Michael Lepker is one of the coolest old-skool minitruckers out there. He pretty much puts everybody's dads, grandpas, and friends to shame. While most dads are tinkering on some old Chevy or a ridiculous Model A, Mike Lepker is building minitrucks. Not just any minitruck, either, but a truly cool and old-skool one. He started messing with trucks in Escondido, California, back in 1974 and has since owned more than 18 Datsun 620s. We sat down to talk to Mike and this is what he had to say.
What keeps you motivated?
Living in the desert, seriously. There is so little to do, you have to find a productive outlet with your time. I've gotten back to my roots, I'm building and sharing what many have never seen, the way that minitrucks were built in my teenage years. "A new era of oldness!"
How many current projects do you have and what are they?
1.'721/2, 620. I picked up this truck in great original shape. It even has the original dis-tributor cap. I plan on keeping this one stock for a long time to show future generations what they look like from the dealer.
2. Funtana. '74 620. This is a finished truck, which was built period correct for 1975. Minimal body mods were done to keep the factory warranty. It has simple mods, such as a molded L88 hoodscoop, '76 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme headlights, and a small list of shaved items.
3. Ice Blue. '76 620. This is a closed bed Fontana-styled truck. The theme for this truck is a paid-off version, so it has some more mods, but similar to Funtana. Unlike Funtana, this truck will have a full crushed-velvet interior, shag carpet, a sunroof installed with overhead console, cassette deck, and a CB radio. It will also be period correct for '77-'78.
4. Choptana. Another 620. This truck will resemble a truck I saw in an issue of Truckin' magazine in 1975. Back then, I didn't have the courage to chop up a new truck, but 32 years later it's no problem.
5. '73 620 with a Chevy stepside bed. This truck was started by its previous owner and already has a 350/350 combo. Even though I haven't really touched it much, I will in the future.
6. Lil' Stomper 4x4. This was a one-time show winner and '84 centerfold truck. It went from glory to abandoned by the side of the road. Fortunately it still retained most of the accessories that were added years ago. I plan to bring this rare Buick V-6 truck back to its classic look, possibly a few minor changes, but correct wheels and modifications of a monster minitruck of the early '80s.
7. 620 four-door dualie Phantom project. I knew Datsun made four-door pickups as Spence Low displayed two in 1978 at Soledad. These were never allowed in the United States and few, if any, minitruckers have ever seen one, which adds to the fun in this project. The stock four door that I purchased in 2003 was stranded in Washington. A good friend there, who had seen my old photos of Spencer's trucks, sent me an e-mail titled "Mike, You'd better be sitting down when you read this!" It was immediately purchased and brought to Arizona. The fact I live on the Colorado River, led me to the conclusion that the ultimate 620 river-cruiser dualie should be built.
I left the extremely rare four-door cab alone, but placed it on a lengthened longbed frame. All stock side marker lights, emblems, and rare 620 mirrors will remain. As common as a longbed is to find, I have changed it a bit. The Bulletside has been filled, as well as the bed seams. A '72 Chevy Vega wagon rear bumper was added, replacing the stock turn signal housings. Rear lamps will now be newer Volkswagen Beetle third brake lights mounted vertically in the bed corners. Twenty-five plus years ago, California Stepside Company sold dualie fenders and rims to convert most minitrucks. A set of these surfaced, which inspired this buildup. People will really be scratching their heads wondering, "Did Datsun really build those?"
8. '76 620 right-hand drive. I went to Japan in 2006 and met a fellow Japanese 620 fan. The story of how we met is truly incredible, but I was invited to ride in his RHD, column shift standard cab. It was the ride of a lifetime! Driving out of Yokosuka up into the Japanese countryside, neither one of us understood the other, yet we conversed. We stopped at a piece of property with vehicles and motorcycles, one being a 620. He described (which was translated later) how that truck was cut up and he used the best parts to fix up the 620 we rode in. I inquired about trading for all parts needed to change a U.S. truck to RHD. Those parts (four boxes!) are en route now. My conversion will look like my stock '721/2; except RHD, stock wheels, and hubcaps. Later, we left the property and I was invited upstairs to his spare room. In a sea of NOS parts, photo albums, and magazines, my wife said, "You met the Japanese you!"
How many have you built?
10, 4 have been in magazines.
Are you in a truck club?
Not per se. We have a group of 620 enthusiasts that hang at runs. My first club was Dead End Kids from Oceanside, California where ex Truckin' column writer Marty Smith invited me to my first run. I shaved Marty's tie down hooks on his famous truck, The Hobbit. Later, I was also President of California Altered Minis (CAM) in Barstow.
When did you become interested in trucks?
I started noticing minitrucks about the time I started driving, in 1972. There weren't many fixed up like in O.C. or Fontana. My best friend got his 620 first, then my awesome parents put down money for my graduation gift, which was in 1974. Prior to that, my dad and I were customizing a 1947 Ford 1/2-ton. My 620 was a Jimmy Conner "Baja" build. In 1975, I saw what was going on and I was off and running. All of the off-road stuff was ditched and the Datsun SS was built. I guess I couldn't stop "tinkering!" I've always liked trucks or sedan deliveries best. Minitrucks were progressive, mostly copying the van movement. Spoilers were a given. Fender flares were designed because we got pulled over for "too wide tires."
I was pulled over 42 times in the first 4 years I was driving! My craziest tickets: "altered center of gravity" and another for "headlights out of adjustment!" I was almost arrested on that one when I started pacing off 200 feet! "Just sign" I was told. They always win when you are a minitrucker. Same as it's ever been!
What was your first show?
Great Escape, at Escape Country in El Toro in May of 1975.
What was your most memorable moment?
First was Soledad 1976. Robert K. Smith photographing my Datsun SS. Second was winning a trophy 29 years later at Reso 30th with the same style truck!
Anything you would like to add?
First, I would like to address the ongoing stigma minitruckers have had. The double standard. You never see a street rodder being hassled like a minitrucker, even though they have the same "illegal" body mods. Have you ever seen a street rodder pulled over for "no front plate" or window tinting? That is a double standard. Minitruckin' is the cornerstone of customizing. Rodders would never have started to 'bag their rods if not for the ideas of a few minitruckers. Incredible use of paint would not be on rods like minitruckers have done. Minitruckers inspired that. Most people don't even know that high-end customizers of street rods trace their roots back to minitruckin'. Ron Mangus is one of those, for example. He began his lucrative career stitching up custom replacement seat covers and door panels for his fellow Datsun club members. Look at the metal fabricating going on today. What do you think that they are going to drift into building next? The talents and occupations of guys who started out fixing up a minitruck are endless.
Second, I envision a Hall of Fame for those involved in creating minitruckin'. Not those who bought their way into the sport, or because they were popular; but for people who busted their knuckles building their own trucks and forming clubs. Every other vehicle has these, why not minitrucks?
I also envision some sort of museum. A place where the plaques, club jackets, magazines, and photos can be safely stored and displayed. Everything has a history and minitruckin' is now pushing 40 years! Most people don't even think about that. Forty years is a lot of lives and memories just fading away or being thrown into a dumpster. Somebody from today's generation should preserve that history.