Blue-Collar Worker - 1946 Chevrolet Tow Truck
Article & photography by Richard Butschi
Many car guys spend years trying to find and reclaim their first love – the first car they owned or at least drove in high school. There’s something special about that “first time” experience that continues to hold a special place in one’s heart for a lifetime. And so it is with Roy “Smoke” Wilson Jr. of CR.
Smoke’s dad, Roy “Stub” Wilson, ran Roy’s Auto Salvage from 1964 until his death in 1987. The salvage yard and shop were located on Ingleside Drive SW, not far from Hawkeye Downs. Smoke has quite a few old photos of his father, the business facilities and some of the many wreckers that were purchased over the years – all of which conjure up a flood of fond memories fading back to his childhood. One of those involves a trip to Padzensky Auto Salvage in 1963. The yard was then located below today’s “S-curve” of I-380, not far from the CR Police Station. Wilson would have been 7 years-old, at the time, but he remembers it was the day they acquired the ‘46 Chevrolet tow truck that now sits in his garage. Smoke’s dad would always carry a cutting torch and tanks on the rear deck area where the winch is located. Salvaging metal was a big part of their livelihood and one had to be prepared to “hook” a junked car, rolling it onto its side to remove a rearend, axle or part of the frame.
Wilson loved to help out his dad at the salvage yard as it gave a good reason to get into the wrecker, even before he turned 16 with a valid driver’s license. He remembers the big blizzard in April of ‘73. Schools were obviously closed, so Smoke got the tire chains on “Old Reliable” and headed out to tow stranded vehicles. Not thinking it through completely, these cars needed owners and destinations for towing, but he had a blast driving through the snowdrifts, anyway. Wilson took advantage of situations like this to get back in the wrecker, even after he graduated and had a regular job. The ‘46 Chevy was eventually parked in the lot where it started to rust and sink into the landscape for 6+ years. After “Stub” passed on in ‘87, the business was sold to Sunline, Inc., but Smoke struck a deal with the owner for the ‘46. A friend helped to pull the wrecker from the lot to the street where Wilson dropped in a good battery, fired up the engine and drove it home – hence, Old Reliable.
Wilson is unsure of exactly what model the Chevrolet is, assuming it’s more of a “hand-built” wrecker put together with a variety of model parts. It has a 270 cu.in. GMC in-line 6-cylinder with a single-barrel carburetor with a stock 4-speed manual transmission. Wilson was hoping to put a more powerful 302 engine in it, but the 270 is adequate. He started a mild restoration of the ‘46 in 1990, acquiring a donor truck in Des Moines, for body parts. The ‘46 appeared a bit plain in the new white paint in the early ‘90s, but friend Johnny Spaw helped Wilson get the graphics back on the truck, much like they were originally painted by a local artist, Dave Stewart, who did race cars in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Both Smoke and Stub raced cars at Hawkeye Downs, with Stub making the Wall of Fame.
Smoke would like to thank his wife, Peg, for her support and patience while they added onto the garage to house the wrecker. Others on the thank-you list include: Del Shaw and Larry Lucky, who helped with the engine work at Barron Motors Machine Shop; Kevin’s Transmissions; Don Avis Motors who applied the GM paint; Randy Lockwood at Professional Muffler, helping with the cast iron headers; and again, Johnny Spaw, who revamped the shocks and helped with alignment and other items.
And yes, the winch still works. Wilson used it to haul an engine to Kirkwood College for a son’s shop project.