Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Glen McNamara
It’s somewhat ironic that Kevin Watkins lists his dream car as being a ’53 Chev pickup. Sure, he owns the jaw-dropping example that you see on these pages, but the irony is that’s not the car he set out to build. Having owned a myriad old cars over the years, Kevin decided it was time to build something with a big block for a change. With this plan in mind, he set about sourcing and building the motor even before buying the car to drop it into.
The car he found wasn’t the pickup, but a ’63 Chev Impala. Having previously owned Chevelles and Camaros, the change of body style appealed, as did the fact the car was mint and already on the road here legally. When it arrived to him from Christchurch, though, there was a slight issue — it was too mint.
While we’ve all heard stories of cars being too good to hack up, and people doing it anyway, Kevin couldn’t bring himself to do it to a car as good as the Impala. While he could have kept the car with its small block motor, that wouldn’t have achieved the goal, so instead, he put it up for sale. It’s here that the story takes a turn, as a bloke named Gary called Kevin and asked if he was interested in a swap for a ’53 Chev 3100 pickup — yep, the exact model Kevin had thought about owning many times before.
The 3100 was a registered and warranted car that had even made it to Beach Hop. With a 327ci small block and TH350 combo in it, along with a basic front-end conversion, it was actually a pretty good truck — although there were still some serious upgrades in its future. As Kevin’s been involved in the custom car scene for so long, he’s kept an eye on who’s been building what, and when it comes to early Chev pickups, there was one shop that he’d seen nail the look he liked time and time again. That shop was Hamilton’s Rocket Speed Equipment, more commonly known simply as Rocket.
While Rocket’s bread and butter is more traditional-style hot rods, the team have turned their talent to a number of muscle cars and pickups over the years. No matter what it is they’re working on, they seem to nail not only the look but also the build quality.
When dealing with artists, it’s often best not to constrain them with preconceived ideas. Kevin knew that, so his brief to Rocket was relatively simple. In fact, it was the brief that most shops dream of getting — essentially letting the team build it how they’d like to see it, as long as it included his beloved big block engine, of course.
Paul Manders was the man who would do the majority of the work on the truck, starting with taking the body off the chassis and removing the small block engine and box. Once the body was removed, it was easy for Paul to get stuck into boxing the stock chassis rails. However, first he needed to sort out the front end. Although the original suspension was long gone, the current set-up wasn’t going to allow the truck to lie flat on the deck — one of Kevin’s must-have requirements.
To resolve this, an order was placed for a Heidts IFS set-up complete with double A-arm suspension and rack and pinion steering. The rear end of the chassis would need a bit more angle grinder work to ensure the chassis could hit the ground before the diff hit the chassis. A large custom C-notch was the solution to this problem, and one was quickly stitched into place. A custom centre cross member that tucks up nicely between the rails was added, and doubles as a mounting point for the custom four-link. While that sounds simple, anyone who’s built a four-link knows there’s much more to it than just welding a few rose joints to the end of some tube; a lot of bracketry is required to make it all work, let alone the knowledge to get it set up correctly. Having built a few of these Chev pickups, the Rocket team have that experience, as well as CAD files on hand for the bracketry.
With the fab work sorted, 2600lb airbags were fitted on both ends along with a couple of compressors, a large tank, and a Ridetech controller to make it all work. Opting for a Heidts front end gave the added advantage that a decent bolt-on braking system could be installed.
Wilwood four-pot callipers were chosen and matched with 12.19-inch rotors. An identical system was ordered for the rear, although that included an internal drum handbrake, both ends working with a Wilwood master cylinder. Rather than attach the rear callipers to the stock diff, the wise decision was made to swap it out for a Ford nine-inch — not just any old nine-inch, though, but one based on a nodular iron housing, complete with 31-spline axles, 3.5:1 gearset, and a billet alloy pinion housing.
The reason for this heavy-duty rear end was, of course, that big block engine. When purchased years earlier, the engine had been imported by a race car builder and was always destined for use on the track. Once Kevin got his hands on it though, it needed to be dialled back a bit to improve its street manners — but not enough to remove the fun factor. Glen Jennett at Engine Specialties was the guy chosen to pull the engine down and do the work, which included installing a milder camshaft and a more forgiving valvetrain. The aftermarket crank and rods were retained, although new lower-compression pistons were required to make it a bit more pump-gas friendly. While that may sound disappointing, the 550hp it produced on Engine Specs’ in-house dyno shows that it’s anything but. Those power figures are assisted by an MSD distributor, high-rise manifold, and 770cfm Brawler carb.
Once fitted into the chassis, the engine was mated to an exhaust system complete with 1¾-inch headers and twin 3-inch pipes with Flowmaster mufflers. Hanging off the back of the 427-cube motor is a GM TH400 transmission that has been built for the job with heavy-duty clutches, a shift kit, and 2800rpm stall converter.
Rocket’s hard work wasn’t over yet, as Michael Park from Barn Find Interiors was commissioned to create an interior to match the look the Rocket team had come up with. Sure, brown may not be the colour that comes to mind for most people when thinking of a custom interior, but the brown with distressed leather look that has been created suits the build perfectly. It’s not all as retro as it first appears, with a Flaming River tilt steering column and a decent amount of Cerwin Vega audio gear hidden away and operated off a Bluetooth OE-style head unit. The finishing touches to the exterior are pure retro, though, with fresh black paint applied by Chris at Counties Auto Painters along with 15-inch Wheel Vintique wheels and whitewall tyres.
With the airbags deflated, chassis hitting the ground, and retro visor tilted down for a bit of added attitude, the truck looks exactly as Kevin had hoped from the beginning. With the look and quality of the build being as good as they are, it’s pretty easy to see why Kevin no longer lists a generic 3100 as being his dream truck, but more specifically this particular 3100, built as only Rocket could.