Great, Big Trucks
If settlers on the Oregon Trail had just used NAPCO 4×4 pickup trucks instead of oxen and Prairie Schooners, they’d have saved themselves a lot of time and cholera.
That’s what came to mind as I left Portland one day in early May and headed to Odell, Oregon, to meet up with Butch Gehrig and Lynn Spellman. The two men own 1951 and 1959 Chevy pickups, respectively, each fitted with a NAPCO Powr-Pak 4×4 kit. Prior to 1960, when GM introduced factory 4×4 pickups, a bolt-on NAPCO kit turned stock GM pickups into go-anywhere mountain goats for ranchers, loggers, uranium prospectors, and sportsmen with cash to burn.
NAPCO is an acronym for Northwestern Auto Parts Company, which is deceptive, because the company’s home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a far cry from the actual Northwest. Founded in 1918 by Romanian immigrant Edward Rappaport, NAPCO started out as a scrapyard. During World War II, the company produced parts for American military vehicles, which it still does today as NAPCO International. After the war ended, NAPCO, seeking new ways to sustain itself, entered the commercial 4×4 business by offering conversion kits—primarily for Chevrolet and GMC light-duty trucks, but also for Fords and Studebakers.
NAPCO was far from a four-wheel-drive pioneer, of course. Several manufacturers, including Dodge and Willys-Overland, built 4x4s earlier in the 20th century. But if you owned a GM pickup or Suburban and wanted to go off-road, NAPCO was the way. Its secret lay in the simplicity of its 4×4 hardware.
Marmon-Herrington, based in Indianapolis, is the best comparison here. Marmon had been offering 4×4 conversions for Fords since the 1930s, but it required owners to ship their truck to Indiana for removal of the body, drivetrain, suspension, and front axle so the 4×4 components could be installed. In contrast, a do-it-yourselfer with basic tools and a NAPCO kit could turn his Chevy or GMC into a rock-crawling beast in a day, with no frame cutting required. It didn’t void the warranty, and you could remove the whole kit just as easily for use on another truck when it came time to sell. NAPCO literature rightly celebrated these features.
The kits weren’t cheap, however. In 1951, a ¾-ton Chevy pickup cost about $1,500, while the Powr-Pak added another $1,200. What you got for your money was a 1,400-pound crate full of 85-percent GM factory parts (front axle and differential, brake drums, driveshaft, universal joints, etc.), plus a Rockwell or Spicer transfer case, depending on the year. Local upfitters—firms that provided aftermarket parts to upgrade factory vehicles—handled most of the conversions until 1956 (GMC) and ’57 (Chevy), when the two divisions began installing them at GM factories. The optional and handy Power Take-Off, or PTO, sent power to the front or rear through extra shafts to run winches, saws, post hole diggers, dump beds, and more. If not pioneering, quite literally, NAPCO trucks were groundbreaking rigs.
These days, we take four-wheel drive for granted. Everybody’s doing it. My quest was to see what these trucks offered the buyers of 60 years ago, when people bought them because they needed them.
Odell, a small orchard town in the Hood River Valley, sits at the base of 11,250-foot Mt. Hood, one of many volcanoes that make up the Cascade Range that runs from northern California to British Columbia. Gehrig and Spellman both have roots in the area, all the way back to those pioneering Oregon Trail days: Gehrig’s family settled in Odell in the 1880s, while Spellman’s has called nearby Vancouver, Washington, home since it was little more than Fort Vancouver, a fur-trading outpost.
We meet up at the full-service Chevron—as much community center as gas station—Gehrig’s family has owned since 1946. The pickups are parked out front and the first thing I notice is their size. Compared with most 1950s GM pickups, NAPCO trucks are mighty tall—Spellman’s ’59 ½-ton especially, thanks to its aftermarket alloys and 32-inch tires. But even on period-correct 7.00 R15 Goodyears, Gehrig’s ’51 ¾-ton, at nearly seven feet, towers.
As Gehrig leads us out of town, we get plenty of waves. The locals know these men, know these trucks. On our way to Mt. Hood National Forest, we pass through acres of pear and apple trees in glorious bloom. Oregon had an unseasonably wet and snowy winter, and Odell was hit especially hard. I’d hoped to drive these Chevys in snow and mud, but months of snowdrifts up against their cozy garages kept them in hibernation well into spring. What we have instead is 84 degrees and sunshine, though the forecast calls for a rare thunderstorm late in the day. Perhaps we’ll get some mud after all.
Ten miles south of town, just past a lumberyard, we turn off Highway 35 and onto the gravel of Pinemont Drive. Instantly we are in the trees. After a mile, we find our first two-track. Switching to four-wheel drive is easy enough: In Gehrig’s rig, a short, straight lever to the right of the long dogleg gearshift engages the system. Right of that is another to select low or high. By the mid-1950s, NAPCO had ditched the first lever (also highlighted in sales brochures: “Provides more passenger comfort”) so that the transfer case and front axle were operated simultaneously. I will attest to the comfort thing, because the pair of levers are awkwardly placed amid your passenger’s legs.
Given their size, their can-do history, and the agricultural aura these trucks emit, it’s difficult to imagine getting stuck. Barely 10 minutes into our day, however, climbing a 25-degree deeply rutted path, Gehrig buries his rear diff, and no amount of rocking or pushing will get him unstuck. Spellman has to pull him out with a tow strap.
Spellman bought his NAPCO in 2015 and spent a year bringing it back after a hard life of stump-jumping, which he describes as “whatever people do to bend a frame.” It’s got lots of personal touches, like True Blue metallic paint from a ’71 Dodge Challenger, an ididit aftermarket steering column, endless coats of varnish in the lovely oak bed, and those beefy tires.
Gehrig, on the other hand, started chasing his truck long ago. “I must have been 13 or 14 the first time I saw it,” he tells me. For about a decade he tried to find the right trade, until 1981, when the owner finally agreed to a straight swap on a ’58 International, which Gehrig knew to be worth less than the NAPCO. “He really wanted to see it get fixed up, and I guess he thought I’d do it.” And Gehrig did it, every nut and bolt in the thing, though he farmed out the body work and Forester Green paint job. Thirty years on, the restoration still looks sharp.
Both trucks are powered by Thrift-master sixes—a 216 making 92 horsepower in Gehrig’s and a 235 making 135 horsepower in Spellman’s, though any actual difference feels moot. They are both whirring, puttering workhorses; neither truck is fast. Each Chevy has a granny first gear. Gehrig once used his to send his truck across the town square while he got out and walked; the local constable was not amused. For cruising Forest Service roads, third gear seems to be the sweet spot, with enough flexibility to move at any pace from 5 mph up. Clutch and brake pedals in each are heavy and require a good standing on to operate.
There are also some stark differences in the way the trucks drive. Gehrig’s ¾-ton, on its stiffer springs, is naturally harsher, and more than once I hit the headliner as we bounce over bumps. But it’s also far easier to maneuver, thanks to those skinny tires and a steering wheel the size of a manhole cover.
At low speeds—rock crawling, rut cruising speeds—Spellman’s ½-ton offers much more of a workout. Your arms are taxed commanding the 15-inch aftermarket steering wheel and the 32s to which it’s connected. Small boulders and deep ruts send the tires where they want them to go, so the fight is white-knuckle. In the heat of the cab, it’s not long before sweat hits your eyes, and then everything burns. But it’s a good hurt, as they say. Forward progress is inevitable and unfailing, until a summit is reached or a descent is complete.
With the 1959 Chevy’s 114-inch wheelbase, both geometry and terrain sometimes conspire against you. At a crawl, all it takes is one unexpected bump, a front tire slipping off a rock, let’s say, for the truck to lurch and for you to plant your right foot—poised above the gas pedal—to the floor. Which causes the truck to lurch and buck again. You lift, you lurch, you floor it again. The rodeo continues until you either bust out your teeth on the steering wheel or, better, take a break.
We spend the rest of the day exploring old logging lanes, talking about the history of NAPCO. By late afternoon, the thunderstorm is upon us. Quickly, too, as mountain storms tend to be. Blue turns gray, birds fall silent, and we all look around to make sure we’re not the tallest things.
Those Chevy NAPCO pickups are.
The storm leaves as quickly as it arrives, and there aren’t nearly enough raindrops to make mud. Which is just fine. I’m happy to have the blue back, to hear the ravens and wrens again, to see the volcano through the trees. Instead, we head back to the valley in these great, big trucks.