Tim Chadwick visits a trucking repair firm that utilises a rare and genuine ’36 Chevy tow truck as a working publicity vehicle.
When you visit Ross Graham Motors at Bell Block, you are dwarfed by huge trucks. Big, staunch-looking Western Star trucks from Hooker Pacific Transport rub shoulders with smaller trucks, as they go through servicing schedules in a large motor and engineering workshop.
Back in the ’70s, Ross Graham was a young car mechanic for Johnson Motors, a GM dealership in Stratford, and working on his own car, a now classic HB Vauxhall Viva.
Today, along with wife Carmel, he owns and runs the large Bell Block facility that sees big rigs parking over a 25-metre workshop pit for his expert touch, or being washed down through a special environmentally-friendly truck cleaning facility.
It would be easy to assume that Ross and Carmel’s lives revolve around big trucks. Well, to keep the bills paid I guess that’s true, but beyond the large workshop and the servicing of trucks, the Grahams have a few toys to keep them busy on the weekends and on trips away.
Ross is a keen enthusiast of classic racing motorcycles, and among his collection are a bunch of classic British racing bikes such as two AJS 7Rs, two overhead cam G50 500cc Matchless singles, and a G9 Matchless 500 twin. Over six weeks during 2009, Ross Graham is taking some of them to England to race at Donington and Brands Hatch, with rider Dave Coles in the ‘hot seat.’
And then there are the cars, which will make an appearance between our pages in future issues. These include a 1985 Mercedes 500 SEC which Ross brought back from a trip to Germany, and a simply stunning Chevrolet Corvair convertible, complete with its period piece Chevy flat-six engine in the rear. For now, however, we are looking at one of Ross’ more humble pieces of machinery, but a real classic nonetheless, the sturdy 1936 Ross Graham Motors Chevrolet Tow truck.
The Chevrolet was purchased because Ross and Carmel wanted a ‘promo toy’, as Ross put it, to promote their trucking business and, of course, it had to be ‘something different’. The idea of a Chevrolet also appealed to Ross, not only because he also had a fairly unique Corvair tucked up in the shed but also because of his roots, starting his working life as a young GM mechanic.
Ross found the Chevrolet at a classic car auction, a very original specimen that had spent its whole life as a working truck. Most of its previous employment details were not available at the auction, but Ross did find out that it had apparently worked for 40 years for an Auckland garage. Even though they may wish to forget the episode, perhaps some of our readers may recall having their car towed by this Chevy truck sometime during the 20th century? Please let us know if you do. Ross Graham would certainly be interested too, of course.
Once the Chevrolet was won at auction, Ross had it transported to the Waiwakaiho Valley on the outskirts of New Plymouth’s Fitzroy suburb, where he then had his burgeoning business. I recall seeing it there a few years back in a slightly dilapidated state awaiting restoration.
The next time I saw it, at a street parade, I was blown away by the changes wrought as a result of keen input from a variety of people. Bob Banks, a long established and well-known Taranaki panel beater, literally put the Chevrolet back into shape while Ross and ‘the boys’ at the workshop set about refurbishing the mechanical parts. “Most of them — the younger mechanics — look at something like this and cringe,” Ross said, “It’s not what they are used to working on these days, but it’s a good learning situation for them.”
Old Chev Six
I asked Ross what was involved in putting the engine back into full working order, and he told me that it was kept pretty original apart from the bearings. “We got to work on the old Chev six,” he recalled, “It’s about a 186 cubic inch engine [3048cc] and parts of it were a bit tired. I brought a few new parts in from the United States for it, including pistons. I kept the engine pretty much the same, except for the bearings. I upgraded these to decent shell bearings.”
Once Bob Banks had straightened out the classic Chevrolet’s skin, the body was painted by Brent May at New Plymouth Car Painters in a very beautiful shade of pale metallic blue, which in my humble opinion really suits the tow truck, stylish yet not ostentatious. After all, even though it is now a promotional vehicle, the Chevy was a worker and never a ‘show pony’ during its life in the Auckland area.
After finding out the basic details of the restoration of the old Chev, Ross opened the passenger door of the old truck and ushered me inside for a ride into the countryside behind Bell Block. Immediately the smell of the leather seats and the ingrained aroma from the Chev’s years of working as a tow truck brought back childhood memories for me. Memories from the 1960s when my father would take me out in a Newton Kings Ltd ex-WWII Dodge tow truck, to pull overzealous drivers’ cars out of Taranaki ditches and from over creek banks on rural roads.
Earlier, before my birth in late 1962, he had utilised a 1936 Ford V8 truck at ‘Jones & Chadwick’, a then rural garage that my father ran, along with my uncle John, at Clevedon just south of Auckland.
There I was, reminiscing inside Ross Fraser’s tow truck, but I soon snapped back into the 21st century when he started up the earthy-sounding straight six and turned on the air-conditioning, or what passed for it back in 1936, by winding the front window open! The old Chevy sounded great as we roared off up a slightly dusty road, Ross working the four-speed crash ’box and matching the revs with ease. The rigid-bodied Chevrolet with its workman dual rear wheels biting into the tar and its six on song was a nostalgic delight. I looked ahead at the chromed headlight buckets, and thought about the shiny black wheels turning as we progressed along in the hot summer air. I felt myself rise and fall in my seat with every road undulation, not from a lack of suspension, but because these old Chevs weren’t built to swish along with a US President on board — they had ‘big boys’ work to do!
Ford stole a march on Chevrolet and the rest of the US light to medium trucking industry in the 1930s by producing its famous early flathead V8 engines — in 1932 — and installing them in its trucking products, and although the days of the famous Chevy V8 would come, for a long time the GM company had to rely on its tried and true six-cylinder technology. However, despite Ford commanding a majority of the trucking market, Chevrolet — along with Dodge (and its newly designed L-head straight-six) — sold plenty of units to those used to the rugged reliability and torque of the in-line sixes.
Other market competitors included the distinctive Hudson-Terraplane K-series of trucks, the International C and D series, the beautiful Mack Junior and later in the pre-war decade, the equally gorgeous ‘barrel-nose’ Ford truck.
Nowadays, all these classic truck models are in the hands of serious collectors or hot-rodders, or tucked away in barns or sheds awaiting discovery. Very few, if any, will still be earning a true crust as an everyday worker. Most of us will now only see the working trucks of the ’30s in parades and at vintage vehicle displays. As for old tow trucks, many were worked into the ground, or here in New Zealand were cut down as farm trucks or weekend hunters’ vehicles driven to death out in the boonies.
Thanks to Ross Fraser and his helpers, a piece of New Zealand’s tow truck heritage has been preserved. Now, perhaps it is left to our Auckland readers to piece together some of the old Chevrolet’s history and write in, to complete a bit of the vehicle’s working lineage. This 1936 Chevrolet tow truck has me hooked on its possible history!
Words and Photos: Tim Chadwick