Skin Deep

Writing: Dave Smith

Photos: Matt Woods

This beauty is more than skin deep – it’s got nothing to hide.

Customising a truck is a very personal business. If you’re in the market for one, what are the chances of finding a ready-built truck that fits exactly the mental blueprint you had in mind? Slim to negligible. However, dropping onto a truck in the first stages of its build is the best of both worlds – you’ve found the base you want, and it can be built up exactly how you want it!

Darren Dupree from Stoke Poges is the lucky owner of this beautiful ’56 F100, and he came across it while asking for advice about importing his dream truck! “I’d seen The Expendables, in which there was a ’55 Ford pick-up, and thought I just had to have one,” says Darren. “I started looking in the UK but couldn’t find anything, so I thought I’d import one ready-modified from the States. I went along to see Ruedi at Hot Rod Technologies for advice on importing, because it’s hard to buy blind, and just going on some photos and the owner’s say-so is too much of a gamble. I spotted this truck in his workshop, in bits, with the cab resting on the chassis and the chassis on its wheels, and just thought, ‘That’s it!'”

“He was building it up as a shop truck, but I asked him if it was for sale and how much it would cost to complete. I just had to work out the figures and the direction I wanted it to take from there. I wanted it 100% reliable and wanted it to drive like a modern car with power steering and brakes – I didn’t want it to look lovely and drive badly. It took about 18 months to build, but you should never rely on your first estimate – you need a back-up fund, because things will always escalate!”

We spoke with Ruedi Bartholdi, the main man at Hot Rod Technologies in Middlesex, and the main man behind the build of Darren’s ’56. “We’d bought the truck and started working on it,” says Ruedi. “It was going to be a shop truck and a showcase for our work, but then Darren came in and fell in love with it! He was looking for an F100 but didn’t know exactly what it was he wanted, and as we’d just started on the metalwork, we carried on building it for him. He said he wanted it to stand out, look better than a rat rod, but be mechanically perfect and look like a show car under the surface.”

“I wanted it 100% reliable and wanted it to drive like a modern car with power steering and brakes – I didn’t want it to look lovely and drive badly”

“We completely stripped and sandblasted the chassis, boxed the main chassis legs and installed a tubular X-shaped central crossmember that also doubles up as the transmission mount. Then we put it on the rotisserie and painted it a lovely Alfa Romeo dark metallic grey. We installed a Painless wiring kit with all the wires running inside the chassis legs from front to rear, and all the brake pipes are Aeroquip braided hoses.”

“The truck was from New York state, so when we blasted the cab it showed up all the rust and rot. We had to cut out and replace the usual areas like cab corners, lower A-pillars and door skins, but the worst part was the roof. When the truck came in it was in matt black primer, and when it was blasted we found that the roof skin was like a clamshell – it had rotted all around the front and sides down to the rain gutters. There was an inch gap, all full of filler, and when it was all blasted away you could lift the roof up like a bin lid! We had to cut it all out, then remake a roof section on the English wheel and fabricate new rain gutters so it all looks original.”

“There’s no filler at all on the truck, and any gaps have been lead-loaded. Once it was back to bare metal, Darren decided he wanted it kept that way, so we DA’d the surface and sprayed it in three coats of special lacquer that etches to bare metal, a special mix from the specialist paint suppliers we use. We rebuilt the doors, removing the quarter lights and replacing them with single-piece side windows and electric motor lifts. The switches that came with the electric window kit were nasty, plastic things so I found some vintage Sixties switches, from a Cadillac I think, and fitted those in the dash.”

“The Vintage Air air conditioning system is hidden away behind the dash, and the gauge unit came from Classic Instruments. The key things for Darren were safety and comfort, and he didn’t want a bench seat, so we found the seats from a Mercedes Sprinter van – the driver’s seat and double passenger seat – and modified the frames. They turned out to be exactly the right width for the F100 cab, and came with the seatbelts, too. I managed to source some Beluga Black leather hides that they use in Bentleys, and Jeff Mussell in Surrey retrimmed the seats and door cards, along with a new vinyl headlining. Just about every inch of the cab is Dynomatted, and I found some lovely black carpet that looks like a factory fit. The bed is lined with fresh oak and stainless strips, and all the glass is new with a light tint on the rear and side glass.”

“The running gear is a fresh crate 350 Chevy small-block with a new TH350 auto transmission and a couple of bolt-ons like Edelbrock Endurashine intake and exhaust manifolds. We fabricated the 2.5” stainless exhaust system with chrome Cherry Bomb-style silencers and a naughty switch on the dash for the electric cut-outs. With the cut-outs closed it sounds fantastic, with a lovely note to the engine, but open them and all hell breaks loose! I can’t believe how loud it is. Serck Motorsports aren’t far from us, and they made the aluminium radiator and electric fan set-up, while we made the custom-built battled fuel cell with Classic Instruments sender.”

“Underneath, there are Heidts crossmembers front and rear with a Heidts front anti-roll bar. We made our own rear anti-roll bar, had a propshaft custom-made by Bailey Morris and mounted the Ford 8.8” rear axle on a four-link. The front end uses all new Mustang II hubs, discs and calipers, with power-assisted rack and pinion steering, and there are power-assisted dual-circuit disc brakes all round. We had so much hassle getting the right wheels for this truck, but in the end got custom-made Billet Specialties five-spokes, 20×10 on the rear with 5.25” offset and 18×8 on the front with 4.75” offset. We fitted two-inch dropped spindles to the front, but it made the truck too low and Darren didn’t want air suspension, so we put the standard spindles back on and found that it sat just right.”

“With the cut-outs closed it sounds fantastic, with a lovely note to the engine, but open them and all hell breaks loose!”

“The whole build took a little over 14 months, off and on, while we were waiting for parts and such. We put so much into the truck, so much blood, sweat and tears, that we didn’t want to let it go! There’s so much detail in it that it really needs to be seen in the flesh to appreciate it. It’s not just another patina truck!”

“When I first saw it in bare metal, I couldn’t decide on a colour scheme, and a shiny paint job just doesn’t stand out any more. I had originally wanted a rat rod, so I asked if the truck could just be clear-coated to preserve its patina. I’ve only driven about 150 miles in it so far, because I’ve been waiting for the better weather. Even so, I can’t believe how many people like it – kids, ladies, old folks, they all love it. The questions I get asked the most are ‘What is it?’ and ‘Is it finished?’. Then I lift the bonnet, and it’s perfect under there, then open the door and show them the interior. It looks ratty on the outside but there have been no corners cut, and the chassis and underside look better than the bodywork up top.”

“It took some getting used to because I’ve never driven left-hand drive before, but I drove it down the road and it just came to me; you just adapt. It doesn’t hang around, it makes a lot of noise when you put your foot down and it really moves, but I just like cruising. I’ll be going back to Ruedi soon for a first service and a check- over, then I can’t wait for the summer shows. I’ve been to lots of shows with my son, and you see lots of Chevys but rarely a Ford. Before I started this build, I was going to order an Audi R8, but why spend that sort of money on something everyone has, and which people see and think ‘A**ehole’? Everyone loves a classic like this, and there are no others around either, so I plan to enjoy it this summer, then maybe take it back to Ruedi for a supercharger at some point…”

“The questions I get asked the most are ‘What is it?’ and ‘Is it finished?’”