Vintage Chevy Stands Out in a Crowd

Paired with modern amenities, plumbing truck’s accessibility and functionality fuel drive for efficiency.
Vintage Chevy Stands Out in a Crowd
A flip-top storage compartment and three side cabinets provide plenty of room for hand-held tools and fittings.

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Terry Swney just might drive the most unusual — and coolest — service vehicle around. It’s a Frankentruck of sorts that marries the cab of a restored 1955 Chevy 3/4-ton pickup with the chassis and drivetrain of a 1997 GMC 3500 and a modern 8-foot-long utility bed that offers plenty of storage for tools and parts.

Nicknamed “Buster” (the name of its former owner), the eye-catching truck does more than just help Swney stay organized. It also serves as a marketing campaign on wheels for Tonkin Plumbing, the company he co-owns with partner Phillip Tonkin in Riverside, California.

“Phillip and I are old-school and we’re kind of known around town for being old school plumbers,” says Swney (pronounced “Swee-nee”). “And Buster takes that to the next level. I really think that the truck’s retro look helps create the perception that we’re old school and will do jobs the old-fashioned way — do them right.”

It took about eight months to completely overhaul Buster, which Swney discovered in a California orange grove. It’s hard to believe that the once-rusting hulk is now a gleaming, fully restored vehicle, right down to the period-correct color, skyline blue, which was the color of Swney’s first service truck. (The master plumber has been in the industry for 35 years.)

But the retro look doesn’t mean the truck lacks for modern amenities. In back of the cab, a utility bed manufactured by California Truck Equipment Company provides all the storage capabilities of a modern-day service vehicle, even though it blends perfectly with the vintage cab. Swney credits Michael Mobley, the owner of Brand New Classics, with uniting the truck’s disparate components into one seamless package.

“We were quite surprised at how well it worked out,” Swney says. “And Michael has even taken Buster to car shows and won a few trophies.”

Swney opted for a new 4- by 8-foot utility bed because the original wouldn’t fit on the GMC chassis. But he’s pleased with the results, which feature a storage tray with a flip-up lid on top and three cabinets below on each side. Swney stores the tools used most on the passenger side, so he doesn’t have to stand in the street. Less-frequently used tools are stored inside the driver-side cabinets.

The top trays hold a multitude of miscellaneous copper and steel fittings up to 1 inch in diameter. In the cabinets, Swney stores items such as hand threading equipment made by RIDGID; hand tools made mostly by Craftsman, RIDGID and Channellock; a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera; and a portable Spartan 100 drum drain cleaning machine from Spartan Tool (for cleaning kitchen drains and other small lines). LED lights in each storage compartment enable Swney to keep working when it gets dark.

Most of his battery-powered tools — from drills to a reciprocating saw — are made by RIDGID. A 4,000-watt inverter in one of the storage cabinets keeps the tools fully charged.

“It’s really handy because I can charge my power tools while I’m driving,” Swney says. “There’s nothing worse than having a flat battery when you need it.”

The inverter is about half the size of a briefcase, occupying the top shelf in one of the storage bins.

“And I can run other electric-powered machines, like my drain cleaning machine, off it if there’s no electric on a job,” he says.

Swney carries a GO1500A electric-powered water jetter made by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain in the open bed. The jetter delivers up to 1,500 psi, flows to 2.1 gpm and can clean lines from 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. The company also owns a Gorlitz GO3500 (3,500 psi at 5.5 gpm) jetter and a Spartan 1065 drum drain cleaning machine, both good for clearing lines up to 6 inches in diameter. But because they are too heavy to lift, Swney uses another service truck, equipped with a small crane, to deliver them to job sites.

Buster has aftermarket air conditioner and heater in the cab, which features a new stereo that includes Bluetooth wireless connectivity.

“The stereo even fit in the original holes in the dashboard,” Swney says. “Overall, I got the best of both worlds — I was pleasantly surprised at the options available in terms of adding modern conveniences to an old truck.”

To stay organized and boost efficiency, Swney keeps an erasable whiteboard in one of the driver-side tool bins. Every time he uses a part, he writes it down so he knows what to restock at the end of the day.

“That saves me a lot of time by not going back and forth to supply houses,” he says. “I don’t have to leave a customer’s house and then drive back. No customer likes to see that.”

They do, however, like to see Buster.

“We always get calls from people who ask us to send the blue truck,” Swney says. “Some people just love the fact that we’re reusing an old truck.”

Swney admits the ’55 Chevy doesn’t handle like the 2005 1-ton GMC crew cab pickup he drove before he found and rescued Buster. He also misses the GMC’s spacious interior, including the extra row of seating.

“But I’m OK with sacrificing those things,” he says. “It’s a small price to pay for driving such a cool truck every day.”


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