Tim O'Neil was a frugal college student who gravitated toward old pickups as his daily drivers.
"They were cheap, easy to fix and plentiful," recalls Tim, who now lives in Arlington Heights.
While attending Bradley University in 1979, he was cruising around Peoria in a 1951 GMC half-ton truck he owned for a while. "It was rotten and time for an upgrade," Tim said.
O'Neil spied an ad in the local paper for a 1949 Chevy 3100, parked just outside of town. Hopping in his old GMC, he headed over only to find the Chevy sitting in a field with a 3-inch diameter tree growing up through its bed.
"It was rough but I figured it was 'put-back-togetherable,' " Tim said. He and the owner settled on a price, which ended up being $190 (plus the time it took to cut down the tree). Wrapping a chain around the bumper, Tim towed it back to his fraternity house.
"I got to the parking lot and filled the fluids," said Tim. "You wouldn't believe it but it drove! It drove poorly but it drove."
Tim used it to putter around campus until his graduation, when he moved back to the Chicago suburbs. During his schooling, he had been an apprentice mechanic and found that to be his calling. He purchased an auto shop in Wilmette, calling it Tim's Auto Works. He kept the Chevy but didn't drive to the levy, rather going to such places as St. Louis to visit friends.
"When I arrived, they'd come out amazed and ask, 'Did you drive this thing here?' " said Tim, chuckling. "I'd say, 'I didn't push it!' "
Right before his 1990 wedding, O'Neil was just about to part with the old hauler, ready to move on to something else. His bride to be, felt otherwise. "Being from Detroit, I knew we couldn't get rid of it," said Kelly O'Neil.
Besides being from the Motor City, Kelly's dad worked 30 years for Chrysler and Kelly herself was in the industry. As a 21-year-old, she landed a sweet gig as a district manager for Pontiac, getting a 1985 Trans Am pace car as a company vehicle. With that auto heritage, there was no way she was letting Tim toss out the truck.
O'Neil ended up giving it to her as wedding present and it has proved to be reliable. Tim rebuilt its factory inline six-cylinder engine in 1981 and it still runs like a top.
A few years back, Tim's frat hosted a reunion and, sure enough, Tim, with his trusty 3100, was there.
"They were so surprised I still had it," Tim said. "I kept telling them, 'I'm cheap. I'm getting my money out of it.' "
"I remember my mom, so worried about me driving back and forth from Peoria to Chicago, especially during the bitterly cold winters," Tim said. "She had nothing to worry about. It never broke down and has never, ever been on a tow truck. Even now when I get in, I don't have to think about it doing anything wrong -- it never has."
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