Owners: John and Michele Dunkirk
We have always assumed that less than 100 Advance Design Canopy Express trucks remain. If you ever see one restored or not restored, you should stop and take note. They are a part of our nation’s history. They carried groceries in neighborhoods with one car families during the years they were built. The husbands drove the family car to work and the ladies were housewives. Grocers knew if they were to stay in business they must drive their Canopy Express to housing areas displaying and delivering food. Our feature truck is probably the most complete and perfect restored example in existence!
It is owned and has been restored by John and Michele Dunkirk of Southampton, New York. His desire to have a Canopy Express was because his first vehicle was this body style. In the 1960’s few people had an interest in this unique older body design as a used vehicle! Thus, it was the least expensive vehicle John could buy during his later high school years. After 2 years of use he sold it to an auto junk yard for $15.00.
After completing restoration on a beautiful 1954 Chevrolet ½ ton about 15 years ago, (they still have it) John continued to think about his first vehicle in high school. The restoration bug had now bitten John and he wanted to do another Advance Design truck. Yes, he decided it had to be a 1947-53 Canopy Express. The problem, there were none! They were built for work and a first owner wanted them to look their very best doing neighborhood grocery marketing. Sad but true, there was almost no interest in a second hand Canopy Express. Within 5 years the wood and canvas side curtains began deteriorating. The wooden rear floor now stayed wet from rain and snow and mechanical maintenance requirements were beginning. The Canopy Express had reached the end of a short life.
John’s several year hunt ended in Florida from a small magazine advertisement. The way the owner described it, made the truck sound like a real one! He drove almost 800 miles one way to see it. A great surprise, it was the real thing and a 1953. As he looked at the total package, it seemed so deteriorated! It would need it all and a little more. At the time, John thought this must be about the only one left in the world so the damage from age and abuse was overlooked.
The restoration went “full steam ahead”. No nut or bolt would be left untouched. It was like building a large model kit after the parts were restored. They soon realized what a big project they were into, however there was no turning back. Otherwise only a pile of parts would remain for salvage.
After almost 5 years including 500 hours in bodywork and painting plus another 1,000 hours in all the other parts of the restoration, the 1953 Canopy is now a “Work of Art”. It is one of the top attractions at all shows! The finished vehicle is now basically as it was when new. A great inline six cylinder motor is just broke in. Of course, the 4 speed transmission was a necessity on a Canopy Express. The low speed first gear was for slow moving through the neighborhood while displaying grocery products. The paint is a correct 1953-55 Chevrolet truck color, Transport Blue. John added one change to the restoration, it originally had a single bucket seat. He used a full pickup seat, so he and Michele could attend distant shows together. The white wall tires were a non-GM accessory but local tire shops could have installed them after the canopy was bought. This would make the truck more of an attention getter when selling merchandise in the neighborhoods.
There are several large expenses “not” mentioned that aren’t included in the 1,500 hours restoration time. The most costly expense was the acquisition of a Canopy Express tailgate. John’s Canopy Express came with the tailgate missing! How could he spend so much time and money on this project and then be stopped without a tailgate? He had no idea this part would be so difficult to locate. He continued with the restoration assuming the gate would be found by the end of the project. It wasn’t. The Dunkirk’s hauled it to New England shows for 2 years after completion with no tailgate! No matter how hard he researched, there was no gate to be found. They even took it to Stowe, Vermont twice for the most attended antique car and truck show of the summer. It received second place in the commercial class for both years. Still no tailgate!
On one summer weekend it was taken to the large monthly Hemming’s Car Show in Bennington, Vermont were it was placed in the top ten vehicles.
Numerous local shows on Long Island, NY also saw this little canopy for the evening. Actually, part of the reason for many of the shows was to try to get a lead on a tailgate.
Finally, a few years later another small magazine advertisement led to a tailgate. An un-restored complete Canopy Express with a tailgate was for sale in Southern California. The problem: John and his wife, Michele were in Southampton, New York. There was no choice. They flew across the country to see it! It was found to be well worn as John’s had been but it had a tailgate. As they arranged commercial transportation to New York, we assume John remembered he sold his first canopy to a salvage yard for $15.00. When it reached New York a few weeks later, John and his body man finally agreed and accepted the bad news. The inner tailgate panel had been beat so bad that the dings, tears, and holes made it un-restorable. Without this inner panel, there could be no tailgate. What a disappointment! What happens next?
One day a lucky thing happened! With research John discovered the tailgate from a 1947-55 Suburban is the same in the lower 2/3 as a Canopy Express. With almost as much effort as finding the Canopy gate, John finally traded for a damaged Suburban tailgate. A restorable inner panel was now in his possession. He could cut it shorter and make a new inside gate panel for his Canopy. The truck could be completed!
Next project; Finding the artificial fruit and vegetables to display were the easy part. Locating mint condition grocery boxes of the 1950’s was another story. John and Michele attended many flea markets and garage sales. The boxes had to be of wood of the 1950’s and their colorful paper labels perfect. They soon found the best sources were estate sales. Most wood boxes and labels had survived because they had been put in attics and basements 50 years and used for storing merchandise. At these sales, John and Michele bought the boxes when they could and not the miscellaneous items they contained.
Now that the total restoration is completed a big appreciation for help go to Trevor and Stephanie Mercer that worked side by side with the Dunkirk’s during the 500 hours spent. Gene “The Tool Guy”, handmade the many panels (body, tailgate repairs, and floor) to replace those so badly rusted. Reproductions were not available.
During the 3 years it has been totally restored the Dunkirk’s are occasionally asked “What does it take to build a truck like this”. They quickly say “Just the money invested is over $50,000. This does not include the tailgate trip to California with return truck line freight, the drive to Florida to find the Suburban, plus finding the many distant flea markets while on a “grocery box hunt”. Then we come to the value of their time in the 5 year ground up restoration. Just make a guess of the investment! It all started with John’s first truck in high school.
You can contact John and Michele at : firstname.lastname@example.org