1961 GMC Suburban Combines the Best of Both Worlds
Old Dog New Trick: A Stout Duramax and Modern Chassis Make Michael Wymer’s ’61 GMC Suburban Very Special
Before you start thinking you know exactly what you are looking at here, give us a chance to explain. This is not just a ’61 GMC Suburban body on an ’05 chassis. It’s also not simply an early ’Burban with a 6.6L Duramax LLY engine swapped into the engine bay. It is in fact one of the most impressive integrations of interesting old sheetmetal, modern diesel power, and modern chassis technology we’ve seen in a long time. This truck was not built by someone who makes a living creating such things. It was developed by Michael Wymer, an amazingly talented fabricator and mechanic who actually pays the bills by building custom homes in Wyoming. And, similar to his discerning customers who demand their vision be executed to perfection in a home, Michael saw to it that his master plan for this build was adhered to in the same uncompromising manner. The end result is a unique rig with classic looks blended with modern, tire-shredding power and great ride quality.
While Michael’s reasoning for building this truck was pretty straightforward, the process to actually construct it certainly was not. “I set out to build something that is show worthy, but also usable as a daily driver and tow rig to haul my other hot rods and toys to events,” he says. If you are expecting us to start rattling off the names of the shops that did the chassis work, the body modifications, and the paint, you better stop reading now because one man—Michael—built this truck.
If you have ever seen a stock ’61 GMC Suburban, you’ll remember it is factory-equipped with very narrow tires that are tucked pretty deeply into the wheel openings. Because Michael’s plan was to use the ’05 GMC Sierra 2500HD chassis, add a suspension lift, and fit the requisite big wheels and tires to complete the look, he knew the effort would be much more complicated than a straight body swap.
“Modern trucks have a wider track in the front than they do in the rear. So, if I had kept the ’05’s stock front track, the tires would stick out a lot once the body was in place,” Michael says. “I corrected the problem by first adding the lift kit and narrowing the ’05’s front track width with shorter CV axles and custom upper control arms, before I actually tore the ’61 down to the frame.” We told you Michael is a stickler for details and getting things right! Before stripping that truck down to the frame, he made sure the narrowed front-end track was working correctly and that it would be issue free over many miles on the road.
Having two bare framerails made it far easier to remove a 36-inch section to achieve the Suburban’s wheelbase length. “I Z-notched the frame, plated it, welded it, and bolted it back together,” Michael says. “After all that, it is now much stronger than it was when it left the factory.”
It was at this point that Michael started preparing the Suburban’s body-mounting locations and floor. After that was mocked up, he removed the frame, had it sandblasted, and painted the whole thing with rust-proof paint. The next step was to shorten brake lines, fuel lines, the driveshaft, and such. Once the frame was fully prepared, the Suburban body was mounted using the polyurethane mounts from the ’05 truck, which are great for isolating noise and vibration so the ride quality and driving experience are top notch.
Since Michael is a hot-rodder at heart, there was no way he was going to allow the 6.6L Duramax LLY engine to remain stock. A Danville Performance 68mm Stage 2 billet turbocharger kit, Pacific Performance Engineering exhaust manifolds, Industrial Injection 100-percent-over CP3 injection pump, Sinister Diesel high-flow intake tubes, and a Magnaflow 5-inch exhaust take care of the engine’s breathing and fuel. The combination adds up to 427 hp and 754 lb-ft of torque, annihilating tires and chewing up just about anything Michael and the Suburban encounter on the street.
Getting the large powerplant into the rather confined dimensions of a ’61 Suburban put Michael’s mechanical and planning skills to the absolute test. “This was a huge challenge,” he says. “The nose of the Suburban is very shallow and short in comparison to newer trucks. I ended up rebuilding the entire core support and building the intercooler into it so the engine would fit. Space was so tight I could not reuse the factory fan. Instead, I used two 16-inch electric fans and they do a great job cooling the engine.”
As evidenced in the photos, Michael’s packaging job and work are spot on. Most people would simply hide as many wires as they could, get the Suburban to run, and then live with as many of the functions that will work with the hodgepodged electrical system of a rig that’s more than a half-century old. Michael is not most people. Instead, he stayed true to the path of perfection he had been on throughout the entire build and did it the exceptionally awesome but hard way.
“I started by mounting an ’05 GMC steering column, gas and brake pedals, and heater core, and then I laid out all the knobs and buttons where I wanted them to go,” Michael says. “When the truck was originally disassembled, I was overly careful not to disturb any of the stock wiring harnesses. It was a very time-consuming process, but when it was all said and done I was able to plug all the items right back in. Because of that, things worked great!”
The final fabrication tasks included moving the rear wheelwell back 3 inches (to center the wheel and proportion the back of the truck), grafting the ’05 fuel-filler door onto the Suburban, and then filling every visible seam on the body with welding wire to achieve a smooth overall look.
Michael attacked the paintwork with the same vigor that was used for the rest of the build. “I spent months prepping the Suburban for paint,” he says. “I am always very critical of bodywork and accept nothing less than perfect. I stuck with a ’60s-era turquoise and a white roof because I feel it is iconic of the time period,” Michael says. “People can tell it is an old-school rig coming down the road from a mile away. This truck gets more smiles and waves than any other car or truck I have ever built.”
Fast Facts:Year/Make/Model: ’61 GMC Suburban
Owner: Michael Wymer
Hometown: Whitefish, Montana
Fuel economy: 22 mpg highway/16 mpg city/10 mpg towing
Engine: 6.6L Duramax LLY V-8
Fuel: AirDog 165-gph lift pump, Industrial Injection 100-percent-over CP3 injection pump, stock injectors
Air: Danville Performance 68mm Stage 2 billet turbocharger kit, stock GMC intercooler, custom intercooler tubing, Sinister Diesel high-flow intake tube, and an S&B Filters cold-air-intake system and filter
Exhaust: Pacific Performance Engineering exhaust manifolds and downpipe, Magnaflow 5-inch pipe and muffler
Transmission: ATS Diesel Performance Extreme LCT Allison 1000 five-speed automatic
Fluids: Royal Purple synthetic
Power: 427 hp
Torque: 754 lb-ft
Tires: 35x12.50R20 Toyo M/T
Wheels: 20x12 Fuel Hostage
Suspension: Custom upper control arms, shortened CV axles (front); Fabtech Motorsports 6-inch lift (front and rear)
Body: Extensive hidden modifications to mount ’61 GMC Suburban body on ’05 GMC Sierra 2500HD frame, rear wheel openings moved back 3 inches
Interior: ’05 GMC Sierrra 2500HD wood-finished floor, modern seats, power options, intermittent wipers, instruments, and more
Fun Fact: A 235ci I-6 and 283ci V-8 were the two engine options for GMC’s Suburban in 1961. The 6.6L Duramax LLY in Michael’s truck produces more power than the two early powerplants combined.