Why Old Pickups Are Suddenly Hauling In Big Money

[Photo: 1937 Studebaker J5 Coupe-Express, courtesy Auctions America]

As with many technological innovations, the pickup truck was a product of the ravages of human conflict.

Not long after the Great War ended in 1918, the Dodge Brothers began producing enclosed commercial trucks that had started life as ambulances and other mechanized tools of warfare.

About six years later, in a partnership with the Graham Brothers, out popped a 1924 Dodge ¾-ton pickup. It had an upright cab, a bed twice as long as it was wide, and chains that allowed a tailgate to rest open in a perpendicular position.

Nothing short of an American legend was born.

Fast-forward nearly a century and vintage pickups are booming, with prices of restored and even hot-rodded models often doubling from what they brought just five years ago.

[1954 International R100 Custom Pickup, expected to sell for $20,000 - $25,000 at Auctions America]

“Trucks that maybe in 2000 cost $15,000 are now $30,000 or $40,000” says Keith Koscak, car specialist with Auctions America, whose upcoming Auburn auction, May 7-9, features a host of pickups, including a 1940 Ford ½-ton Model 01C ($30,000 to $40,000) and a 1953 Ford F-100 ($28,000 to $34,000). “The climb in interest and prices has been unrelenting.”

Of particular interest to collectors and enthusiasts are Ford, GMC and to a lesser extent Dodge pickups from the ’40s and ‘50s, vehicles with an almost Transformer-like appeal whose beefy personality stems from muscular fenders and broad hoods.

[1934 Ford V-8 Pickup, expected to sell for $20,000-$25,000 at Auctions America]

But pickups from the ‘60, ‘70s and even early ‘80s are finding buyers as a mix of affordability — relative to classic sports cars of the same era — and personalization lure those who perhaps don’t want a new $40,000 pickup that looks just like the one sitting in their neighbor’s driveway.

Koscak says the big bucks go to pickups that have had top-notch restorations, allowing buyers to write a check and step back in time to when their parents or grandparents used such vehicles to get things done.

He recalls a 1955 GMC Step Side fetching $100,000, and notes that the upcoming Auburn sale will feature a rare 1937 Studebaker J5 Coupe-Express pickup that’s expected to sell for between $75,000 and $95,000.

[Interior of the ‘37 Studebaker Express, courtesy Auctions America]

“It’s thought that this Studebaker is only one of 15 or so that have been fully restored,” says Koscak. “It’s just a stunning machine.”

He’s not exaggerating. Draped in a coat of elegant grey paint, the J5 is a study in Art Deco elegance, from its huge tear-drop shaped headlights to the elegant numerals on its rectangular speedometer. Although you’d be hard-pressed to make this gem haul lumber, many buyers of vintage trucks don’t hesitate to hit the road with their investments.

“You could put them in a museum, sure, but most buyers tend to show them or just take the family out on Sunday drives,” says Koscak. “The brings smiles to people’s faces, because frankly you don’t see them around as much as vintage sports cars.”

The pickup’s growing revival also has been fueled by the model’s flag-waving bona fides.

“These things have undeniable charm, they’re fairly simple to work on, but most of all they are hardcore Americana,” says John Kraman, consignment director at Mecum Auctions, which has seen the number of pickups crossing its blocks jump in recent years.

Kraman attributes some of the boom to the “rising tide” theory, that is the fact that vintage American and European sports cars are fueling an especially hot $25 billion classic car market. When an early ‘60s Ferrari can fetch eight-figures at auction, the appeal of paying five-figures for a lovely Ford pickup from the same era is obvious.

Kraman says he’s “shocked and astonished” by the boom, “which nobody really called.” But now that the interest is there, a shorthand is developing for what pickups provide a little extra bragging rights.

Besides pristine restorations (a must since most trucks spent the bulk of their lives actually doing work), one value-added feature is four-wheel drive. Now considered standard, in the ‘50s having all four wheels driven meant ordering an option called the Napco Power-Pak package. “If your pickup has that, it’ll almost double the value right away,” says Kraman.

Other desirable features include being a short-wheel-base ½-ton (or 1,000-lb. hauling capacity) model, as opposed to larger ¾- and 1-ton. And similarly, having an aesthetically pleasing 6.5-foot versus 8-foot bed also drives the price up.

[1953 Ford F-100 Custom Pickup, courtesy Auctions America]

In Kraman’s experience, Ford pickups — which were particularly plentiful across the decades — tend to be the ones that get hot-rodded and lowered, while Chevrolets tend to be returned to gleaming stock configuration.

“One thing that’s really driven this trend is aftermarket-parts manufacturers really stepping up, allowing you with a click of the mouse to change a heavily used pickup into something that looks almost new again,” he says.

That’s indeed the stock in trade of LMC Truck of Lenexa, Kansas, a 30-year-old company that has long trafficked in truck parts but has seen a noted uptick in vintage pickup-parts business of late.

“We’ve put a lot of money into (remanufacturing) parts, and have 30,000 so far,” says LMC marketing manager Susan Berkowitz, adding that interest has also been piqued by a steady stream of pickup restoration projects touted by magazines and TV shows. In fact, LMC Truck is busy helping Kansas-based Kultured Customs with the restoration of a 1972 Chevrolet K-10 ½-ton pickup for the MavTV show, “Chop Cut Rebuild.”

“For many people, there’s a huge appeal in buying an older pickup for not much money and making it all your own, compared to spending $50,000 on a new truck that looks like all the others out there,” says Berkowitz. “The square-bodied Chevys from 1973 to 1987 are very popular right now, and they’re not that expensive,” often selling in the teens.

“What’s not to like about pickup trucks,” Berkowitz says. “They’re American, they’re multi-purpose, and they’re just plain fun.”