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1953 Chevrolet Step-side Pickup

Story and photos by Jerry F. Boone

There are times that it is a bit difficult to believe everything Jeff Sawtell says.

For example, he claims his 1953 Chevrolet step-side pickup is his first vehicle restoration project.

He’d like to have you believe the first time he ever sprayed automotive paint was when he applied the color and clear coat on the truck.

And while he doesn’t claim the gleaming pickup is a daily driver, he contends he and his wife, Renee Kemnitz, have put thousands of miles on it, going to shows and cruise in and just enjoying it on the roads that surround their rural home.

Looking at the near flawless truck, it’s hard to believe. But it’s true.

The Chevy was a mess when he and his wife first spotted it in a shed in Helvetia, a rural farming community in the shadow of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.

Sawtell wasn’t looking for a truck when his wife spotted the Chevy. He was actually in the old logging town to buy stock for his custom woodworking business. He builds things like furniture, custom cabinets and curved staircases.

“My wife’s the one who fell in love with it,” he says.

“I’ve always liked older cars and trucks,” Renee explains. “They are the types of cars I grew up driving. They are what we rode in as kids.”

Jeff says not much is known about the truck’s history, other than, based on its condition, it apparently lived a very truck-like existence.

“The guy I bought it from got it after it had been abandoned in Portland,” he says. “He planned to restore it. He got as far as getting it to run and fixing the brakes, but had to put it aside.”

Sawtell says he figured he could use the truck to run business errands.

“I wasn’t planning to restore it,” he says. But once he got it into the shop to take care of a few minor issues, he just never quit.

“I took off the bed to fix it, then the front end, and eventually all that was left on the frame was the cab.”

Renee wasn’t at all surprised. Actually, she would have been amazed if it hadn’t ended up a major project.

“Jeff’s a perfectionist,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me ride around in anything that wasn’t something he would be proud to drive.”

Everything got stripped, smoothed, sanded and painted.

And Sawtell admits not everything went right the first time around.

“I never used a HVLP spray gun before,” he says. “So I didn’t realize the high volume part of the system required a larger hose than what I normally use. So there was some of that work I got to do again.”

He also discovered the truck apparently had been in an accident that compromised the driver side door pillar.

“I ended up cutting out the part I couldn’t straighten and making a patch for it,” he says. “But when I went to hang the door, it was so far off that I had to go in with a porta-power and straighten it.”

And he says he spent days and days trying to get the front fenders and hood to line up perfectly.

“I ended up just not working on it for probably a month,” he says. “A friend told me that when you aren’t having any fun on a hobby, it is time to take a break and go do something else.”

He says the best part of the project was the research.

“I bought books, talked to people, I just couldn’t get enough of it.”

One of the things he “discovered” during his research was the original color of the truck.

“While I was working on the tail gate, I sanded down into the copper color that I figured was a primer,” he says.

“Back in the ‘50s, Chevrolet apparently didn’t include a color number plate on all its vehicles, but a friend who owns a Chevy parts business said that as the trucks went down the assembly line, often someone would write on the firewall what color it was supposed to be painted.

“I began wet sanding the firewall and there it was: “coppertone”.

Unfortunately, there’s no formula for it.

But Sawtell found a piece of cowling that hadn’t been repainted red, and a local shop was able to scan the color and come up with a match.

But then there was a problem with the fenders. Sawtell knows that GM didn’t offer a two-tone paint job on its trucks ’til the following year, but he figured it is his truck so he’s doing things the way he wanted to.

There also was a time when he would walk through shopping center parking lots carrying a piece of coppertone-painted formica.

“I was trying to find just the right color to go with it,” he says. “I’d walk around rows of cars and trucks and hold it up next to all the white ones.”

The winning color came from a 2003 Dodge.

The end product ended up being a combination of original and updated parts.

For example, the old 216 cubic inch splash-lubricated engine had long since been yarded out, to be replaced with a more reliable pressure-lubed 235 six-cylinder.

But unlike many restorers who use modern radio/CD players, Sawtell insisted on having the old tube-type radio rebuilt.

“You turn it on and it still has to warm up and it makes all sorts of sounds until it gets ready to work,” he says.

And the wood decking on the bed is far from original.

Sawtell picked a vertical grain mahogany for both the bed and bed rails. He cut and finished both wood features with seven coats of marine varnish.

“Some people look at the wood and say it should be finished so the grain doesn’t show,” he says. “But the grain is part of the beauty of the wood.

“I picked the wood because I wanted something that would go well with the paint. I wanted everything to go together perfectly.”

Just like his wife predicted.

Recommendations
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Tom Brownell
How-to-Restore Your Chevrolet Pickup
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This well-reviewed book is a step-by-step restoration guide for all Chevy light-duty trucks from 1928 onwards. It shows you what tools you need, what steps to take, and estimates how long each job will take.

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1947 1942 1953 1954 CHEVROLET TRUCK Assembly Manual

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1953 CHEVROLET CAR TRUCK Accessory Installation Manual

This is a factory-authorized reproduction and covers all car & truck models.

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