By Matt Kenevan
It all started three years ago when a friend sent me a social media message saying I needed to go look at something on his aunt’s farm in Waterville, Minnesota. The message had a photo attached of a rusted 1950s Hamm’s beer truck sitting under a grove of towering oak trees. It was love at first sight. I frantically started making phone calls to get a date to see this gem and soon set out for Waterville armed with a fist-full of cash.
When I arrived, a longstanding love-hate relationship began. Without a doubt, it was a one-of-a-kind find that I couldn’t simply walk away from. It was a 1959 Detroit International Vehicle Company (DIVCO) milk truck that had been retrofitted into a beer truck. On first look, I noticed a smattering of bullet holes in the doors and windows – but no matter. The motor had been replaced with a 50-gallon drum filled with cement, and a fold-up trailer hitch on the front bumper had been welded on so the truck could be towed to events to pour ice cold tap beer. No, none of this concerned me in the slightest.
An offer was made. The owner accepted. As I pulled out of the driveway towards the nearest U-Haul lot, I said to myself, Oh crap, what did I just do? Two hours later this little buggy was loaded up and I headed home to St. Paul. A feeling of dread washed over me – I hadn’t the slightest idea where I was going to store the truck, nor did I know anyone who even heard of a DIVCO before, much less serviced one.
About 15 minutes into my drive I noticed I was being followed, so I pulled off the road at a tiny motel parking lot. A man hopped out of his car and went straight to the DIVCO. The first words out of his mouth put my mind at ease: “This is awesome. My dad had two of them when I was a boy and I think I have the seat that goes to this.” He never did find the seat, but still it was a cool feeling, knowing people were excited about it. Onward I went maxing out at 45 miles per hour. I got almost home and another guy stopped me and made an offer to buy it for $4,000 more then what I paid for it. If I were smarter, I would have asked where I should deliver it.
Finally, I’m home, but still without a clue on what to do with it. My wife reached out to the show American Restoration to see if they had interest in this project. A few emails and a couple calls later it was decided; they wanted to make the project their season finale. The initial excitement didn’t last long however – turns out the show doesn’t pay for the restoration. The estimate came in and I was in no position to shell out those kinds of dollars.
I loaded the truck back up and headed out to a local guy to get a second bid, which was almost half as much. I didn’t have much of a choice, so I regrettably turned down American Restoration and brought the truck to the local shop. It was at this point that the hate portion of the love-hate relationship was born. Just a couple months into the project, the entire budget was spent and it more or less didn’t look like anything had been done. It turns out, these sorts of refrigerated trucks often rusted from the inside out, and the damage to my truck was more extensive than originally thought. We also found out that finding parts for this truck wasn’t all that easy either. Who knows how long the restoration would take if we waited to find original parts, so the decision was made to drop modern parts into the shell of this 1959 truck.
First came a shiny, new 454 Chevy big block motor to give it a little head turning power. Little did I realize that decision would set the pace for a whole different build out. Nothing was cheap after that. From a new chassis to custom side pipes, the project was getting expensive quickly. Finally two and a half years later, the truck was ready for some paint and some new rims. Seeing the truck is almost 9′ tall, many painters didn’t have a paint booth big enough.
My friend Scott Reed at Reed Chrysler suggested I talk to Jeff Schepp at Shepy’s Auto Body. Sure enough, it was a match. I couldn’t be happier with the result. Sheep stuck to his quote, which was a rare feat in the overall project. He met the time requirements and was just a pleasure to work with. Even though I live four hours away, I will be sending all my work to him. I also can’t thank Scott and a few brains over at Reed Chrysler enough for finding rims and tires for the truck. Trust me, it wasn’t an easy task to find the bolt pattern that could carry the weight and matched the height.
But a beer truck isn’t a beer truck without beer, right? The degradation of the original cooler meant I had to remove the old cooling system and replace it. To keep on pace with the over-the-top theme of the project, I installed 10 tap handles on both sides of the truck. That’s right, not only can the DIVCO make a cheetah look like it’s wearing an anchor, but it can pour 20 of my favorite beers all at the perfect temperature.
My hope is that seeing the cherry-red tap truck roar down the road to my events, the occasional block party, and a few parades this summer, will make people smile. After three years of painstaking restoration, it’s hard to believe this truck is the same as the old milk truck I found in a farm field. Forget love-hate, this relationship is all love.