Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival: GMC’s Life in the Suburbs Display
Hucksters, Undertakers, and Milkmen
By delivering more goods farther and faster to the customer, motor trucks of the early 20th century exceeded the capabilities of their horse-drawn-wagon predecessors. Though they were less speedy than cars, they still put draft horses into retirement. Besides their extended mobility, trucks—which were initially wooden-bodied—had vaulted steel roofs, providing excellent protection from the elements and inappropriately interested parties.
While the initial development of trucks became distinctly specialized, even more subtle refinements emerged by mid-century. This much was evident during October 2015 in GMC’s “Life in the Suburbs” display at the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival. It grouped vehicles that represented facets of life from the ’40s to the ’60s. The range extended from a three-wheeled ’47 Cushman scooter built for an ice cream peddler to a medium-duty ’47 Ford COE stake bed set up as a Coca-Cola theme truck.
Interpretive assistance came from Jay Ward, creative director of the great Pixar Studios movie Cars. As the festival’s special guest, Ward conducted a tour of the exhibit, and his fluid delivery brought out many otherwise unconsidered aspects.
1951 GMC Canopy Express
Take, for example, his presentation of the ’51 GMC Canopy Express. “If this was solid-side, it would be a Sedan Delivery,” said Ward, who wore a classic Williams Martini Racing cap as a subtle marker of discernment. “If it had windows and seats, it would be a Suburban.” This version on display was a standard commercial chassis.
“GMC really focused on commercial clients at that time,” Ward said. “And the idea was moving people or moving product around. That’s specifically what that division was set up for.”
The Canopy Express was outfitted for a fruit vendor, with a scale dangling in back. The obvious idea was to take goods where the shop wasn’t. Park it, and they will come. It wasn’t a new idea. “Huckster” trucks had been around for decades. But the Canopy Express offered the latest construction, with steel bodywork and a wooden load floor. It afforded greater security, not to mention reasonable driving performance. Ironically, sales of Canopy Express trucks diminished as suburbia spread and shopping centers were developed.
Finishing his exposition, Ward cast his eye upon the cargo.
“Did you guys want a fresh piece of fruit? Help yourself. You can tell that stuff’s ready to eat. Go ahead, dive right in. Have a banana while you’re here.”
Rick Hendrick’s 1948 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery
The GMC came from the GM Heritage Center, but most of the vehicles in “Life in the Suburbs” were supplied by individual collectors. Rick Hendrick, the automotive megadealer and incomparably successful NASCAR team owner, sent the ’48 Chevrolet Stylemaster Sedan Delivery that’s one of about 100 vehicles housed at the Hendrick Heritage Center, near Charlotte. Although this example was originally sold by a Connecticut dealer, the side panels bear the legendary J.R. Hendrick General Merchandise, Palmer Springs, Virginia, logo. Indeed, it was behind his grandfather’s store (which is replicated in the Charlotte museum) that Hendrick first worked on cars.
Like Chevy’s other light trucks, the Sedan Delivery used the 90hp Thriftmaster 216ci six-cylinder engine and three-speed manual transmission with column shifter. The main attribute, as Ward pointed out, was that the Sedan Delivery offered security for goods being delivered or tools for mobile repairs. Despite all the flashy chrome, it was an inexpensive choice for business owners.
“It looks a bit hearse-like,” he said. “But typically, for a hearse, you’d want your last ride to be your best and get a Cadillac.” Nevertheless, where people lived unpretentiously, some Chevys may have served as hearses. “Also they were used for flower delivery, because you want to keep the flowers out of the sun. And like electronics, or anything that was expensive, it was perfect to keep those in the back.”
A front bench seat provided all the accommodations. Optional equipment and features were limited. Rear access was an important point, though. “You could get a single door swing-out, or you could get a dual door swing-out.”
In the ’60s, panel trucks were replaced by vans of taller “one-box” design, like the Ford Econoline and Dodge Tradesman, which had side access doors. The form continues to evolve through the latest generation of work vans that offer walk-through capability, 60/40-split rear doors, and sliding side doors.
1948 Divco Model UMB Milk Truck
Was anything as winningly dumpy looking as the Divco Model U milk truck? Detroit Industrial Vehicles Company (Divco) was conceived in 1924 to build multistop delivery trucks for milk routes. In the ’30s, its walk-in vans adopted styling that emulated the Chrysler Airflow design in place of the original’s boxy forward-control look and the succeeding Model G’s short square hood. The Model U, introduced in 1939, featured a welded steel body and semiautomatic folding doors.
At very early hours, and rarely faster than 35 mph, Divcos bumbled through every neighborhood in America. Power from a 40hp Continental four-cylinder engine was transmitted through a four-speed gearbox. The brakes, clutch, and electrical generating system were heavy-duty. No ignition key or door locks were needed. The driver could sit or stand while operating this rig.
What no one imagined of a Divco Model U was that its parts could serve other purposes. Ward pointed out the 18-inch stamped steel wheels became popular with hot-rodders, who mounted them at the rear to give coupes and roadsters an aggressive stance.
After WWII, demand for milk trucks surged. Divco produced 7,000 units per year and even offered a long-wheelbase model with a six-cylinder engine and GVW of 12,000 pounds.
The ’48 example presented at Hilton Head by local collector Bob Gregory sported impeccable Twin Pines Dairy livery and reminded its many admirers that a form as purposeful as this snub-nosed box can have its own charm, giving us yet another reason to love our trucks.
’45 GMC Sinclair tanker truck.
’47 Ford COE stake bed truck.