Tom Bjorklund's earliest memories of his 1974 GMC Sierra Grande are from when his Uncle Claus would motor into town behind the wheel of the vintage pickup.
Claus Hornoff purchased the Camper Special version of this truck new from a Sacramento, Calif., dealer and often used it to visit his Midwest relatives.
"I would only see him once a year or every other year," said Bjorklund. "Uncle Claus would drive cross country from his home on the West Coast, living in the back along the way."
Claus went through three different campers over the decades but the pickup, aside from its many miles of use, remained rock solid and reliable. So much so that he still owned the GMC in 2005 when Bjorklund and his stepson, Nick Kasper, were visiting him.
"I couldn't believe how little rust was on the vehicle and its overall good shape," Bjorklund said.
Bjorklund's interest in restoring the truck was piqued but it was his son who provided the final motivation. "Nick is the one who got me into all this. I'm a carpenter by trade but he's the gear head. I've had to learn as we go."
With his uncle's blessing, the Bjorklund men made a return trip for the Sierra and drove it back to their Lombard garage. The disassembly process commenced with the bed and cab being removed from the chassis.
"We sandblasted the frame in the backyard during the middle of winter. Once all the body panels were stripped and prepped, we painted them in the garage," Bjorklund said.
When new, the truck wore a coat of Moss Olive Green and White paint but during Claus' ownership, it changed colors. "Claus's third camper shell was brown and white and he painted the truck to match. I wanted it back to the factory scheme."
The original 454-cubic-inch V-8 remains underhood, but they rebuilt it, along with the transmission, for many more years of dependability. The interior also received an overhaul, getting reupholstered in original Avocado Green fabric.
As the project moved along, the vehicle's former owner was kept abreast of the progress. "Whenever we visited Claus, we'd bring pictures showing what were doing. He was always genuinely impressed at what we could accomplish."
His uncle also proved to be a valuable resource. "An assembly manual isn't available for this particular model year. I would call Claus and he would help me put things back together." After seven years of labor, the vehicle was completed in 2012.
So what made the Camper Special model ideal for Claus, as well as many other families who enjoyed hitting the open highway? One unique trait is hidden underneath. The truck is classified as a three-quarter ton pickup but the chassis is a 1-ton unit, allowing it to effortlessly carry the added weight of a camper. Other features included camper tie downs, dual fuel tanks, a step-down bumper and electrical plug for a trailer. There's even components tucked in the bed to help soften the driving experience.
"There are shocks mounted horizontally that absorb the rocking motion as it goes down the road," Bjorklund said.
Although the project encompassed a number of years, visits with Uncle Claus became fewer and farther between because of his failing health. He did make one final trip last November and drive his beloved, and completed, GMC.
"He wished he lived closer. The three of us would have had a blast restoring it together. Getting his thumbs-up on the project was real important."
Claus passed away shortly after his visit.
While the pickup is complete and back to factory condition, there's one missing element that will honor its traversing heritage. Tom explains: "The next project is restoring a 1970s camper shell. I've got several I'm looking at now."