Modern carmakers sure like to talk about how “sustainable” they are now. And, yes, that’s an admirable goal! It’s great to think about cars throughout their entire lifespan, from when they go from rolls of sheet steel into stamping machines at a factory, throughout their life of hauling you places and listening to all of the intimate conversations you have inside them, to eventually ending up rusting away in a junkyard before being melted down and turned into soup cans, if we’re lucky. There was one automaker that I can think of that was far, far ahead of the curve on this. They were the very first and perhaps only automaker ever to base a business model on the idea of upcycling, that is taking something already discarded and doing something new with it. What they took were entire chassis from junkyards, and then refurbished those chassis and used them as the basis to build new pickup trucks and a few SUVs. The company was Powell, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this company for days.
I think my interest in Powell was re-ignited when I found this post from the Petersen Museum archive that featured a number of pictures of Powell’s strange Compton, California factory that I’d never seen before. The Petersen gave me rights to use some of these photos, so I’m really excited to share them with you, because even though I’d heard or read how the business model of Powell was to comb Southern California junkyards for scrapped 1941 Plymouths, and use those chassis as the basis for their Powell Sport Wagon, which was a sort of confusing name, as it was a truck, not a station wagon. I guess a pickup is close to a wagon in the traditional, pulled-behind-a-little-kid sense of a wagon?
Look at that picture up there! You can see them pressure washing the zombie Plymouth chassis, in what looks like the first stages of refurbishment. There’s drums full of parts that could either be discards, or maybe evaluated/refurbished parts that could be installed on the chassis? They seem to be too organized for just scrap, as you can see in that big pile of A-arms there and some driveshafts behind them. But I’m just guessing.
What these pictures showed me was the meticulous process and preparation given to those junked chassis; they were completely disassembled and evaluated, with parts that didn’t meet Powell standards scrapped and replaced with service parts or other salvaged-but-good parts. Keep in mind, this is in the mid 1950s, so these chassis weren’t all that old, really, only about 16 to 18 years old. Plus, it was Southern California, so it’s not like rust was that big a deal, either. The Plymouth was a good choice, as it was known to be a robust, well-built and engineered chassis, and Chrysler sold over 500,000 of them in 1941, so supplies should have been plentiful.
Let’s just pause a second and think about this some more, because I think it’s worth it. Just imagine if an up-and-coming, lower-volume truck maker like Rivian or Canoo made an announcement that from now on they’re going to be building all their new EV trucks by buying all the junked 2007 Ford Crown Victorias they could find and using those chassis, after refurbishment. Everyone would lose their lettuce, but if you actually stop and think about it, it makes a hell of a lot of sense, especially if your goal is to make an affordable truck, which is precisely what Powell’s main goal was.
Channing and Hayward Powell, the Powell brothers, wanted to build what they said would be “America’s 1st car produced to sell below $1000,” and looking at ads of the era, they seemed to have pulled it off:
In today’s money, $998.87 equates to about $11,140.45, and for comparison, the average price of a pickup truck in America today is almost $60,000, so, yeah, I’d say the Powell Bros succeeded. Aside from starting with a salvaged chassis, Powells were designed with so many other cost-cutting measures in mind. Body panels were designed to have no compound curves (save for the roof) so no complex stamping machines were needed. Basic materials like diamond-plate steel were used for some panels, like the rear and the tailgate, early production bumpers were just planks of wood, and the bench seat was just foam, no decadent and expensive springs inside there. What are you, royalty, that you need your ass suspended on springs?
The front end was fiberglass, made by a nearby boat maker, and the instrument clusters seem to have been just whatever Plymouth salvage or service parts were cheap and available. I say this because on most pictures of Powells I’ve seen, they vary pretty wildly. Nothing was custom-made, if it could be helped. Grille chrome trim strips were actually door trim from a Ford. All the glass was flat, and the engines that made it all go were also salvaged and completely re-built inline-sixes from Plymouth (usually) as well.
I spoke with the curator of the Petersen Museum, Leslie Kendall, and he described the Powell factory as being an assembly line of sorts, but one that moved at a tempo of a truck going from one “station” to another at a pace measured in days instead of the usual minutes. Still, despite the leisurely rate, about 1,170 Powell Sport Wagons were built, with most being trucks, but about 200 were Wagoneer-like enclosed SUVs, and there was even a prototype camper built, with all kinds of flaps and swing-out and up sections:
What Powell Sport Wagons were best known for, I think, was an optional feature they had: tubes. Specifically, in the bedsides of the truck, you could specify one or two long, cylindrical drawers where you could store fishing poles or rifles or javelins or six-foot party subs or whatever long, narrow things you needed to carry. In our current era of under-bed storage lockers and inside-tailgate storage and all kinds of clever hidden truck compartments, Powell can be seen as a real pioneer.
In this photo you can clearly see that the rear is made up of no-skid diamond plate steel, and you can see the tube-like drawer extended; this truck only had one specified. Also interesting is the spare wheel compartment under the bed, accessible by removing that rectangular panel.
There’s around 109 surviving Powells , and while they’re not terribly well-known even among gearheads, I think they’re due for some newfound relevance. As really the only true example of automotive recycling on a significant scale, I feel like there’s lessons to be learned here, especially in our upcoming era of skateboard-chassis’d electric cars. Will there be a neo-Powell in 2055 that takes Tesla skateboards from the 2030s and 2040s, slaps in new batteries and a rugged, simple pickup truck body, and sells it for dirt cheap? Probably not, but a boy can dream.