the tires are flat, or low, or if the wheels have sunk into the dirt. Any part of a truck that rests below ground level for years will rot severely. In moist climates, even the frames will rot. Sheet-metal brackets and sills to the frame often rot through, and properly fabricating them can be an intricate procedure. Some repair panels are available, but even installing these can be very time consuming as the fit has to be exact. A truck stored for a long time in a barn with a dirt floor can be in as bad condition as one stored outdoors, since animal droppings are corrosive to metal.

It is especially important to look at the underside of a truck that has been restored or fixed up with a pretty body and paint job to get an idea of its condition before the repairs were done. I have seen beautiful paint on trucks that were structurally junk.

Leaf springs can also tell the truth about ton-miles traveled. When the leaves flex, they tend to dig into the next longer leaf and form a groove. The ridge that forms on a cylinder where the top ring rides follows the same principle. The addition of many grooves can be the equivalent of having fewer leaves, and sooner or later the truck will sag. If a truck has its original springs, you can get a good idea of how much torture a truck endured in its working life by checking them carefully. When we were loading the ‘38 Suburban on a car carrier, I got a good look at the springs. There was no ridge on the leaves and the undercarriage was intact.

The Suburban's odometer showed 64,342 miles, which seemed consistent with the indicators mentioned above. When looking to buy a truck, make reading the mileage the last part of the inspection. A good physical examination reveals more about a truck than a number on the odometer.

The next installment of this series will be: Check the paperwork, check the drivetrain.

Bob Adler is owner of Adler's Antique
Autos, Stephentown, New York, and
specializes in GM truck restoration.
He can be reached at 518-733-5749.
Adler's Antique Autos