In 1936, Chevy introduced the panel wagon, a commercial version of the Chevy Suburban and the prototype for today's SUV. Designed for light-duty delivery, panel wagons came standard with a single bench seat and rear cargo area of sheet metal and ribbed interior side paneling.
Most wagons were equipped with a 216-cubic-inch straight six-cylinder engine (or the 228-cubic-inch model). In addition to being built with a truck chassis for heavy loads, they were relatively easy to handle and park, making them ideal for delivering groceries, meats, milk, and lumber - or for use as a work van, ambulance or hearse.
But these post-World War I panel wagons are hard to find these days, says John Carpenter, a 49-year-old Springfield resident who remodels homes and works for Horace Mann as an information technologist. Carpenter has been interested in local history for some time, and noticed a panel wagon in photos from the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library.
"I like '20s and '30s history. I like seeing what was going on in Springfield at that time - clothes, the cars people drove, stuff like that. I knew when I saw it in the archives that I wanted one."I searched eBay for three years," he says.
"They were used hard and abused. In the '40s, they were either ready for the junk pile or used as scrap metal for the war. They're a rarity.
"But then one day (in 2009), one showed up on eBay, so I went to Columbus, Ga., and drove it. I knew it was exactly what I wanted."
Carpenter's find was rare in more ways than one. Not only was the panel wagon in working order, but it also had been used as late as 1996 as a delivery vehicle for a grocery store in Maine. After it was decommissioned, a collector named Pump McDowell spotted it at an estate sale and had it modified as a street rod, complete with brilliant tangerine paint, Weld wheels and airbrushed ghost flames. The name, "Pump's Meat Wagon" adorns the side panel.
"I wasn't into going to car shows when I got it, but I went to a show in 2010 and won first place," Carpenter says.
"I started going to more shows and ended up with seven first-place awards, a Judge's Choice and a Best GM."
Winning is great, says Carpenter, but the biggest attraction for him is "seeing people, meeting people and having a good time."
Though the Meat Wagon already gets attention from admirers whenever he drives it, Carpenter is planning a full restoration this winter.
"I'm doing a total makeover, but I'm keeping the color and the meat wagon theme. I want to simplify some things - like making the battery easier to work on. I'm also adding more chrome on the engine."
Carpenter's makeover includes:
Today's panel wagon
Into the 1960s, panel wagons became popular for more than just commercial purposes - they became popular as conversion campers, decked out with custom features including plush carpet, captain's chairs and wood or vinyl paneling.
Panel-wagon enthusiasts can look to the contemporary Chevy HHR panel van for its boxy and practical appeal.
Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )