The Apache: One of Chevy's Most Famous Trucks, California Made

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Once the word gets out that you love Apache trucks, and people start calling you to say they've seen one around town, and they'll keep an eye out, then you see that curved hood and blunt nose and wrap-around windshield like a ghost turning the corner on Victoria Avenue cutting through the orange groves in Riverside, or you'll remember seeing one moving slowly down a two-lane highway in the Colorado plains, or parked near a barn outside Austin, Texas, or up on blocks in Hammond, Louisiana.

These are some of the places where I've seen Apaches, and I've come to realize that so many classic cars and trucks are like emblems of American history, but the Apache truly gets a particular kind of sentimental, historic, and intense love from people of all races, backgrounds, and regions. Maybe the Apache has the best stories.

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This year, I heard some: a man who grew up in New Mexico always rode in his father's 1958 Apache through the desert, to the drive-in, everywhere with his siblings, and so when his wife and he had five kids of their own, he bought an old Apache to restore. He moved to Cheyenne when he joined the National Guard, and was in the midst of the restoration when he was called to Afghanistan. He was killed there by a roadside bomb. But the people in Cheyenne and northern Colorado took on the job, finishing the truck in navy blue and perfect detail, and presented it to his wife.

Two brothers and their dad in Las Vegas work for months restoring a 1958 Apache, and the father works so hard he falls asleep underneath the car, on his back, which makes the sons realize his health is failing. He loses his eyesight two weeks after the last coat of paint is applied, but says he's grateful he got to see the twilight blue so he knows how it looks when they're out riding.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

There are car-show perfect beauties featured in Lowrider magazine, trucks named Suavecito and Round & Brown in Tejano car shows, and primer-gray trucks still sitting neglected and forgotten in barns.

My friend Eric has his father's Apache parked in his yard. But he called me last week to say he found an Apache with a story. He saw the truck pulling out of a gas station, pulled up beside the driver while they cruised along, and started the conversation. He sent me out to Perris, and when Doug and I drove under the telephone pole gate down a long dirt road to meet Wes Thurston, it was like we had scaled a Tibetan peak to meet the Yoda of Chevy trucks.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Standing in front of his two loves, the 1958 Apache he drives every day, and the larger 1958 Viking he's been working on now, Thurston shows us the VIN number actually stamped into the metal frame rails on the Viking, the numbers he found when he bought the truck out of a yard and wanted to know the history. Wes knows his history. He brushed the rust from the VIN numbers, looked up the model in the factory handbook he keeps propped inside the cab of his truck, and told us, "This truck came off the assembly line in Van Nuys, California! People see an old truck in a yard, and they think these vehicles are junk. They want to tow them away, and I say, 'You're destroying California history!' They say to me, 'These vehicles came from Detroit,' and I say, 'No, they didn't! They were built here.'"

He leans against the huge curved hood of the Viking. "They say, 'California never built cars.' I remember when California built cars and truck. A lot of the old Model As were built in Carson. In World War II, California made trucks and tanks for the military."

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Wes told me that these Apache trucks saved his life. His father was a Marine in the segregated American military in 1944, and when he retired from the service in 1968, he was the oldest Marine in America, according to Wes, having fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. And when Wes was born in Los Angeles in 1964, his father often drove a 1959 Buick Roadmaster back and forth from California to Virginia, which is how Wes came to sleep well only to the rumble of an engine.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Wes took auto mechanic classes from junior high on, but back then the Compton area "was like growing up in Afghanistan now," he says. "I almost died. These trucks kept me alive."

He bought the 1958 Apache in 1986, out in Mead Valley. The Apache series of Chevrolet trucks changed the work truck in America, according to Wes and every other Apache truck lover I've met. In 1958, these half-ton trucks were made with 6-cylinder engines, with wrap-around windshields designed to let drivers see more, with dual headlights and a body style that remains classic and recognizable. "It was the truck for working people, and they made it easy to work on the engine. All you need is wrenches," Wes said, gesturing to the grill. "Now you have computers, and you have to take a truck in for every little thing."

The Viking is a two-ton, snub nose behemoth, with a Cab Over Engine design which makes it more powerful. Wes would leave Wayne's Engine Rebuilding in Riverside every week, and look longingly at the Viking sitting in a backyard. He'd been working for the California Department of Forestry, on their fire engines, for five years, and then worked for the county. He finally approached the yard where the Viking lived in 2008, and the man said his own father had bought the truck new -- he was glad to take $500 so Wes would tow it away. The original stock engine is still inside. More than that, Wes Thurston's nature is to have the original chrome emblems on each truck, and he knows every single detail.

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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