2012 Big River Nationals – flashback

It was two shows in one when hot rodders from around the country gathered at Barmera for the 2012 Big River Nationals and first ever Australian Willyn Nationals

Photographers: Guy Bowden

THE Thursday after Easter we went to Barmera in South Australia’s Riverland for the Big River Nationals (BRN), which is not only this year’s regional Hot Rod Nationals show, but featured the biggest collection of Willys outside the MCG men’s urinal at half time.

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Street Machine

Greg Jones’s ’33 Ford coupe runs an I-beam front-end, striking paint with cream signage and smoothies

Hot rods, customs and classics from every state and territory gathered at the town on the banks of Lake Bonney near the Victorian border for the second BRN, which included the first Australian Willys Nationals (AWN), believed to be the first in the world. Graham Matthews is a Riverland local and the brainchild of both the BRN and AWN.

“In 2004 I came up with the idea of the nationals to be held at the Riverland Exhibition Centre,” he said. “Saturday would be a car show, with drags at the proposed quarter-mile strip on Sunday.”

BRN Committee member Steve Baum cruised up from the Barossa in his ’32 closed-cab pick-up on a ’28 Model-A Ford chassis. “It’s a Hemi Desoto 276ci bored to 285ci, with Motec-powered EFI using 94 Stromberg bases,” he says

He and Adelaide-based David Wehrman pulled together a band of representatives from SA’s hot rod clubs, and while lack of funding delayed construction of the quarter-mile strip, the 2006 BRN was a success. A second event in 2012 was then approved by the Australian Street Rod Federation.

Much has been achieved in the past six years due to Graham’s drive and his relationship with the Berri-Barmera Council.

We couldn’t find the owners of this belly-scraping ’59 International and the chopped Ford Zephyr Mark II coupe ute, but we liked their rides!

“The BRN added about $1 million to the local economy in ’06, so we’re hoping for $2 million this time around,” Graham said. “I want all of the Riverland councils and the government to appreciate what the event adds to the area.”

The Riverland area is both functional and picturesque. At ground zero there are huge, lush paddocks divided into the show arena and camping ground, which was filled with tents, teardrop caravans, vintage vans and buses.

Ashley Ward had a leisurely five-hour drive in his ’36 Ford coupe from Mount Gambier in SA’s south-east. Ashley says, “I built it myself 13 years ago. It’s running a 327ci Chev, cos it was easy to fit.” Behind is a T350 and nine-inch

Others chose a short drive to stay in motel and caravan park accommodation overlooking Lake Bonney, so with more than 550 entrants spread out across the small town, the region literally swarmed with cool rides. On Friday arvo the early entrants peeled out for a cruise to the Overland Pub – big-cubes, blowers and all – to fill the till and create a pub with no beer.

The following morning heralded the start of the two day show’n’shine, with a designated area for the 20 Willys Nats entries. Willys Downunder Club co-founder Graham loves his Willys so much he has five of them, though it was Chris Hadgkiss’s ’40 Willys gasser that took out the top award. An emotional Chris accepted his tinware and his acceptance speech was short. “This is fuckin’ grouse,” he said.

Tony Mattioli’s ’41 Willys coupe, which travelled from WA, kept the punters guessing. His 97 Stromberg six-pack powered Hemi is in fact EFI fed. Red trim and a chequered fire wall complement the classic black

Further afield, 530 gleaming machines were spread across the grass. Most unusual was Danny Anderson’s ’23 T-bucket that sported a range of Commodore wares including the rear garnish of a VT Commodore-based Chevy Lumina in a Star Trek theme.

On the other end of the spectrum was Ray Pearman’s stunningly executed green’n’cream, air-bagged ’56 Buick Special coupe. Spectators loved it and so did the judges who gave it the Top Pre ’65 accolade.

“We built it cos Apex took the train off us – we were too drunk,” Tri-State Rodders president Denis Oates said of the club-built ’27 Chrysler rod. Created using club members’ donated parts, the stretched rod features a Studebaker grille and is powered by a 161-cube Holden donk, a Trimatic, a long two-piece Chev tailshaft and a banjo in the rear. Total cost, $200

During the event more than 5000 relaxed and smiling punters turned out for the automotive offerings as well as the trade stalls featuring rockabilly wears, car parts, tools and on-site pin-striping.

Burbling sixes and eights provided the back-drop as entrants cruised the perimeter at a leisurely pace – there’s no dickhead factor here.

A favourite among the crowd was the locally built ’27 Chrysler stretched rod. A common sight in the Riverland area, the Tri-State Rodders pieced together the open-air limo back in ’87.

Recent additions to Michael Rohal’s’34 Ford roadster included the 6/71 Weiand bolted onto the existing 350ci Chev, with twin 650HP Holleys, AFR heads, roller cam, H-beam rods and forged crank. Behind is a T350/nine-inch combo. And the rims? “They’re Center Line Autodrags, a special order from the States – 17s up front and 20s at the rear.”

“We use it for charity work and school fetes,” said club president, Denis Oates. “Two generations have ridden in it.”

A strong WA contingent proved that the price of petrol isn’t a deal breaker with Hank Robertson driving his ’48 Ford convertible from Perth to the NSW Blues and Roots Festival then back to Barmera to take home the Longest Distance Travelled award.

Brentyn Wakefield could’ve won the biggest-smile award as he cruised his ’53 Chev Bel Air two-door. “It’s running the original, matching numbers 235ci six-cylinder,” he says. The colours are Sahara Beige with a Saddle Brown roof

Bargain hunters got an early start at the swap-meet on Sunday morning before the mid-morning shenanigans of the Hot Rod Olympics that stretched into the afternoon. Later, as the sun set, 900 entrants gathered in the massive marquee to be fed roast and dessert, then applaud winners of a handful of trophies including Steve Wilson who scored Top Hot Rod with his immaculate ’36 Ford coupe.

As another successful BRN drew to a close, Graham and the committee looked to the future.

SA Rod and Custom Club-run Hot Rod Olympics featured a range of different events. Overall the small and agile rods came up trumps in the trophy department, yet all who participated left with a huge grin

“We’re more than happy. With more entrants and traders, everything is bigger than last time,” Graham said. “Next time I’d like to include a show-car pavilion and a bitumen area for driving events.”

He also said he wanted to run it every two years. Now, there’s something to look forward to.


“It’s ready for the dyno, and should make 800hp,” Darren Palumbo says of his ’41 Willys coupe. Fed by an 8/71 Blower Shop supercharger, the all-alloy 440ci big-block Chev is backed by a T400 and nine-inch filled with all the good gear. Bolted on all four corners are Billet Specialties rims, with 18x7s up front and massive 20x15s filling out the tubs.


“I WAS 15 years old when I bought it and made it a gasser, so I’ve owned it for 43 years,” says Chris Hadgkiss of his Top Willys award-winning ’40 gasser. The striking gold-leaf writing over the metallic blue body rounds off the period-correct look and solidifies it as a crowd favourite. Under the bonnet is a blown 351ci Windsor on LPG, backed with a C4 and nine-inch. “I built the motor seven years ago. It’s done 100,000kms and tows our caravan – called the Horizontal Hotel.”