• Steve Martin

Brian's Ram 1500 Laramie: Keep Calm & Carry On



“The pictures [of the wrecked Ram 1500] looked absolutely fantastic!” said Brian, who loves the challenge of restoring destroyed vehicles in his own garage. “But they were done in November. [The truck] sat for a winter with plastic on the roof, but the plastic leaked. And everything inside the cabin had water damage...I didn’t know it, and they didn’t tell me. So, shame on them.”

When the truck arrived on a flatbed, the delivery driver rolled it onto the street a half mile from Brian’s house, because the driver couldn’t get into the gated community where Brian and his wife live. “I can’t get it to start, but here’s your truck,” the driver told him. Brian jumped the battery and limped past the gate in a Quasimodo of a pickup. 

Even before he discovered the standing water in the center console, he knew it was worse than he imagined. 

“What have I done?” he thought to himself.


Brian

I first met Brian in the front yard of his cabin in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. He owns the cabin situated across the street - if one could even call that narrow, unpaved, dirt strip through the forest valley a street - from the cabin and property owned by my in-laws. He’s a cabin neighbor. My father-in-law decided to play a little Dolly Levi between Brian and I for the good of Deft Auto when he found out that Brian restores cars.

So, one recent weekend, I made the almost 2-hour drive from Salt Lake City to the cabin to introduce myself and to talk cars. Brian was outside in his yard refinishing two, large, wooden chairs that would look right at home on the porch of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone. Brian looked kind of like I pictured him in my head: a little shorter than I am, friendly face, ball-cap, mustache. (Why do I mentally picture mechanics with mustaches?) On his knees with a paintbrush in hand, he was at it again - using tools and elbow grease to make old, discarded things new and beautiful. I sat in a lawn chair. The air was slightly crisp with a fragrance of looming autumn, and soon we’d be interrupted by not one but two, separate groups of deer just passing through the yard. The object of the interview - his 2019 Ram 1500 Laramie Sport Crew Cab 4X4 pickup - sat in the driveway just like any normal pickup would. Not even one year ago something ripped off the front end and scraped the entire passenger side of that very vehicle, caving in the doors and bed, breaking the windows and bending the reinforced metal. Until Brian told me the story, I never would have guessed. It looked like the $63,000 full-size pickup it was when it rolled off the assembly line.


Restoring Cars

Brian has restored 6 cars. When Brian was 17- or 18-years-old, a drunk driver ran a red light and t-boned Brian in his 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, totalling the vehicle. Brian liked the car too much to part with it, so he bought it back from the insurance company and repaired it in the small two-bay Cash Saver gas and service station his dad owned in Granger, Utah, despite no previous experience. “I did most of the work myself,” he mentioned proudly.

He ended up getting two more wrecked Camaros and made a matching set for himself and his first wife. “Once we bought a third Camaro, we had enough to make two cars out of the three,” he said with a chuckle.

Brian sold the other Camaros to pay for a Rally Sport convertible, which he restored to “original from the factory” condition. Brian entered it in the concours at the University of Utah, where it scored 96 out of 100. “They docked me for the factory-incorrect Radial tires and a little bow in the interior,” said Brian. “Even the judges said the Radials were an awesome choice, though.” *Brian then sold it to someone in Utah and just happened to run into him last year. The new owner was still driving Brian’s Camaro - 35 years later. Brian’s Camaro ended up back in his garage last winter; he repaired the convertible top and did a couple of other fixes for the new owner.

Fast forward a few years after the Camaros. His second wife wanted a Honda Prelude, so Brian started checking wrecking yards and found a heavily damaged one with 30,000 miles for a good deal. The driver’s side was completely beyond saving, so Brian had to cut his wife’s car in half, order half of another Prelude, and then piece the two halves together, layer by layer, for structural integrity.

“That was probably the worst one,” he said, momentarily pausing from the chairs and looking up at the sky.

In 2006, Brian purchased a 1964 Buick Skylark and over 7 years - more than 1500 man hours – transformed it into a 100% custom show car. “My dream was to build an absolute over the top show car,” he said. “Cut and shaved and remolded and refitted.” When Brian said ‘custom,’ he meant airbag suspension, tucked bumpers, moved grille and headlights, altered doors and windshield. He meant $6,000 in chrome for a “handful of pieces” and 9 layers of paint with a sanded top layer like glass - burgundy on top fading to black on bottom. He kept the original engine but enhanced the output and beautified the look for a “jewel in the jewel box” effect when the hood was opened.


“It won all the awards,” said Brian. But the car being so custom took all the fun out of driving it, with no way to repaint or redo anything, if even the smallest accident were to occur.

So, he registered the Skylark in a Russo & Steele auction in Scottsdale and drove it one last time across the stage as people shouted out numbers for what they thought it was worth. His car went for right at book value of $38,000, more than he had put into it, not counting the 1500 man hours.

“I don’t regret it. I wanted to build a car like that, and I wanted to take it to an auction.”


The Ram 1500 Laramie

Earlier this year, Brian’s wife said she wanted a sport utility vehicle, and as he was searching all of his favorite auction websites for his wife’s SUV, Brian became obsessed over photos of a heavily damaged Ram 1500. The truck’s original retail price was $63,380, according to the window sticker, which was still in the glove box when it rolled off the carrier right outside Brian’s neighborhood. Equipped with the panoramic glass roof, the $4,500 15-speaker stereo system, the $2,500 Sport Appearance Package with the upgraded 22-inch premium wheels, and the $1,500 Advanced Safety Group of active safety tech, this Ram was loaded.

Brian liked what he found in the history of the vehicle, a work truck with 22,000 miles that had a bad day. After the collision in 2019, the insurance company sold it to the online car auction behemoth Copart.com. Another auction site, 74Auto.com, purchased it from Copart for $15,000, and then tried to sell it for $27,000. Brian found it on 74Auto for $24,000 after it sat for the winter. Brian calculated the repairs but thought everything would take him too close to the amount he estimated he could get for the vehicle if he needed to sell it, so he decided to pass. Until 74auto dropped the price to $17,500, that is.

“The whole passenger side was caved in,” said Brian. “It looked like a semi-truck was backing into a stall and the Ram was in the way. And the semi kept going from headlight to taillight.”

But no airbags were blown, which meant that it must have been parked when damaged. The fact that the airbags had not gone off, made the opportunity more palatable to Brian. The repairs would not be as laborious or costly, and the truck would be worth more, he thought. A title search confirmed this: collision damage, but no accident or airbag history.

“That’s when I told my wife, ‘I really want this truck. Can you wait on your SUV?’” he said.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Once Brian limped the truck into his garage from where the delivery guy left it, he started going through everything. That’s when he started to panic. 

“I started looking at everything and nothing worked,” he said. “The stereo doesn’t work. The headlight switches, the cruise control, the panoramic roof - everything is broken. The passenger seat. The power seat. Nothing works.”

All the paperwork in the glove compartment looked like it had water damage. And then he found standing water and rust inside the plastic center console; it also stank.

“Uh oh,” he remembers thinking to himself. “The roof’s been leaking, and everything is fried.”

Brian paid $17,500 for the truck, and $1,000 for delivery. He assumed he could do everything he needed for another $8,000 putting him under $30,000 for the whole project, his budget goal. Finding standing water in the console and fried electronics made him abandon his earlier estimates. Also, he had miscalculated the amount it would take to rebuild the front of the vehicle.

“I was originally figuring $8,000, and now I’m at $12,000 [when correctly calculating the front]. But now I’m looking [at the electronics] in the cab, and I’m pushing $15,000!” he said, raising the pitch of his voice. “I didn’t tell [my wife], because I knew she would really panic.”

To make matters worse, the State of Utah initiated its first Covid-19-related shelter-in-place order a week after he purchased the truck.

“I thought, ‘What have I done?’” said Brian. “I shelled out $18,000 for a pile of mangled metal with a lot of electrical problems.”

“Just get SOMETHING to work,” he told himself.



In the Garage...And the Rest of the House

Brian first took the truck apart to gain a better sense for what he was actually dealing with. With the truck in pieces Brian could answer the questions: What worked? What needed fixing but didn’t need replacing? What needed replacing? What was missing? 

“I have a four-car garage and still had shit in the house,” said Brian matter-of-factly. “The interior was in my exercise room. The headliner and the doors were in my pool table room. What few parts to the front end I had were kept there. The bed was in the garage. I left the cab on the frame, so I could move it around.”

So, let me get this straight, your wife would be in the living room watching TV and you’d go walking by with a piece of the pickup truck?

“Yeah, a seat,” he responded, laughing. “‘Whatcha doin?’ my wife would rhetorically ask.”

The truck now in pieces, Brian went to the Internet to shop for parts and started cutting and reshaping the cab and bed.

When it came to shopping, Brian got lucky on eBay. Doors that were originally close to $4,000 each from the factory, he purchased both for $800 through eBay. The front bumper was originally $1,000, and he found one, again on eBay, for $350. Finds like those started to get him back on track with his budget. And many of the other parts he needed, he found through Mopar for reasonable amounts.

When it came to cutting, welding, and repainting the Ram, Brian did all that work himself in his garage, just as he had done with the previous cars he had restored. He used a hydraulic ram and some chains to pull the bed back into the right shape. According to Brian, it popped back “smoothly with only a few creases in the metal.” He had to heat up the b-pillar with a blow torch and inch it back into the proper position so the new doors would fit. He cut and welded a new passenger side of the cab above some factory-sealed spot welding that he didn’t want to disturb. The project started to look like a truck again.

With previous painting jobs, Brian used a lot of plastic and tape to turn his garage into a makeshift paint booth, but he upgraded his setup for the Ram.

“I bought a blow-up paint booth, like a big bounce house,” said Brian. “It was $1,000 from the Internet...it works pretty good. It just blows up with filters in the side and fans that circulate the air. When you’re done, just unplug it, and it collapses down. You roll it up and stick it in the corner of the garage.”

Brian was comfortable with the mechanical and paint work, but his previous jobs have never included so many electronics and sensors. He started by cleaning all the components, switches and wires, and then replaced anything that didn’t work after cleaning. Except the adaptive cruise control.

“Driving a couple of weeks without the cruise was pissing me off,” said Brian. “So, I took it to the dealer.”

The dealer, which had become quite familiar with Brian during this project, ran diagnostics on Brian’s vehicle to find out why the adaptive cruise was not working. That diagnostic software produced two pages of error codes.

The dealership started tallying up what it would take to fix all the error codes, and the price tag quickly climbed into the thousands. Brian decided to try his hand at resolving the codes first. “The stereo system worked great, but there were probably 12 error codes on the stereo system, alone,” said Brian.

Brian bought an Autel diagnostic scanner for $560, and it showed him all the error codes, which were the exact codes first registered when the truck was wrecked back in 2019.

“All the error codes were fixed; they just needed to be cleared,” said Brian. “The only thing that didn’t work was the cruise control.”

Brian used the computer system to display in real time what was happening to the truck. The computer reported the adaptive cruise control button as ‘pressed’ even when it wasn’t. So, Brian took apart the switch, and realized it was heavily corroded. He bought a new switch for $65 - problem solved. The cruise control now worked.

He cleared all the error codes one by one. The $560 computer saved him thousands of dollars.

“How many people just take it to the dealer and just say, ‘Fix it!’” said Brian. “I almost did.”

Brian’s total budget for the truck was $30,000. With the title and registration, the final number was $29,800, with the restoration costing just a little more than $10,000. “I just squeaked in on my budget,” he said with smiling eyes.

“Oh, [my wife] finally got a sport utility,” said Brian. “But I didn’t buy a fixer-upper.”


Keep Calm and Carry On

Here at Deft Auto, we love people like Brian and stories like this one about his Ram 1500. He’s humble, passionate, and appreciates the unique details that make cars so enjoyable. He’s achieved the automotive life he’s wanted, without letting a lack of experience stand in his way. When something goes wrong, he makes it work and knows others’ experience on the Internet is at his disposal.

“That’s the beauty of the Internet,” said Brian. “I started searching on the Internet, and said, ‘I can do this.’”

If “Truck of the Internet” was an actual title awarded, Brian’s truck would deserve it. He found it on the Internet. He found out the history and what it was worth on the Internet. He ordered all the parts and the tools, including his blow-up, bounce house of a paint booth through the Internet. He found guidance and help on electrical problems through the Internet. He’s even been sharing what he knows with other people through his YouTube channel, Ride Rescue…on the Internet. If he ever decides to sell it (“I don’t think so,” he said when asked. “I really like it.”), it will probably be through the Internet.

“If I would have paid what that truck was worth, even used, forty-five to fifty [thousand],” said Brian. “I would’ve been scared to death to throw gear in the back. I would baby it and park in the middle of nowhere. With it only being thirty thousand and a salvaged title, I feel like I can use it how it needs to be used.”


Next, Brian will take on a new, fully custom project in his garage, documenting the whole thing via his YouTube channel. “It’s a rare car that has very little exposure on the interwebs,” said Brian. “Hot rodders will like it. Purists will not. But it’s my car, so I can build it the way I want.”

I asked him what he gets out of working on really wrecked vehicles. I asked him if there was anything besides getting a good deal that compels him to spend hours on these projects.

“There’s something about the challenge,” said Brian. “Of bringing something like that back to life. It’s taxing. It’s a lot of work.”

Brian’s chairs are done and drying, and he’s now sitting in a chair opposite me as we take in the evening. The sun has almost set behind the Uintahs, and I start to think about the ribeye steaks my in-laws are preparing in the warm cabin close by. My mind drifts to the challenges in my own life that I don’t like to think about when I’m at the cabin but that I should really meet head on. Brian’s story gives me a little courage. Not 50 feet from where I’m sitting is a big, black, shiny testament to the cliché: “Keep calm and carry on.”