Walk into Mike Morrison’s garage and you’ll find his love of all things automotive is apparent.
Between his commitment to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and operating Morrison Undercoating, Morrison often finds it hard to make time for “Earl,” his wife’s 1967 Dodge pickup truck.
So when Morrison left home to repair Apache helicopters in Afghanistan in August 2012, his friend and fellow car aficionado Matt Hannaford set out to prepare a special surprise for Morrison’s eventual trip home.
“I thought it’d be nice to do something for him while he was gone,” Hannaford said, alluding to a new engine they planned to put under Earl’s hood. “I thought it’d be a simple engine swap.”
In the following months, Morrison’s shop became a second home for Hannaford as he took the project on himself.
The task proved more daunting than it seemed. Money and materials began running scarce as the project slowly morphed into a custom project requiring outside research.
Ironically, the whole reason for the engine upgrade is another custom project of theirs — a 1980s model Chevrolet Chevelle turned aviation tribute to the National Guard.
Earl is the workhorse that pulls the trailer housing the supercharged car, which the two friends decked out in the style of an Apache helicopter.
In order to give Earl enough power to pull the chariot, custom pieces had to be manufactured and shipped, and antique parts were found from other car buffs on Internet forums — all to teach an old truck new tricks, Hannaford said.
He would eventually clock about 120 hours of work and research, sending dozens of emails to people with similar projects for certain mechanical instructions.
“I found people online who did this before,” Hannaford said. “Since a lot of the parts were so rare, they were really expensive. There was quite a bit of trial and error.”
“I researched some of the process in Afghanistan,” Morrison said. “I got discouraged. I told Matt I might not do it at all.”
Steeling his resolve, Hannaford pushed forward to complete the transition from the truck’s original six-cylinder engine to a “413 cubic inch, four-barrel with about 370 horsepower,” which he’d eventually “juice” to run with closer to 400 horses.
Hannaford teamed up with local body shops and a few of his and Morrison’s family members for some of the more specialized tasks.
Needing more funds to sustain the project, he reached out to local friends and business representatives he felt would support the cause.
“A lot of the businesses were local shops Mike dealt with a lot,” he said. “I used pretty much every penny donated.”
Hannaford raised approximately $3,500 overall — mostly monetary donations with about $1,300 worth of painting materials from PPG Industries to give Earl a fresh new look.
“That’s a good amount for this small of an area,” he said. “I didn’t want to go too far out for donations because I still wanted to keep the project a surprise.”
By this past August, Hannaford felt he’d successfully worked all the bugs out — just in time for Morrison to return home.
One of Morrison’s first questions back on Cochranton soil the first week of October was, “Where’s Earl?”
Not wanting to spoil the surprise too soon, Hannaford brought him to the truck under the guise of testing out the new stereo, a real installation he made prior to the new engine.
“We get in the truck, he fires it up and right away my brain’s not computing,” Morrison said, recalling his initial shock upon hearing a different engine sound. “It was pretty neat.”
From the original gauges to the horn, everything in the truck still works like a dream, making it really fun to drive around, Morrison added.
Once their busy fall-winter schedule is over, Morrison and Hannaford hope to continue their project and “give Earl a makeover,” depending of course on how much free time they have.
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.