Restoring a ‘56 Ford, Honoring Family

Dec. 30, 2010
What started as an after-hours project became an uncle’s memorial to his beloved nephew.

For many, restoring a car is a hobby or perhaps a small segment of their repair business. But for a select few, restoration work takes on greater meaning. Joe Whitlow experienced that firsthand while restoring a 1956 Ford F-100 pickup.

“[My co-worker and nephew] Mitch came to me when he was just 18 years old and worked with me until he was 40,” says Whitlow, who owns AV Auto Body & Truck Inc., in Lancaster, Calif. “I bought him a ’69 Camaro and I bought myself this pickup, and we worked on them together after hours. But Mitch wound up with a lung problem and passed away in 2003. I stopped working on the restorations then.”

Finally, in 2005, Whitlow resumed the restoration work he and his nephew had started. A year and a half later, he finished his pickup and he is continuing to restore his nephew’s Camaro.

Although AV Auto Body does some restoration work, collision repair work is their first priority—about 40 to 50 cars a month in the 35,000-square-foot facility that employs 12 people. Still, Whitlow is making time to finish his nephew’s Camaro. “Originally, we bought the cars in the late ’90s and worked on them for a couple of years, but only on rare occasions,” says Whitlow. Though they only worked on the cars when they had time, Whitlow and his nephew bonded over the restoration work, which made it difficult for Whitlow to restore them on his own. “I wasn’t feeling real comfortable with the cars at the time [of Mitch’s death],” says Whitlow. But now Whitlow’s restoration work is being done in Mitch’s memory.

Whitlow bought the shell that was his pickup for $500. “Someone had stripped the car down to build another car with, so when I purchased it there was no glass and no motor. It was just a cab, front end sheet metal and a bed on a frame that rolled,” says Whitlow. “The motor is a 350 Crate motor from GM. Every nut and bolt on this truck was replaced. A lot of the parts came through Mid-Fifty in Arizona and others were aftermarket. But it’s not restored as a ’56 F-100; it’s a street rod.”

The pickup has a five-on-five lug nut pattern on it with a lot of stainless steel instead of chrome, a vintage air conditioner and heating system, and cruise control. “The only things not steel on the car are the rear fenders to accommodate the wide tires on the back,” says Whitlow. “My granddaughter stained all the oak wood in the bed. And the color is just a grabber—Pearl Chartreuse.”

The first time he took the pickup out he had people calling him right away to comment on how great it was, says Whitlow. “The local tire store had run a promo ad for their store and they put a picture of my truck in it,” says Whitlow. He drives it every year from Lancaster to Reno, Nev. for Hot August Nights. But usually, he only takes it out for short trips and to lunch.

Whitlow doesn’t know how much the car is worth now. He stopped counting his expenses after $35,000, so he hopes it’s worth at least $65,000.

Whatever the car’s value now, the restoration was clearly a priceless experience. Whitlow’s voice is somber and respectful as he talks about his nephew: “He was a very good body tech and he just worked really hard. I still have his toolbox and it hasn’t been opened since he died.”

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