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Buying a classic pickup.

Buying any old vehicle takes a fair amount of research, in fact the more armed one is with precise information on a particular make or model, the better the chances of tracking down the most suitable example. This article takes a look at some of the keys points to bear in mind when hunting down a classic pickup to buy.
Example of an American pickup in use

Restored or un-restored?

Do you have the time, skills and finances to take on a vehicle needing a lot of work? If so then perhaps a restoration project is a good bet. At least this way you can ensure that the job is done properly, and that beneath that shiny layer of paint there is a sound and reliable machine. Compared to cars of the same era, finding parts to suit a pickup project might be a problem. Many share parts with cars offered at the same time, but in many cases the parts are unique to the light commercials (I’m including vans in this) and, as a consequence, can be trickier to track down. Once again, thorough research before handing over any £££ will be time well spent. The problem of finding parts for older pickups will be returned to again further on.
The advantages of buying a restored example are numerous, if bought correctly. Endless hours spent welding in floorpans, fixing up a cracked chassis, replacing rotten woodwork and hoisting out a well-worn engine should, all being well, be avoided with this approach. Someone else has done the hard work, leaving you to benefit as a result. Chances are the costs of the restoration will have exceeded the vehicle’s final value, so buying a fully restored pickup might save you a bundle. Plus it means that you’re on the road from day one, important if you’re planning to use the vehicle for publicity purposes. Choosing a runner also enables you to fully test a prospective purchase, something not always an option when viewing an old wreck hidden in the back of a yard or allotment. But even with immaculate examples, it pays to tread warily and not be dazzled into purchasing something, just because of its shiny paintwork and un-molested interior. Not all that glistens is necessarily gold!
If you find a tatty but roadworthy example, that will need plenty of TLC to get it upto scratch, you may well end up paying over the odds for it, and still end up doing as much work to it as you’d do to one bought, for a lower cost, as a full project.
The decision on whether to buy a restored or un-restored pickup will therefore boil down to your abilities, your bank balance, how soon you want to actually drive a pickup, and the availability of your favourite type on the market. Some are quite common, so a buyer can be choosy, whereas others are very scarce and you may have to buy whatever you can find. These old workhorses typically lead a very hard, and usually short, life, sending them to the breaker’s yard much sooner than a contemporary saloon, the latter often doted on at weekends and treated like one of the family. Some popular choices of pickup truck will follow.

Choosing a type of truck.

Most people will already have an idea of what type of pickup they’d like to own. Some will prefer the basic charm of a pre-war example, perhaps one based on the Austin 7, or the Ford Model Y. Others might yearn for a characterful load-lugger from the 1950s or 1960s, coupling period charm with the ability to roll along at a reasonable pace, backed up with a reasonable supply of spare parts should disaster strike.
Many buyers in the UK will restrict their search to home-grown products, but what of British vehicles assembled overseas? Australia, for example, received thousands of vehicles in knocked-down kit form over the years, and clothed them with Utility, or “ute”, bodywork for the local market. These vehicles tend to benefit from the use of mechanical parts that can still be sourced in the UK, with unusual and distinctive coachwork that few people will have ever seen “in the metal” before.
If covering long distances on a regular basis, it may be worth considering an American pickup truck. Often designed with distance travelling in mind, there are many vehicles on sale that combine rugged bodywork and the load-lugging power offered by six-cylinder and V8 powerplants. Post-war American light trucks, especially those from the big-name manufacturers, also tend to benefit from excellent spares support, should any work be required.

Popular choices.

One of the most popular pickups, in the UK at least, is that based on post-war Morris Minor running gear. Easy to drive, with parts simple and – in the main – reasonably priced to buy, they make for a very sensible choice, sharing as they do their front end panelwork with contemporary saloons, as well of course as their dependable A-Series engines. Just make sure the separate chassis is in good order, as many have been patched up to drag them through MOTs year on year, leaving them looking like a patchwork quilt, and about as strong.
Mini pickups are a good bet if maximum carrying capacity isn’t a requirement, but finding a good one might take some effort. Given their popularity, there are many poor examples out there that have received a quick lick of paint before elevating their prices significantly. Some panels, especially those at the rear, can be tricky to find, and the all-steel load bed can take a battering thanks to years of bricks and tools being dropped upon them.
Austin enthusiasts might like to look out for the A40 pickup, similar in style to the A40 Devon of the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of my favourites, they are a superbly stylish little vehicle, quite rare now, and great to look at thanks to the enclosed rear wheel covers, or “spats”, fitted to all but the later examples. Powered by a four-cylinder 1200cc engine, they drive well and, with a robust separate chassis, are quite easy to maintain. If you like a challenge, you could keep an eye open for an example of A35 pickup, but given that less than five hundred were produced, you might not want to be in a rush to buy.
Ford fans might opt to keep their eye open for an E83W ½ ton pickup. Introduced prior to the war, most survivors are 1950’s examples. Some have wooden dropside bodies, others have all-steel rear bodies. The latter tended to rot out badly and can be expensive to fix properly. Their propensity to rust means that few survive. Wooden-backed examples are generally cheaper to fix up, just make sure that all the metal fittings are still present and correct. The E83W is one of the most characterful classic pickups out there, but they are quite slow. With a comfortable maximum little over 30mph from their 1172cc engine, epic long-distance trips are probably best avoided. The later 400E would probably make for a more usable “every day” hauler, while its replacement – the Transit – in Mk1 form at least, is already keenly collected. Generally speaking, the more recent the truck, the more user-friendly it will be to own, perhaps at the cost of olde worlde charm.
Talking of Ford, if a four-cylinder engined truck doesn’t float your boat exactly, why not cast a net westwards and check out some of the American-built trucks that are around? Fords, for example the F1 and F150, are popular, many being hot-rodded. Dodges, in ½ or ¾ ton form are a sound bet too, while probably the best option – in terms of spares support and availability in the classifieds – are the Chevrolet 3100 ½ ton trucks of the 1940s and 1950s, combining as they do a distinctive look, and a smooth 235 cubic inch six-cylinder overhead valve engine.
European manufacturers churned out an impressive assortment of pickups too over the years. If a mid-sized pickup of the 1960s appeals, but the predictable choices – Morris etc - don’t excite, maybe hunting down a Peugeot 404 or Simca Aronde light commercial could be an option? Many of the aforementioned vehicles appear in the gallery section of this site.
Several trucks hard at work in the 1940s

Where can I find a classic pickup?

Several years ago one’s search would have been restricted to a small number of classic car magazines, owner’s clubs, and perhaps the weekly Auto Trader magazine. With the advent of the internet, it all changed. While supping a relaxing cup of tea, the classifieds of the world are but a mouseclick away. There are numerous websites that handle the sale of pre- and post-war vehicles. Readers in New Zealand for instance might, for instance, find it worthwhile to peruse Trade Me, while in the States several hours can easily be spent scanning the adverts on Hemmings, or on our old favourite, eBay. As the latter has sites specific to different countries, it can be well worth dusting off one’s French or German dictionaries, and venturing to foreign markets to see what they have on offer. Online translators will help with listing descriptions, and mapping tools will give you a clue regarding a pickup’s location. Red wine led to me buying some old pickups from distance shores several years ago, and I wouldn’t bet on it not happening again.
Good old-fashioned legwork can also yield results, especially if staring at a computer screen for hours on end isn’t your idea of fun. Candidates can turn up in the strangest of places, so while it sounds a tad “old school”, approaches such as placing cards in newsagent’s windows, walking around shows and autojumbles, and simply dragging conversations with friends and family around to the subject of older pickups, could just pay dividends.

Checking one over.

With a viewing lined up, it pays to prepare a little in advance. What are this model’s known weak points? Are they difficult to drive? Can they accommodate family/friends if required? Who can supply the spare parts that will inevitably be required? What prices have similar examples made recently, either on the open market or at auction? And finally, will it fit in your garage???
Many pickups share key items of running gear with contemporary saloons. Where this is the case, tired suspension or a smokey engine may not be a deal-breaker, just factor in the cost and inconvenience that making good these poor points will demand. The E83W for example shares its engine with the Ford 103E Popular, a car quite well supported engine-wise. However the gearbox, axles, suspension and steering are unique to the model, and as a result, not necessarily easy to track down in a hurry. Saying that, they’re pretty robust and rarely need wholesale replacement, but again it’s something to bear in mind.
Assuming the candidate is a runner, perform the usual engine checks. Does the oil look good and is it up to the mark on the dipstick? Has a record of servicing work been kept? Are there any strange noises coming from the engine? – try to hear it start from cold, and allow to run long enough for it to get fully warmed up. Does the clutch work correctly – any slip or gear engagement issues? The brakes should pull the vehicle up smartly and in a straight line, while on a vehicle fitted with hydraulic brakes have a look for fluid leaks around the master cylinder and also at each wheel cylinder.
There should be minimal free play at the steering wheel, some boxes can be adjusted but is there any adjustment left? The condition of the tyres can be a good guide as to the health of the steering and suspension, strange wear patterns can just be a sign of incorrect tyre pressures, but can also signify alignment issues. If the vehicle is MOT’d then, while not a guarantee of any sort, it does at least inspire a modicum of confidence in the pickup’s general condition.
By and large, mechanical defects can usually be sorted out. Of more importance though is the bodywork. As I’ve already mentioned, these haulers tend to lead a very hard life and are usually badly treated, out in all weathers, and often loaded with junk. At the end of their useful lives, some are scrapped while others are sold on. Others are simply left to rot, forgotten and unloved now that their usefulness has expired.
Replacement body parts for pickups can be extremely hard to find, often requiring similar panels to be modified to suit, or else new ones made up from scratch – at a price – by skilled body builders. Never under-estimate the cost of having bodywork fixed up properly. All-steel bodies can rot at an alarming rate, while damp conditions can soon see-off a wooden body. Termites can easily transform a once-strong ash frame to dust in hotter countries, so while the option of buying a rust-free vehicle from Australia or the USA might seem attractive, don’t forget to check out the hidden woodwork (if applicable), and while you’re at it, the interior trim – something notoriously unforgiving of temperature extremes, and general wear and tear.
Last but not least, don't forget the usual checks regarding the seller, and ensure that they are indeed the owner of the vehicle and legally entitled to sell it.
For me, old pickups appeal by and large due to their relative rarity when compared to similar cars of the era. They look interesting, can be useful if you need to move things regularly, and hold their values well. On the downside, they often can’t carry as many people as a car, and tend to be more basically equipped inside, with spartan trim and basic dashboards taking the place of leather seats and figured walnut veneers. Well researched though, they can be an excellent buy, and one that can offer a surprising number of promotional opportunities to the small-business owner, if they so desirest.