This is a 1958 Chevrolet Apache 31 Panel Van. Oh, the van. Not only is it a fairly successful brand of shoes, it’s also the first name of a great folk rock artist, the middle name of a tortured (and famously ear-hating) Dutch artist, and part of the name of the fourth largest park in New York City (go Bronx!). Oh, and it’s a utility vehicle too, which is perhaps most relevant to us. Many malign the van, complaining about its uninspiring design, ungainliness, and perceived creepiness. That’s a shame, because in many ways we, as a society, look the way we do because of the van. I, for one, like vans quite a bit. They deserve freedom from oppressive preconception. So today, we’re going to attempt something amazing. Today, we rescue the van from the precipice of cultural irrelevance, because before me today I see a whole army of gearheads in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. Aye, fight and you may die. But many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days for one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!
Ahem. So what do we have here? To answer that question, we first need to talk about pickup trucks, which involves taking a peek back to the very early days of Forgotten Metal. Remember the Island that Rust Forgot, also known as the birthplace of Jaws and the occasional location of the Obama family Obama-cation? Oh yeah, we’re doing what they say you should never do in the age of social media- returning to the beginning. Well, nearly: to the second Forgotten Metal post of all time. Isn’t nostalgia great? Specifically we’re talking about the Chevrolet Advanced Design. As time soldiered into the mid-1950s, Chevrolet identified the need to replace their selling-like-hotcakes pickup. To up the ante, Ford had unveiled a very modern and very powerful overhead valve V8 while Chevy was still using straight-sixes. Not to be dissuaded, Chevy fired back in 1955 with their own V8, wrapped around an all new truck. No more was the vague-sounding “Advanced Design.” From 1955 to 1959, Chevy trucks were known simply as the Task Force series.
Let’s talk about that engine for a second, because it’s a good’un. It’s a 265 cubic inch small block V8, developed by a guy named Ed Cole. Cole became famous among GM management for developing a similar engine for Cadillac a few years prior, an accomplishment that gained him Vice Presidency at GM, the position of general manager of Chevrolet, and the friendship of big-time General Motors guy Harley Earl. Cole and Earl got along swimmingly, which was odd, given that Harley Earl was a designer at heart, and engineers and designers had a tendency to step on each other’s toes when putting together a new car. But Ed Cole held fast to the belief that the way a car (or truck) looked was just as important as what was going on under the hood, and went out of his way to make sure the styling department’s toes remained unstepped-on by engineering. And as a result, the Task Force both looked good and ran well. For the most part, at least. Some early Task Forces left the factory with piston rings that failed to set properly, which made the trucks burn oil. But mechanics of the 50s took to pouring water into the carburetor, which seemed to right the problem.
The Task Force pickup is mechanically identical to the panel van in these pictures, excepting, of course, the giant covered cargo area in this as opposed to a simple bed. Interestingly, the designers of the pickup spent a good deal of time on the gap between the bed and the cab- in the original sketches the body was all one piece. It was a bigger issue than just looking pretty too, as too much body torquing (not a sex thing, I checked) would wrinkle the sheetmetal if the truck was indeed all one piece. This wasn’t an issue for the panel van version of the Task Force, however, because the roof hitched the back end to the front end, which actually made the van slightly more structurally rigid. For 1958, you could choose from three different levels of truck-intensity: the light-duty “Apache,” which is what this is, the medium-duty and awesomely named “Viking,” and the heavy-duty “Spartan.” There were other cool features too. The Task Force’s headlights were concealed under little visors. It offered power steering and power brakes (the latter of which was a big deal, as the Advanced Design’s brakes seem to have been inspired by a small mouse desperately attempting to slow the wheels with a stick of butter). The windshield was the first in the truck industry to curve around the side of the cab (this is known as a “wraparound” windshield or, in Chevy-speak, the “Sweep-Sight Windshield”). A wraparound rear window was available as well, and both were inspired by a stunning Buick concept car from a few years earlier.
If ever a car was to “lumber” down a road, in much the same way I imagine Rodney Dangerfield got from place to place, it would be this one. But that isn’t a bad thing- in fact, it’s kind of endearing, and that applies to both the Apache and Rodney Dangerfield. In case I haven’t made it as obvious as the punchline to an SNL joke, I like vans. They’re like the wagon’s taller, blue-collar cousin. It’s kind of fitting that this is the last vehicle that we have from Puebla. Yes, this one’s a little rough around the edges- it looks like it’s been Frankensteined together from a number of different trucks- but it’s still going. And that’s a product of necessity: the owner of this van doesn’t take it to car shows. There is work to be done, things to do, tasks to be accomplished. This truck is kept running, nearly sixty years after it rolled off the assembly line, because it has to be. And if that doesn’t command just a little bit of respect, then I don’t know what does. See you back in New York, everyone.
- GMC also got a version of the Task Force Series, called the Blue Chip, but as is the general case with GMCs, it never sold as well as its Chevrolet equivalent. Perhaps because its front end looked like the Predator.
- Task Force is actually a naval term: “task” refers to a specific job, and “force” is the power with which one accomplishes that job.
- In 1955, Chevy released the Task Force Cameo Carrier, a kind of luxury version of the Task Force. It existed to do for Chevy trucks what the Corvette did for Chevy cars- in essence, to get people in the door of the dealership, wooed by the prospect of high-class fanciness, with the hope and expectation that they would leave with the keys to something.
- Early Task Forces, and this diverged a bit as the model got older, were designed to look like the passenger cars that Chevy was putting out at the time.