Aaron Gregory’s Memphis Hell wins SMOTY 2020

We ambush Aaron Gregory with the coveted Valvoline Street Machine of the Year trophy, before sitting him down for a chinwag

Videographers: Joseph Hui

BUILT in a mad three-month thrash, Aaron Gregory’s ’51 Chev ute, dubbed Memphis Hell, first broke cover at MotorEx 2012 and was promptly put to work cruising up and down the east coast of Oz. All those road miles didn’t stop it from making two visits to the Summernats Top 60 and scoring a swag of other tinware at shows all over the country.

Aaron’s treated the truck to five genre-busting rebirths since then, most recently chopping both the roof and the hand-made tub and reinventing it as a corner-carving, pro touring marvel.

Off the back of that rebuild, it scored another feature in Street Machine and qualified as a Valvoline Street Machine Of The Year finalist – and then you lot voted it the most popular street machine of 2020!

So we hatched a plot to ambush Aaron with his fiancée Mia and a bunch of his mates at his workshop, Memphis Hell Custom Vehicle Builders. Then, once the photography was done and the celebratory drinks had started flowing, we cornered him for a chat.

Congratulations on winning the 2020 Valvoline Street Machine of the Year, Aaron! Is the win sinking in?

The rums are sinking in, that’s for sure! I really didn’t expect to be nominated for a second time, eight years after the car debuted and up against an epic field of cars. I didn’t see this one coming, and I don’t think I’ll fully process what’s happened until later tonight, at the earliest.

“Wait, that isn’t for me – are you serious?” Aaron’s reaction was one of pure disbelief. Only seconds before he’d been talking about powdercoating parts for a customer’s truck when Broads walked through the door to tell him he’d won SMOTY 2020

You ran a strong campaign on social media, though it was unconventional…

I figured I didn’t have a hope in hell against the other nominees, so I just took the piss. I played to my strengths, which was driving and using my car, but I enjoyed being cheeky about it. How many other SMOTY contenders were picking up toilet paper in their nominated car? So I figured I’d video all that. [laughs]

With Lowe Fabrications at the other end of the driveway, Chubby and Jason came up to congratulate Aaron on the win, along with SM’s Joseph Lenthall and Negative Camber member Brett Williams

Why do you think your car resonated so strongly with people?

It’s wild; I was getting messages on social media from people I didn’t know telling me they’d voted for me because I drive my car, or they saw my car out driving. I didn’t build it to win trophies, but I think people like seeing it at interstate shows being used and driven. If I’ve had a bad week at work, the only thing that gets me out of that headspace is jumping in the truck and finding a twisty road or freeway to blast.

As soon as the driving was done, Aaron wasted no time in slugging a tin of his favourite sugarcane champagne into the trophy and knocking it back, though he discovered fellow Negative Camber car club member Russell had already loaded another tube with Bundy beforehand!

Does winning SMOTY feel a bit like vindication for mini-truckers?

Winning SMOTY is a great thing for me because mini-truckers get boo-hooed all the time, but have a look at what shops mini-truckers are running and the cars they’re turning out – Ryan Carter at United Speed Shop, Graeme Brewer up at Down Town Kustoms, Michael Ellard at Image Conversions, Pete Lamb at Melomotive and Brendan Carroll at Car Builders – and me here!

“I get offended when people call it a show car, or ask where I have towed it from,” said Aaron. “It’s a car; you drive it. I don’t understand people who look at it when it’s parked and laid out and say things like: ‘Oh, you can’t even drive it.’ Well how did I get it there?”

How did you get started with cars?

I grew up sailing and racing boats in Ocean Grove, Victoria, so I got my qualifications as a boat builder and spent 10 years working in that field. I went to the World Sailing titles in Canada in my early 20s, and there was a ’bagged Chevy Silverado laid out in a car park that really got my attention. I came back home and bought a Rodeo. I got hooked up with the mini-truck crowd after building that, and some of those guys worked at the Holden Design Studio, which led to me getting a job building concept cars. I was there right at the end of the VE program, so we did the Sportwagon, the GMC Denali, a four-door Chevy truck, and the Chevy Orlando, which went to the Paris Motor Show.

Aaron gave special thanks to his fiancée, Mia Faltus, for being tolerant of his many late nights at work and for not throwing codes like a cheap Renault when he spends money on the truck. “I left my job at DW Customs in Melbourne to come to Sydney for her, and I’m still here!”

Where did you go after GM?

I ended up working with Chad Forward at DW Customs in Melbourne, and from there I came up to Sydney chasing my now-fiancée Mia, which led to working with Laurie Starling at the Chop Shop for four years. In 2015 I opened my doors as Memphis Hell Custom Vehicle Builders to finish a couple of big builds we’d started at Chop Shop: Chris Willett’s HT Kingswood (SM, Nov ’15) and Johnno’s FJ20-powered Escort.

No less than five minutes after being handed the trophy and being congratulated by everyone, Aaron pulled the Chev into his workshop, sat the trophy on the bonnet, and let ’er rip, ’tater chip with a celebratory shed skid

How did boat building help you with cars?

Planning and organising. When building a boat you need to get the mould set up before you lay the fibreglass down. You need to think ahead and make sure it’s all going to work. You can’t cut it out and weld a new piece in. If you stuff up, you lose another 24 hours of curing time. When I did the truck’s roof chop in three days, I looked for ways to make that as quick and easy as possible, so that’s why we did two-tone paint. I couldn’t afford to lose a paying customer’s spot in my shop for weeks, so I had to be efficient and plan.

The truck has picked up a lot of attention with its pro touring/race truck rebuild last year. Was that always where you wanted it to go?

Me and a few mates talked about building V8, short-wheelbase, single-cab Rodeos as little race cars, so the race theme on commercial vehicles goes back years. I had an ’89 Rodeo for a chassis and a VP Commodore for the drivetrain, but then this truck popped up on OzRodders for $1500, and the ’48-54 Chev truck was always a bucket-list car for me, so I scrapped the race ute idea.

“I really want to thank Valvoline and Street Machine for putting all this together, as I feel it lifts car builders to have a crack to get in the mag, and then try to win awards like this,” said Aaron. “Obviously, I need to thank my fiancée Mia, Scotty Barter from Oxytech, Damien ‘Chubby’ Lowe from Lowe Fabrications, Laurie Starling of course, my car club Negative Camber, and all my family friends who have supported me”

It was never meant to be a shiny two-time Top 60 Elite truck, right?

Originally it was meant to be flat black on 15-inch steel wheels and just be a streeter I could drive the wheels off. Along the way it turned out way nicer than I ever intended, but I still drive the wheels off it because I can. The most fun I have is driving my truck. I hate washing cars; I hate cleaning cars. If the truck has sat in the shed for a few weeks I get pissed off and need to take it for a blast.

Aaron’s win was an emotional one when thoughts turned to his best friend and former boss, the late, great Laurie Starling. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Laurie and I can’t thank him enough. How lucky can I be as a boat builder to have worked with a guy with those talents?” he said. The ‘Laurie Pose’ was an important moment to remember a mate who would have loved to be there to see Aaron lift the SMOTY trophy

Is that useability a cornerstone of the cars rolling out of the Memphis Hell shop?

For my customers, I am all about building cars they can enjoy. I want to build cars that have road manners, handle and perform. I’d like to do more serious pro tourer builds, something designed and engineered to have radically improved handling, steering and braking. I try to only have three projects in the shop at one time: one long-term and two shorter-term cars. Working by myself, things take a lot longer as there isn’t a team of people. At the moment I have a waiting list of about two years ahead of me, so things are going well.

Aaron’s good mate Scotty Barter lined up a fine furphy to ensure he brought the Chev to work and had some time free, in preparation for Broads, Aaron’s fiancée Mia and a bunch of his mates to surprise him with the SMOTY trophy and the cheque for 20,000 smackeroonies from our friends at Valvoline

Now you have that $20,000 cheque from Valvoline, what’s next on the list for the Chev?

I’d like some more horsepower – maybe a Harrop supercharger and a Haltech ECU – and to refine the suspension to make it better at track days. If I can drive five hours down the freeway at 110km/h then beat on it for two hours at the track and drive it home again, that would be the ultimate fun level for me.

The Chev isn’t the first SMOTY winner Aaron has been involved with. “My parents were on a round-Australia trip and saw Henry Parry’s Old Love FB that we built at the Chop Shop (SMOTY 2014, Summernats 27 Grand Champion) parked in the car park of the local supermarket in Nyngan in outback NSW, all dirty and used. That’s what we built them for: to enjoy them!”

Where would you like to take it next?

I’ve done a few trips with Leon Davies from Big L’s Chop Shop near Melbourne (SM, Aug ’18) and we’re keen to drive across the Nullarbor. He’s done Red CentreNATS, and I’d love to drive my truck there!