By Meda Kessler
Photos by Ralph Lauer
A 1971 Chevy pickup survives a theft, a collision and a rough encounter with an automatic gate, returning to its job as a “mow truck” looking better than ever
Like the proverbial cat, this 1971 Chevy pickup seemingly has nine lives. And it has used up three of those since Mike and Kay Morris bought it 37 years ago. Mike was a career educator teaching in Fort Worth; Kay was a medical technologist. The couple also worked for Tom Perini, the noted chuck-wagon cook/caterer, for about 30 years. As a hobby, they restored cars, including a ’54 Chevy pickup and, before that, a ’55 Bel Air. They sold both of those vehicles, though, as a two-car garage allows only one project at a time.
A friend knew the couple enjoyed working on old vehicles and told them about a 1971 short-bed pickup (the bed is 6½ feet long rather than the standard 8 feet) that was in need of a new home. “That ’54 was quite the project, but I was interested,” says Mike. “It took Kay a little longer to warm up to it.”
Both loved the truck’s unusual color — two-tone Ochre with white — which was original. They rebuilt the engine together. Kay, who is mechanically minded, says she wasn’t afraid of the challenge.
“I learned a lot when we worked on the ’54,” she says. “I believe that if you can read, you can do anything. If you can read a cookbook, you will learn to cook. The same goes with engines. Read the manual, and you can figure things out. As long as Mike is willing to take things apart, I can put it back together.”
After they bought the ’71 and got it running, it became Mike’s go-to vehicle. He drove it everywhere: to work, to visit their daughters at Texas A&M, to haul their grandkids around.
While still teaching, they took over a mowing business from a couple of Mike’s students, who had started it as a summer job. The truck’s compact size and the fact that it sits lower to the ground made it easier for the diminutive Kay to load and unload equipment. (The ’71 model was designed to be a working vehicle.) Today, the retired couple cut about 15 lawns on a Monday-through-Thursday schedule. Natives of Cisco, they reserve weekends for visiting the family’s working farm, where they have a 1970 truck that used to be part of a North Carolina tobacco operation.
“That’s a true working truck,” says Mike, “and it drives like one. The ’71 feels good and is comfortable even at 75 mph.”
But there have been a few bumps in the road, which brings us back to the truck’s nine lives.
After owning it for about 10 years, the Morrises pulled into their driveway one day, went into the house and looked out a few minutes later only to find it stolen.
“The foreman at a nearby ranch found it on his property a few days later. He found paperwork inside and called us,” says Mike. “It had been totally stripped — seats, tires, wheels, windows, doors; everything except for the chrome bumper and the engine. And we could tell they were trying to get that, too. While we waited for a wrecker, we thought they might come back with the right tools.”
The frame-off restoration was a slow process. Kay finally installed a new ignition switch, and they were back in the mowing business — but not for long.
Driving home one day, she was rear-ended by a guy trying to run a traffic light. The accident damaged the tailgate and shifted the truck bed; the other vehicle was totaled. While the 51-year-old truck looks small, especially in comparison to today’s models, it is solidly built, with a lot of steel in the body. The truck underwent more bodywork, and Mike also replaced the 350 engine and added an automatic transmission.
But wait, there’s more.
The truck fell victim to a mowing client’s metal security gate, which closed on it, badly scraping both sides. The gate owner happened to be their insurance agent, which made that renovation less painful. (The truck was uninsured when it was stolen.) They returned to Miller’s Auto Toys in Fort Worth, the couple’s go-to shop for all things truck. A few years later, the body and paint look good as new.
While the interior is still a work in progress — it has inherited the radio from their farm truck — it looks pretty good when it’s cleaned up. “It’s almost too good-looking to be our mow truck,” says Mike, “but we also don’t want it to sit in the garage unused.” (It does not sit unattended in the driveway anymore.)
Even when it’s filled with lawn equipment, a stop at the local gas station typically gets the Morrises a few offers to buy it and many comments. “Some people aren’t sure about the color,” says Mike, “but the ladies seem to approve.”