Bruce Parker’s remarkably original 1966 Chevrolet C-10 half-ton pickup – a two-owner vehicle with 8900 miles on the odometer – stands as a testament to the qualities that once made the American automobile industry the envy of the world. It’s a plain-Jane work truck with an in-line six, rather than the prized 327-cubic-inch V-8, and a three-on-the-tree transmission instead of the upmarket Powerglide automatic. The only option ticked on the build sheet was a deluxe heater. And yet, utilitarian as it is, and despite the slapdash build quality, it manages to be both aesthetically graceful and mechanically formidable – a fitting artifact of an era when working class didn’t mean second class. “It’s got character and style,” says Parker, a carpenter whose throwback collection includes a variety of mid-’60s Chevrolets such as split-window Corvettes and other trucks. “It’s old enough to be vintage, but it’s not so antique that it’s a relic.”
Although pickups came of age after World War II, they continued to evoke a postwar sensibility until Chevy introduced a groundbreaking generation of trucks in 1960. Not only were these C/K pickups – a designation that is still in unofficial use – equipped with the segment’s first independent front suspension, but a new drop-center X-shaped frame reduced the height of the vehicle by up to seven inches. The lower stance was emphasized by an attractive, pinched-waist body marred only by a fussy front end featuring “jet pod” eyebrows over the grille. Over time, the hoodline was lowered and the front fascia simplified, and by the end of the model run in 1966, the pickup was an exemplar of restrained elegance.
Chevy dominated the pickup market during this era, setting all-time sales records in 1964, 1965, and 1966. Central to the truck’s success was a seemingly endless array of options available to buyers. In 1958, Chevy offered 136 distinct models. By 1962, it was up to no fewer than 203 – two-wheel-drive C models, four-wheel-drive Ks, Stepsides, Fleetsides, Custom Cabs, Corvair-based trucks, Suburbans, half tons, three-quarter tons, one tons, long beds, short beds, and scads of drivetrain combos. By 1966, for example,C/Ks were being sold with 250- and 292-cubic-inch in-line sixes and 283- and 327-cubic-inch V-8s mated to one of four transmissions.
These days, the larger V-8 is the option most sought by the collectors who are just now discovering mid-’60s Chevy pickups. (John Gunnell, the author of Chevrolet Pickups 1946-1972, attributes this belated interest to the fact that the ’50s- and late-’60s-era trucks are already fully priced, whereas the first-generation C/Ks are still relatively cheap.) In terms of collectible value, more options are better. But Parker opted for a stripper with humble dog-dish hubcaps and a diamond-plate rear bumper. And he wanted something original and unmolested. He found it, on eBay, in the form of a pickup that had been used briefly on a berry farm in Washington and then pretty much garaged for four decades.
My initial impression, upon sliding onto the vinyl bench seat in the Spartan cabin, is that the steering wheel is so huge that it seems to belong in a ship. This turns out to be a plausible metaphor for the C-10. When driving the pickup, as with piloting a boat, everything has to be done with deliberation. The column shifter refuses to be rushed. Following closely in traffic is a definite no-no, because the drum brakes take their sweet time before biting and deceleration is never abrupt enough to snug me up against the less-than-confidence-inspiring lap belt. And with tiny 15-by-5.5-inch wheels and grip-challenged bias-ply tires, “brisk” and “cornering” are two words that don’t belong in the same sentence. On the other hand, even with the smallest engine offered, this pickup has no trouble keeping up with traffic. Contrary to expectations, the ride is almost plush – thanks to soft coil springs all around – although the damping leaves a lot to be desired.
The interior is a study in minimalism, with a bare-metal dash and an instrument panel a fourth-grader could decipher. But Chevrolet recognized that pickups of this period were increasingly being used in the role played by today’s SUVs, so it designed the first-gen C/K as a dual-purpose vehicle. (It’s no coincidence that the popularity of travel trailers and camper shells skyrocketed during the truck’s life cycle.) That meant plenty of creature comforts to choose from, not to mention two-tone paint, extra chrome, and panoramic windows.
Still, the C/K isn’t trying to be a car or an urban fortress or a high-tech entertainment center. From start to finish of the model run, it was an honest truck that was comfortable with its essential truckness. AM radio, power steering, and power brakes were all optional, and factory-installed air-conditioning wasn’t even offered until 1965. Peer under the hood and you’ll find a carburetor and no electronics. “You can fix it with a crescent wrench and a screwdriver,” Parker says.
In 1967, Chevrolet brought out a new generation of bolder, more sophisticated trucks, now known as the Glamour Pickups. The 1960-1966 models don’t exude that kind of sex appeal. But if you’re looking for a truck bargain that captures the American character at mid-century, the first of the Chevy C/K pickups belongs near the top of your shopping list.
3.8L OHV I-6, 125-140 hp, 220 lb-ft;
3.9L OHV I-6, 135 hp, 215-217 lb-ft;
4.1L OHV I-6, 155 hp, 235 lb-ft;
4.3L OHV I-6, 150 hp, 235 lb-ft;
4.8L OHV I-6, 165-170 hp, 275-280 lb-ft;
4.6L OHV V-8, 160-175 hp, 270-275 lb-ft;
5.4L OHV V-8, 220 hp, 320 lb-ft
3- or 4-speed manual
2- or 3-speed automatic
Rear- or 4-wheel
About 3 million
$2066 (1966 C-10 half-ton Fleetside)
They’re relatively cheap, reasonably useful, and undeniably cool. They were built in such large numbers that there are still plenty of decent examples on the market, and you can find a vast supply of aftermarket parts and new-old-stock components. They’re simple to work on and robust enough to last. Customization isn’t frowned on in the truck world, which means you can upgrade to bigger and better wheels and tires, for instance, without being sneered at by collectors. And as drivers, these trucks don’t beat you up, so you can look good without feeling miserable.