1945 FORD 1 1/2 - 2 TON WRECKER
The following article was originally published in the Aug-Sep 2002 issue of the VCCC magazine "The Vintage Car'"
The evolution of the conversion from automobile to wrecker:
Back in the 1920's & 30's there was a problem with large used classic cars as no one in their right mind would buy them due to the hard times of the depression era. Those vehicles held the prospect of high repair and gas bills which deterred many people from considering such an acquisition. The cars were numerous and far too good to junk (but many of them were).
Dealers hated to take in big cars (many would be called classics now) in the Depression years. There was little or no market for them as used cars and even the auto wreckers tended to be choosy. The result was that by the early 30's big cars were literally a dime-a-dozen on used car lots. Classic cars were rarely displayed on the front rows of used car lots where the space was reserved for fast selling used Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges, Plymouths & Pontiacs and the other cars the public could afford to buy and run on their Depression budgets.
There were always a few canny buyers on the lookout for something nice in a big classic. The car had to be a good one though, and preferably a formal sedan on a long wheelbase. A '26 or '27 (in 1931) might be worth all of 50 to him, although this was the top figure and implied a low mileage car of maybe 10,000 or 15,000 miles. Smart.
These buyers knew what they wanted in a classic, and of course they always had their pick of hundreds of cars. What they wanted was something "solid" in a heavy car for conversion into a wrecker or small truck. A garage operator in the late1920's and early 1930's had no problem in finding what he wanted on the nearest lot. During that time every garage and service station had to have a wrecker and service unit almost as a point of honour. A garage man really wasn't in the business seriously unless he had one. If a shop or garage didn't have a wrecker for road calls it lost the business to rivals who could zip out in an old Pierce-Arrow or Studebaker to tow in an ailing Oakland. Reo or Whippet.
But times were hard; a 1 or 1 1/2 ton light truck was an expensive proposition when a garage operator needed a wrecker. It wasn't really a problem though: his needs for a new truck were easily filled by the nearest classic that he could hack, cut, reshape, chop and panel-bash into a wrecker "configuration". Just look what he got with his hand-me-down classic: a big displacement six or a V8 with torque and pulling power that would shame a steam engine, not to mention a chassis-frame that was usually heavier and more robust that many 1-ton trucks.
The wrecker crane needed a solid anchorage, so a 7 inch frame with big, fat cross-members filled the ticket nicely. Axle failures weren't a problem to be expected with the exceedingly rugged "rear ends" on vintage Packards, Cadillacs, and Buicks. Nor could there possibly be problems with clutches when these were big multiple-disc assemblies or single plate set-ups on the order of 11 or 12 inches, great for lugging the heaviest loads without a vestige of slippage. Transmissions were in line with the prevailing massiveness, and with the engine torque characteristics of the day, who needed more than 3-speeds even for heavy duty towing needs?
Overall, what counted most in a wrecker was battleship construction, so each day classics filled the bill completely. The only weakness was on the braking side, though towing speeds were low with the loads being towed.
Sedans were preferred in making the switch from passenger car to wrecker. If the garage man used a big formal sedan he could count on a neat and cozy cab by retaining the front half of the body. Converting a sedan to wrecker status was impromptu coach building: it wasn't as tough as building a body from scratch but there could be problems.
Many were no more than hurried, slapdash jobs with no pretense to anything. Yet other examples were built with a great deal of care and craftsmanship. It always showed too. “Why, a garage that could turn a nice wrecker like that must do first-rate work?” went the reasoning. The rear portion of a big sedan wasn't scrapped by any means. The sedan's back panel formed the back of the cab, complete with the rear window.
Wood-framed. composite bodies weren't difficult to hack about and modify as most of the work could be done with a hacksaw and a hammer. In most cases, the garage man made his saw cuts in the roof rail just behind the center pillar and the rear of the body was removed from the frame rails. The rear panel of the car with its window was moved forward and attached to the center pillars to close in the cab. Sometimes a plywood panel was used to close in the bottom portion and then a platform was built on the rear portion and fitted out with a winch for use as a wrecker. A few extra spring leaves usually sufficed for overload.
Hand wound cranes were available from a number of suppliers. Manley. Weaver, and Little Giant and of course the more elaborate and (and costly) cable-rigged Holmes hoist was still another choice.
Towing in a car then wasn't the specialized feature that its become now. Readily exposed frame horns and spring hangers provided handy lifting points for raising the ear in a jiffy. Usually a short length of chain was run through at the frame horns, then doubled hack and hooked at the center. The “crane" hook was passed around the middle of the chain and the job was done. Another length of chain, or perhaps a short bar, linked the car with the wrecker for towing purposes. An old tire jammed between the raised car and the back of the wrecker served as a dandy buffer between the two. Then, too, all wreckers featured big plank bumpers for pushing and shoving.
It's interesting to look back and see where it started, the vintage wrecker. (Courtesy of Vintage Canada - Vol 4-Nov.1977)
The Conversion of our club wrecker from an ambulance:
Our wrecker started life on January 10th, 1945, as a custom bodied 1 1/2 ton Ambulance built by Smith Bros. Auto Body Works for the Royal Canadian Navy. The vehicle was sold as surplus after the war and purchased by the Village of North Kamloops for use as an ambulance.
In approximately 1955 the ambulance was sold to Endean Motors who converted the vehicle into a Wrecker in the same manner as earlier conversions were made. The body from the back of the doors was cut off the ambulance and a plywood back wall was made and attached to the front or the body making a cab. A wooden platform was used by the garage for a number of years and it was retired when no longer required.
The vehicle was eventually donated to the Kamloops Chapter in 1975 by Endean Motors. The wooden platform was rotted away and a new wooden deck was constructed by club members. The vehicle was equipped with single wheels on the back but had extra wide fenders which were cut down and modified to fit closer to the body. The club used the wrecker in many parades and other functions until 1998 when it was taken off the road, a large double garage with work space was rented, and a complete restoration was begun under the direction of Ron Buck.
The vehicle was stripped down to the frame, the brakes and steering were overhauled and rebuilt. The frame was painted. A model RBA Ford 239 cu.in. V8 engine block and 4 speed transmission were donated by White Post Museum and these were completely rebuilt and installed in the chassis along with the overhauled single speed rear end.
A new metal box & deck were designed by Les Batchelor patterned after the deck on the back of a wrecker that Les had worked with back in the 30's. This was then fabricated and installed on the chassis by Dean Mackley, Gerry Wallin and Les Batchelor. The 6 Volt system has been maintained.
A proper cab was donated to the club and while it was on its way to the sandblaster, it fell out of the trailer and bounced down the highway requiring a little more body work than expected. The rear window opening had been "hacked up a little” requiring some welding in of the missing piece rescued from another cab.
A replacement instrument panel was acquired from Vancouver Island. New safety glass was cut and installed by Doug McCoy. A complete new wiring harness was made and installed by Ivan Lajeunesse. A new headliner was purchased from George Moir Antique Auto Parts and the seat was reupholstered by Clear View Glass & Upholstery. A pair of early 60's era West Coast mirrors were donated by Ron Buck.
The Manley 3 1/2 ton Wrecking Crane came with the truck but required some work to bring it back to usable condition. A new boom was designed and constructed by club members. The rear fenders were returned to their original width by welding in the pieces that had been cut out many years before. Fortunately the pieces had been saved. The intent was to have dual wheels on the back of the truck. Special running board extensions were made by Dean Mackley to fit between the cab and the widened rear fenders. Dean also made a light bar out of tubing to mount the emergency light, fire extinguisher, and first aid kit.
All chrome plating was done by Kelowna Plating. The sparkling red body with black fenders paint job was applied by Dick Parkes after he had done the bulk of the body work on the truck. The 134 in. wheelbase truck sits on 7:00 x a20 dual rear tires.
The completed vehicle is a tribute to the supervision and direction by Ron Buck and all the club members who contributed their time and efforts. In addition to those mentioned in the story thanks go to the following: Dale Baker, Craig Beddie, John Buck, Ian Clugh, Randy Cook, Andre Cordonier, Dave Dickinson, Ken Finnigan, Dave Gillmore, Jim Harker, Roy Henry, Tom Lafreniere, Virgil Lysgaard, Jim Middlemass, Roy Moldenhauer, Harry Morrow, Bill Shurvell, Julian Slotylak, Gerry Wallin, Gordon Woldrum, Jack Woolard and special thanks go to Chic Buck who made all those delicious cakes, pies and cookies to feed the workers each evening along with tea & coffee.
In addition to those mentioned above we also thank the following businesses for their assistance - Norm Andean, West-Can Auto Supply, Mansion Still Mfg. Ltd., Valley Speed Machine Shop, James Western Star, Tirecraft, Speedpro Signs Plus, Central Equipment, Mickey's Supplies.
We followed the truck on its first road trip and it tracks straight and true.