Remember that Christmas (birthday/anniversary/Valentine’s Day) when you bought your wife the MIG welder (socket wrenches/jet ski/pool table) that was supposed to be hers but you ended up using it more? This is kind of like that. Mark Willman has always had project vehicles; he’s been in this hobby for 30 years. This time around, it was time to buiild something for his wife, Ellen. A ’51 Chevy pick-up seemed like just the ticket.
“We got the truck from one of my co-workers,” he explained. “He lived in the country and got the truck off a farm in Iowa. He knew that I liked old cars and offered to sell it to me. My intention was to build the truck for my wife so she would not get after me for all of my other toys. It started to be a simple driver and turned into a bit more.” As in, an award-winning, magazine-quality show truck. Even so, it’s still driven and it’s still practical.
From the beginning, the aim for the truck was to keep the appearance close to factory original, but upgrade all the mechanical parts to create a well-driving truck. Mark wanted something that not only looked good, but made plenty of horsepower, with a chassis and suspension that could handle the upgraded muscle.
Rod builder Jack Downs at D&H Body Shop in Colona, Illinois, took care of the body repair and improvements. From the outside, the Willmans’ ’51 doesn’t depart far from the stock style. The sheetmetal was cleaned of emblems and trim pieces. The front and rear fenders have been extended to improve the low profile, and extended running boards (modified with exhaust vents) were created. Bumpers were eliminated—replaced in the rear with a custom roll pan. New aftermarket headlights and taillights were ordered from Yogi’s, along with a pair of outside mirrors. The ’51’s two-piece windshield was swapped for one-piece glass. Mark did the work on the bed, adding a beautiful oak floor. The smoothed taillight is a finishing touch. Choosing a color was a matter of finding something subtle and timeless to match the low-key external modifications. The right choice was R-M’s champagne pearl, shot at D&H Body.
In keeping with his need for reliable horsepower, Mark got a 360-horse LS1 from an ’02 Camaro to fill the ’51’s fully-painted engine compartment. The install was done at D&H Body. The engine was left mostly unmodified, with the exception of Sanderson headers and Flowmaster mufflers—and the distinguishing Cadillac CTS-style engine cover modifed with a one-of-a-kind medallion. The 4L60E transmission from the same donor car followed the engine into the truck. At the rear, 4.11 gears spin inside a Camaro rearend with Strange axles.
Mark said he’s seen too many cars and trucks with strong powerplants, but suspensions that have no chance of keeping up. To avoid that same situation with the Chevy, D&H Body boxed the factory framerails and replaced the stock suspension components. A Mustang II-style front clip in the front and the Camaro rear benefit from riding on ShockWave adjustable air shocks from RideTech. Stopping power at both ends has been beefed up by front and rear discs from a Camaro. The truck rolls on 18-inch gray powder coated Billet Specialties wheels with Goodyear radial tires.
Finding the right interior shop to finish the cockpit was a challenge until Mark talked to Troy Trepanier and the builders at Rad Rods in Manteno, Illinois. Troy is building a Buick for Mark and when he heard about the Chevy, offered to take on that job, too. You can see for yourself how well that turned out. “Troy took it to another level,” as Mark put it. The door panels and Wise Guys bench seat frame were upholstered in rich-looking leather, chosen to match the oak bed floor. The carpet was chosen to match the leather. The Billet Specialties steering wheel tops an ididit tilt column. Opening the glovebox provides access to the controls for the RideTech suspension and the air conditioning.
Somehow, the “simple driver” that started out as a truck for Ellen ultimately ended up on the list of Mark’s toys. Fortunately, the ’51 is something they can both enjoy. And even though it turned out nicer than expected, it is still a useful truck for the Willmans; with a trailer hitch hidden behind the hinged rear license plate, the truck is used to haul their motorcycle trailer. What could be more practical? CCT