GM’s Advanced Design Pickup Trucks, 1947-1955
By Dennis Haak
Sometimes, it’s nice to take a step back from talk of bankruptcies, recalls, CO2 emissions, Cash for Clunkers, and the new-car market generally, and reconsider a simpler era. Specifically, I’m talking about GM’s Advanced Design pickup trucks, which the company produced between the 1947 and 1955 model years. For reasons I’ll get into in a moment, these trucks have a special place in my heart.
The Advanced Design pickups were GM’s first all-new vehicles of the Post-World War II period. Following the resumption of passenger car production, the Big Three (plus the independents, several of whom were still in business at the time) basically trotted out 1946 model year cars and trucks that were eerily similar to their 1942 pre-war versions.
In a bold move that turned out to be one of GM’s most forward-thinking of the past century, GM introduced the all-new 1947 trucks before introducing all-new passenger cars, which were to follow a year later. Now, this could have been clever, visionary thinking on GM’s part, just the general timing of its passenger-car and truck product-development cycles, or a combination of the two. But the Advanced Design trucks literally ushered in the era of larger, more comfortable, personal-use pickup trucks. The previous generation trucks sold from 1941-1946, with their Art Deco styling, were considerably smaller than the Advanced Design trucks. The additional size of the Advanced Design trucks – eight inches in width and seven inches in length – went toward a wider cab that comfortably accommodated three adults for the first time as well as more legroom.
In addition to far more room inside the cab, these pickups also increased safety by dramatically improving visibility, particularly in models fitted with the optional rear-quarter windows, but also through the trucks’ larger windshields and side-window glass. Hardly equivalent to the drop-down DVD entertainment systems and heated leather seats available in today’s trucks, the key comfort innovation in the Advanced Design pickups was a fresh-air heater/defroster system. An AM radio was also available, though I’ve seen very few of these trucks with those installed.
Under the trucks’ hoods was the time-tested 216.5 cubic inch Thriftmaster OHV inline-six that produced 90 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. A three-speed manual transmission was standard on the 1/2 ton and 3/4 ton trucks, and a four-speed was optional on the 3/4 ton and standard on the 1 ton trucks. Wheelbases were either 116 inches, 125 1/4 inches, or 137 inches. I feel that by far, the best-looking models in the series from a profile standpoint were the short wheelbase models, because their proportions seemed to work much better than the longer-wheelbase variants.
Though the trucks remained in production for nine model years, GM implemented various incremental changes and improvements to the trucks over their production run. For example, in 1949, the gas tank was moved inside the cab behind the seat. In 1950, the engine was upgraded to produce – wait for it – an extra two horsepower, to 92 total. The 1951 trucks lost the cowl vent of the earlier trucks and grew vent windows instead. 1952 models swapped the older trucks’ pull-down door handles for the pushbutton type. The 1954 trucks saw their most extensive refresh, which curiously occurred in their last full model year.
The 1954s swapped the two-piece windshield for a larger one-piece unit, a new steering wheel and instrument panel, and a hideous new grille and parking lights that swapped the elegant (yet complex) grille in the earlier trucks for a simpler, more bold grille with a large Dodge Ram-like crossbar setup. The 1954 refresh was one of the first assignments of a young Chuck Jordan, who would eventually lead GM Design. In my opinion, the grille was not a success, but I’m sure many disagree with me. The 1954s also got a larger and more powerful engine, this time a 235.5 cubic inch six that produced 112 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. All horsepower and torque figures are gross, by the way. An optional Hydramatic automatic transmission was available in the 1954s for the first time as well. The Advanced Design trucks soldiered into the 1955 model year with little change until the new, more stylish, V8-optional trucks made their debut in March 1955.
The succeeding generation of GM pickups – those sold from 1955-1959 – continued in the tradition of beginning to offer more car-like comfort and convenience features in trucks to appeal to a broader spectrum of buyers. But it was the Advanced Design trucks that really set the tone for the trend that continues today, more than six decades later. In fact, not only did the Advanced Design trucks set the tone for design and equipment in trucks in their time (they were the #1 selling trucks during their entire model run), but they even heavily influenced the design of the 2003-2006 SSR retro-convertible pickup.
Back in the 1980s I did frame-off restorations of three different Advanced Design Chevy pickups (not to mention some other interesting cars, like a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser convertible Indianapolis 500 pace car). All three of the pickups went on to become AACA Seniors, and one was an AACA Grand National Winner. The first was a ‘49, the next a ‘52, and the third a ‘50. The restorations were my winter projects during the slow car-selling months.
One tidbit about these trucks is that the reason most unrestored examples that you see are dark green is that green was the standard color (in a Henry Ford/Model T black sort of way). If you wanted a different color, you had to pay. As the trucks had no paint code documentation as do newer cars, two of my trucks went from green to red, and the third went from tan to red. The red that I chose was an original optional color, and happens to be the same color used by Coca Cola on their trucks to this day. I’m unsure as to whether the SSR’s red color was identical to the one used in the Advanced Design pickups, but just in case, I bought one of those at the time they came out. Like the old trucks, I no longer own the SSR either.
Another fond memory of these trucks was that my friend – let’s call him G – also had one of these pickups, I believe a ’51. G’s was not a restored example; let’s call it a survivor primered POS. At a local car show, I displayed my 1947 Plymouth Business Coupe that had been an unrestored, all-original, car owned by a the proverbial little old lady in my town. That Plymouth was a 40 year old car at the time that still smelled new. At the end, when the judging results were announced, the Plymouth won “Best Original.” The old Chevy truck? It got the “Dog Award.” G was a good sport about it, though, and we all found much humor in the situation. And years later, as I was restoring my own Advanced Design trucks, G’s truck unselfishly gave up many of its best parts toward the restoration of my three trucks.
Note: All of the vehicles pictured were owned by the author at one time with the exception of the green 1954 pickup. The black ’47 Plymouth is the one mentioned in the story.
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