Thursday, December 6, 2012


Sometimes it’s a bar or two of music: a line, a lyric, a verse.  Sometimes it’s an errant fragrance carried on a gentle vesper from a place unknown.  Sometimes it’s simply a feeling like déjà vu only you haven’t really been right here or experienced quite this ever before.

Today, the something that set my brain to making connections was the sight of a ’50-ish GMC tractor, the likes of which pulled all of our worldly belongings to the new house on five acres back in 1957.  Jack Coulter – owner of the local Bekins franchise – monkeyed and jimmied the trailer back and forth in the road out front so he could back the rig straight about 150 feet between the white rail fences lining what-was-now our narrow gravel driveway. 

As five-year-old I inhaled the sweet exhaust and quaked as the big diesel growled up the way and shook the ground beneath its massive tires.  I remember peering upward at the windows of the tall snub-nosed tractor, wondering how Mr. Coulter could back the thing up.  Even I had figured out that the rounded art-deco trailer obliterated any view might have he had.  But somehow he did it on the first try.  Around town, for years later, when I’d see the big GMC, I’d tell whomever I was with, I knew that truck.

Fifteen years elapsed and I took my first real job while attending Chico State.  It was the afternoon shift at the local candy and tobacco wholesaler.  Across the street, the Rainbow Bakery ran a classic GMC – same era as Jack’s – delivering product to hamlets and wide-spots up and down 99E and 99W.  The local legend was that Jack Coulter and the bakery ordered two tractors on or about the same day from Mr. Giberson, the Pontiac GMC dealer over on 2nd Street near Wall.  They arrived on a flat car on the same day and must have come off the assembly line back in Flint or wherever one right after the other because the serial numbers were consecutive.  My boss at the candy company told me this.

Click on any picture to expand
The old ’50-something GMC has been sitting halfway between Auburn and Grass Valley for months.  Today – a drippy December day where the high and low temperatures will be identical 46-degree readings – I decided to take a closer look.   The old truck still towered. 

The cab sported a split windshield and two nicely curved windows at the back corners, just like the classic five-window pickups of the era. 

The interior was all but gone, but he round speedometer and slotted vents reminded me of those classics we drool over at shows.  Outside, rust worked on exposed metal.  Nothing shined. 

Really click on this one!  Really.
Curious designs of lichen decorated the hitch plate, frame and bumpers.   

If this thing could talk.

Inside a cramped shop, proprietor Al told me the thing was up for sale for five thousand dollars and that included two Cummins diesel engines and three transmissions.  He said it would be an easy task to drop the (he stated me the engine model number and I nodded as if I knew) into the frame.

I told him the story about Jack Coulter and the look-alike GMCs and asked if I could take a few pictures.  He laughed, shook my hand and said, “Go ahead.”  Perhaps this wasn't the first time such a question had been asked.

Camera in hand, I looked closely into the truck’s exposed history.  Oxidized paint had deteriorated in layers exposing life after life of this brute.  More than one company’s name was hinted. 

And one of them was “Bekins.”  Immediately, I was again five years old.  Jack Coulter was backing the thing up blind and my life growing up on five acres outside Chico was just beginning.  The derelict old tractor had broadsided me, sure as shootin'.


Alan (Al) Casner owns “Ride in the Past” Antique Airplane and Motorcycle Enthusiast.  His shop is located on State Route 49 between Auburn and Grass Valley.

Aside from the big GMC tractor, what prompted me to stop was the three vintage Honda Trail 90s parked out front: a ’65, a ‘67 and a ‘69 – one of which will be mine, I just know it.

Inside, his shop is divided into at least two rooms with his service counter in the far back of the furthest one.  In between, one finds a clutch of vintage and not-so-vintage motorcycles in various states of restoration: A 60s era Royal Enfield, two BSAs – Lightnings, I think. 

File photo from classics show
And – boy, oh boy, oh boy – a ’69 BSA 441 Victor.  Clean.  Full pipe.  Immortal aluminum and yellow tank with the red winged BSA logo.  I want that more than the 90!

Awe struck upon entering, I said to no one in particular: “This is a gold mine.” 

Al, the only person present, responded:  “No it isn’t.”  He laughed and our chat began.  It was soon clear that this man enjoyed reviving the glory rooted in old machines.  I was glad I stopped and delighted he took a few moments to share his passion...

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. There are several of those and similar here in town for sale.

    I'd love to have the money to turn one into an extended cab, put air bags under it and a modern chassis.

  2. My grandfather had a trucking company that hauled produce out of the central & Salinus valleys. He ran jimmies like that. He had my dad driving them by the time he was 16. Enjoyed your blog, thanks.

  3. We have a local landscape company here in town that does exactly that. Every winter, they rebuild some older truck with modern running great for use as working vehicles. They are really fun to see going down the road full of trees, dirt or what-have-you. It is also nice to know they handle much better with that load then the vintage units did!

  4. Pizza guy near me does the same thing, the trucks are really nice,

  5. I remember these GMC tractors, they were used to pull new car carriers. These used General Motors 3-51 and 4-51 two cycle engines with piggy back hydramatics allowing 8 speeds. These trucks when going through our small town with most all stores having large plate glass windows the noise and vibrations shook the windows on both sides of the street.

    1. Yeah, I remember those rattling windows, too. We were once in the old bakery between second and third on Broadway in downtown Chico - I was about 6 or 7 - and a huge truck went rumbling down the street. It was a house move! Behind it, balanced on stacked timbers was a house, removed from its foundation, traveling down the main southward thoroughfare in town, heading for a new address out toward Durham. People poured out onto the street to watch it go by and business must have simply stopped.

      I think the tractor in this case was one of those old hi-boy I-Hs (International Harvesters) , but the effect was the same. I just remember being a scared little boy clinging to mom's skirts.

  6. Yeah, music, fragrance, or anything vintage can bring back a familiar feeling. And since cars are one part of history that become increasingly fascinating over time, I’m not surprised how the old GMC made you feel. Great lines and shape. We’re actually losing the shape dynamics today. But I guess it’s just a way to create a different and distinct automobile character for this era.

  7. Seeing old cars like these really makes me feel how time has passed by and how old I am right now. Haha! These tractors were like the king of the road back then, but now, you can really see how old they are. Well, that’s really the life for these vehicles. It’s the time for this tractor to take a rest, I guess.