Car of the Week: 1953 Chevrolet custom pickup

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Once he got started restoring and updating his 1953 Chevrolet pickup, Don Boxx never really found a good place to stop.

So he just kept going.

By the time the dust, sparks and paint mist had settled, Boxx was driving out of Fast Freddie’s Rod Shop in Eau Claire, Wis., behind the wheel of the most wicked-cool pickup he had ever seen. With a stealth two-tone gun metal gray paint job, custom touches and fabrication at every turn, and a new cat-quick 450-plus-hp GM LS3 engine under the hood, the truck Boxx affectionately named “Otis” is a truly lovable and fascinating beast.

“If I would have known what kind of money I was going to put it in and what we were going to wind up doing to it, I probably would have had sticker shock,” laughs Boxx, a resident of Kenosha, Wis. “But it was just an evolution and as we made a decision each step of the way the costs were justified. It was kind of like bracket creep. We said, ‘Well, we were gonna do this, but for a few more bucks we can do that.’ It just sort of evolved.”

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As so many automotive odysseys do, Boxx’s affair with his truck started innocently enough. “I bought the truck from a lady in Eagle River, Wis.,” he recalls. “We have a cabin up there and this couple were our neighbors and the lady’s husband owned it for about 10 years and he was real proud of it. He used to sit there in the evenings and rev the engine and smoke his pipe. He really loved the truck.

“But then he passed away, and I thought somebody should take care of his truck, and I asked if I could buy it. There wasn’t even a price attached. I just wanted to keep it around, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with it.”

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At the time, the ’53 Chevy was just a nice driver-quality hobby truck. It no longer had its original paint or drive train, but it looked pretty much stock, had a decent two-tone paint job and Boxx had no big plans to make any changes to it. That is until he discovered one problem he couldn’t live with.

“It had an old 327 V-8 and it leaked!” Boxx says. “And if there’s one thing I can’t stand at my house it’s an engine that leaks. I can’t have that.”

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He remedied that by investing in a nice 383 stroker that he figured would last the Chevrolet for the rest of its days — or at least as long as Boxx would own it. Again, things didn’t go exactly has Boxx expected, and things soon started to get interesting.

“When I got it back with the 383, we didn’t do any of the electronics or anything to support the engine … and it became real obvious that the 383 was too much engine for the suspension,” he says. “Well, my nephew and Fred [Kappus, owner of Fast Freddie’s] did a car previously and they knew each other from way back, and I knew of Fred and his reputation. So I got in touch with him and at first it was just about doing some suspension work, and then we talked about some paint. So originally it was gonna be suspension and paint and maybe some interior work. And things kind of grew from there.”

Kappus and Boxx thought an old-school patina paint job would look cool on “Otis”, but when they discovered some small rust issues hiding under the existing paint that plan was scrapped. The truck needed to be blasted down to bare metal. While they were mulling the exterior, Boxx also noticed a 1955 Pontiac with an LS3 and Tremec six-speed it in that Fast Freddie’s was working on in the shop. “Fred made a mistake showing me that,” Boxx said.

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Soon, the 383 stroker was gone in place of the modern Chevy crate motor. That was quickly followed by all new modern suspension and brakes … and, well, the genie was out of the proverbial bottle. Kappus has always envisioned building a uber-modern hauler with a steely gray paint scheme, and Boxx volunteered to give a whirl.  “With the paint job we kind of matched it to the wheels,” Kappus chuckles. “ We really liked the matte finish on the wheels and decided to color key the paint off those wheels … and we decided to two-tone it and go with the darker fenders it so wasn‘t all gray.

“The LS3 was brand new GM Performance connect and cruise — 480 horse, hot cam,” Kappus continued. “Tremic T56 Magnum six-speed — he originally had a four-speed in there and it was kind of loosy-goosey and had no overdrive gear and he wanted overdrive …  Then we put a triangulated four-ink rear axle with Ford 9-inch rear. It’s got Forge Line wheels and Wildwood 14-inch brakes … Mustang II front suspension with power rack-and-pinion steering. We relocated the gas tank and where gas tank filler was. We moved out the interior of the engine compartment… just, you name it. It’s got Vintage Air A/C in it. It’s got a full audio video system with backup camera, custom center console, custom gauges from Classic Instruments …

“The tailgate was shot so we sourced a new tailgate, then did a set of the hidden hinges and hidden latches. We did a custom wood bed with ebony stain so it matches the rest of the truck. It’s a dark gray stain that really looks cool …  We had to put a complete floor in it. The floor was shot and the cowl needed to be repaired and the fenders needed repainting. We put a roll pan on the front and rear and shaved the bumpers, and we put some bullet tail lights in it and the back has like custom motorcycle LED lights. In front we put the halo headlights. It’s got the electric exhaust cutouts that come out the side.”

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In short, it was exactly the truck that Kappus hoped to have for himself some day.  And for the most part, Boxx let Kappus and his crew have free reign to follow their vision.

“I visited twice, but I pretty much relied on his expertise and instinct and vision,” Boxx said. “He would call with a concept and I’d just say, ‘Yeah, do it,’ just because I had faith in him. The two biggest things were the paint scheme — that two-tone with the satin finish — and moving to the LS3 engine platform. To get the LS3 with the six-speed Tremec, which would definitely be a big improvement over the 383 stroker and four-speed Muncie. It just didn’t seem like that big of an extra hit to make it absolutely Cracker Jack top-notch. Once we had the engine and paint, everything else had to kind of be kicked up to match the awesomeness of the paint and the power source.”

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Kappus and his Fast Freddie’s posse hauled the custom truck to the World of Wheels show in Milwaukee in February, where they said it got lots of love from visitors. “Everybody wanted to know we could paint their car with that suede metallic paint, and of course everyone wanted that Corvette LS3 installed in their car, too,” said Kappus.

The World of Wheels show also allowed Boxx to show off the truck to the widow who had sold it to him. “Yeah, we took her to see Otis and she cried a little,” he said. “The truck’s prior name was ‘Tootsie.’ They called it Tootsie when they owned it, so now she got to see Tootsie in a new life at the show.”

The master plan wasn’t to turn Otis into a show truck, however. The custom pickup was meant to look cool, but mostly it was designed for driving fun and exhilarating weekend runs on open roads. In that regard it seems to be living up to the hopes of both builder and owner.

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“It definitely exceeded my expectations as far as ride quality and handling and stopping capability,” Kappus says. “It truly is a modern driving classic truck. There are zero similarities between how it drove when it came in and how it drives now. No comparison [laughs]”

Boxx is already mulling the idea of adding a supercharger to the GM crate power plant — effectively adding the final cherry on the sundae. At this point, it’s about the only thing he can think of to make the truck better.

“I like everything, but I guess the thing I like best about it honestly is just the speed,” he says. “It’s just so quick, so fast.

“There is just nothing on the truck that is less than 110 percent. Inside and out, it’s flawless.”

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