WATSON, Minn. — No one knows how many old pickup trucks are out there hidden away in farm groves or under tarps in dusty sheds, barns or garages.
But know this: People are looking for them like sharks on the hunt.
"Old trucks are a really hot item right now," said Ed Lipinski, who has turned his lifelong passion for old pickup trucks into a successful business.
E-Z Chassis Swap LLC of Watson sells kits that Lipinski designed. The kits make it easy for customers to mount their vintage pickup trucks on the chassis of Chevrolet S-10 pickups. It gives the old pickups new life — some are as old as 70-plus years — while putting the owner on the road in what is really a modern, and safe vehicle.
And, well, they're just plain beautiful.
Lipinski calls it a niche market, but the passion for putting vintage pickups on a modern chassis knows no bounds. He ships the kits to customers in every state of the union, and a few Canadian provinces too. "We're out there," he said.
Since he started E-Z Chassis in a small, garage-sized shop in 2007, he's shipped out 1,425 kits so far and business is still growing.
It probably would be bigger if only he'd gotten laid off sooner.
Lipinski was a mechanical designer and drafter by trade, thanks to a degree from what was formerly the Granite Falls Vocational Technical Institute. For 25 years he worked for Montevideo Technology Inc., until the layoff notice came.
He took advantage of a three-month severance package to spend his time developing the mounts and brackets for a chassis swap kit.
The idea for that had come earlier, when he was helping friend and MTI co-worker Todd Vogel mount a 1954 Chevrolet pickup on an S-10 chassis. "It was difficult. We struggled," said Lipinski.
He looked over at his friend and said it would be a good business to mass produce kits for others so they wouldn't have to struggle to make the chassis swap.
He kept tinkering, but also went back to a full-time job, this time with Fagen Engineering. Seven years later the layoff notice came, and that's when Lipinski made up his mind to do his "Plan B" on a full-time basis.
He's since expanded to also include his own custom shop to rebuild vintage trucks for others too.
It's all done in Watson (pop. 205), which has been home to Ed and his wife, Cheryl, since 1992. That's when they remodeled the town's old school that had been made into an apartment complex in the mid-'70s and made it their home. "Very, very affordable," said Lipinski of the cost of housing in the community.
What he could not have known at the time was the small town's location also happened to be ideal for his business. He relies on other mom and pop shops in the area to build the steel parts for his chassis kits. From a powder coating business in Granite Falls to metal and fabrication shops near Marshall, Cottonwood and Renville, just about all of his important suppliers are within an easy hour's drive, he said.
Watson also offers what modern economists would term "entrepreneurial infrastructure." He's found very affordable buildings in town for his startup businesses. He converted the former Watson Cafe — it was on the verge of being torn down — and made it headquarters and warehouse for E-Z Chassis. He's also rescued and restored the former Molden's and Haug's Garages in the community for his custom truck business.
The small town can probably thank E-Z Chassis and Swap for keeping the Post Office in operation there too. Lipinski had been shipping his kits via a private carrier when he started, until the local postmistress urged him to give the Post Office a try. Today, EZ Chassis does most of its shipping with the Watson Post Office. Lipinski is literally able to walk his kits across the street with a hand carrier and ship them across the country.
As for Watson's location far from any metropolitan area, so much the better, according to Lipinski. It's the internet that connects him with his customers. His big break on the internet came when a vintage truck website specializing in vintage Chevy trucks put a link to his business on its web page. "That's when it took off," Lipinski said. E-Z Chassis went from page 6 to page 1 on Google searches for "chassis swaps."
He charts his company's growth with hand-drawn graphs he posts on the wall of the former cafe. The fact of the matter is, he continues to do lots of things in an old-fashioned way. "Service," he said, and "treat your customers like you want to be treated" are the most important business principles, he said.
Location matters too, and Lipinski said he remains convinced that Watson is the ideal location for his business.
And why should he feel any other way? "I'm living the dream," said Lipinski. Operating his own business has allowed him to marry his passion for old cars and trucks and his talents as a designer into a job of his own making, while living in a small town he enjoys. "I look forward to Mondays," he said.