Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Jeff Ralph is grateful now that he took the “ignorance is bliss” approach to his first foray into the collector vehicle hobby. The Antigo, Wis., resident had no real experience restoring an old car, had never owned one, and had no clue how rare a Chevrolet Cameo Carrier pickup was.
That’s not to say Ralph wouldn’t have taken the plunge and bought his “barn find” 1955 pickup anyway, but all things considered, he’s kind of glad he didn’t know what he was working on when the whole saga first began.
“When I first bought it, nope, I was totally clueless,” Ralph chuckles. “Now it’s a big deal!
“I had never restored a car before, and I had it all in pieces and I said, ‘Well, it’s too late now, it’s gotta start going back together,’ so I’d take a piece, sandblast it, prime, pack it away, and I just kept doing that piece by piece. Pretty soon I got to the frame, and then it was just like a big Lego set — just start putting everything back together one piece at a time… I guess when it was done, I still really didn’t understand how important it was or how rare they were, but as I started getting into it more and more, I kind of found out.”
In the collector truck world, the handsome Cameos are near the top of the heap when it comes to collectability and all-around appeal. They were some of the most ground-breaking and trend-setting haulers ever built, and their low production numbers and relatively brief 3 ½-year production life makes them even more desirable.
Ralph would love to take credit for knowing how cool and collectible his truck would become when he first stumbled upon it, and for being ahead of the curve when it came to going all-out on a pickup restoration. That wasn’t really the case, however. He just wanted something to work on, and a barn-find ’55 Cameo came along at just the right time.
“I had joined a car club and I was looking for something and a lot of guys had trucks, so I thought, you know, I’d go with the flow,” he said. Still, he had to be talked into the deal by his boss at Parsons Chevrolet of Antigo. “The frustration started in about 1988 — that’s when I bought it,” he joked. “It was actually traded in to where I worked, at the boss’ Chevrolet dealership. At the time I was looking for something to do, and he said, ‘Why don’t you buy this and finish it?’ Yeah right!’
“So I bought it and it was probably a good three-year restoration and then it was back on the road.”
Before he bought the truck from his boss, Ralph had been the one tasked with pulling the Cameo out of the shed where it had been sleeping for years. He’s not sure how long it had been since the pickup had moved, but it clearly had been in hibernation for an extended stretch. “When I went to get it in Antigo, with my assistant at the time, we went over with a wrecker and it was in a little wooden garage with double sliding doors, and it took a big crow bar and pipe and everything to get the doors slid open. And it was piled up from the dirt floor over the top and on the other side, and there was two vehicles in there. There was an old Pontiac in there, too. It had been sitting for years. It was pretty much a barn find. It was in a little two-stall rickety wooden garage.”
Once Ralph decided to take the truck himself, the fate of the Cameo changed and the pickup began to slowly be transformed from a presentable weekend hobby hauler to a stunning show truck. “I actually went back and re-did a lot of the stuff that was done. I was just going to do it as a driver, but I actually went back and took off every nut, every bolt and completely disassembled it. And when I got it all apart it was like, What did I do? [laughs]."
That Ralph gets plenty of attention with his bright white — Chevrolet called it Bombay Ivory — pickup is no great surprise since that’s what General Motors had in mind when it unveiled the beautifully sculpted Cameos in 1955. The Cameos have been called the first-ever “luxury” pickups, and while that might be a stretch by modern pickup standards, the Cameos were certainly a step up in style and design from anything blue collar truck buyers had seen before.
The trucks had an abundance of chrome — for pickups, anyway — styling borrowed from Chevrolet’s passenger cars, and their slab-side fenders were decidedly different from anything else on the truck landscape. Not only were the rear flanks flat, they were constructed of fiberglass and lined with a traditional steel and wood cargo box. The tailgate was also made of fiberglass with a steel plate inside. Chrome bumpers, chrome grille and full wheel covers were standard on the Cameo, but extra-cost goodies on the other Chevrolet trucks.
The windshield pillars in the one-piece cabs — which were the same as Chevrolet’s other “Task Force” line of 1955 models — were forward slanting. Inside was a two-tone red-and-white “oak bark” pattern. Red and white was the only interior option, and it was the only exterior choice for 1955, too. Like the first-year Corvettes of 1953, you could get any color Cameo you wanted, as long as it was white, with red trim. In subsequent years, more colors would be added.
The 6 ½-foot cargo beds rode on 114-inch-wheel base chassis and shared the same 5,000-lb. Gross Vehicle Weight rating as the less-fancy 3100 and 3200 Series half-ton trucks. The standard factory-issue power plant was a 235-cid six-cylinder, but a more attractive option for many was Chevy's new 265-cid V-8. An automatic transmission was also available at extra cost.
For all their good looks and other endearing qualities, the Cameos were not big showroom winners and were discontinued after the 1958 production run. Only about 10,000 were built in all, including a reported 5,220 for the debut 1955 model year. Perhaps it was their high $2,150 base price, which was about 25 percent more than a base Chevy half-ton, that did them in. Perhaps they were just too “pretty” for a working-class machine. Whatever the case, when the new Chevy Fleetside pickups arrived halfway through 1958, the Cameos were history.
Collectors and truck enthusiasts have certainly not forgotten them, however, as Ralph found. He showed off his pickup at the 2013 Iola Old Car Show in July, and as is often the case, he found people asking him “how much?”
“Just today there was a gal running down the road after me yelling ‘I want to buy it!’ No ma'am, it’s not for sale. And I have guys calling all the time on the phone wanting me to sell it,” Ralph laughed. “There’s no way I would do it, not at this time, unless it was some really big ridiculous number.”
Ralph spent plenty of long hours over a three-year period rebuilding his Cameo from the ground up. Considering how long the truck had been sitting, it could have been worse, he said. “It was actually not quite a basket case. It was better than average for a Wisconsin truck. We did have to [fix] some of the sheet metal and some of that was replaced. There was a lot of bodywork. The bottoms of the fenders, we had to put patch panels in. The box sides needed to be done because of the fiberglass and then the wood had to be replaced, and even more so the chrome. The chrome was probably the worst of everything.
“Everything was farmed out on the chrome. It was actually painted at the dealership where I worked. After work we could go in the booth and paint some parts, go home about midnight and get a couple hours of sleep and come back to work. I did almost everything except the major paintwork. All the little parts, the interior, putting it all back together — that was all 100 percent me. Probably the toughest part was getting the doors back on and getting them to fit. I swear they grew!”
Amazingly, the Cameo has all its original glass. The six-cylinder engine and three-speed manual transmission have both been rebuilt, but both are original to the truck, which had about 55,000 miles on the odometer when Ralph got it and now shows about 67,000.
From what Ralph can piece together, the truck has bucked the odds and survived all these years living in northern Wisconsin. It was built in the first month of production at the Janesville, Wis., plant and had previous owners in both Antigo and Rhinelander in the northern latitudes of the Dairy State. Although it was fancier than most trucks, being that it was a Cameo, Ralph's truck was a very low-option example. It was ordered with radio delete and has basically no factory options. “Compared to some of the other ones with the V-8 and automatics, this would have been considered bare bones,” Ralph noted. “I wish it had the V-8. It would add to the value a little more. And the automatic would be nice during the parade stuff.”
Ralph can only grin and shake his head now thinking back to how little he knew about his gorgeous Cameo when he first began tackling its restoration. He is reminded frequently how treasured the trucks are these days. “It’s driven to shows, about an hour away. Anything further than that I like to haul it because it’s just easier. It’s got no power steering, no power brakes and bias-ply tires. It’s kind of a handful, and everybody on today’s roads is doing 75, 80 miles an hour. You get a little scared.
“Around town it’s great and you get all the people looking and waving. At shows you get a lot of people who know what it is coming up and looking at it. It’s pretty cool.”
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org