Words and Photography by Riley Stair
“How do we become the people we are today?” This is a question I ask myself often. “Why do I do the things I do, and how did I end up with obsessive nature that hinders my rest at night?” Like I imagine many car enthusiasts, I am often lying awake in bed in the dwindling hours of the night, racking my brain… trying to solve a problem I encountered earlier that evening, or building my next project over and over; trying to solve all of the potential problems before I have even turned a wrench, plugged in the grinder, or laid my first tack. In an automotive respect, the neurosis that takes over and allows me to think of nothing else until the problem has been resolved, or until my standards have been met, can only be attributed to one person; my Father, Matt Stair.
On a long list of character traits he has handed down to me, good and bad, my Dad has given me the undying need to conquer my builds, whether I know what it entails or not; dive in headfirst and figure it out. The urge to take the road less traveled, and dare to do things a bit different than those before me is another heirloom of the Stair family. It goes without saying that my passion for building cars is not mine alone.
When we set out on the ever-exciting craigslist scavenger hunt to find an old truck to make our next side yard project, a ‘55-‘57 Chevy short bed step side was the desired chassis. Being that my Dad’s high school sweetheart, a 1956 GMC with a high-strung 600hp small block, was taken from him by a careless driver just after graduation, getting back behind the wheel of a truck of the same generation only seemed fitting. After many days of obsessed, bloodshot eyes scouring the classifieds, and numerous let-downs on what were advertised as “good trucks,” we stumbled upon an ad for a 1949 Chevy 3100. Like most people on the prowl for a new project, if there is no photo in the ad, I usually skip right on by, and don’t even bother reading. If you had something worth seeing, you’d post a photo of it right? Well, this time was different, as my Dad was at the screen. He read through and was interested enough to give the owner a call, and after a short conversation, explaining that the truck was complete, spare the engine and transmission that were removed but would come with the truck, we grabbed a trailer and drove out to see it. Upon arriving, we were expecting much less than described, and rightfully so. In front of us sat a forsaken old farm truck, front end missing, four flat tires, and a cab and bed full of junk, left to perish, 25 years prior.
Once a restoration project of a son and his late Father, the old pickup was now left among the weeds of this desolate field, begging to be brought back to life. Instantly intrigued by the stories this old sheet metal was bound to keep, it only seemed right that my pop and I give this downtrodden truck another chance at life. After talking with the seller, and learning that the drivetrain was no longer available, we struck up a deal. We loaded up the truck and all of its contents, shook hands, and parted ways, excited to bring new life to such a worthy recipient. With surface rust now covering most of what was once a primed and blocked body, the trucks “paintjob” had been completed for us, thanks to Mother Nature and Father Time.
Upon arriving home, we rolled the new project into the side yard of the house; its new home until it could be returned to the road. During the process of unloading, what seemed to be hundreds of Brown Recluse spiders scattered from their homes in the carcass of the automobile into the side yard of the house, and the Brown Recluse Garage was born. By this time it was late in the day, and tired from a long day in the heat we decided to put a cap on the night, and resume that weekend. Saturday finally rolled around, and my old man and I impatiently started to clear out the bed and cab, assembling what we found as we went. Hours went by like they were minutes as we continued to bolt pieces together, eagerly assesing what parts we had, and what would need to be sourced to complete the newest addition of the Stair automotive family. No sooner than once we cleared the cab and the bed did we realize that in front of us sat a nearly compete truck, awaiting a new heart so it could hit the streets for the first time in nearly 30 years.
With Father’s day quickly approaching, I set out to find a source of power to move the mass of metal sitting aside the house. Conveniently, the day before Father’s Day, I learned one of my good friends Dad had a pullout 350/350 from his ‘71 Camaro; it was an act of fate. I told them I would take the engine and transmission off of their hands the following afternoon. The next day I hopped in my truck and picked up the power plant, a small block 350 with a cam, intake, and some long tube headers, all mated to its original th350 automatic trans. Later that evening my Dad returned from work, and I eagerly showed him what rested in the back of my pickup, a small token of my appreciation for everything he does. The next day we unloaded the couple, and being that we both share the same gene of impatience, set it into its new resting place; between the frame rails of the ’71 Chevelle IFS that had been mated to the existing frame under the hood of the ’49.
Fast-forward two days and the truck was being pulled out of the side yard, new power, springs cut (like any responsible hot rodder) and a set of early Chevrolet car rally wheels; measuring 15×7 up front and 15×8 rear. For the year that followed, the truck was tinkered on, fixing little issues here and there, along with getting our neighbor, local tattoo shop owner (Folsom City Ink) to hand paint “Brown Recluse Garage” door logos. However, during that time, it was rarely being driven. The truck was great to most standards, but a ’49 Chev with a small block wasn’t enough to hold either of our interests long. It seemed that old trucks with v8’s were a dime a dozen in the hot rod world, and while there isn’t anything wrong with that (I think both of our hearts run on 8 cylinders), we both felt the need to take the truck to the next level.
Over the next few months, ideas were mentioned, and quickly found flawed in one way or another, leaving the truck sitting quietly in front of the house. After an evening of talking with a friend about his new truck, a first generation Dodge Ram 250, the wheels began to spin. “That’s what we should do; lets put a 12v in the ‘49” I uttered. My Dad and I turned to each other and laughed at the thought. Without realizing it, I had set in motion the ever-obsessive gears in both of our minds. The following morning, the subject of a 12v swap in the truck was present in both of our thoughts. Throughout the day, I got on the web and tried to find documentation of the swap to no avail; that was it, now it had to be done. No sooner had I ended my search that I got a call from my Dad amidst his day at work, confirming my feelings of an impending Cummins transplant into his truck. Notions of bagging the truck had been thrown into the mix in the months prior, with the goal of making it lay the running boards to the earth. With the truck going under the knife with the new commitment of a twelve-valve heart transplant, it seemed like the perfect time to go through with our suspension aspirations as well.
At the time, neither of us had ever owned a truck with a Cummins or a vehicle on air ride, so research of the two disciplines started immediately. As I researched, my Pops started hunting through the mind numbing pages of Craigslist once again, this time for a First generation Dodge Ram to donate its drivetrain. After a week or so of searching… and learning that Cummins-powered trucks pull a premium these days, He clicked an ad for just an engine at a good price. He quickly picked up the phone and called the seller, and was informed that the engine was an intercooled ’93 and had the larger HX35 turbo from a ’98. “Consider it sold” He told him, and arranged to pick it up that weekend.
The weekend finally arrived, and the engine was purchased and brought back home. Energized with the new purchase, and new direction for the old pickup, we quickly sourced a Getrag 360 5spd manual transmission to transfer the 5.9 liter Cummins power to the rear end: a Chevy car 10 bolt geared to a 2.90:1 ratio to avoid over-revving the diesels 3,000 rpm redline. With all of the major parts for the transplant assembled in front of the truck, it came time to tear into the old pickup once again, this time for the most invasive undertaking of either of our automotive endeavors.
Having recently swapped an m60b40 v8 into my e28, we were fairly certain that we knew the “big engine into a little bay” game…we were sorely mistaken. While previous swaps were a tight fit, most of the stock sheet metal could be retained. This would not be the case for the once humble ’49. We removed the front clip along with the old powertrain of the transplant patient, and attempted to swing the massive 5.9-liter heart between the frame rails. The dimensions of the new engine were made real, as it stuck a full cylinder out of the front of the truck while resting on the firewall. Along with the length, the height of the straight six was staggering. With the chassis at ride height, but the oil pan firmly on the ground, the bell housing and gearbox sat well into the floor of the cabin… not ideal for a truck whose body would soon be grounded. Armed with a cutoff wheel, the firewall and floor were removed, allowing the new powertrain to be lifted well above the cross member, and pushed back enough to fit the front clip around it.
Engine mounts were fabricated, along with a transmission cross member and mount. With the transmission raised so far into the cab, a tunnel was fabricated to house the custom driveline. With the motor pushed back, the firewall would need to be made around cylinder 5 and 6. Not equipped with the tooling to create an aesthetically pleasing engine tunnel in the firewall, and my Father working in the trades his whole life, a wheelbarrow seemed fitting. Cut and sectioned, the wheelbarrow serves as a center section of the firewall, rounding the rear of the engine and separating the cabin from engine compartment. Eighteen gauge sheet metal makes up the rest of the firewall and floor, spot welded and seam sealed to ensure that it doesn’t rattle loose as the exhaust runs underneath it by way of a five inch straight pipe, exiting the truck just before the rear fender above the passenger side running board.
With the engine and transmission resting in the chassis, and the cab complete once again, air suspension parts were sourced, compliments of local shop BC Fabrication. Leaving no time wasted, we quickly removed the old tired suspension and pulled the bed from the rear of the truck. A Carpenter by trade and living by the mantra “measure twice, cut once” my Father and I tediously measured heights and clearances, finding that the rear of the frame would need to be cut off and notched eight inches. With the rear end now going to travel so far up into the frame, combined with the transmission set well above the frame rails, the driveline would directly intersect the main cross member at the back of the cab. The remedy: an eight-inch tall drive shaft hoop made into the center of the member. A parallel four link holds the rear end straight, while allowing all of the suspension travel the air bags can provide.
With ’71 Chevelle independent front suspension and a matching cross member, when the bellow bags were installed, there was no longer provision for shock absorbers. Shock hoops were fabricated from the frame, allowing a shock to be mounted atop the upper “A” arm. To achieve our goal and set the running boards on the ground, we were forced to filet two inches off of the bottom of the front member, reinforce it, and plate it back up.
With the truck now at an acceptable elevation, we turned to the interior. Several layers of Dynamat and Satin black paint were applied to the original sheet metal and the old rear seat from my e28 was fitted, looking right at home amongst the modified black carpet kit and MG Midget steering wheel. With all of the air lines run into the cabin, a box was made to house the manual paddle valves and gauges, making for easy height adjustments on the fly. The ¼” airlines are fed from an air tank hidden under the raised tongue and groove bed floor. The source of air resides in an old military box, a single viair 480 is left to pump 5 gallons of air into the tank, most of which is sent up to the front of the vehicle to lift the massive weight of the engine.
After turning up the fuel delivery on the stock lift pump, we plumbed fuel lines from the forklift fuel tank strapped to the bed floor. Fire hose was wrapped around the new fuel tank to ensure its place on the bed floor, and handcuffs were sentenced to a life of holding the tailgate shut.
The time had finally come. After two months, enormous amounts of caffeine on many long nights, too many choice words, and an equal amount of burns and cuts all for this moment… The key was turned and our creation belched to life. The paddles were pushed sending air to the four corners, and the truck moaned and groaned in atrophy from its extensive operations. With the first drive complete, we were astounded at the sensory overload we had both experienced. The sound is that of a dump truck, while the ride is smooth like a stock car. Grinning ear to ear, my Dad and I realized why we do the things we do; because of moments like these. This was not just a truck, but a representation of why we love building cars; because they can be built however you want. They don’t have to conform to anything except your creativity and determination.
Whether it’s the roads I drive on, or the cars I build, the roads less travelled are the roads for me.