July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Concours show to celebrate the early era of luxury pickups

Plymouth — Pickups are among today’s hottest selling vehicles and luxurious ones at that. Many feature heated seats, remote starters and the smooth rides once reserved for passenger sedans.

Modern trucks’ more primitive ancestors were stripped-down utility vehicles with no frills and few comforts. Until, that is, designers in the mid-1950s decided to transform these homely ducklings into glamorous swans.

The result of those makeovers will be showcased in the “Jet-Age Pickup” class Sunday at this year’s Concours d’Elegance of America at St. Johns. From the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier to the 1957 International Harvester “Golden Jubilee” to Pontiac’s one-of-a-kind answer to Chevy’s El Camino car-pickup hybrid, these high-style haulers illustrate the early evolution of the pickup from utility vehicle to personal transporter.

“Everybody remembers old Uncle Fred’s work truck,” said Greg Cockerill, one of the volunteer organizers of the class. “But most of us never saw these versions in person – these are the glamour trucks that you’d only see in brochures.

“They’re the first luxury pickups where they really tried to make a truck exciting and stylish, with lots of attention to detail – something you’d be proud to drive.”

Most of the upgraded trucks were low-volume productions, designed to lure consumers into the showroom, Cockerill said. That makes locating and restoring what few were out there even more of a challenge than it is with commonplace vintage cars.

It took nearly a year of networking for Cockerill and co-organizer Tony Hossain to round up 11 models from the 1950s; the task was more difficult because they challenged themselves to find out-of-state owners so Metro Detroit visitors to Concours could enjoy a glimpse of trucks they won’t encounter at local cruises and club meets.

They searched on the Web, consulted judges and technical advisors at other shows, and got leads via word of mouth. Sometimes the trail went cold but occasionally they hit the jackpot, as when they found a pristine 1959 El Camino owned by Jane Angenendt down in Jefferson City, Mo.

“We are very adamant about authenticity: We not only want beautiful cars, but they need to be technically accurate,” said Cockerill. “With the El Camino in particular, it’s difficult to find someone with the restraint to stick to the original Spartan interior; people are always putting Impala interiors or something into them to make them more luxurious.

“That’s why we really pressured Jane to bring her car here.”

And that’s why Angenendt was out “waxing on that truck for days,” last week, she said. Like many classic car owners, she’s found that the “El,” as she calls it, has added a lot more than sheet metal to her life. From new technical skills to long-time friendships to road trips and trophies, the $300 impulse purchase in 1974 has resonated throughout its owner’s life.

“I wasn’t into cars. I actually bought it from a fella at work to haul trash in,” said Angenendt, a retired journeywoman bookbinder. “Back in ’74 women didn’t drive a truck unless they were a farmer’s wife. My mom owned a small apartment house and I bought it to use.”

When the guys at work told her the sapphire blue El Camino, with its sweeping fins and cat-eye taillights, was from the first model year, however, Angenendt’s antique-collector instincts kicked in. She’s since spent 40 years researching the car’s provenance (she’s pinpointed the week in July it was likely built at Chevy’s St. Louis assembly plant) and repairing the work of previous owners.

“When I bought it, it had a hopped-up 283 (engine) in it, and for a while it had been a race truck out in California – it held the record on a drag strip. But it took me from 1974 to 1986 to find out what engine was supposed to be in that old heifer!”

By the time it was all over, Angenendt had purchased a couple of other cars for parts, including one ’59 Chevy station wagon she bought just to scavenge the bolts out of the tailgate.

“The car has really pulled some high points into my life. It’s become a child, in a way. I’ve raised it,” she said.

Tom Gerrard of Manalapan, Fla., is another car owner who loves the thrill of the hunt and he’s bringing to the Concours a very special find indeed: the only existing Pontiac Safari “El Catalina” truck, which was designed as a counterpart to the El Camino but never produced.

A hand-built prototype, Gerrard’s car was used as a parts delivery truck by a Pontiac dealer and eventually ended up with another collector, whose restoration attempts didn’t see fruition. Gerrard bought it in 2008, had it hauled to a shop in Massachusetts and the three-year project began. “I told them, this is the only one – we’re not going to get another shot,” Gerrard recalled. “Do it like jewelry.”

A sharp eye helped in ferreting out authentic components for the car, which was built on a Safari station wagon platform. Notes on some cardboard inside a seat cover led down one trail; a tiny part number on a crumbled rubber tread led to an unbelievable $12 find of an authentic replacement on eBay. “Those are the good days, when you’ve got a big smile,” said Gerrard, who also was smiling when the El Catalina received a rare perfect score and Best of Show award in 2011 at the Annual National Pontiac Oakland club meet.

Detective work of a different sort led James Costa to the pickup he recalls riding in as a seven-year-old. Back then, Costa’s late dad, Louis, ran a plumbing business and splurged on a brand-new 1957 Ford Styleside in Starfire blue and Colonial White.

“I remember the day he got it,” said Costa, also a retired plumber. “It had a chrome bumper and a chrome grille – trucks just didn’t look like that!”

The upgraded price tag caused a few mild family squabbles, but the truck was source of pride for several years, and as an adult Costa kept an eye out, finally spotting a similar Styleside at a show in Hershey, Pa.

“It was in disrepair and it was painted red,” he said. “But otherwise it was the exact truck my dad had. And every piece of sheet metal on it was original.”

Years of restoration brought the Styleside to its current show-ready condition.

“I did most of the mechanical work, assembly, wiring, all of that,” said Costa. “People ask me all the time if I’d consider selling it. But I never will. This has been a real labor of love.”

These are only a few of the fascinating tales the Jet-Age pickups have to tell when they take their place amid the other Concours classics on Sunday.

“Pickups are a bit outside the parameter of a Concours event,” said Cockerill. “But we think it will be a surprise success. These are vehicles most of us have never seen before, and never will again.”