Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Regardless of how much time, hard work and misery it took, John Butner was determined to start showing up at car shows driving something he knew nobody else would have.
It’s pretty safe to declare his quest over — mission accomplished. And a big, 1-ton, gnarly, green, basket case mission it was.
“I really didn’t want to see it go to the crusher, and that’s where it was going,” says the affable Butner, leaning on the front fender of his hulking 1951 Dodge mail truck. “I worked on it about a year and a half. I had times when I put it in a corner and walked away had to go think about it. I’d leave it sit for a week and then say, ‘Well, I gotta do something with it’ and I’d get back to it. I couldn't just let it sit there.
“I got to the point a couple of times where I decided the hell with it, but it was sitting in a corner and I had other things I need to do, so I had to get it done.”
The end result has left Butner, a resident of Northmoor, Mo., in the northern suburbs of Kansas City, rightfully proud. Even some of his best car buddies told him he had bitten off more than he could chew when he rescued the half-buried Dodge. There wasn’t much left to save, they told him, and what was left was not worth the time and effort.
“Guys laughed at me. They really did. They laughed. They said, ‘What are you going to do with that thing?’” Butner recalled. “I like it because every show you go to you see a lot of Tri-Five Chevys, and you see a lot of Camaros and Mustangs and all that stuff. And I appreciate that stuff, I really do, because I know what these guys have went through to put this stuff together. Still, I like to look at something different.”
Butner had already worked on and restored plenty of other old cars and trucks by the time he caught wind of an estate sale in Kansas City about five years ago. The sale was going to feature about 30 old vehicles in various states of disrepair, and Butner, being a bit of old truck buff, decided he better go check it out. “There were military trucks from during the war and later trolley buses and other stuff … and there was one guy there that was buying most of it and was gonna crush all of it. [The Dodge] was sitting in the ground. It had been in the ground so long that it was sunk up past the front axle.”
But Butner saw potential in the retired delivery truck and ponied up $350 to take it home. After some research and networking with some fellow American Historical Truck Society members, he was able to find some old photos of similar vehicles and learned that the truck had been used as a United States Postal Service delivery vehicle in the Kansas City area. There was no telling how long it had been retired and how many years it had been since the truck was drivable, but Butner was smitten with the idea of bringing it back.
“I figured I was gonna have a pretty hard time putting it together and finding parts for it, but I wanted to put it together. I was determined to put it together,” he says.
Of course, adding to the challenge is the fact that the mail truck carried a coach-built body, courtesy of the now-defunct Boyertown Body Works of Pennsylvania. Boyertown was a long-running fixture of the coach building business, over the years turning out everything from mail delivery trucks, to military vehicles, ice cream trucks, television broadcast vehicles, rescue trucks and a myriad of delivery trucks. The company’s roots date back to 1872 when it began as a carriage maker. By 1918, the business shifted to building truck bodies to meet the growing need for specialized commercial vehicles.
In the early 1950s, Dodge and Ford both supplied 1-ton chassis that Boyerton converted to mail trucks. For Butner’s truck, the company’s “Step-N-Serve” body was mounted on a 1951 Dodge B-3-D Series 1-ton chassis with a 116-inch wheelbase. The 236-cid six-cylinder under the two-piece hood produced 115 hp and was mated to a four-speed manual transmission.
“I didn’t really realize what it was until after I bought it,” Butner chuckled. “I belong to the American Historical Truck Society, they have a big library and I did some research on it… I guess it serviced Kansas City all its life. I found it up behind Royals [Kauffman] and Arrowhead stadiums. If you didn’t know where it was you’d have never found it. Kansas City is a pretty good-sized town, and this was just out in the middle of nowhere, but right in the middle of the city about five blocks from the stadium.”
“They used it to deliver mail from the mailboxes on corners — you know, where people dropped mail off. They used it to pick up mail from there and take it to the post office, or to deliver boxes that were too big for the letter carriers.”
Butner’s struggles started almost from the moment he bought the truck.
“The front fenders were just gone. The sides of it were gone. The bottom of the wheels were gone, and when I went out there to get it with a 1-ton Chevy rollback and I couldn’t get it up out of the ground. So a buddy of mine, his kid’s got a Peterbilt and we got it out and we got it up with that. It was just a mess!”
Butner wound up breaking or cutting nearly every internal piece of the engine in an unsuccessful attempt to get it to turn over. Eventually he replaced the original engine with a new six-cylinder power plant from a donor truck. The original transmission was salvaged and reused.
The interior of the cab — dash, steering wheel, seats, etc., — was in reasonably good shape, according to Butner. Fortunately, the floor was also mostly solid, needing patching in only one spot.
The doors, fenders and body were another story, however. Butner needed to do a bunch of fabricating below the rub rails to restore the sides of the body, and the doors were pretty much rebuilt from scratch.
“I used to do work on UPS trucks as a private contractor, so I had some experience with that kind of stuff. One thing that was different is that the UPS bodies are aluminum, and this was all steal … And Boyertown bodies, they had wooden doors. They used sheet metal glued to plywood. And that’s how they made the doors.”
“I had to fabricate the doors — both the side doors and the two rear doors. I had to replace the sides from the rub rail down because they had big holes. I just cut sheet metal out and welded it together. The front fenders and grille are all from another truck. Even the grille bars were rusted out on the stupid thing.”
The project also included fabricating a new pair of “impossible-to-find” running light rings, smoothing out some dents in the roof, and changing the electrical system over from 6 to 12 volts.
By the fall of 2014, Butner had the truck finished, with the final step being a coat of period-correct olive-drab paint. “No. 5380” and “U.S. Mail” were also stenciled inside the white horizontal strip down the side. To complete the authentic look, a pair authentic-looking advertising signs promoting “Worldwide Air Parcel Post” were placed on the on the sides of the rear cargo area.
Not long after he got the truck finished, Butner received a special request to be part of a funeral procession for a former postal worker who had just died. Butner didn’t know the man, but he happily obliged. “I told them as long as we weren’t trying to go anywhere fast,” he says. “This thing only goes about 45 mph.”
Butner is pretty eager to take the truck anywhere these days. He regular cruises the roads on his way to car shows in the Kansas City area. In July he brought the truck 10 hours north to Iola, Wis., for the Iola Car Show. It was one of the few times he plans to ever have it on a trailer.
“It goes down the road nice. It really does. I enjoy driving it,” he says.
After about 18 months of trials and tribulations while trying to revive the ’51 Dodge, Butner says he will be hard pressed to ever part with it. He has a handful of other hobby vehicles and a couple lined up as future projects, but he knows it will be difficult to produce a finished product more satisfying than his mail truck.
“I really am pretty happy with it,” he says with a grin. “I do really like it.
“Right now at home I’m working on an old Railway Express Agency 1950 Ford. It’s probably in worse shape [than the Dodge was]. I just want to see if I can do. I think that’s what it is.”