NEFERTERI part Five
A custom car guy is, if anything, an opportunist. And optimistic. Clinically illogical. Terminally so, friends and family would say. As they seriously considered intervention. What if I were an industrial designer in the heyday of the Art Deco era. What if. . .
Our Forrest Gump had found his mojo.
Larry Pointer found himself a survivor of Y2K, retired, a widower, and a more or less empty nester. He needed a project. In this series, he shares his passion for all things “Streamline Moderne”, and how it all turned into a 13-year labor of love, to create “Neferteri“, his custom Diamond T truck.
By Larry Pointer with Rik Hoving
Neferteri, Part Five
We had just made it through the henny penny “sky is falling” panic of our Y2K departure from the 20th Century. Larry Douglas was hosting a pig roast for all car nuts hanging around Sheridan, Wyoming. This Forrest Gump was flitting about, visiting with any and all.
Gary Richards’ counsel still was ringing in my ears: “If you want a project, why don’t you look for a Diamond T?”
Then I ran into Bob Carson. He said he had a Diamond T. It was for sale, and he was happy to show it to me. He took off out of town in his 39 Packard street rod, and I followed.
There it was, a post-War Model 201, a one-ton pickup. $4,000. Or, I could work it off, finishing bodywork on a fat fendered Cadillac restoration that had stalled.
Well, there you go, Larry. Or not.
Frankly, I was disappointed. This pickup just seemed, well, awkward. I loved the grillework; it reminded me of a 1938 Buick. But the hood seemed too short in context. The windshield glass was tall. That whole pickup was tall, really tall. So was the box behind the cab. Like a Buster Brown shoe box.
Then I spotted the dash, a Standard model; paired gauges behind curved watch glass. Above, two shiny handles to individually crank open each of the separated windshields. Centered high above, was a glove box.
That “cubby hole” triggered a memory. When I was 15, friends Howard and Kenny already had their driver’s licenses, and had gotten summer jobs stacking hay for the PK. In the evenings, they’d take the ranch flatbed truck home, parking it on the hill above my home. That truck was a Diamond T.
Unlike the pickup, the 509 model was long, in every respect. The hood, the bed, the wheel base, long and low. Up in the glove box, we fished out a pack of cigarettes, long forgotten by one of the older ranch hands. When one of the boys found a match, we soon found out just how long forgotten, and dry, that stale tobacco tasted. Yuck!
But I did remember just how elegant that Diamond T seemed.
The big trucks always had been more elegant, better proportioned, and more streamlined. Some of my best summer memories as a tow-headed kid were the visits to the Montana ranch of my mom’s best friend. She had kids the same age as my sister and me. “Little Joe” and I were constant pests to Sonny Boyd as he went about his ranch work. Sonny had a WWII era International flatbed truck, and its styling had even more Art Deco class than old Angelo Tomasi’s 1937 International pickup that I had admired.
The PK ranch Diamond T was, in my memory, even more streamlined and elegant yet. Maybe I’d better dig more deeply into those “Cadillacs of Trucks”.
Diamond T, I learned, first was a shoe company. The diamond for quality; the T for Tilt, the name of the businessman. When this man’s son, C.A. Tilt, launched a motor car venture in Chicago in 1905, he appropriated his father’s logo. The venture stalled, with all the intense competition, and beginning in 1911Tilt instead found a niche in the commercial truck industry. Quality is what he did deliver. Tilt’s trucks were assembled; his business model relied on parts supplied from a variety of other manufacturers. The engines generally were Hercules, but Buda and Continental also powered some Diamond T’s over the years. I would find that the curvaceous front fenders were shared by Autocar and some fire engines.
“Style and grace” characterized the Diamond T’s, and Charles Tilt himself took credit for the design of his attractive trucks. Even if they were jobbed out for construction. “A truck doesn’t have to be homely!” Tilt exclaimed. Cabs were coach built, sheet metal formed to fit onto ash or oak framing until just before WWII, when technology brought full metal structure to vehicles across the industry.
Even the boxy 1930-31 Diamond T’s were handsome, with distinctive grilles featuring chromed vertical bars. Hoods had external latches that prominently advertised their solid construction. On each hood side these spring loaded latch loops flanked an inset solid brass plate that displayed the Diamond T name surrounded by a tooled art nouveau border.
From early on, the various bodies added behind the distinctive cabs were given streamline styling. Each panel was curved at the edges and corners. The curved theme defined their handsome van bodies. Even boxes with racks had an aerodynamic look. Distinctive Diamond T magazine ads showed utility trucks with styling that looked like poetry in motion.
By 1932, the Diamond T grille shell looked for all the world like that of the 1932 Ford, or more to the point, Lincoln. Grille bars uniquely were now laid out horizontally.
In 1933, the cabs were given a raked back pair of windshields, again transforming their smart appearance. This look, including front fender skirting, would remain intact through the 1934-1935 Depression years.
Interestingly, as tough as times were, 1936 would be Diamond T’s best year, with 8,750 new truck registrations. It also would see the most streamlined form yet for the marque. Nearly everything on those chassis was sculpted in voluptuously rounded curves. The tall shoe box of the Model 80 pickup even had sides formed to roll over their wooden framework in a pleasing “modern” look. The slim windshields of the 1936 and 1937 models were their most notable feature: They gave those cabs the low profile look of a chopped custom. To me, they looked like a B-17, a Chris Craft speedboat, or even Gordon Beuhrig’s Twenty Grand Duesenberg.
Gene Autry, the singing cowboy star of cinema, was my matinee hero. For his horse Champion, Autry had a special streamlined 1937 Diamond T tractor-trailer rig built. Together, they toured the country, with appearances at county fairs and parade celebrations throughout America’s heartland. One day far into the future, this Forrest Gump would get to meet his movie hero, at a Cowboy Hall of Fame banquet.
Handsome those full figured models were back in 1936, but a bit impractical with their low ceiling of vision. By 1938 Diamond T raised the windshield height by a full two inches into the existing roofline. As assembled, those cabs, now fully metal, then remained unchanged through 1949!
The waterfall grille of the curvaceous 1936-37 models also was abandoned. In 1938 the front sheet metal was re-tooled to feature a grille of thin horizontal bars similar to the 1937 Buick. These in turn gave way in 1940, to a very solid front featuring divided pair a handsomely sculpted chrome grille bars that now echoed the 1938 Buick. This would become Diamond T’s most recognized appearance. Following a production hiatus to create military vehicles in support of the War effort, all post-War models through 1949 would carry this trademark grille. Immediately after the War, the distinctive grilles only were available in painted form, but by 1948 chromed dental work again would shine.
Market competition was tough. After the War, into the Korean Conflict, the industry felt the bite of an economic slowdown. Diamond T then began sharing cabs with International Harvester on their chassis, and you had to do a double take to distinguish between the two marques. In 1958 White took over the faltering company and merged it with former competitor Reo. Thus came about the Diamond Reo.
The legacy would end in 1966. As the school kid quipped at the end of the hymn in church, “That’s all she wrote!” And like Forrest Gump at the end of his jogging marathon in the movie, I’d run all I wanted of Diamond T research.
Then, one day in June of 2002, as I was leaving the annual Roaring Twenties swap meet I stopped up the road at “Buzz and Jerry’s Rod Shop”. Inside a shop burrowed into the hillside, Buzz Franke was working on a 1935 Chevy tudor street rod. I asked a few questions, and was immediately struck by how Buzz responded. No matter how lame my questions…and there was no hiding how naive I was…he looked me directly in the eye and quietly explained each step of what he was doing. Buzz was a natural teacher, patient, honest, and careful to catch whether you got it. Right there, we struck up a friendship, and an apprenticeship for me that would last through the years.
Buzz gave me permission to prowl around among the many old cars he and Jerry LaFountain had gathered for their rod building shop. And it was out there among the rusting hulks in the yard that I spotted it: a Diamond T.
What first caught my eye were the narrow windshields in gleaming stainless frames. That cab had to be a 1936 or 1937. Looking inside, I could see that it was a Deluxe, with gauges set in a classic plated panel that would have been right at home in an Auburn. Garnish moldings of stainless also signaled this had been one of Diamond T’s best. And above the windshields, there was that panel with the glove box, just like I remembered from long ago.
“Best” wasn’t quite be a term that came to mind as I took stock of the relic remains, sagging over a Ford chassis of unknown vintage. The wood of the cab coachwork was badly rotted. Most definitely, this was not an all-metal cab of the 1940s. Parts and pieces were lying on the floor: headlights, handles, broken glass and trim. The hood parts were all there. Both front fenders, barnacled in Bondo. There was a curved grille shell, but the waterfall grille had long since departed this life.
So, it wasn’t much. But it was a beginning. Most of the major body pieces were intact, or at least present and accounted for. The stainless and the gorgeous Deluxe dash panel were the clincher. Here was my Streamline dream. I had to have it.
I closed the deal with Jerry LaFountain in September, three months of self-torture after first discovering this Diamond in the rough. Scott Clark volunteered his truck and trailer, and we pulled into Buzz and Jerry’s Rod Shop yard to load her up. Buzz said he’d be right up to help load her. But when he got there, he cast about with a puzzled look.
“Where is it?” he asked, straining his eyes.
“Ummm. We already loaded it,” I sheepishly answered, pointing to a low pile of tin and kindling lying forlornly on the trailer floor. Scott couldn’t stop grinning. One look down at that heap of rusty pieces, and you never would ask again what C. A. Tilt meant when he advertised his Diamond T’s as “assembled”.
I had “disassembled” myself one of Tilt’s most prestigious Deluxe “assembled” models.
Blaine Murphy once wryly commented on my remarkable talents. “Larry is very good at taking things apart.” Yes, and more: Little did I know…nor would anyone I knew bet… I would spend the next 13 years putting this Deluxe humpty dumpty back together again.
Now, a custom car guy is, if anything, an opportunist. And optimistic. Clinically illogical. Terminally so, some friends and family would say. As they seriously considered intervention. But here’s the deal: If C. A. Tilt could have cast about for parts and pieces to assemble a truck by his own design, why, so could I. On my shop floor, I already had a head start.
What if I were back in time, an industrial designer in the heyday of the Art Deco era. And I had the opportunity to create a Streamline Moderne concept design for a truck. It would be a utility vehicle like no other, yet like all the classics, styled in Jazz Age syncopated rhythms. Style lines that would catch you. Lift you. Carry you. In currents along voluptuous curves, to a vanishing point back of beyond your wildest imaginings. Leave you light-headed giddy, breathless, heart pounding, wondering, “What the Hell was THAT?”
And so I got out my books, my copier, my scissors, tape, and colored pencils, and came up with my Egyptian Revival Streamline Queen, Neferteri. She’d be part Auburn, Delahaye, Duesenberg; part barnstormer Lockheed, WACO, even B17 Memphis Belle; part Gar Wood, Chris Craft, Hacker Craft speedboat; part Zephyr, Hiawatha, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Warbonnet Express; part Delivery Express, Beverage Truck, and Fire Engine. Part Tanker, to “Roar With Gilmore”.
Yep, all that. In a two-tone livery of Tuscan red wine and Southwest Sunset. I can see Gene Autry on old Champion right now, strumming his guitar, ridin’ down the canyon.
Sigh! Mostly though, Neferteri is a 1936 Deluxe Diamond T model 212AD, maximum speed 49. Says so on the cowling side.
No worries! I was having my second childhood.
This Geppetto could build his Pinocchio any way he wanted.