Blue Destiny: Darren Sammartino’s 1970 Chevy K20

Blue has been a color that humanity has treasured for millenia. Royalty sought after it for their clothing, artists craved it to paint the Virgin Mary, Egyptians wanted it for their sarcophagi. Today, thankfully, it no longer requires grinding lapis lazuli into powder, and we can get it in all manner of shades to coat our projects.

For Darren Sammartino, Jr. of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, that shade was Grabber Blue. It’s given his 1970 Chevrolet K20 a bold and striking appearance. It compounds the work he’s put into the 4×4 to make it a stellar restoration.

We caught wind of Darren’s ride on Instagram. There, his K20, also known as Eleanor, has gotten the young man a fair share of attention and praise. We reached out to Darren to find out more about the vehicle and how it was crafted into the stunner it is today.

Background of the Build

Darren found his truck while surfing the internet in Biology class. Already swapped with a Cummins, it was a good pick for an epic truck build.

As a child, Darren was brought up around trucks. “My father had a mud drag race truck that I spent most of my early years around,” he said. “Sadly, he had to give it up and dismantle it. The worst part about it was that this was his very first truck he’d ever owned, and he regretted letting it go, even to this day. I decided to take a different approach and preserve my truck. Someday, I’ll build another truck for racing and follow in the footsteps of my dad.”

Darren’s motivation for the project was simply an eagerness to realize a dream. “I’ve wanted to build a truck like this since I was a little kid,” he said. “I did everything I could to make that happen. I worked multiple jobs and in some harsh conditions just to get what I needed to make it happen.”

With 12 inches of lift and meaty Mickey Thompson mud terrains, Eleanor isn’t afraid to boldly go where she pleases.

Darren bought the Chevy in 2010, when he wasn’t even a fully licensed driver. It had rust, mismatched paint, steel rims and dry-rotted tires; but Darren saw something in it. “The truck already had the Cummins in it, but it needed some work for me to be able to drive it every day,” he said.

Now 22, he claims he has spent more time “in a garage making it better one bolt at a time” than he has spent studying. Eleanor has been part of his life for so long now that he feels he might never sell her.

Getting Started

Darren and Eleanor in the very early stages of the build. He found the truck one day in high school Biology class. He was surfing eBay Motors and located what he thought was the perfect specimen.

Once Darren brought Eleanor home for the first time, he used it like a truck, driving it around and going up and down the beach. After a while, however, he realized he had to make some changes if the truck was going to last.

I wanted something unique and different, something I could really get into and know that I’ve put my touch on it. It was my truck and I was going to make it a legend. – Darren Sammartino, owner/builder

He had to start with the body and wiring. “The original body had quite a bit of rust from being in the salty roads of New Jersey,” he commented. “It needed major repair.”

The wiring, now aged and falling apart, was removed entirely in places to make way for the eventual diesel swap. He decided to take care of the body, too, as its paint was wearing away. This phase happened a couple of years after the wiring was addressed. During this time, Darren found a curious yet off-putting discovery – a bullet hole in the donor body.

“It was on the passenger side, going through the floor,” said Darren. “It was interesting because it was clearly showing the bullet passed through the floor from inside the cabin, and out into the engine bay. I tried finding the original body owner, but had no luck. I decided to leave it in, as it’s a piece of history.”

Darren bought the Chevy K20 when he was 15. He’s now 22, as has put his truck through four build stages.

Once Darren had the bodies figured out, he moved onto the suspension and steering. The suspension was sagging and droopy, while the steering was loose from the weight of the Cummins under the hood. Custom-built parts had to be deployed to make these problems go away.

Next, lighting. “I thought the 40-year-old-plus ‘candlestick’ lights were awful,” he said. “They weren’t enough, so I took care of them.” They were replaced with KC HiLiTES headlights, and supplemental lights were added for underglow, off-roading, and the bed as well.

When he’s not working, Darren takes his Chevy out to the Jersey shore to hang out and have fun with friends.

Wheels and tires came afterwards. “The truck needed to have that nostalgic feel, but also brought into the 21st century with something clean and modern,” said Darren.

Finally, there was the engine. In Darren’s mind, it was the last on the list because it was already fairly solid. He did make some changes, which will be discussed later in this article.

Facts, Figures, And Specs

Eleanor’s exterior is one of her finest features, as anyone can see. She has the standard Chevrolet front grille, bolstered by the rugged Chassis Unlimited prerunner bumper and KC HiLiTES off-road lights.

The paint is a single-stage Ford Grabber Blue, with black below the belt on all sides. Graphics adorn the rear fenders. These were done by Galluci Designs and bear the names of all of the companies that are featured throughout Eleanor.

The paint is Ford Grabber Blue above the belt line, and black beneath it.

The engine bay holds a 1992 12-valve Cummins, which was already installed when Darren found it online. Most diesel guys, no matter their preference, can at least acknowledge the 12-valve as one of the most influential diesel motors of all time, and Darren is one of them.

Darren’s Chevy K20 runs on a 1992 12-valve Cummins. It’s been upgraded with a 62mm turbocharger, fueling mods, custom-made mounts, K&N intake, MBRP exhaust, and more.

He made his own custom engine mounts to replace the aging ones. He also did his own custom wiring to clean up the engine bay and make it look nicer. Upgrades came in the form of an Industrial Injection-built VE fuel pump, MBRP three-inch turbo-back exhaust (leading to eight-inch stacks), a fuel pin, a 62mm turbocharger, and some fueling modifications.

The rest of the drivetrain is comprised of a Getrag 360M (also from 1992) with a custom-built transmission mount, wiring for reverse gear, and a hump kit. The 360M received heavy-duty internals and a South Bend dual disc clutch, all of which were installed by Closter Transmission in Closter, New Jersey.

The transfer case is an NP205. Custom-made driveshafts extend to the Dana 60 front axle and the Chevy 14-bolt rear axle. Gearing is 4.10:1, and an Eaton Detroit Locker limited-slip differential keeps Eleanor from losing her grip off-road. Braking is thanks to Bendix oversized front disc brakes (rears are normal drums) and a Wilwood master cylinder.

As far as chassis modifications, the Chevy is built to handle itself well, no matter where it goes. The frame was painted and braced for the motor, and the suspension uses custom-built military wrapped leafs providing nine inches of lift, and tuned Fox shocks on all four corners. An extra three inches of lift comes from an LMC body lift kit. What’s more the leaf springs have greasable shackles and heavy-duty shackle mounts, meaning Eleanor can take her fair share of off-road abuse.

Stickers, anyone?

Wheels and tires are 20×12 Anthem Aviators wrapped by 37-inch Mickey Thompson Baja MTZs. The front ones can turn thanks to a PSC-built quick-ratio steering box, and are stabilized with a BDS kit using two Fox dampers.

Inside, Darren and his friends stay comfortable in a stock black leather bench seat. The dashboard is custom-made, and uses AutoMeter gauges. A Grant Racing steering wheel, Kenwood stereo, LED lighting, and door speakers with a hidden subwoofer round out the interior.

For right now, Darren is stoked with how his Chevy K20 turned out. He gets his kicks driving the truck up and down the beach near his home in Woodland Lake, New Jersey. But that isn’t to say there’s no room for improvement.

“I’m gonna be ripping off the front suspension this winter,” he told us. “I started getting into fabricating, so I’ll be doing new mounts for the engine and track bar. I’m also gonna be doing a basket on top with extra lights. Just all sorts of little stuff.”

It’s crazy to think that all those years ago, when it was just a virtual image of a Chevy staring back at him on a computer in Biology class, Darren would one day craft his Eleanor into a stunner. But the young man made it happen. By his own admission, Darren is the type of person that gets an idea and works on it: “I enjoy making things. When a new idea pops into my head, I write it or draw it down, and set to work on building it.”

Whatever he does next, we can be sure that Darren will see it to completion. And if Eleanor is any indication, it will be to perfection as well.

About the author

David Chick

David Chick comes to us ready for adventure. With passions that span clean and fast Corvettes all the way to down and dirty off-road vehicles (just ask him about his dream Jurassic Park Explorer), David's eclectic tastes lend well to his multiple automotive writing passions.
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