Janesville man resurrects old trucks

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Mindy Moore
Monday, October 19, 2009
— His wife claims he was born in the wrong era. He listens to Big Band music, loves old vehicles and lives in a turn-of-the-20th-century house. And in the tried and true tradition of yesteryear, when his friends took off for college in the mid-’70s, Jeff Kas chose instead to follow in his father’s footsteps, joining his dad in the electrician trade.

Just out of high school, he soon realized there had to be something more to occupy his time. And with a simple decision, a passion—or perhaps more realistically, an obsession—was born.

“I needed something to do, so I said, ‘I’m gonna buy an old truck,’” Kas, 52, explained. “Any old truck. It didn’t matter what it was. It coulda been a Chevy or a Ford, but it happened to be a Studebaker.”

At 19, the Janesville native bought the first in what would become a string of six vintage Studebaker M5 pickup trucks. Today, more than three decades later, Kas admits to having dedicated every spare minute from that moment on to the meticulous restoration of his growing collection.

“The thing was, I’d never heard of Studebaker, so when I found that first one, I realized I had something kind of rare and unique. You never saw anything like that around here. My grandpa had an old GMC, and that’s all you ever saw. Fords and Chevys.”

Among Kas’ M5 treasures are a 1946, two 1947s, two 1948s and a 1941 pre-war truck. The first acquisition, a 1947 Studebaker truck, came with a price tag of $65, which might seem like a steal except for one small detail.

“It was buried,” Kas recalled. “My dad had seen that truck out in a field for as long as he could remember when traveling from Janesville to Milwaukee. After we bought it, we had to get a truck with a winch to get it out of the ground. From there, we took it to Janesville and tore it apart. We actually had it piece by piece in my dad’s basement as we were working on it. But we put it all back together again.”

Determined to restore with original parts, Kas and his dad found themselves often traveling to South Bend, Ind., home to Studebaker.

“It’s always fun. They always have swap meets. And for parts, it used to be Newman & Altman. That was the original parts place. Now it’s Studebaker International, and you can get more parts today than you could back in the ’70s.”

After only a year, Kas and his father, Hartzell Kas, had the first truck restored to Kas’ satisfaction.

Is it pristine?

“It’s good enough for me,” Kas answers with a smile. “A lot of people turn their Studebakers into show pieces and they never use them. I get them to the point where they’re not perfect but I drive them.”

While his first restoration features all original parts, the paint isn’t true.

“At first I was just going to make a truck to make a truck, so I took it to a guy to paint it. He took a look and told me he happened to have some of that ‘UPS’ brown and I said ‘sure.’ So that one isn’t a 100 percent original, but all the rest are. I just didn’t have any intentions at that point.”

Kas’ eventual collection of Studebakers was actually unintentional. It began when, in order to have some extra body parts, Kas and his father decided to buy a second.

“But when we got that one, it was too good to throw away so we bought a third one.”

Kas says along with the Internet and leads from friends, Turning Wheels, a monthly publication of the Studebaker Drivers Club, has been one of his best sources for buying the vintage trucks. In terms of prices paid, it’s varied by locale and condition.

“I paid $65 for the first one, another one was free, and a couple of them were as much as $1,200. I bought them with the intention that I would put my work into them and put them back together again. It’s cheaper than having to go spend $15,000 on something that’s already done.”

Kas’ second Studebaker acquisition about a decade later was another 1947 that had been sitting for years in the California desert.

“That was the one we’d bought just for parts but when we got it here, we found out that, wow! This West Coast stuff has no rust on it! So we decided to keep this one and not even dismantle it.”

Kas says that truck is still a work in progress.

Another decade passed when Kas acquired his third Studebaker, a 1946, on a fluke. His brother was building a new house just outside of Janesville and told Kas his kids were running off during the day and playing in an old truck. Kas’ curiosity got the better of him so he checked it out.

“I went down and looked at it and, lo and behold, it was an old Studebaker. I called the land developer and he told me I could have it, that he was going to build a house on that spot and to get it out of there.”

But getting the truck out would prove to be a challenge.

“A farmer had obviously pulled it into the field, and it had sat there for how many years and trees were growing through it.”

Nonetheless, Kas did manage to retrieve the treasure. Today, that truck is 70 percent restored.

The fourth acquisition, a 1948, occurred at about the same time.

“This one came from Appleton. A guy had started working on it and it was in pieces, so I told my dad, ‘You’ve been helping me on all of these. It’s time we get you one and you call the shots.’ My dad drove up there and bought it and hauled it on back home. We did this one from the ground up, and he decided what he was going to do with everything.”

Kas says he and his dad actually stopped working on the ’46 to complete the ’48 so that both of them had drivable Studebakers.

Kas’ fifth Studebaker truck was a 1941, acquired just a couple of years ago.

“I always told my dad I wanted to find a pre-war Studebaker,” he said. “I found one northwest of the Twin Cities. I think he wanted $1,000 for it, and because I wanted a pre-war, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ So I bought this one sight unseen. This one is all stripped down and the engine is rebuilt. The rest is just a matter of time. Everything’s a matter of time.”

The final truck in Kas’ Studebaker collection, a 1948, is still in Portland, Oregon, awaiting shipment home.

“My brother-in-law used to live in Wisconsin but moved to Portland with his job,” Kas explains. “He got interested in Studebakers and bought one from a guy out there, but he ran out of time, too. So I told him I’d buy it from him. It’s totally dismantled, and I’m havin’ a hard time trying to find somebody to ship it to Wisconsin.”

Kas said, in looking back over the history of his Studebaker hobby, some of his best enjoyment was derived from working with his father who passed away just a year ago.

“My dad could do anything,” he said. “Electrical, plumbing, build a house. He could do anything. We just started working on them (Studebakers) and went from there. Neither one of us are mechanics. We just went at it.”

Asked about what the future holds, Kas said he can’t keep himself from considering further purchases.

“My wife says I’ll probably end up with a dozen of them,” laughs Kas. “I just called a guy about one down in Kansas City, but he decided at the last minute not to sell.”

But Kas confessed that between his day job as a master electrician and working on his current Studebaker projects, he’ll be keeping his eye out for the next one.

“The main reason I like Studebakers is because they don’t make them anymore,” he says. “Anybody can get a Ford or a Chevy. But getting them finished is a challenge. I work 12 hours a day doing my job. There’s just not enough time in the day.”

Last updated: 11:42 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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