Year/Make 1955 Chevrolet NAPCO Suburban
Owner: George VanOrden
During the recent Mid-West All Truck National’s in Riverside, Missouri, a very special truck was on display. It had been brought to the show in an enclosed trailer from Virginia.The owner is George VanOrden of Fulks Run, Virginia and the vehicle is a 1955 Chevrolet Suburban with a NAPCO 4×4 system. His personal history, leading to this restored Suburban, is a story by itself. He spent his youth in this mountain section of Virginia only 10 miles from his current home. The interest in 4×4 trucks was early in life as these type trucks were regularly seen on the rough mountain roads in his county. It is not surprising George decided to restore a 4×4 after his retirement after 20 years in the U.S. Marines.
The first candidate he bought to restore was a late 50’s GM 4×4 pickup. His high hopes slowly dropped as his wife explained “Where will you put the whole family in a truck cab as the children grow?”
A new hunt began for a 4×4 Suburban which would just “fill the bill” for a medium size family hauler. This want proved a very difficult task. Few 4×4 Suburbans were sold in the 1950’s and most were later junked or used beyond restoration by off road owners.
A year of patience and a continued search finally met success. George’s wife found an ad from a Colorado owner that described a very used but not abused 1955 Suburban 4×4. It was first owned by the Colorado Forest Service and George was to become its third private owner. Rust was limited and all mechanicals could be rebuilt or replaced.
Once back in Virginia, the surface restoration began but soon went further than new paint and a clean-up. Each part to be restored opened even deeper needs. Suddenly, George was down to the frame rails. After all, with whole family to ride in the Suburban, he needed no future problems.
A nearby professional restoration shop was hired to lift the body from the frame and restore the sheet metal. George took the chassis home. That would be his project, however the 4×4 system proved to be a real challenge. As he slowly found new NAPCO parts to make the system perfect, the remainder of the chassis needed equal treatment. Then it became a must to make it all new! He just could not go this far and not make it all perfect.
The restoration shop was contacted, “Don’t just fix the dents and paint the body. I want it new!”. Compromises were not acceptable. George’s passion became research on what the 1955 was like the day it left the Chevrolet factory. Hours of collecting literature, talking to collectors, and using his computer brought out the answers and this was followed “to the letter”. There was no turning back. The Suburban was in hundreds of pieces. Even the grain, color, and seams of the new seat material came from the samples that was on the original seat upholstery.
A set of 5 bias ply 17.5 tires was the real challenge (does any factory still make them?). George located a truck for sale that had been in storage many, many years. It had new tires with even the dimples on the tread. He bought the truck just to get the tires.
George rebuilt the Suburban’s original 235 cubic inch six cylinder engine. All parts had to be new GM. Another hunt. The differential and 4 speed transmission received the same treatment.
The above is the “tip of the iceberg” of what George did to create a new 1955 Chevrolet Suburban. The restoration time was three years, completed September 2008. It is now how it came from the factory: 235 engine, 4 speed, fresh air heater, no radio, dealer added turn signals and the NAPCO installed 4×4. Ocean green paint was found under the mirror arms so George knew the correct color.
A new enclosed car trailer was a necessity. (Even more money in the project!) As a member of the Antique Auto Club of America -AACA, George thought he would see how the Suburban would do in serious judging competition. It started in the world famous Hershey PA. Fall Show. Surprise, it received a “Junior” award, the highest for a first timer. The next spring, it won the “Senior” award at the Charlotte, NC AACA show. The same year it was given a second at the AACA “Grand Nationals” in Newburn, NC.
George’s finished product has certainly attracted the attention of even the most qualified judges. He and his Suburban can’t receive honors much higher than this!
And what happened to the thought of having a clean Suburban for the family? Well, that will be the next project.
Note: Only if you are a real “die hard” NAPCO fan should you read this part of our month’s feature truck.
The 4×4 system was made by the Northwestern Auto Parts Co. of Minneapolis, MN. -NAPCO-. Of the many 4×4 add-on companies at that time, this was by far the most popular. Most medium size hill and mountain country cities had a NAPCO dealer. (GM’s factory assembled 4×4 trucks were not available until 1957).
George’s NAPCO was the last year for the Rockwell transfer case (pumpkin on the left of center). By 1956 NAPCO transfer case was made by Spicer (pumpkin on the right of center).
The Chevrolet GMC 1/2 tons were never given a 4×4 prior to 1955. Their closed drive shaft prevented a position for a transfer case. Thus, NAPCO in the early models began with a 3/4 ton which had enough of the drive shaft open to make room for this case.
When GM introduced the open drive shaft 1/2 ton in 1955, NAPCO jumped at the opportunity to offer a 4×4 for the light trucks. A redesigned 1/2 ton NAPCO system was not ready until 1956 and would include the Spicer transfer case. Therefore, the 1955 1/2 ton like George’s Suburban, plus 1/2 ton pickups were provided with the currently used 3/4 ton front end with 8 bolt wheels but internally used the 1/2 ton ring and pinion. This gave the higher speed 1/2 ton, 3.90 ratio. On the rear, 6 bolt axle spacers adapters allowed 8 bolt wheels to match the front. Very unusual but it got NAPCO quickly into the 1/2 ton 4×4 market. The 1955 1/2 ton NAPCO’s are one year only design. They really stand all with their 17.5 tires that were actually used on most 3/4 tons.