Joel Thompson is a business owner, fly fishing guide, and real estate broker based in Missoula, Montana. He also owns one of the coolest resto-mod Suburbans we've gotten to see in person. Take a look at this work of automotive art and read some of Joel's stories about it, it's the next best thing to owning it yourself!
You've got a special rig, was this always your goal? Or did you just come across it? What's the story?
So the story is, I used to own a 2008 Chevy Silverado Duramax. I had a topper on the back with a fly rod carrier on the top, I'm a fishing outfitter and a real estate broker. I went to pick up a client, and I went to put his fly rods in my rod box, and it was missing from my truck. In broad daylight, somebody had taken a metal grinder and cut my rod box off. You can imagine the look on my face, probably pale as a ghost! Literally thought I was gonna puke.
I decided at that point that I wanted to have my fly rods stored inside the vehicle, harder to see for would-be robbers and harder to get to, all that kind of stuff. So I started my search for a Suburban.
Pre-COVID, when used vehicles were a dime a dozen, Suburbans just didn't hold their value. I was just like, "Man, I just don't want to buy something that's going to depreciate that fast." I've always had a soft spot for old vehicles, I've owned a '68 RS Camaro, a 1970 SS Chevelle. I've had some pretty cool cars over the years, right? I love the '67 to '72 Suburbans, I just think they're so cool. They made 'em with only three doors on them. Two on the passenger side and only one on the driver's side.
I searched for probably nine to ten months and found this one in Arizona. The guy that I bought it from, his nickname was One-Legged Lance, because he had one leg. He and his sons bought the Suburban from the original owner, who used it to haul equipment. They started the restoration and I finished it.
I flew down to Arizona and drove back to Montana. And one thing I found out along the way is that Arizona people don't care about heaters. The air conditioning worked very well, but the the heater did not. We got caught in a huge snowstorm in Idaho and Montana. My wife was in a sleeping bag and had to use the window scraper on the inside of the windows to be able to see. Pretty entertaining.
Do you have a name for it?
You know, my license plate says FUN HOG because I hog all the fun, but most people just call it the 'Burb.
What were your goals when you were building it out?
It had a 350 in it on a three speed transmission with an overdrive, but it's a pretty heavy vehicle. My goal originally was reliability, and hopefully a little bit more fuel efficient. The 350 only got nine miles to the gallon. And you know, when you fill up a 30 gallon tank at 9 mpg, it gets painful. Now I've got a 40 gallon tank and I get 14 miles to the gallon, so it's improved considerably. The power difference, I think that 350 was about 190 horse and the motor that I have in there is just over 400 now.
What did you put in? Is it an LS or is did you go a different direction?
It's got an LS, an L96 6.0 liter. My mechanic, Chris Cruz, and his team did an amazing job. There are some kits out there, but we had to modify to fit. They said the motor mounts were "plug-and-play," and they weren't. Lots of little things like that. The transfer case adapter had to be custom machined in Canada, and then it was sent to another shop in California. Of course, COVID hit, so everything took twice as long. They felt so bad about taking so long, because literally just that transfer case adapter held up the project, I would say at least four to five months.
They ended up putting in an extra set of planetary gears in that transfer case adapter. So now I've got an extra set of gears for low range. You can crawl up a tree if you want to! Because of that, they had to beef everything up with the frame, because there was so much twist from the torque. They designed this fantastic skid plate that protects the transmission and the transfer case. Made it out of really heavy steel and made it go all the way across, so that it really beefed up the frame. They welded in more metal in spots where it would be prone to twist. It's stout for sure!
Is there any component that people usually compliment first?
Just the look of the truck itself is what gets everybody's attention. It's rust free, it's in great shape. The second thing is when they when they hear it fire up. It's got a really nice kind of deep purr to it that says, "I'm not a Chevy 350." When you get on it, you can leave modern day vehicles in the dust. That never ceases to put a smile on your face.
What's your approach to cargo management?
I love my DECKED system. My wife and I do a ton of river camping with our dogs. My back seats fold down perfectly level with the fridge, I can slide 3/4" plywood over the top and it gives this huge raised platform for sleeping. We have two wiener dogs and a 100 lb Labrador. We can all sleep in there super comfortably. The ability to keep stuff safe and sound in the Drawer System is really nice.
It sounds like you use the vehicle for work and play then?
Yeah. Honestly, it's probably one of the best marketing tools that I've ever purchased in my life. People do not forget you when you when you pick them up in the 'Burb.
I have used it to skid logs. We had a huge wind event about two years ago, that blew down 140 trees. My twin brother and I used the Suburban to skid logs into big piles. Then we had a log truck driver come and get the logs and take them to the mill, that was pretty fun. I like to take it on roads that aren't quite so tight. I don't like when tree branches scrape down the side of my vehicle, I'm a little particular there. I do love crawling over stuff, I've got air lockers in the front so I can lock the front differential and then I got Posi in the rear end. So it pretty much will go anywhere.
I've got a big roof rack too, I've had inflatable rubber rafts up on top of the roof. I've got an awning system to gives you lots of good shade, protection from the rain.
One thing that One-Legged Lance and his kids did, it's got an onboard air compressor with a quick attach in the front bumper and the rear bumper, so I can just attach an air hose. More times than you'd think, people had a low tire or something at a boat ramp, it's pretty cool to be able to pull up to him and say "You need some air?" You definitely walk away with some hero status.
Everything has been pretty well thought out. Drink holders, USB ports for charging things, LED lights on the outside, air compressor, all the other miscellaneous things. I have a solar panel on the roof that keeps an additional battery charged at all times. You get off the river and you have ice cold beer, or if your old guys like a Manhattan or something, you've got all the makings for it in a refrigerator. You pull that out after a long day, make them a mixed drink. Again, hero status--that's pretty cool.
1970 Chevrolet Suburban
L96 6.0L LS motor
New springs and 4" lift
New wheels, tires
New dual exhaust
New transfer case adaptor with planetary gears for additional low-range power
Reinforced frame supports to handle extra torque
New WARN hubs
New shifter - automatic and manual
Posi rear end
New 40 gallon fuel tank
New instrument cluster