People write to Street Machine now and then, wondering where the vans are. None of them would have been sent recently from Forster-Tuncurry on the NSW mid-north coast; in April it was the host for the Hog’s Breath Café 30th Anniversary Van Nationals and more than 70 lowered, polished, chromed and fat-rimmed vans of all shapes and sizes — and with all manners of murals — rolled into town.
First published in the August 2006 issue of Street Machine
Blue, sunny skies and cool autumnal air greeted the throng of dedicated vanners, many with their families in tow on their annual holidays. To bolster numbers, organisers refunded the ticket price for all those competitors who had to cross two or more state borders and number plates represented just about all corners of the country. Probably the furthest travelled was Crazie Bob, a van-mad punter from Jacksonville, Florida, who was hosted by a group of Aussies after winning his entry ticket in an eBay auction.
The group of enthusiasts assembled at the Nabiac showgrounds — operational HQ for the weekend — covered a rainbow of vanning tastes from full-size Bedfords and Chevs, to the smaller Kingswood and Falcon-based panel vans and even a couple of mini-panel Escorts, Geminis and Holden Combos. The HJ-WB series Kingswoods were by far the most popular, closely followed by those 60s icons, the EJ-EH rides.
The Saturday morning cruise went off well, rumbling through town like a World War II bomber squadron and turning plenty of heads. Back in Nabiac, most headed to the camping ground to detail their rides for the Sunday show ’n’ shine and get ready for the evening’s dinner and costume ball. With plenty of old-school show vans going on display on Sunday, many owners spent hours labouring on fully chromed undercarriages (especially super-detailed Jaguar independent rear-ends) and engine bays.
Come Sunday morning, the weather was perfect, with clear skies and high temperatures making a pleasant change from the previous night’s thoroughly chilly atmosphere. Show highlights were hard to pick as the field was stuffed with beaut examples of the Australian vanning scene — who’d be a show judge, eh?
Frank Desisto’s EH, a former Street Machine SMOTY finalist and retrotech pioneer, gleamed in the sun, with the individual throttlebodies and polished motor reflecting light in a dazzling display of highly polished metal. The Coke-coloured, high-roofed two-door scooped almost every trophy category, from Top Van, to Top Interior, Top Engine Bay and Best Exterior.
In direct contrast to the late-model style of Desisto’s pano, the SWEETP EH sitting nearby ran 13-inch chromies with baby caps, Caprioska cocktails in the fully trimmed load area and a chromed traditional-style carby red six up front. The pairing summed up the weekend’s blend of old and new styles perfectly.
There were plenty of traditional vans, built in the 1970s or early 80s, and even a few new vans that had been built in their image. Wild rides like INNOCENT (featured in SM, April/May ‘85), Vantastic, Mystic Fantasy and Bedrock showcased the original style, while Rare Breed showed modern restraint in a classic package.
Along with having just about every metal surface in the engine bay polished to a high shine, the interiors of the trad vans boasted plenty of crushed velvet, full-on light displays and cut mirror tiles, their bodies showing off massively pumped and rolled guards to house fat 14 and 15-inch mags. Rare Breed’s highly detailed 253 was super-neat, while the dark pearl brown duco and airbrushing (which snared Top Murals) was seriously retro.
Breaking from the mould was the Austin A40 Pro Street-style woody Portable Bonfire belonging to Craig Coates from the Central Coast. Fresh from a ground-up restoration, the little Buick V6-fed terror packed a T350 auto, plenty of handmade timber work, L300 front-end and Centura diff into a tiny, lightweight package that will soon be terrorising the Nostalgia Drags in Sydney.
Craig snared one of three Virgin Van awards, along with John Holton’s orange GAMBLR Sandman and Darren Bird’s ’74 Escort, Invincible.
A distinctive ride was an EJ van that rolled modern Tiger Gold paintwork in with a hot 186, spats, and a few louvres for an interesting blend of styles.
Another van from less-than-common stock was an immaculate XY GT pano, built in October ’71 for a Ford executive. The current owner, Lyn Hood, brought it down from Qld and proudly showed off all the original GT options, including the drool-worthy 351 K-code mill and funky Wild Violet paint.
However, it wasn’t all stove-hot V8s; several period-perfect vans were on show, including a rare FJ baker’s van sitting near PROCS J, the tunnel-rammed 283-powered V8 humpy of Colin and Annette Proctor. The bright red pano which had made the trip from Warragul, Vic, was a big-hitting show van back in the day and proved its high quality by taking second in class in just about every trophy category it was eligible for.
New-age full-size vans were represented by the thoroughly pimped TUFBUS VW Transporter. Troy Skidmore and his crew had a double bed, polished timber flooring, TV and even a mini-bar to keep them entertained at the showgrounds — if they weren’t already entertained by the TUFBUS girls! The judges obviously loved the set-up as well, because TUFBUS took out Best Individual Display.
There was more entertainment as Sunday wound down and the field emptied — the demolition derby cars were brought out for a knock ’em down, drag ’em out slugfest that celebrated the polar opposite of the gleaming show cars that had just been on display in the same spot.
As the day-trippers prepared to trundle back to their homes, the campers kicked back with a can in hand and started to plan the assault on Caboolture on Qld’s Sunshine Coast for the 2007 Van Nationals.
1. Hadyn & Lisa Rowley, XC Falcon
“We drove here from South Oz; it was around 1800km one way. We went through Hamilton, Melbourne, Wangaratta, up to Gosford, then three hours up the road to where we are now,” says Hayden. “The van has a 351 Cleveland, electric dash, swivel boat seats — we pull them out to sleep in the back as we decided it was enough to bring one vehicle to the Van Nats. The concept of a panel van was to go somewhere and sleep in the back. I borrowed my dad’s camper trailer one year but it’s more comfortable in the van.”
“The XC was Top Van four years in a row before we retired it,” says Lisa, “but we still put it on display.”
“I spent 10 years putting it together. It’s proved to be quite reliable: the first show was ’98, and we’ve driven it to every Van Nats except Gympie when we drove it to Melbourne and put it on a train to Qld. Now it’s just about enjoying it. We cruise it every now and again back home but it hurts me to display it with stone chips,” Hayden says.
“I was conceived at the Van Nats! Mum and Dad are with the Vandits club and we go every year — this is my 10th event. The best thing is that we get to meet new people and see the vans — they’re so cool!”
2. Dorso, white HG
“The first Nats I went to was Mildura in ’75. I formed Vans On The Run in Geelong in ‘76, and from then I only missed one in 30-odd years. Back then I had a white HG like this one, and 15 years later it turned into Foxy Lady, painted pink, with a chopped roof and the works. This is more of a daily driver. I’ve got a couple of kids now so I put the second row seats in the back.
“I’ve got power steering, power windows all that stuff ready to go on. You keep tinkering; nothing is ever finished. The difference between vanners and other enthusiasts is that vanners camp out. We’ve got a bar, pool table and flashing lights — we’ve been doing that since ’84–’85. You’ve also got people from WA, SA and I’m from Torquay in Vic, so we come from all over!”
3. Fres, the Fresident of Proceedings, WB Caprice
“I’d really like to thank the sponsors, the rest of the committee, Woody, Kerry, Andy, Jodie, Sean and Ripty, all the assistants and especially my wife, Crissy. We had 72 vans on display. We actually catered for 200 people, but we fed 272 last night! Our chef had to order more food and extend in a way only a chef could! We plan two years ahead — it was pretty full-on since two years ago at Easter.
“This is my 28th Van Nationals including some in the USA and NZ. I coordinated the ’99 event with another person, so I learnt from that. Back then, he did 60 per cent and I did 40. Everyone should do it once. I’ve been told that if I do it again, I’ll need a divorce lawyer!”
4. James Ellis, Mystic Fantasy Bedford
“This is my 16th Nats in total, 15 with my club. I started the Diamond Valley Vanners after attending my first Nats as a spectator. This van hasn’t been to a Nats for 20 years — this is how they built it around 1984 and the interior is about 11 years old now. I actually know the original owner and all the subsequent owners. I said I’d buy it off him ’cos he was going to wreck it.
“The best it got was fourth best in Oz. It’s got a 173 Holden motor in it, a little girly motor. I’ve been looking to put a Windsor in it but I’ve got this, a WB, two XCs, an HJ Sandman, I just sold an XF and I also have an XC van and trailer. My fiancée is here in her van too. Guess we’ve got a few, eh?”
5. Pee Wee, Ford Escorts
“Since 2000 I haven’t had a home of my own — it burnt down. So I go to people’s houses and build cars for them. I live there for three to six months as their friend and I build them a car. I don’t watch TV, I don’t have computers, I don’t have kids or a missus. I’ve got a pano, wagon, limo, a bash car, the convertible. My mates drive my cars, everyone drives my cars, but I normally drive the limo. I’ve got PWE999 on all my cars, which has taken 10 years to get, one day I’ll get ACT, NT and Tas too.
“I built my wagon in ’86 and it was featured in Street Machine in April/May ’92. I’ve built prams and a billy-cart with lights, horns, indicators, wipers — all the stuff you need to get RTA approved! For me it’s all about letting the kids have fun and experience something new. I try to make something new for the Van Nats every year. It’s been 13 years I’ve been building toys.”
6. Jon, SMQQTH HK
“I wanted a van and being on P-plates I’m limited to a V6 for the first three years. I think it’ll eventually go to an eight. This thing is a daily driver, it doesn’t miss a day. It’s got a wagon folding seat so I can seat five. We came from Bathurst for this event.
“People appreciate it and I’ve never been pulled over in it. We did the HQ front-end, HQ brakes and wheels. On top of that, it has been completely engineered right down to the tyre size and width.”
7. Fred Greenslade, MYTHICAL XC
“This is the second year we’ve brought this across from WA. Fuel was $1200 just getting here — the 351 is a bit thirsty! We’re pretty happy with prices over here ’cos premium unleaded is $1.70 per litre out on the Nullabor! Our first Van Nationals was in ’85.
“We haven’t been to all of them but we’ve made a few. In ’89 we dragged six or seven vans with us in a big convoy. I’m a Ford man through and through, I’ve had this four years and had a Transit for a while. I’m in Just Crusin’ Car Club, so it’s fairly regularly driven!”
8. Crazie Bob, Jacksonville, Florida
“I won this entry on eBay. I last came to Australia ages ago — I like your country. I’ve been to England, Finland, Holland, Germany, Norway and now Australia. In England they’ve got a lot of panels like here, while the rest of Europe has mostly full-size vans. Chevs, Astrovans, Fords and … you know. This is not really a hobby, it’s just what I enjoy being around.
“I work and save up my time off and eventually when I get too much I take a holiday with that overtime and come to van events. It’s not like it was back in the 1970s but it’s getting back there. There are very few small panels [like Kingswoods/Falcons] in America and the US Van Nationals gets 500-700 vans turn up. We do the same games and kids’ activities — make it good for the families — and we also have it at a fairground. We usually have a different band every night and the ages vary from young to old.”