Jeff Emerson’s Chev pickup is just a dirty old beater to him. But, while he treats it like one, it’s a little cooler than your average
We’ve been trying to wrangle Jeff Emerson into featuring his ’56 Chev truck for quite some time, but he kept putting it off. “To me, it’s an old beater,” he says. “I rag the hell out of it, do burnouts any chance I get — legally, of course — and I never even wash it!” — which is what makes it so cool. The truck is that rarest of rare things — a restored old-school pickup truck that actually gets used for pickup-truck things — and that all comes down to its owner.
Jeff gets things done. He’s the kind of guy who will get an idea in his head and will stick at it until it’s come to fruition. Eight years ago, he was working on a nine-month dairy-factory contract in Invercargill, when he saw an old truck in a rural lean-to just down the road from where he was staying. His curiosity didn’t let that avenue go unexplored, and he could see the potential in what turned out to be a bit of a wreck.
“It was used as a parts car for another vehicle, and the chassis was toast,” he recalls.
Before long, Jeff had a new project on his hands — more than 1000km from home, in the middle of a freezing southern winter. Jeff tucked into the rebuild by scratch-building a chassis and finding all the missing parts required to complete it. As it would turn out, this was easier said than done. The missing doors and patch panels for the rusted-out lower cabin were sourced from Chuck’s Restoration Supplies. Everything else was hand-built by Jeff in the little shed he was borrowing from Neil and Joan, the couple whose place he was boarding at.
“Every night, I would take my welder and grinder from work and do a couple hours’ work on her,” Jeff says, “mixed in with about four hours of drinking Heineken and talking shit!”
It wasn’t all mucking around, though, as Jeff soon had the truck’s body ready enough for him to contact the local paint shop to order a batch of custom orange. “I opened the tin, and it looked pretty red to me,” Jeff recalls, “so I called them to tell them they’d made a mistake and sent me the wrong colour. They were sure they hadn’t and told me to look at it in sunlight — so I did and, yeah, it could have passed for orange. I sprayed it on, and it was red!” he laughs — although he was a little gutted about it at the time.
The small matter of the colour aside, Jeff was making remarkable progress on the build. He had the truck running with its all-new set-up within six months, before shipping it back home to the Waikato to finish it off. However, it wasn’t entirely plain sailing. As cool as building your own chassis is, Jeff found that the scratch-built chassis made it very difficult to get the Chev legal. To get around that obstacle, Jeff sourced a standard chassis from Dale ‘Diago’ Gerrand at Cambridge Panelworks, and then proceeded to build something more legit.
“I always liked the pro-street look, so the new chassis was done no differently from the first one [that] I built,” Jeff says.
The rear end was chopped up and grafted together, eight-inches narrower, with an eight-inch kick, to fit the fat rubber and give a super-tough stance. In addition, a fully adjustable four-link system was built in to suspend the Ford nine-inch diff, with a Panhard bar mounted so as to sit perfectly horizontal. Jeff decided to go for a Jaguar front end instead of the Mitsubishi L300 front that he’d used previously, as larger front brakes were required — plus, the Mitsubishi’s metric sizing was a right pain in the arse. The Jaguar clip was modified to accept QA1 coilover shocks for a degree of handling finesse, and its factory-fitted four-piston calipers do well to haul up the hefty lump of iron above.
Jeff had actually been running a big block crate engine for the majority of the time the truck had been complete, although it was only a stop-gap while the new engine was being built. The 454ci big block Chev was sourced from Charlton Auto Imports in Gore, and bolted together by Jeff’s brother-in-law, Bruce McLean. “He was well versed in the drag racing scene many moons ago — under the wing of Garth Hogan, I believe — which made him the obvious choice to build my engine and box,” Jeff says.
It’s a pretty mild rebuild but more than enough to reliably do everything Jeff’s ever needed it to. The standard crankshaft is held in place with ARP studs, and Sealed Power pop-tops bump compression up to a decent 10:1. “Bruce was pretty disgusted with me wanting to run the standard heads!” Jeff laughs, but he assures us that they are only temporary, and will remain on until he finds something else to bolt to the top — which may happen sooner rather than later. Following a big burnout at Powercruise earlier this year, Jeff reckons he may have hurt something in the left-hand head — not that it stopped him from doing another skid for our photo shoot! — and expressed thoughts of installing a pair of aftermarket alloy heads.
Other than that, though, Jeff’s more than happy with the old Chev exactly how it is. Yeah, it’s a little rough, but definitely not as rugged as Jeff makes it out to be — especially considering he did the panel and paint on the cab and tray by himself! This truck was built to be driven, and with good reason — as Jeff tells us: “My last car was an XW Falcon that Warren at Flamin Body Shop made so perfectly straight and mint [that] I was too scared to drive it the way I like to drive things.”
Jeff’s mission was simply not to get too carried away with the truck build — although that didn’t stop him from taking it back to the boys at Flamin Body Shop. They sorted the stuff he couldn’t, with Zane taking care of panel and paint on the doors and front tin, and Warren doing the rear guards and tailgate. “The tailgate is possessed!” Jeff says. “I had already had two goes at it before Warren fixed it just last week!”
Jeff also had Warren fill in the old fuel-filler hole — Jeff had built an under-tray aluminium fuel cell. With those touch-ups done, Jeff is content. That’s probably why he finally relented and let us feature it, even going so far as to give it a wash for the photo shoot. It ain’t no show pony, and that’s why it’s so cool.
Jeff ‘Sconey’ Emerson
Previously owned cars: 1946 Chev pickup, 1970 Ford Falcon XW, 1938 Chev coupe, 1948 Chev pickup
Dream car: They all are
Why the pickup? It chose me
Build time: Nine months initially, then 12 months the second time
Length of ownership: Eight years
Jeff thanks: Warren and Zane at Flamin Body Shop; ‘Moneybags’ at Waikato Motor Trimmer; Bruce McLean; my wife, Kim, for all her hard work in helping with the build; and my father, Bruce Emerson, for my horsepower addiction
1956 Chev 3100
Engine: 454ci big block Chev, ARP studs, standard crankshaft, standard rods, Sealed Power dome-top pistons, 10:1 compression, mild camshaft, standard ‘peanut’ port heads, Comp Cams roller-tip rockers, 750cfm Holley carburettor, Holley mechanical fuel pump, MSD ignition, custom headers, two-inch primaries, three-inch exhaust, big alloy radiator
Driveline: GM TH400 three-speed auto, manual valve body, Ford nine-inch diff, custom driveshaft
Suspension: Modified Jaguar Series 3 front suspension, QA1 single-adjustable coilovers, fully adjustable four-link rear, Panhard bar, Nolathane bushes, Kevlar-lined rose joints
Brakes: Nissan Skyline GT-R booster, Jaguar four-piston front calipers, Ford rear drums
Wheels/Tyres: 15x7-inch and 15x10-inch Billet Specialties Street Lite wheels, Hercules front tyres, Hoosier Quick Time rear tyres
Exterior: Shaved badges, shaved fuel-filler cap, custom ‘orange’ paint
Chassis: Custom chassis, narrowed eight inches with eight-inch rear kick-up; Jaguar front end
Interior: Factory bench seat, Lokar shifter, Flaming River steering column, Auto Meter gauges
Performance: Yet to be timed — waiting for new engine parts
This article originally appeared in NZV8 magazine issue No. 140. You can grab a copy of the mag by clicking the link below: