It’s been reported that only 10 percent of the population is into old iron. Not so for the other 90 percent. To the latter, old cars and trucks are just a piece of metal. For the former, such as Greg Rich, Jr., old cars and trucks represent nostalgia and are worth holding onto.
One of those old vehicles that Rich finds loaded with nostalgia is a 1951 Ford tow truck. The Indiana, Pa., resident remembered the tow truck going back to when he was 5 years old in 1954 while living in Kane, Pa. The wrecker was based upon a 1951 Ford F-3 bought new by Zook Motors, a Ford dealership in Kane. Rich’s father, Greg Rich, Sr., began working as Zook Motors’ sales manager in 1954. Sometimes, the senior Rich would drive home cars that needed to be towed back to the dealership.
“Cars were not as reliable as they are today,” recounts the younger Rich.
In addition to its towing abilities, the young lad was impressed with the tow truck’s rigging that lifted the front of the cars it was towing.
When he grew older, Rich documented the workhorse’s history. Zook Motors ordered the 1951 Ford F-3 on Oct. 10, 1951. It was assembled at the Ford plant in Buffalo, N.Y., then the Maday Body and Equipment Co. of the same city outfitted it as a tow truck with a wrecker crane. The truck came with a 239-cid V-8 generating 100 hp. The price for this four-wheeled business card was $3,423.55 while a 1951 Ford automobile ranged in price from $1,424 to $2,253, making the wrecker a significant investment.
The Ford truck was dramatically restyled in 1948 as a modern postwar vehicle. For 1951, the truck’s silhouette was familiar, being similar to the 1948 truck, but a new grille updated the mildly refined 1951 model. That model year, there was a cavity up front that housed a new horizontal grille bar with three small vertical bars. At each end of the horizontal bar was a headlamp.
Rich notes that the cabin of the F-3 tow truck was called a “5-Star Extra Cab.” During the beginning of the second half of the 20th Century, the 5-Star Extra Cab package was considered opulent for a truck. It included a dome lamp with door switches, and instead of rubber around the windshield and backlight, there was a bright molding. There was foam rubber seat padding and two-tone upholstery with vinyl and mohair. Dual horns and dual wipers were standard, along with extra insulation and a cigar lighter. Brothers John and Bruce Zook, owners of Zook Motors, also ordered the truck with a four-speed manual transmission, radio and under-dash heating unit.
In 1965, at age 16, Rich followed his father’s footsteps and began working for Zook Motors, but instead of working in sales, Rich worked as a mechanics’ helper. He continued to admire the tow truck that did a lot of service during the Elvis and Beatles era. By this time, though, the truck was looking a bit shop-worn and rough around the edges. However, it remained in service and John or Bruce Zook would have Rich use it on occasion.
“At such a young age, I had a difficult time getting used to shifting gears, and consequently did a lot of grinding away with each shift,” Rich confesses.
In 1968, Rich joined the U.S. Army and completed a three-year stint. When he returned, he went back to work at Zook Motors for a year. Beginning in 1973, Rich started as a mechanic in the oil and gas industry in which he’d work for the next 30 years.
Meanwhile, in 1969, the Zook Motors wrecker was parked in an abandoned body shop along with other relics from the Ford dealership. Over the next 40 years, Rich continued to think about that old Ford tow truck and the memories it had provided him during his youth. When he was preparing to retire, he began looking for something to restore. From 2008 to 2012, Rich would visit John Zook, who was now the only remaining member from the original Zook team. When Rich decided to pull the trigger and restore a vehicle, he approached John about purchasing a vehicle that the Zooks had squirreled away so long ago. Rich thought Zook would sell him a Model A. Instead, Zook said that the ’51 F-3 would be better.
“John knew the history and was smart enough to know what would be better,” Rich recalled. “So, I ended up getting this.”
Father Time and Mother Nature were not kind to the old wrecker. Poor cosmetics and mechanical issues made for a challenging rejuvenation. The body was ventilated with corrosive metal. The engine was stuck and needed internal surgery. The interior was dried and its fabrics rotten. The rubber flooring had disintegrated from age. The paint was dull, chalking and chipped.
As Rich tells it, Ford F-3 body parts are not reproduced, and parts are rarely a phone call away. Regardless, Rich was able to complete an extensive restoration that including rebuilding, replacing and refurbishing all of its components. Even the boom and winch were rebuilt.
“I found body parts in Colorado, such as front and rear fenders, running boards and bed sides,” Rich said.
Rich’s good friend, Bill Bertres, is a master restorer. He encouraged Rich to buy the tow truck, provided advice and even painted the truck.
“Without him, the project would never begin nor been finished,” Rich said.
Rich’s wife, Mary, provided much moral support. “She kept me focused,” he says.
Overcome by frustration, Rich sometimes felt like giving up. He says Mary kept telling him that he gone so far, he could not stop.
Rich did 90 percent of the physical restoration work, and “Bill gave me the confidence that I could do it.”
Rich eventually brought the pickup back to its former glory and it has since been restored to concours standards without being over-restored. Greg and Mary received their first AACA award at Gettysburg, Pa., and in Auburn, Ind., the truck attained a Senior Award. At an AACA meet in Minnesota, the truck received a Grand National Award. In addition, the wrecker received the Postwar Ford Award, and was a finalist for the AACA’s annual Zenith Award, which recognizes the best restoration in the club (The tow truck was one of only 18 vehicles nominated for the award in 2021).
“This truck earned a perfect score, without a single point taken off for the slightest imperfection or unfaithfulness to assembly line standards,” Rich says.
Better yet, the tow truck is as good or better than Rich remembers it when he first saw it nearly 70 years ago.
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