Mysterious Saga of 1940 Buick Pickup Truck
Article written by Gary Hopcraft
Historian for this vehicle
Almost everyone loves a mystery, so here are the clues to the existence of the only 1940 Buick (Roadmaster) pickup truck known to be in existence. Here is a real vehicle, the remaining one of four Buick Pickup trucks that were never “officially” built as concept or prototype vehicles, but were custom crafted by Buick Engineering in Flint, MI for use only as intra-factory service.
The vehicle featured here does have a reasonably complete history, having been in the possession of four known persons since the 1940’s, and the assumption that it was Buick owned from the time of assembly to after WWII. Research to date has not provided a “period” photo or documentation to absolutely prove its actual creation by Buick Engineering. However there are four important points to consider regarding its authenticity. First, in 1940 there were no known private individuals or “custom shops” in the Flint, MI area who would have had a reason to start and complete a “custom” project like this one on their own. Second, it is very doubtful that Buick Motors would have contracted such a project to an outside source. Third, any individual, other than Buick Motor, most likely would have assumed a great deal of credit for the vehicle(s) with the possibility of firm documentation available to show the sale or transfer of the vehicles. Fourth, no one to date, has been able to state or prove that it was not an engineering creation.
Considering the difficulty in generating the history for a 73-year old Buick that was never titled when built, has no documented serial numbers, (VIN numbers were not used until after 1953) and having few survivors of that era that are able to positively attest to actually seeing, driving, or building the trucks. This research has had to rely on interviews and the information compiled by the past owners and the current owner, Mr. Stephenson.
Period photos? Consider that in 1940 through 1945 this truck seen driving around in Flint, MI would not have been anything special to see. Not an occasion to run and get the “Brownie” camera, load it with film, and then run after the vehicle and take numerous shots. Cameras and photography were not allowed on Buick property. Cell phone cameras were a few years in the future.
During the 1940 production year, Buick bodies were produced at the Fisher Body plant on South Saginaw Street. in Flint, MI and then trucked to the Buick Motor Div. assembly plant on Hamilton Avenue on the east side of Flint. It is presumed that the Buick Engineering managers requisitioned four completed bodies, all Roadmaster Coupe Model 76S, body style 4427C, Fisher body numbers 620, 621, 622, 623, and brought them into the experimental shop on Hamilton Avenue where they were modified to the pickup truck configuration as featured here. It is not known if the bodies were then taken to the production assembly line and mated with the completed chassis or if they were mated in the experimental shop.
Three were reportedly painted black, and one painted red. The red vehicle, one of the three bodies #621, #622, or #623, was used by Buick in plant Fire Department and was equipped with a 1.5” fire hose and reel mounted in the bed and also brackets for fire extinguishers. The three black trucks were to be used within the Buick complex to “chase parts” or “run errands” as needed. As there are no records of any of the four trucks ever being titled or licensed during their existence at Buick, the sole purpose was to be used within the Buick complex. It can be assumed that from time to time the trucks were sent on errands outside the Buick complex, they may have had “manufacturers” plates available for them for their off-property trips. It is most likely that if anyone of the trucks did venture out of the complex without a plate, no local law officer of that day would have questioned the vehicle, even if the driver had done something to warrant a stop. During this period of use by Buick Engineering, the trucks were often seen, well identified as Buick Motor Division Vehicles and certainly not a “curiosity” vehicle in its time.
The last vehicle, Body #620
The starting 1940 chassis serial number for Buick Assembly, Flint, was 13596807 and the chassis serial number on this vehicle is 13597027, making this the 220th chassis for the 1940 production year. This chassis was mated with body #620 on it, and this body is the modified Pick-Up body we have today.
Over the years many vehicles were built by Product Engineering for testing purposes both prior to pilot vehicles and during production. After their usefulness it was a practice to destroy the vehicles which carried unique body and serial numbers for accounting use, the vehicles were never to be released to the general public. These trucks were possibly used within the Buick complex during or until the end of WWII. At some point during this period three of the trucks were destroyed and the metal was salvaged by Buick Salvage Department, forever lost. But #620 managed to escape.
There is a very strong rumor that a Buick Engineering manager, J.A. (John Arthur) Nyland, was able to gain ownership of this truck before it was sent to salvage, then relocated it to a hunting camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, many miles from Buick, where it was well used and out of sight for several years.
The truck was returned to Grand Blanc, MI and stored in a saw mill barn on a local farm. It is estimated that the truck was stored and abandoned in this barn until the 1970’s at which time the farm and buildings were sold to a Mr. Moyer, a builder of new homes. Mr. Moyer then discovered the truck as he was tearing down the barn. The vehicle was full of trash, the roof and fenders damaged, it was rusty, and in very poor condition. Mr. Moyer then negotiated with a Mr. Gary Wollard for the sale of the truck and eventually Mr. Wollard purchased it.
Mr. Wollard, after doing some work on the engine, then moved the truck to the business and workshop of Mr. Bob Joseph in Grand Blanc. Mr. Wollard agreed to sell the truck to Mr. Joseph for $300.00 with the caveat that Mr. Joseph would restore the truck or sell it back for the $300.00. Mr. Joseph became the owner and contracted the restoration to a local mechanic. During the period 1978 to 1999, Mr. Joseph, whom we have interviewed, indicated that he had spent over $25,000 in restoration expense but very little restoration had been accomplished. He was able during this period to apply for and receive a “lost” title for the truck from the Michigan Secretary of State. This is the first title assigned to the truck since built.
Mr. Marvin Stephenson, Flushing, MI purchased the truck from Mr. Joseph in 1999 for the sum of $10,000.00. Mr. Stephenson, a local commercial roofing contractor, stored the truck until 2004 then started the complete frame-off restoration, completing the truck in 2008.
As part of this $36,000.00 restoration, another 1940 Roadmaster was acquired for body parts and the engine. (The original engine was destroyed by freezing during its long storage in the saw mill barn.)
Showing it off, cruises and auto shows, surviving a fire.
The truck was shown in late 2008 at the Sloan Auto Fair in Flint and made it to several local cruises. In March 2009, the building where it was being stored caught fire and was completely destroyed along with many other personal cars and commercial vehicles. It appeared to the owner during the evening of the fire that the truck was a total loss, however the next morning he discovered the firemen had rolled the truck out in front of the building, intact but covered with melted tar from the building roof. The melted tar evidently cocooned the truck and the water from the fire hoses chilled it, protecting it from being consumed in the inferno. Evidence of this protection are the original whitewall tires that were on the truck during the fire. They are still on the truck and are not damaged in any way. During the rest of 2009 and into 2011 the truck underwent another $34,000.00 insurance restoration to remove the tar and repaint the body.
After engine restoration and final touches it ready to roll.
In 2011, it was again shown at the Sloan Auto Fair and was chosen as one of the top 75 vehicles. It was also taken to several local cruises where it received a lot of attention.
The engine was from the “parts car,” it had not been restored and was not reliable. The truck had to be towed or trailered to any events and shows. The decision was made by the owner in August 2011 to pull the engine and completely rebuild it.
Removal of the cylinder head revealed five cracks allowing coolant to leak into the engine. In our search for a repair source or replacement head, we were fortunate to locate Tom Sperry of Sperry Welding in Capac, MI who expertly machined out the cracks, refilled them with cast weld and re-machined the head back to specification. During this head restoration the valve seats were machined out and steel valve seats inserted.
The block was sent to Fenton Machine Shop, Fenton, MI where Jon Conroy did a fantastic job of completely rebuilding the block with all new parts. The crank was turned .010 and insert type rods replaced the old-style poured bearings. The engine was re-installed in the truck in December 2012 and the truck was ready to “show” again in early 2013.
One of the owners goals is to obtain as much national visibility of the truck as possible. Featured articles in related automotive magazines and newsletters are in the works. Contacting automotive museums to make them aware of its existence is an ongoing project. We are featuring it in local GM dealership showrooms and attending local and regional automotive events.
Now that the truck is drivable and reliable, Mr. Stephenson is looking forward to many enjoyable days with this one-of- a-kind Buick Pickup. Look for it this summer and give us your comments.