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A collection of historic pickups up for auction in Sanger after being spared by deadly tornado

Denton Record-Chronicle

Retired Air Force Capt. Mike Phillips’ plan seemed solid: Collect old pickup trucks, mostly GMC with a few Chevrolets, and rent them to producers for use in Hollywood movies. Most of the pickups they had been using were too nice and clean, Phillips said.

Phillips, 75, planned to offer pickups in various conditions and began traveling around the country in the early 1990s after he retired to find them.

But he didn’t account for the fact that most movies are made in Hollywood, making it financially difficult for him to get his pickups from Texas to California. Of course, it didn’t stop him from collecting them. Phillips’ passion for old pickups began when he was a child in the 1950s.

“It’s just because the exhilaration from flying is the same you get from an old truck,” Phillips said. “You see a person driving down the road in an old truck, and they’re grinning from ear to ear.”

Phillips has collected about 100 pickups, primarily from the early 1950s, over the past 30 years. Now, due to health issues, he’s selling his collection as part of an online auction hosted by VanDerBrink Auctions.

The online auction ends Sunday and includes rare pickups with 9-foot boxes and five-window cabs. Phillips’ mission is for them to find homes with people who will restore them, possibly customize them or use them in rat rod projects, according to the online auction site.

It’s a collection the EF-3 tornado barely missed in late May when it hit Valley View and damaged nearly 500 homes in the small community of about 800 people.

“That tornado came through and picked up my stock trailer and threw it into an RV and knocked it on the side,” Phillips said. “But it didn’t hurt the old trucks. They weigh a ton compared to the new ones.”

Though it’s been a long time ago, Phillips, who was born in the late 1940s, still recalls seeing a Model A pickup for the first time as a child. His father, an Air Force pilot who flew a B-47 Stratojet in World War II, was stationed at the Air Force base in Wichita Falls, where Phillips said all these Models A and T pickups could be seen around town and on old farms around the area.

In 1968, Phillips moved to Denton County, went to school and graduated from North Texas State University — now the University of North Texas — and became a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He flew an F-4 Phantom II. His brother, also a pilot, flew an F-11 Tiger.

At the time, Phillips’ grandfather had told him he had an old Model A engine out in the hay barn. Phillips took it and put it in a 55-gallon barrel with brake fluid and kerosene to keep it from rusting and went off to fight in the war.

Twenty years later, Phillips began collecting old pickups to rent to movie companies. He settled on GMC for the most part because he said the company had introduced a full-pressure insert bearing motor that didn’t require someone skilled in metallurgy to pour molten hot metal for the pour bearings. Instead, the Detroit truck company had designed bearings that could be inserted into the motor. It made them easier to change.

Phillips would drive around and see an old pickup in someone’s yard, pull over and find out if they were interested in selling. If not, he’d leave a business card for them in case they changed their minds.

“You could do that back then,” Phillips said. “I don’t think I would try that anymore.”

Phillips eventually shifted gears and started responding to advertisements placed in car and truck magazines and used the internet before it became a cesspool of opinion.

But the GMC pickups from the 1950s were harder for him to find than Chevys.

Over the years, Phillips would do his collecting in between raising Longhorn cattle off FM2450 on the outskirts of Sanger. He lined up his pickups in the pasture. They could be seen from the road. People would often leave notes on the gates to see if he was interested in selling, according to an early June press release.

Phillips’ answer was always no — until he started having medical issues.

And while he’s selling his prized collection, Phillips managed to keep one thing from the auction block.

“The Model A engine is still in a footlocker in the barn,” said Phillips, who rebuilt it. “I keep it for my son and grandsons.”