How much is too much? Sometimes, when you go big on a build, things might get a little bit out of hand. Other times, it turns out just right. This luxury prerunner built by Griffen Fab Works is certainly the latter. This truck may not be the kind of build anyone can do on a budget, but it certainly goes a long way toward showing what a qualified shop can do when given the budget and creative freedom.
We ran into Neal Griffen and his 1981 GMC 3500-dubbed the “Poverty Runner” at the 2019 Detroit Autorama. The Autorama is probably one of the biggest and baddest car shows you will ever attend. Two levels of the Cobo center in downtown Detroit Michigan are filled with the most exciting and newest builds the world has to offer.
The best garages and builders in the business come to the Autorama to show off their skills and newest projects. Everyone can find something to be jealous of at this show, whether it’s a slick hot rod or a mean muscle car. But the Poverty Runner was something else entirely.
Neal Griffen is a big guy with an even broader smile. He couldn’t have been friendlier or happier to discuss his off-road passion with anyone that stopped by his booth. He shared with us, “This is our first Autorama. We’ve gotten great reactions and support from everyone and it’s all been positive feedback. The experience has been great.”
Neal and Griffen Fab Works are located in Byron Center, Michigan. He has been turning wrenches since he was about 14 years old. It was at that time that he built his first Jeep to tear up his local wheeling area the Silver Lake Sand Dunes. “I was that kid in high school that when my buddies were out partying, I was out buying tools and working on cars at night,” Neal explained.
He originally opened his shop to perform basic car repair and maintenance, but learned quickly that his real passion was in the off-road performance and fabrication market. “I hate doing just general repair and maintenance work now. That lit the fire, though, for me to get into the off-road and custom world. To be able to use your hands and make something that no one else has is a pretty cool achievement,” he said.
The 1981 GMC 3500 we were having this conversation next to is quite a sight. The truck sits on forty-inch tires with Innov8 wheels. It sports a King equipped suspension that is ready to absorb the biggest jumps the owner can throw at it.
“When you are out in places where the only support is what you brought with you, it’s always good to have less moving parts,” said Neal. “This truck is properly set up to go anywhere you would want it to go. The I-beam suspension is really beefy, keeps the motor up front, and keeps the truck balanced really nicely.”
The truck was built for a loyal customer of Griffen Fab Works and took a total of two years to complete. A total of 3,500 labor hours have been put into the creation of this rig, and the final product is nothing short of drool-worthy. Griffen described the final cost of the build as, “less than some people’s houses, but more than others”.
“I can’t thank the owner enough for his trust and support for this build,” Griffen said. “He’s a big supporter of us and wants to see our shop grow. He’s been phenomenal about letting us use it for an advertising piece, and it’s just been great.”
The owner had the cab sitting in a barn and is a big fan of the ’80s “square bodies.” He and Neal had often talked about completing a build of a separate square body truck he still owns. However, the decision to build based off of the GMC cab was made as it was just sitting around from a past project.
From there, the Griffen team went to work. The frame is made from 2×5-inch boxed sheet metal. It is custom to the desired wheelbase, ride height, and track width that the collaboration between Griffen and the owner demanded.
The truck also received a full cage for when the going gets rough. The attention to detail of the build is exceptional. It can be clearly seen by the time and skill the team took to completely panel the cage into the interior rather than simply tie in place. It is just one of the many elements to the completely custom-built that sets it apart.
Necessity breeds a lot of things during a build like this. We want to make sure that number one it is safe and number two that it looks good. Finally and most importantly we want to make sure that it fits the profile of what the Owner asked us to build,” Neal stated.
Neal feels that anytime a shop is asked to do a build, they should always stay true to what the customer is asking for. Neal explained, “I don’t want to have someone come to me and I just build what I think is cool. I want to build the truck that you as the customer want. It’s not about what I think is cool, it’s about what the owner wants and what the owner’s requirements are.”
In this case, the original requirements started off as big power, seating for five, and enough storage for all of his kid’s gear as well. While those initial requirements have still been met the build did snowball a bit as most projects do.
At this point there is no element of the truck that has not been reworked or customized in some way. “Not a lot of people build these so that really does make this kind of unique. He loves the square bodies and he is also a local Silver Lake guy so he’ll be up there every weekend, I’m sure,” Neal said.
The overall plan for the future of the Poverty Runner is for the truck to spend its life carving up dunes in Michigan as well as out west. “We’re hoping to get the chance to take the truck to Glamis and Pismo,” said Neal. “Maybe even down to Mexico to run around in Baja.”
“I know he wants to have a truck that he can load on a trailer, take it across the country, beat on it, and not have to wrench on it everyday. I think we’ve done that for him,” Neal commented. Following the conclusion of the Autorama, the plan was to complete final vehicle tuning and then deliver it to the owner.
In the end, the Griffen Fab Works Poverty Runner does a great job of showing what quality craftsmanship and a customer-centric focus can accomplish. This rig is ready to hit the trail and was never meant to be a show truck. “Reliability is huge in anything we build,” Neal said. “We may not build the lightest stuff or even the fastest stuff because we’re not racing. I can tell you though that when we build something for a customer, you will never have to worry that when you hit a jump too hard or hit a washout you weren’t expecting that our build is going to fold up. It’s going to take it and we will always handle any issues immediately.”
We have no trouble believing that this truck is going to be out shredding some dunes very soon. If you are in the Silver Lake Sand dunes area of Michigan, make sure you keep an eye out for it. Also if you are in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area, look up Griffen Fab Works. We’re sure they will take great care of you.