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'54 Chevy panel truck

The John Henry's ’54 Chevy panel truck is now in the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed.

While growing up, I followed Dad around on the farm, always interested in what he was doing. He could fix everything and did. I became his “gofer” ... as in go for this and go for that. I quickly learned the names of tools and how to fix things.

At age 15, I built my first “hot rod” dune buggy. It was a ’30 Chevy pickup cab I mounted on a ’53 Dodge frame. The hemi motor with a 3-speed overdrive transmission provided “Dukes of Hazard” types of entertainment ... ye haw!

At age 18, I bought my first Mickey Thompson tires at Speedway Motors for my ’57 Chevy Bel Air 2-door hardtop. Speedway Motors was located at 17th and N streets and growing fast.

I became a “gear head” that loved cars and anything mechanical. That made it easier to conquer the plumbing and HVAC trades through the years. I owe a lot to my hot-rodding hobby.

Lots of hot rods later, I saw a ’54 Chevy panel truck that tugged at my heart. It was a plumbing service truck owned by Wentz Plumbing and Heating. I was an apprentice plumber and the journeyman plumber I was working for had driven it as a service truck. There was something special about that truck.

Twenty-eight years later, I bought that ’54 Chevy panel truck. Here’s the history of how it ended up in the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed.

I worked for Wentz Plumbing and Heating from 1975 to 1985. Then went to work for 11 years at Dorsey Labs, which became Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, then Novartis, and now GSK. The corporate world of over 100K employees wasn’t for me, so I “traded in 43 neckties for a new John Henry’s plumbing service truck.”

John Henry's grew fast and needed more space. It was also a time the Wentz Plumbing and Heating building that I knew well was available. Tyler Wentz and I agreed on terms for the building.

Another coinciding goal at that moment was to purchase that ’54 Chevy panel truck. Tyler Wentz informed me that he was selling the panel truck at their auction of surplus tools, materials and equipment. All I wanted was the panel truck, but Tyler stuck firm to his conditions. I asked what he would take for everything and the result was it became the John Henry’s panel truck.

The panel truck always had special meaning beyond being a vehicle since it had been in a plumbing family since 1954. It had been owned by Stanley B. Wentz, who had an incredible business mind and was an icon of the trades. I idolized Stan Wentz and cherished our conversations.

The panel truck was a reminder of a great plumbing and heating company of the past. It continued to gain more meaning after restoration, when it was used by John Henry's for Husker tailgating, customer appreciation lunches, car shows, and driven in many parades, including the Wilber Czech festival.

It became obvious the panel truck had a bigger role to play in the future. It was bigger than my love of the panel truck. The toughest decision of my hot rod life was what to do next.

John Henry's donated the ’54 Chevy panel truck to the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed because it needed to be seen more on a regular basis. It was a tribute to the history of the plumbing, heating and air conditioning trades. It was done in honor of Stan Wentz, whom I consider a mentor and someone that took the trades to a new level.

Donating the panel truck was also done in honor of the “Wentz family” that I worked with who have left us. They include Bob Converse, Jerry Foster, Bill Jackson, Ron Mertes, Alvin Olson, Ralph Stolzer, Don Svoboda, Slim Teat, Irv Teat, Bert Turnwall, Phil Williams, Val Zitek, and many others who experienced that panel truck.

It was also donated to honor all those who contributed a part of their lives to John Henry’s success.

The Speedway Motors Museum, located at 599 Oak Creek Drive in Lincoln, is one of our community's “best kept secrets.” It’s an absolute must-see place if you have not been there. It has an incredible representation of so many things beyond hot rods. There are one-of-a-kind vehicles, a huge collection of pedal cars, lunch boxes and the list goes on. Schedule a tour at 402-323-3181 and be amazed!

Thanks to the family of Bill and Joyce Smith for generously continuing to share the Speedway Motors Museum with others.

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L Magazine editor

Mark Schwaninger is L magazine and Neighborhood Extra editor.

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