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The kids are all right: Matt Keeys’ 1951 Chev pickup

6 April 2020



They say the younger generation aren’t into cars. They say they’re only interested in virtual hobbies. Matt Keeys’ 1951 Chev pickup says otherwise. Loudly!

The youth of today… They’ve got no discipline. No respect. Not to mention “entitlement” — expecting their smashed avocado, four-bedroom house with two bathrooms, and yearly overseas holiday handed to them on a plate!” 

It’s an inter-generational conflict that’s been raging for decades. The oldies consistently tar the youth — with an increasingly saturated brush — as lazy. When really, for the most part, each coming generation just wants to get on with it. 

Amidst the haze of gaming, social media influencing, and other seemingly trivial pastimes of the Playstation generation, sympathizing with this sort of sentiment isn’t difficult. But for every spring chicken out there liberally spewing hashtags, there’s another knuckling down in the shed with a rattle gun and grinder at the ready.

Matt Keeys is one of these younger blokes who sticks his metaphorical middle finger up at the notion of being pigeonholed as your everyday millennial. Sure, at only 24 years of age, the Palmy North born and bred lad fits firmly into the unfairly maligned generation. However, the story of his 1951 Chev 3600 pickup refutes any aspersions on his character based solely on age.

See, Matt never really had a chance, in the best possible way. As a wee fella, life around hot rods and custom cars was the norm. Parents Jimmy and Kerry Keeys: well, they’re a little bit well known in the scene, with Jimmy’s bare-metal, Hemi-toting ’34 Ford coupe — still a regular neck breaker — and Kerry’s satin-blue bagged ’51 Mercury (since sold) being a couple of cars Matt reckons left a solid impression on him. 

The Merc’s predisposition towards dragging steel against tarmac brings a fond grin to Matt’s face when discussing his family’s rides.

“We went to a lot of hot rod events,” Matt says of his childhood, “all around New Zealand from Kumeu to Rangiora for Muscle Car Madness. I’ve attended Beach Hop for 10 consecutive years, and remember cruising down the main drag in the bagged Mercury gaining heaps of attention!” 

So, Matt was doomed — or blessed, if you will — to create something magical. His parents had a hand in his first project a 1948 Ford Pop, acquired for $500, that quickly made way for a second Pop in better order. Team Keeys got it running, did a little bit of work on it, then subsequently sold it for a little bit of profit. Matt reckons it wasn’t quite ‘him’, and those profits would eventually filter into the purchase of the pickup.

Those formative years would also prove crucial to the build. Later years would see a teenage Matt dabbling in Photoshop, manipulating images of cars and getting an eye for proportions that were just right, furthermore, mucking about with CAD software also provided an impressive foundation for what would unfold just a few years down the track.

In 2009, the Chev came on the scene. 

“I’d never been the biggest pickup fan but came across pictures of ’47 to ’53 Chevy trucks with bags, sitting on the ground,” Matt explains. 

It lit the spark, and the search began. Matt’s folks happened to mention the hunt to Buck Rodgers, who found a ’51 pickup owned at the time by Tom Richardson. Prior to landing in New Zealand, the Chev had had a single USA owner, a farmer in Bakersfield, California. It was patinated but in solid order. Squeak Bell of Kiwi Konnection purchased and imported the pickup in 2004, and it languished for five years in an Edgecumbe lean-to.

“It hadn’t been well stored — it was covered in bird poo — but it looked great, like it had been there all its life surrounded by the old farm equipment,” Matt says of the first encounter. 

The right deal was struck, and the truck soon sat in the Keeys’ family shed awaiting its turn. 

That came five years later. It coincided with Matt beginning his apprenticeship in light fabrication. More critical skills were coming to the fore and, although he’d previously mucked around with a MIG welder, the transition to TIG welding would serve Matt well throughout the build. 

“I prefer TIG welding. It’s easier to set up, and produces a tidier weld,” he explains, before adding, “99 percent of the parts on the pickup are TIG welded!”

The plan was reasonably simple. Air bags were never in doubt; it had to be able to sit on the deck. Also a modern V8 swap of some description, with an emphasis on usability. Once the incumbent cockroaches had been bug-bombed to death, and the bird poo washed off, the build began.

With all the running gear removed, a Jag XJ6 front end and Holden diff were offered up to the virgin chassis. 

“Right then, it sat at a more reasonable height, and didn’t look like a farm truck anymore,” laughs Matt. 

The cab was in decent order, with the only rust work being in the bottom cab corners around the factory mirror and spotlight mounts. A light touch-up with a roughly colour-matched paint, scuffed back to match the patina, meant the cab and tray were good to go after a coat of PPG satin clear to lock in the age-wearied aesthetic.

The chassis was then stripped and fully boxed in the interest of strength. New cross members tied the frame rails together. Of course, the factory rails were never going to allow a ride height low enough to sit the running boards on terra firma. Out the back, a big C-notch kicks up and over the four-linked rear end — modifications that were all born through Matt’s CAD experience. 

Jimmy’s knowledge of air bags meant that Slam Specialties RE6 units were installed front and rear, with Land Rover and Isuzu Bighorn sourced shocks handling damping duties front and rear. AccuAir e-Level manages the ride height dynamically, with a pair of Viair compressors filling a five-gallon tank nestled neatly under the stained matai floorboards lining the tray.

Up front, things are a little left field. There’s not a single pushrod beneath the weathered bonnet. Instead, a Nissan VH41DE beats its bent-eight tone. It was a budget-based decision — the Nissan V8s are not cripplingly expensive — and while the unusual-looking inlet manifold gets its fair share of confused onlookers, the fitment was surprisingly simple. The inner fenders needed a minor scallop to clear the wide DOHC heads and headers, while the trans tunnel was fabricated to squeeze in the Nissan four-speed auto. The engine bay is finished with a smoothed firewall. Matt reckons more than 60 holes needed filling. The neat wiring job? Well, that’s also Matt’s handiwork, derived from a short stint of auto-sparky work experience, studying some wiring diagrams, and a solid helping of perseverance.

Inside, it’s all fairly simple: an RHD conversion — again, a triumph of fabrication know-how dictated by user-friendliness; the requisite Mexican blanket, and a sublime gold metalflake wheel donated from the SINBIN coupe provide suitable ambience. Classic instruments gauge let Matt know everything’s OK, and a Mooneyes tacho peeks out from under the dash.

The Chev sits low over its 15-inch Vintiques Artillery wheels, with no daylight between the running boards and planet Earth.

It’s fitting that, nearly five years to the day after Matt started his apprenticeship, the ’51 gained legal status. It’s a product of two distinctly different yet aligned learning processes, indicative of a mind eager to progress and a resilience of character too stubborn to simply write some cheques to get things done.

The Chev’s now completed a series of road trips — including to Beach Hop — hauled parts, and been driven daily. Matt’s objectives have been achieved. 

If this is how the next generation of customizers is going to take on the craft, the scene’s in great hands. Millennials unite! Grab your grinder and warm up the welder. The roads are yours.

Matt Keeys

Car club:
Age: 24
Occupation: Sheet-metal fabricator
Previously owned cars: 1981 Toyota Starlet (current), a bunch of ’80–’90s Toyotas, a couple of Ford Pops 
Dream car: Probably some old ’70s Toyota or maybe a 1950-’60s low-rider
Why the 3600? I came across pictures online of the 1947–’53 series Chevy trucks with air bags sitting on the ground in the States and have loved them ever since
Build time: 4 years
Length of ownership: 10 years
Matt thanks: Jimmy Keeys (Dad), Kerry Keeys (Mum), Brennan Keeys, Gemma, Tony Thake, Shane Pratt, Hartley Engines and Motorsport, Jason Coley, Danny McKenna, all the members of who have followed the build, and everyone who has said kind words about this build along the way

1951 Chev 3600
Engine: Nissan VH41DE, 4.1-litre quad cam V8, K&N filter, Commodore in-tank fuel pump, custom aluminium fuel tank, factory ignition, factory VH41 headers, twin 2.5-inch exhausts, custom-made resonators, modified twin core aluminium cross-flow Chev radiator, factory Nissan VH41 engine and transmission computers
Driveline: Nissan RE4R03A automatic transmission, Holden Commodore VN diff, 3.08:1 ratio, VH Commodore station wagon driveshaft
Suspension: Jaguar XJ6 front end, Slam Specialties RE6 air bags, Jag power steering rack with Nissan power steering pump, custom 4-link rear, Monroe shocks, Jaguar XJ6 front sway bar, Nolathane bushes, Commodore rear sway with solid rod end links, Whiteline Elastomer upper and lower control arm bushes, AccuAir e-Level air suspension management, 5-gallon aluminium air tank, 2x Viair 12v compressors, ½-inch valves, ½-inch aluminium tube airlines
Brakes: Holden Commodore VT brake booster and pedal assembly, Jaguar XJ6 vented front rotors and 4-pot calipers, VN Commodore rear discs and calipers
Wheels/Tyres: 15×7-inch and 15×8-inch Wheel Vintiques 17 Series Artillery steel wheels, 205/65R15 and 225/70R15 BF Goodrich tyres
Exterior: Matai floorboards, new old stock 5.75-inch factory optioned fog lights, big rear bumper, Resene Durepox clear coat, PPG Autothane clear with flattening base 
Chassis: Boxed rails, 7-inch C-notched rear, custom box section cross members
Interior: Mexican blanket front seat covering, gold-flake steering wheel, ’55 Chev steering column, Classic Instruments gauges, Mooneyes tachometer, Dynamat insulation, re-cored heater
Performance: Untested