It’s not uncommon for a build to stall for months or even years. That clearly wasn’t an option for Chris Nicula. With the help of his brother, Brian Rehburg, and a couple of longtime friends, this gorgeous 1952 Chevy Suburban went from six-cylinder workhorse to LS6-powered restomod in less than 10 months.
Just weeks after taking delivery of the classic wagon, Chris drove it from his home, south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania across the border to his brother’s house in Ohio. It wasn’t a fast drive—the truck liked to cruise at 45 mph—but as soon as he arrived, the project shifted into high gear. That very morning, the front clip came off and the 235 cubic inch six was pulled. Chris would continue to make this trip, staying with his brother nearly every weekend until the Suburban was completed. “I’d leave my house at five-thirty on a Saturday morning to get to Brian’s at seven. He’d already be out in the garage, sometimes for a couple of hours, working on it. We would just work nonstop, maybe head out for lunch.”
But this was no overnight rush; the frame-off job included radical chassis modifications, a 405 hp infusion in the form of the aforementioned LS swap, a retro-styled interior with a state-of-the-art sound system, and much more.
Like so many enthusiasts, Chris and Brian had a love of cars instilled at a young age. “Our stepdad, his nickname was ‘MacGyver.’ He built his own air compressors, cars, all kinds of stuff. He owned a service station. I was always hanging around with him, working on four-wheelers. Then I got a ’92 Civic hatchback. It was my first real project. We did an Integra motor swap in that, and I did it all myself with him helping me out a little bit,” Chris said. “I grew up going to car shows with my uncles and parents, worked at car audio shops for a few years, and just spent a lot of time in garages working on cars,” he added.
Surprisingly, the Suburban wasn’t even Chris’ first choice. He had planned on building a 1947-53 Chevy pickup. “My uncle had one that he never finished, but I just fell in love with the front ends on them,” he said. When he called his brother to tell him he was ready to look for a truck, Brian suggested a Suburban instead, so Chris’ wife and daughters could go along for the ride. He wasn’t familiar with Chevy’s early SUV, but after a quick search online, his mind was made up.
The truck was purchased sight unseen from a dealer in Minnesota in running, driving, rust-free condition. “There were a few small surprises, but nothing like, ‘Oh, this was a bad deal,’” Chris said.
The body was lifted off the frame and sent to The Body Shop of Niles in Niles, Ohio for minor repairs and a repaint on the top half—in a hue that perfectly matched the custom-powdercoated 20 inch Raceline Classico wheels. Sending the body away also freed up crucial space in the shop. “Brian made this big metal cart with huge casters. We put the body on that and wheeled it onto the trailer,” Chris said. “The body shop worked on it on the cart while we kept working on the frame and suspension,” he explained.
Brian, a self-taught fabricator, handled the extensive chassis mods. The frame was boxed for strength and rigidity, unused holes were filled and smoothed, and C-notches were added to accommodate rear axle travel. Up front, a Jimenez Bros. Customs independent front suspension with Classic Performance two inch drop spindles replaced the factory straight axle. Out back, Brian designed and built a triangulated four-link to mount the Ford nine inch rear axle, which was equipped with a Strange Engineering center section packing 3.70:1 gears and an Eaton Detroit Truetrac differential. The entire works floats on airbags controlled by an Air Lift Performance 3H air management system.
Brian’s fab work didn’t end at the chassis. Rather than replace the firewall with a smooth piece, Chris chose to retain the original, but fill all the factory holes. Brian went to work, spending hours welding and grinding. “It looked like Swiss cheese from every little wire they drilled a hole for at the factory,” Brian said, laughing.
To complete the ultra-clean underhood look, “We did some things that are more difficult than what most people try to do,” Chris said. “Like when we ran the A/C and heater lines, which normally go through the firewall. We ran them through the kick panel to keep the firewall clean.”
A key to keeping the project moving was a couple of Chris’ childhood friends, Craig Strock and Greg Mease. Craig, a “perfectionist” according to Chris, was tasked with tedious jobs no one else wanted to do, like placing the sound deadening mat “with all the logos perfectly lined up, even though it didn’t matter,” as Chris put it, and installing the difficult fender welting. Chris and Craig had grown apart over the years, and the build brought them back together. “One day I came by to say hi, left after a while, and later Chris texted and said, ‘I thought you were gonna stay and work?’ I don’t think I missed another weekend after that!” Craig said. Greg handled all the wiring, and “everything just worked,” when it was time to put the Suburban on the road, Chris said.
So, how’s it all work? Chris’ original goal was to “Keep the classic look, but with adjustable suspension and a modern drivetrain. Something I can take on the highway.” With an LS6 sourced from a C5 Corvette Z06 pumping out 405 hp and 400 ft.-lbs. of torque, the 70-year-old Carryall gets down the road like its original designers could’ve never imagined. The 4L65E transmission allows for a relaxed 2,100 rpm at 75 mph: “It’s not bad. We double-layered the sound deadening—the roof, the floor; everywhere,” Chris said.
As a family cruiser, it’s tough to beat. Vintage Air A/C keeps everyone comfy on hot days—the kind of days that require a stop for ice cream. “The kids love it. Normally, we get ice cream on some part of our trip, so that just adds to their excitement,” Chris laughed. The interior’s a nice place to spend time, with custom upholstery that looks both vintage and new; a hidden, app-controlled Memphis Audio sound system; and subtle touches like swing-down under-dash brackets that keep the Holley Terminator X EFI and Air Lift Performance air ride controllers out of sight. The dashboard is finished by a set of Classic Instruments Chevy truck gauges. “They came out with these gauges right before we started this build, and it was a no-brainer for me. If you looked quick, you’d even think they were the stock gauges,” Chris said.
Was the grueling schedule and weekend after weekend of hard work worth it? “Everyone had fun building it. It wasn’t like every weekend we’d say, ‘Oh, come on!’ Well, maybe Brian was getting a little drained by it…” Chris laughed. But with her husband gone so many weekends, how does his wife Missy feel about the Suburban? “She’s not into old cars, but she’s like, ‘This is a COOL car,’” he said, smiling.
Of course, we couldn’t agree more!
Chris Nicula’s 1952 Chevy Suburban Fast Specs
Body & Chassis
- Stock frame C-notched, boxed, and smoothed by Brian Rehburg
- Powdercoat by Y-Town Powder Coating, North Jackson, Ohio
- Jimenez Bros. Customs IFS
- Classic Performance Mustang II 2 in. drop spindles and sway bar
- Custom triangulated 4-link by Brian Rehburg
- Quick Performance 9 in. housing
- Strange Engineering center section with 3.70:1 gearset and Eaton Detroit Truetrac differential
- Universal Air air bags
- Air Lift Performance 3H air management system
- KYB Excel-G shock absorbers
- Wilwood master cylinder, vacuum booster, and proportioning valve
- GM disc brakes (front), Ford disc brakes (rear)
- Roof color-matched to wheels, firewall holes filled
- Paint by The Body Shop of Niles, Niles, Ohio
- PPG Deltron® Ocean Green and Porcelain White
Wheels & Tires
Engine & Transmission
- GM LS6
- Holley Mid-Mount accessory drive
- Holley LS valve cover adapters
- Auto Metal Direct valve covers
- Holley LS oil pan
- Superior Radiator LS radiator
- All American Billet overflow tank
- RPM Level V 4L65E transmission
- Tru-Cool Max transmission cooler
- Lokar shifter
Air & Fuel
- Holley Terminator X Max engine management
- Holley Sniper EFI fuel rails
- K&N cone air filter
- Mike Norris Motorsports Gen2 catch can
- Spectre custom intake
- Walbro in-tank fuel pump
- Russell Performance AN fittings and lines
- Hooker Blackheart exhaust manifolds
- MagnaFlow Tru-X muffler
- Custom 2-1/2 in. stainless steel system by Jstar Fabrications, Bristolville, Ohio
- Interior by Weimann’s Interiors, Delmont, Pennsylvania
- Classic Instruments 1947-53 Chevy truck gauge package
- Vintage Air A/C and heat
- Memphis Audio head unit
- VIV 6-1/2 in. speakers and 5-channel amplifier
- JL Audio 10 in. subwoofer in custom enclosure
- Audio components supplied by Dan Nezbeth of Advanced Custom Sound, Warren, Ohio
Chris gives special thanks to his wife, Missy, and daughters, Addison and Amelia; Brian Rehburg, Craig Strock, and Greg Mease; his dad and mom, Chuck and Carol; Chad Rehburg, Bill Drennen, Chris Schmuck, Jim Elbon Jr., Jeff Kuhn, and Cain Jimenez