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For Ipswich mechanic, rebuilding ’57 Chevy a labor of love

The 1957 Chevrolet pickup restored in Ipswich by Dick Theriault.

Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe

The 1957 Chevrolet pickup restored in Ipswich by Dick Theriault.

IPSWICH — In his 1976 No. 1 country hit, Johnny Cash tells about the Cadillac he built “One piece at a time . . . and it didn’t cost me a dime.” That’s because the parts were purloined off the assembly line over 20-plus years.

Dick Theriault, who specializes in classic car repairs and restorations at his classic car shop, North Shore Performance on Route 1 in Ipswich, knows about that one piece at a time process. He recently finished rebuilding a 1957 Chevrolet 3100 half-ton pickup truck, piece by careful piece. He finished the job in four years of his spare time; it did, however, cost him many barrels full of dimes.

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There’s no predicting why a person falls in love with certain cars. Theriault, for example, previously had done a frame-off restoration of his 1971 Oldsmobile 442 convertible, a car that was a big attention-getter in his shop.

But one day he noticed a ’57 Chevy truck parked outside of Art’s Garage in downtown Ipswich. Time moved on, but that truck just stayed put.

So he made inquiries. “It needs an engine, and the owner is trying to get up the money,” was the response. Eventually the truck wound up parked out back of Art’s on the grass. Every now and then, Theriault would ask again.

“I knew once they parked it on the grass it would be going downhill fast,” he said.
“The dampness just eats away at a car.’’

Finally, after three years, the owner relented and sold him the truck. It arrived at North Shore Performance on a ramp just before Christmas in 2009.

‘At the end of that first day, after they planted it outside my shop door, I asked myself, for the first of many times, “What have I gotten myself into?” ’

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“At the end of that first day, after they planted it outside my shop door, I asked myself, for the first of many times, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Theriault said.

He’s not sure whether that was before or after he met the mice.

“I saw a mouse stick his head out of the tailpipe and found out the mice had turned the cab into a condominium. It was nasty in there, filled with wet mouse droppings. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t get sick just cleaning it out.”

But cleaning was just the first step before the total restoration. It started with gutting the truck — removing glass, interior, engine, fenders, bed, and transmission — leaving just the rusty metal cab on a rolling chassis.

That was what he rolled outside to be pressure washed, then sent to be sandblasted. Once it came back, he removed the cab from the frame and sandblasted the remainder.

The frame was reinforced and cleaned, new metal was welded to refurbish the cab, and new floorboards installed. The original fenders and a hood from a donor truck went through the same process.

“Fortunately, it’s a popular truck, and you can buy just about any part for them,” said Theriault.

Then he assembled the truck for the first of two times. “You have to make sure everything fits together OK after all the welding and repairs, and then make sure there’s room for the engine and transmission you’re going to use,” he said.

Meanwhile, he tore down the engine that came with the truck — a V-8 that had replaced the stock six-cylinder. The V-8 didn’t look too bad at first. “The oil was OK, and the antifreeze still was green,” he said, but he soon found the engine had a cracked block.

He put that problem on hold while he did the body work, and one day an engine almost literally fell into his lap when his Snap-on Tools representative offered him a 350 cubic-inch Chevy engine with only 37,000 miles on it from a 1979 truck he was parting out.

Theriault was tempted to use the engine as it was, then opted to tear it down. He sent out the block to be overhauled, then reassembled it himself and installed it on the by-now refinished chassis, with boxed frame rails to accommodate the V-8’s repositioned engine mounts.

The work-in-progress became a conversation piece for both new and regular customers.

“Just firing up that engine for prospective customers brought me two more engine jobs,” Theriault said, “because not only could the customers see and hear how smoothly their own new engine would run, but how clean and new it would look.”

One customer also wound up buying Theriault’s Olds 442, money that helped defray the costs of rebuilding the Chevy truck. Theriault estimates — conservatively — 800 hours of labor and $25,000 in parts went into the truck project.

Building out the rest of the truck “was basic hot rod stuff.” That meant things such as relocating front shock absorber locations to accommodate power steering.

Then it was time to take it apart again. This time, body parts were painted inside and out; glass, hardware, and rubber seals and weather stripping got installed. Theriault chose 1967 Corvette Marlboro Maroon as the main color, offset by period correct Polo White accents. He did all the prep and painting himself.

While the Chevy looks bone stock on the outside, it has plenty of upgrades: the V-8 engine; an automatic transmission with overdrive; power disc brakes; updated AM/FM radio, power steering; and even air conditioning.

The bottom of the pickup bed is highly finished southern yellow pine.

“You can get any kind of wood you want for the bed,” said Theriault, “but I opted for the yellow pine. That was what they originally used.”

Wood beds? Didn’t they use metal back then?

“Nope, it was southern yellow pine,” he said. “They just painted it black.”

Theriault has one job left to completely finish the truck. He’s rejected the notion of doing any pin-striping or his name painted on the doors.

Still, he’s got to put his name on it someplace, much as an artist signs a painting.

“There’s a bracket for a side-mounted spare tire,” he said. “I think I’ll mount a spare and get a tire cover made up to advertise the business.”

So, with this job done, what’s next?

“I wouldn’t mind doing another Chevy truck like this,” he said. “But if I do, I’ll make sure to start with a rust-free example.”

Bill Griffith can be reached at WGriff@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrAuto
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