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Duo of Chevrolet NAPCO 4x4 trucks to cross the block

Thu, 10 Apr 2014

Interest in classic pickup trucks has been surging in the past few years, introducing car collectors to a whole new world of desirable vehicles. And while the "rules" are still being written when it comes to what's acceptable in a restoration, there are clear favorites, with austerity and originality typically valued over luxury. As nostalgia for the trucks of the 1950s increases, so do the amounts collectors are willing to pay for the workhorses of yesteryear. Among the most sought after are NAPCO 4x4 conversion trucks.

This weekend, two NAPCO Chevrolet trucks will cross the block at the gigantic Mecum Auction in Houston. Before we take a look at them, let's recall how this company got its reputation.

While many in the collector-car world are familiar with the name NAPCO, few know how the Northwestern Auto Parts Company got started. The company came into being in 1918, though 4x4 conversions were not a part of their business until the early 1950s. NAPCO made specialty auto parts prior to WWII; during the war, it worked on projects for the U.S. government, creating and testing accessories for military vehicles. During the late 1940s, the company turned its attention to civilian products and started working on 4x4 conversions of consumer vehicles. Among their first products was the 1951 Chevrolet 3/4-ton truck trucks converted to four-wheel drive, with half-ton trucks following a couple years later. NAPCO didn't do all the conversions themselves. Rather, it sold kits to dealers and upfitters, which were workshops that upgraded existing trucks. "Now you can have a standard Chevrolet four-wheel-drive pickup featuring the traction power of a tank or, at the flip of a finger, a smoother riding, high speed, over-the-road truck," a period NAPCO advertisement promised. "Aptly named the 'Mountain Goat,' this full-size pickup will literally leap up mountains, as well as carry you through deep mud, sand, or snow."

NAPCO trucks' utility made them unlikely to survive to the present day. While genuine barn finds pop up from time to time, the vast majority of trucks were simply used up by entities like the forestry service, railroads and logging companies. One of the best sources of surviving examples for restoration have been mining companies operating in the northwest and in the Rocky Mountains; they tended to purchase a number of trucks, with one or two accumulating only a few thousand miles. These low-mileage vehicles then sat in a hangar for decades. Finds like that are few and far between, but they tend to be a familiar story among NAPCO truck restorers. And they're still out there.

Mecum Auctions
One of the earlier NAPCO conversions.

The first NAPCO truck that'll be offered at Mecum this weekend is a 1956 Chevrolet 3100 half-ton truck finished in light blue. This example features a 235-cid six-cylinder engine mated to four-speed manual transmission, a fairly common specification for a NAPCO conversion. Documentation on who did the conversion is typically not available, but it was most likely done by a dealership that ordered the parts as a kit with the necessary pieces arriving in a crate. Little is said about this particular example aside from the claim that it received a frame-off restoration--a term that has become used a little too frequently, we must say.

This restored example features a finished wood-bed floor that we would probably be too squeamish to mark up with anything other than a few bags full of leaves, though this truck is not over restored. The engine bay betrays a few superficial shortcuts taken during the restoration, and the underside shows some minimal surface rust. Overall, it presents nicely in photos, and panel gaps appear to be generally per factory standards, though the driver's door could look a little better.

Mecum Auctions
This 1959 Suburban still has its original engine, rebuilt of course.

The second NAPCO conversion that'll be on offer this weekend is this 1959 Chevrolet Suburban, claimed to have been owned by the Santa Fe Railroad. This example still has its original engine, and it comes with hundreds of pages of documentation and history. Said to have spent its entire like in Arizona and Southern California, this is the regional pedigree to have, as opposed to that of the Pacific Northwest. The interior is as spartan as intended, with slippery-looking faux-leather seats, and the dash is equally minimalistic.

The engine bay appears tidy but not over restored. The restorer should be commended for not taking this truck into flash territory to spice things up for resale. Faithful muted colors here will surely pay off, as will the black California plates. Panel gaps look good, and the only remaining question is what color of flannel shirt you're required to wear while driving one of these. NAPCO truck owners know that lumberjack attire is mandatory.

The Mecum Auctions Houston sale will see over 1,000 cars and trucks cross the block from April 10 through April 12, and the auction itself will be broadcast on the Esquire Network, later switching over to NBCSports Network. More than 15 hours of auction coverage will air over the three days of the auction starting today. Click here for the auction broadcast schedule.

By Jay Ramey