Don and Judy Thomas’ red 1949 Diamond T pickup never fails to attract attention when they travel. And travel they do, with road trips already logged to Mississippi, Louisiana and Indiana.
When the Kansas City, North, couple pulls into a roadside cafe, the time-worn truck with the slatted grill, distinctive hood ornament and crank-open split windshields divides the curious into two camps.
“There are two schools of thought on it,” Don said. “ ‘If you painted it, you’d really have something there,’ ” is how one school puts it.
That one believes classic vehicles should have pristine paint jobs.
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But there’s another side — vintage-vehicle fans whose hearts beat a little faster when they see the Diamond T’s weathered outer skin.
“There’s the school that says, ‘Don’t you ever touch that paint job!’ ” said Don, who squarely falls in the second camp. “Leave it just like it is.”
And that’s what he’s done. His truck’s a flat faded red, with patches where the paint is worn to the metal. In storage for 40-plus years, the Diamond T was draped with a woolen cover that took the paint with it when it was removed.
Turns out that’s exactly the look one of its owners loves.
“It’s got that beautiful patina,” Don said.
He’s wanted a Diamond T pickup as long as he can remember. The pickups were made by the Diamond T Motor Car Co. of Chicago.
The vehicles that spurred his interest were the company’s semi-tractors, tough over-the-road vehicles that shared more than a little resemblance, on a larger scale, to his pickup’s exterior trim and design.
“I’ve always wanted to own a Diamond T truck,” Don said. “I never wanted to be a truck driver, but I wanted that truck. The Diamond T I saw as a child — I wanted one so bad.”
That day came about 20 years ago, Don and Judy say, but with a false start. During a vacation out west, the couple came across a Diamond T pickup parked outside a museum. There was a for-sale sign in its window.
“It was pretty rough,” he said. “No windows, no interior, nothing. I drove all the way back to Kansas City and then called, thinking I could get it bought.”
The truck was already sold, but not to be denied, Don ultimately found another one on eBay. It was in California, and had no engine, no transmission, no wiring, no seats.
But it had something that tugged at his heart.
He rebuilt it from the ground up, installing a small-block V-8 and an automatic transmission, but left the exterior as he found it.
“If you walk up to it, you can’t tell it’s (mechanically) not a Diamond T,” he said.
It’s still his favorite vehicle, and one his wife enjoys, too — even though it’s not air-conditioned. On road trips, she cranks open her side of the split windshield to cool off and feel the wind in her hair.
“What kind of woman likes to do that — drive 2,000 miles in an old vehicle with no air-conditioning?” Don said about Judy, a paraprofessional who works with special-needs students. “She likes a lot of air blowin’.”
A retired assembly-line worker at Claycomo Ford, Don uses the word “patina” with reverence. And where vehicle finishes are concerned, he walks the walk.
The vintage vehicles and farm equipment around the couple’s home and pond at the corner of Cleveland and Old Barry Road are proof.
Most, if not all the vehicles, are rebuilt mechanically but left to age naturally. The Diamond T is out there, as is a second one Thomas found on the internet. He plans to restore it to running condition.
Also displayed are a 1922 Model T Ford that runs like a top, several International pickup trucks from the 1920s and 1930s, an International fire truck, vintage farm implements of every description and “Mater,” a 1926 International tow truck that sits in front of the house. It reminds neighborhood kids of the animated character by that name.
“All the kids think it’s from ‘Cars,’ ” Don said.
The tow truck is one of the few vehicles on the property that isn’t running. Don just hasn’t gotten to it yet, but intends to.
In the meantime, it sits in front of the carport, attracting attention and prompting passers-by to stop, take photos, even knock on the Thomases’ door.
“So many people who stop say, ‘My neighbor told me about this and I have to stop,’ ” Judy said.
The couple has had people ask if they could take graduation and wedding photos with the vehicles as props. Photography classes have come by, with students asking if they could shoot on the property. One man, a Nebraskan, was staying with relatives who knew he’d love the Thomases’ collection.
He visited — and did.
“A lot of people just like to look around,” Judy said.
She and Don usually prefer if visitors knock on the door before they begin to explore, but there’s no strict requirement.
“Of course, they’re always welcome,” Don said. “A lot of people want to know where all this stuff came from: ‘How’d you come by it? Can I set my grandson on it and take a photo?’ ”
The Thomases’ corner is lightly traveled, but those who do drive by often stop. Many take pictures.
“Somebody came up to me at church yesterday and said, ‘I like your rust,’ ” Don said.
Don and Judy grew up in a northeast Missouri town called Lewistown. They graduated from the same high school and have been together ever since, for 51 years, Don says with pride.
Most of what went on in Lewistown had to do with agriculture, and Don’s father — a farmer who grew corn, soybeans and hay, and raised cattle and sheep — traded at Pitzer’s Feed Store, owned by Judy’s father.
It was with the old equipment at Don’s grandfather’s farm that he fell in love with implements and vehicles, many of them rusted. He puttered, taking things apart and either putting them back together or making his own devices.
“When I was on the farm my grandfather had this fence row with seed planters, cultivators and plows. Back then, you parked it when it wore out, you didn’t trade it in. That was my heaven.”
It was where his desire to discover, rebuild and display old things started. It’s also where he fell in love with the look of age-worn metal.
His mechanical ability was honed both on the farm and through the work he did for heating and cooling companies and in 30 years with Ford.
“Most of it just came natural,” said Don, whose list of repair-and-rebuild projects continues today. “But most of it goes back to my grandfather’s fence row. That’s just how I grew up.”
During his retirement, Judy’s been a companion at auctions and scouting trips for vintage finds. She may never be as passionate about the icons as he is, but she’s a fan of what he does and how it impacts others.
“I appreciate what he does,” she said. “I like looking at them and showing the world.”
Don likes to tell the story of how the two stumbled upon their Model T roadster during one of their trips.
The car was completely disassembled, or as Don puts it “a basket case.”
“I was so excited about the old Model T,” he says. “She was probably 10 feet from it and said, ‘Where is it?’
“It was in the grass,” he said, “all the rusty parts.”
Today, it’s fully assembled and runs much like it did 95 years ago.