By John Quilter
Powell Pickup Bucks the Trend in Fancier Pickups
In the 1950s in the USA pickup trucks were slowly moving from being very utilitarian vehicles for work only to a more dual purpose of personal transportation and utility. Perhaps this started in Australia where “utes”, a pickup version of a passenger car, had long been popular. By the mid-50s in the USA pickups were getting more car like and featured such things as V8 engines, automatic gearboxes, power steering and plusher interiors. Some even went really over the top such as the Chevrolet Cameo and Dodge Sweptside which used a tail finned quarter panel off a two door station wagon. Then there was the launch of the 1957 Ford Ranchero, a car based pickup which was followed by the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino. All this upscaling of pickups made them inevitably more expensive if not more desirable to some and offsetting the stigma of trucks being solely for tradesmen. See photo of a selection of pickups from 1953 to 1959.
Then bucking this trend along comes the Powell pickup in 1955. This was made by the Powell Manufacturing of Compton California. In order to keep costs very low, Powell designed a body of very simple stampings virtually eliminating compound curves. The front grill panel was a fiberglass molding and the rear panel and lift out (not hinged) tail gate panel was of diamond plate sheet. The bed floor was a plywood sheet with a metal floor optional. There were no roll down door windows but sliding panels were used for ventilation. The most amazing cost saving feature of these vehicles was the fact that they used a chassis and drive train bought from wrecking yards and refurbished and rebuilt. They searched and located for all useable 1941 Plymouths that had reached the scrapyard state due to being 12 to 15 years old and were likely simply worn out.
Early development work starting in 1952 considered using Chevrolet or Ford used componentry but it was found the 117 inch wheelbase Plymouth with its open drive line and simple side valve six cylinder engine was more suitable plus there was exceptional interchangeability with other Chrysler products. Powell rebuilt the mechanicals and created the body themselves in their Compton facility. The first production trucks used what appeared to be a wooden 2X6 for a bumper, however, later versions went to a square section metal bumper painted white.
One unique optional feature of these trucks was one or two long pull out storage compartments with a round cover. They pulled out from the rear of the bed sides and could be used for storage of pipes, fishing poles, etc. Some information on the internet seems to indicate the overall length of these truck was 168 inches but my research and scaling photographs down to create model seems to indicate the length closer to 188 inches, at least with the larger bumpers. This could be determined using the know figure of the 1941 Plymouth wheel base of 117 inches. This length gave the Powell a 6 foot load bed which agrees with published information.
Homely or just functional, the Powell did have an integrated look from cab to bed and there were no wheel wells inside the bed to interfere with load carrying. The hood opened from each side with a central hinge strip. Hubcaps were often reused 1940s Plymouth items. This very basic pickup sold for $999 ultimately increasing to $1198 for a “deluxe” version, still a big discount to the offerings from the Big Three.
In addition to the pickup Powell offered a sort of early SUV or station wagon based on the pickup. This had a very flat tailgate and also offered the optional pull out storage compartments and a flat roof included a luggage rack.
By late 1956 the supply of rebuildable 1941 Plymouth chassis and engines was drying up and Powell ceased production even though there was a reported backlog of orders remaining. Why they did not update the chassis to a later Plymouth chassis is unknown. By 1957 Powell had declared bankruptcy for lack of paying excise taxes. The owners and brothers, Hayward and Channing later restarted their firm but returned to making motor scooters which was their original work. Most Powell pickups were sold west of the Rockies and some were marketed to Plymouth/Desoto dealers as a shop truck since Desoto had no in house truck. In total there were about 1200 pickups and 300 station wagon versions built. The reorganized Powell company survived until 1979 and during the 60s it built the Powell Challenger trail bike.
Now to the model. This was scratch built using sheets of styrene plastic sometimes laminated together to get enough thickness to create a rounded edge. The rear panel was styrene plastic diamond plate stock. Headlamps were glass jewels (available at craft stores) surrounded by a wire formed headlamp rim. Wheels were from my stock of resin cast simple automobile wheels with domed hubcaps suitably painted and bare metal foiled. I had good internet photos to go by for the details and a friend who actually has about 3 real Powells on his property was able to provide me some useful dimensions and other details. Good photos are critical and it is best if one can find a 90 degree side shot to enable scaling the model from this by reducing or enlarging the photo on a copy machine to exactly the right size.
Chassis details were approximated using a chassis photograph of a similar 1950 Plymouth from a brochure. I was inspired to do this project, which took about three weeks, by a posting on the Legacy 43rd forum. After completion and posting photos some were impressed expressing they wanted one too, but I only do one offs and no one has stepped forward wanting to do a resin casting using this as a pattern. I guess Powells are just a bit too esoteric or obscure.
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