Truck Restoration Projects

Ace of Diamonds

In their native North America, Diamond T trucks were called by many the ‘Cadillac of Trucks’ – they were never short on style or class with flowing front mudguard lines, aggressive grilles, rakish cabs – there was simply no way to mistake this iconic truck from builder Charles A. Tilt’s Chicago company.

Even the logo implied class – reportedly the company’s name was created when Tilt’s shoemaker father fashioned a logo in leather featuring a large capital ‘T’ (for Tilt) framed by a diamond, in order to signify high quality.

Charles Arthur Tilt formed the Diamond T Motor Car Company of Chicago in 1905. Tilt had spent the first ten years of his working life in his father’s shoe factory working his way up from the floor to acting supervisor before he left to work for Charles W. Knight, inventor of the famous ‘Silent Knight’ sleeve valve engine, whose business was operated next door to the Tilt shoe factory.

Having learnt the skill of working with metal and machining from Knight, young Tilt started his own business, a small machine shop in the corner of the shoe factory.

There are many theories as to how Charles Tilt financed his business from meagre beginnings to an automotive manufacturing operation. Some say his mother financed him against his fathers will and others suggest it was from Tilt’s own savings – or was it outside help from an investor?

What we do know is – Tilt built his first motor vehicle, a car, in 1905. Regular production of three passenger-car models began two years later and were manufactured by hand in the rear of a small single story shed.

Then in 1911 a customer requested a truck – it was an order that was to change the course of the company. The customer was Wolff Manufacturing who operated a plumbing business and the truck was referred to in later years as ‘Old No.1’. It was chain driven and powered by a 4-cylinder Continental petrol engine, its rear axle Timken, with a Brown Lipe transmission.

Tilt was very enthusiastic about producing a Diamond T commercial vehicle, and almost overnight switched exclusively to building trucks.

The Diamond T Company’s best year was 1936, when new truck registrations reached 8750. Roughly a quarter of a million Diamond T trucks were built over the company’s fabled 56-year history.

 

Our feature vehicle

Red was almost the obligatory colour for all Diamond T trucks, and Arthur O’Connor’s superb restoration of this 1949 Model 509 is fortunately no exception – hued in carnation red. Note the green trim stripe on the top of the doors just below the window – a Diamond T distinctive characteristic.

Before we talk about the truck we should look at the man. You see, Arthur was involved in an accident some 40-years ago at age 35, which broke his back damaging his spinal cord, leaving him without the use of his legs. He’d grown up in the east-coast area of Victoria, his father had a saw mill and he had spent many years from an early age, even without a licence driving his father’s 1955 Ford F600 carting wood pulp to the Maryvale Mill.

One day his dad said I think you should get a truck licence, so as he loved driving trucks and wanted to get into the big-time, he put up his age in order to obtain a truck licence.

As time progressed he bought a Mack R600 and started carting logs out of the forests, and when the timber industry was quiet, he would subcontract to East Coast Transport carting interstate freight. It was at this time during 1977 that the accident occurred – a set of eight-foot high trailer gates fell on him, resulting in the disability, which would have broken many a man’s spirit, but not the very gutsy and determent Arthur O’Connor.

Now a paraplegic, he had his beloved 320 Cool Power Mack prime mover’s clutch setup with air assistance and hand controls fitted – he slipped it under a trailer, and with a pair of crutches for mobility, went back on the ‘road’ carting sawn timber and interstate freight.

He says, “It’s marvellous just what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. I was able to do most things – I could even change the truck’s wheels when needed and, was able, with some difficulty, to manoeuvre the redundant wheel and tyre back into the rack under the trailer.” 

So, how was he able to create this masterpiece from the seat of a wheelchair and with the aid of a pair of crutches? Firstly with the backing of his very supportive wife Pauline, who was happy to wield a few tools and get her hands dirty – and of course, as with most vehicle restorations, the help of some specialist tradespeople.    

He’d fettled a KB3 Inter back to life sometime earlier, but wanted a larger working truck to rejuvenate, so Jim Bury from nearby Trafalgar, who was a collector of old trucks, had this old Diamond T sitting in his yard. A fellow in Balranald named Griffiths had bought it new and used it as a prime mover pulling a stock-crate, it then passed through three more owners, prior to Jim Bury’s ownership. 

One of these being Keith Forster who had removed its dilapidated wooden framed cab during his tenure and replaced it with an all-steel cab, which was three inches lower in dimension than the white ant original, this meant the glassware was shorter giving the appearance of a chopped hot rod style – which it wasn’t – it was an original factory cab, possibly from another model.

Arthur says, “The fitment would have been very easy, as the cab is secured to the firewall (front clip) with bolts. Apparently it didn’t have any doors, so Keith used the doors from the old cab, but of course they were three inches higher – just a matter of chopping the excess from the bottom section, which was rusted anyway, and they fitted perfectly.”

Arthur knew that Diamond Ts were quality trucks in their day and thought it a good restoration project, so a deal was done. It was 1989 and Arthur was still driving at that time, so the Diamond spent sometime sitting at the O’Connor premises awaiting its beauty treatment.

 

Getting started

Arthur says, “Upon close investigation, with the truck disassembled, it was obvious that a great deal of time and effort would be required to complete a quality restoration; I remember saying to Pauline at the time – this job might be too big and we may have bitten off more than we can chew, but we decided to press on and give it our best.” 

With the ‘new’ steel cab removed along with the rest of the tinware, the chassis was the next task. Arthur says it needed plating so he set about cutting some steel plate (he says he was using the oxy back then, but for safety reasons has since given that idea away) to fit along each side of the chassis, which had to be drilled in order to be bolted along the web on each side of the chassis.

“I remember the plate had a couple of holes that didn’t correspond to the chassis, so I had to wedge myself between the chassis rails in order to drill those couple of extra holes with a large hand drill.” he recalls.

Then there was more hard work ahead. Arthur says, “Once the chassis was sitting on its wheels it seemed to be cocked up on one corner at the rear – on closer inspection I found it had an extra leaf in one of the rear springs. So we went about getting the spring out, and I got to say, undoing the U bolts was a challenge in itself. But after the additional leaf was turfed, it sat perfectly straight.” 

As for the front suspension and running gear, the spring shackles and kingpins needed replacing and he says he was lucky enough to score a set of shackle bushes at a swap meet and also met a guy who had a set of kingpins and bushes that he said should fit the Diamond – he sold them to him for $10.00! Arthur reckons you can get lucky sometimes.

It was time to get on with preparing and painting the ‘new’ cab, and Barry Cameron from the South Bucken area was happy to paint it, but was adamant that Arthur would have to do the prep work. So Pauline and Arthur, who had already hand rubbed the guards back ready for painting, set about sanding the cab both inside and out.

And Arthur quips with tongue in cheek, “What a job that was, in order to get it to the standard of finish the painter required. It was a marathon task, but the meticulous preparation was well worth it as you can see from the finished product – Barry did a first-class job considering it was done in an old country farm shed.” 

With the cab off at the painters Arthur got on with more of the mechanical chores. The standard engine is a 73hp petrol Hercules JXC straight six and was in very good nick – it just needed the cylinder head removed and a valve grind carried out, other than the normal oils and filter replacements – the rest of the engine was left.

The starter motor was sluggish and as Arthur was going to convent the electrics to 12volt he found a replacement 12volt from and ex-army Studebaker that was almost dimensionally the same, and with a small modification it was installed as if it were meant to be. 

Keith Foster had removed the badly worn original 5-speed overdrive transmission and replaced with a 4-speed direct box. Arthur knew he’d need an extra overdrive ratio to ramp up the road speed.

He says, “I got hold of an International 3-speed ‘over/under/direct’ Joey-box, which I thought not ideal, but would suffice. So we set it up in the chassis along the driveline, and it has given the truck that extra bit of highway speed at a lower rpm.” 

With the cab back and bolted up, the seats and interior were refurbished – some window glass had to be remade three inches shorter in height and the ‘old girl’ was almost ready to roll.

A new 40s’ style steel tray was fitted along with tongue and groove timbers from an old dance floor – Arthur relates, “I had to sand the timber planks to level them, as some were quite worn from the dancers’ shoes shuffling on them, and Pauline vanished them to a suburb tradesman like finish.”   

 

Back on the road

It was now 1994, and Arthur was just finishing setting the Diamond up with hand controls and a towbar in order for he and Pauline to hook up their caravan and stretch the ‘new’ truck’s legs on a trip to Mildura.

On another trip to a combined car and truck show in Wagga, the O’Connor Diamond was presented with the ‘Peoples’ Choice’ trophy, which Arthur says was much to the disappointment of the Packard Car Club, expecting one of their cars to win – not an old truck. 

These days this 1949 prized piece road transport history has been retired to a friend’s shed with a collection of other cherished road transport ‘old iron’ for company.

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