Taildragger Kustom Invitational 2024

Michael Morris is on a mission to make customs great again

Photographers: Ben Hosking

It ain’t easy being a traditional custom car builder in Australia. Beyond starting with a car that’s at least 60 years old, there’s a mountain of work in chopping roofs and reshaping panels on top of all the usual car-modding challenges. Build times are long, and the results are rarely the most comfortable or practical cars on the road. But they sure do look the part, especially when they’re strutting their stuff in company around NSW’s Central Coast for things like the Taildragger Kustom Invitational.

First published in the April 2024 issue of Street Machine

60 cars and 135 entrants descended on the Canton Beach Holiday Park for the inaugural event, organised by Michael Morris – the guy behind the popular Donut Derelicts park-up each month at Tuggerah. Impetus for the Invitational came after the demise of the Kustom Nationals at Phillip Island a few years ago; pickings have since been slim for custom car enthusiasts looking to share their love with others.

“I own hot rods as well, but I’ve always loved customs,” Michael said. “I run a thing called The Test Run: an annual reliability run for period-correct, pre-’36 traditional hot rods. We decided a year ago to do a custom thing based on a similar format but not as big a cruise; The Test Run is 190km in one day. Customs are less comfortable, and they can be like ovens when it’s hot.” Michael and his band of merry helpers thus planned a shorter afternoon cruise, lasting just an hour and a half but taking in all the Central Coast has to offer, preceded by a private park-up on the Tuggerah Lake foreshore and followed by a more public display at Donut Derelicts the next morning.

“In theory, a traditional custom is from a ’35 Ford up to [cars from] the mid-60s,” Michael explained. He’s willing to bend the year rules for the right car, though, like Paul Vanzella’s 1968 Dodge Polara – one of two cars in attendance built by the late Californian custom guru Richard Zocchi. Traditional customs are the wild-looking ones often inspired by the genre-setting, Barris-built 1950 Hirohata Mercury. Builders chop roofs, section and channel bodies, french this, nose that and smooth everything else. “We also opened the event up to mild customs,” Michael said, referring to cars built to traditional 50s or 60s styling but with less-radical body mods. “They’re still cool cars; still customs – [Australia]’s not like America where they’ve got 10,000 chopped Mercs. I did have to knock back a few cars that didn’t fit the criteria; it’s hard to do that to people, but everyone else is appreciative of that.”

The second Zocchi car belonged to Andy Collalillo: a stunning 1956 Continental Mark II that was on its first long cruise after a major mechanical upgrade. “It’s an amazing location and it’s really good to have proper traditional customs all in the one spot,” he said, “as well as making for a good little family holiday.”

James Chisholm concurs. He’s got a few cars, including a chopped and ’bagged ’54 Chev Bel Air hardtop he trailered up from Melbourne. “Custom cars and lowriders are a minority group in the Australian car scene,” he said. “A lot of custom car events in Melbourne have finished, which is why a lot of the cars here this weekend are from Victoria. Back in the day when John’s Rod & Custom had the Kustom Nationals, dudes in Melbourne were building cars to take to that show.

“I like customs because they’re all different. I’m not really a classic or muscle car guy; if you go to a show and there’s 12 GT Falcons there, they’re pretty much all alike. Here, no two cars are the same.”

Other standout trad customs that caught our eye included Paul McKennariey’s 1948 Hudson, Jason Kennedy’s 1950 Ford single-spinner, Michael Morris’s own 1949 Chev, Richard Dabbs‘s incredible, Caddy-powered 1951 Mercury and the famous two-door FJ Holden Draggin’ Coupe (see more below), now owned by John Trunzo.

While some entrants trailered their cars from distant parts, Steve Shorten from Parkes brought his red and yellow-flamed ’53 Chev under its own steam. He cruises the car every chance he gets, usually towing a caravan. “Dave Hart from the Central Coast built it as an everyday driver and it’s done more than 250,000km,” Steve said. “Since I bought it five years ago, it’s done over 50,000km towing the van. We mostly do hot rod events; they knocked the Kustom Nats on the head a few years ago so this is the start of something new. We’ll come again for sure.” We had to ask if he and wife Narelle had considered a vintage, period-correct caravan to match. “I haven’t got that much money,” he laughed. “50s caravans are worth as much as the cars!”

Other long-haulers included Scott Dohnt, who drove his ’53 Chev from Adelaide; even a broken ball joint on the Hay Plains wasn’t enough to stop him. Another shout-out goes to 19-year-old Lincoln Camilleri, who drove his mild-custom ’64 Thunderbird from Melbourne. “I drove up after work on Wednesday with a mate, Aaron, from Misled Youth,” Lincoln said. “I bought the Thunderbird a couple of years ago to drive to school and stuff and had it while I was doing Year 12. I was born into it: Mum’s got a ’32 coupe and Dad’s got a few hot rods and customs. I’m also building a ’34 three-window and a ’58 Edsel.”

Everyone was up for the cruise in the afternoon – air-conditioned ride or not – including entrants who were visiting the Central Coast for the first time. The route took the posse to The Entrance, home of ChromeFest, and followed the coast to Terrigal. The town is something of a cool car magnet on any given weekend, but it had never seen anything like this. It’s one thing to see 60 customs chilling in a lakeside park, but quite another to see them rumbling past in endless groups of three or four, right next to the ocean. Drivers then proceeded over the Rip Bridge to Woy Woy and the scenic Brisbane Water Drive to Ourimbah for dinner, and then back to Canton Beach. Mercury Montclair owner De-Troy Smith summed it up for most, describing the show itself as a bonus. “The driving is the fun part!”

Afterwards, we caught up with Michael Morris at Donuts to get his verdict. “It was a bit of a mission, but it turned out really good; everyone’s been pumped saying how much they’ve had a great time,” he said. “The cruise was good, and long enough in a custom on what was a stinking-hot day. We’ll make it a biennial event –customs take so long to build, so it gives people two years to build their cars. And these guys will tell other guys, so it could be a lot bigger and better next time, but not too big.

“It was a great weekend – everyone’s friendly and has the same mindset about traditional custom cars. Our motto is to make customs great again.”


Barris influence at the Invitational was no more evident than in this ’52 Ford Victoria owned by Neil Sims from Wagga Wagga. “It was originally built by George Barris in 1960,” Neil said. “This one’s had everything done to it; it’s one full-custom car.

A lot of people look at it and ask, ‘What is it?’ Some say Chevy, some say Ford – most can’t get it.” Neil is a longtime hot rodder who has owned this car for two years and spent most of that time working on it, including refurbishing most of the undercarriage. Wife Tracey gets around in a ’59 Oldsmobile.


Steve Ide’s oh-so-green, trad-style ’50 Ford is a fresh build with a cool family backstory. “This is my first custom,” Steve said. “It was a father-and-son project. My dad’s a hot rodder; he pushed me along with it. It was an American import and it’d had the rough chop.

It’s just a backyardy built in the shed, which took us four years. We got a spraypainter to do the finish coat, but everything else was done in-house. Some of the die-hard Ford guys have some words about the 350 Chev, but it’s what it came with. It’s also got air-conditioning, which came in handy on the way up from the South Coast.”


The Draggin’ Coupe FJ is an OG icon of the Aussie custom scene. Built by Ian Bradley, the car was made famous on the show and drag scenes by Lance Simmers. It was lovingly restored in the mid 2000s by John Trunzo (SM Hot Rod 10).


“My mate Mark brought it in from the US in 1994; just a shell out of a paddock,” Craig Fountain said of his ’50 Buick Sedanette. “When I went to look at it, I fell in love straight away. The flat tyres had it sitting on the deck, and I thought, ‘That’s how it’s got to look.’ I wanted to do a 50s custom, so we chopped the roof 3 1/2 inches, which was quite a big task being a fastback.

We lengthened the front fenders, frenched the headlights, reshaped the back with ’59 Cadillac taillights, handmade all the stainless side moulds and lakes pipes, and Mark painted it for me.” The Buick hit the road in 1997 and has been cruising ever since.

“I’ve got a hot rod and a muscle car and a 50s cruiser; I’ve got everything,” Craig said. “The 50s custom cars are my favourite, but they’re such a big task to build compared with a hot rod. This one will never leave the stable.”


There is nothing traditional about Brad Power’s ‘Iron Lung’. Built in Mackay in 1947 by a would-be aircraft manufacturer and alleged inventor of an iron lung, it sat unfinished and abandoned in a Queensland farm shed for decades. It was made from steel on a 1940 Chev truck chassis and powered by an inline six.

“The cockpit is from a [WWII fighter-bomber] Mosquito, which is why it has 11/2in-thick bulletproof glass,” said Brad, proprietor of Cool Az Hot Rod Shop in Tuggerah. “I’ll mechanically update it and it will have some sort of rego – just enough to drive into shows.”


Aaron Bray and Jess McGlynn travelled up from the Southern Highlands with their kids, Halle and Ace, in Aaron’s wild FB wagon (SM Hot Rod 17). “It started as a lavender four-door,” he said. “I chopped it up and made it into a two-door and decided to make things a bit pointier and more futuristic.”

Lengthened front doors are topped with rear-door upper sections, and the roof features Nomad-style lines. “It has FC/FE glass in the very rear, flat glass in front of that and ’55 Vicky trim down the side,” Aaron said. “I built it in 10 months, and it’s been on the road for 10 years now.”


Echuca’s Damian Lewis bought his ’50 single-spinner as a very unfinished project from America, 12 years ago. “The chop was there, but not completed; it had no glass, no front, no interior,” he said. “It was rusty but it came up really good, so I ended up leaving it like it was.

It had a bit of lead-wiping by an older panel beater. Not many do it now; I used Gibbs Brand oil to finish it.” Damien appreciates Michael’s efforts in organising the event. “He did well to attract all our sorts of cars and get such a good turnout for a first one,” he said.


Paul McKennariey’s world-famous, QLD-built ’48 Hudson has graced covers of magazines across the globe, and has roadtripped extensively in both Australia and the US.

More highlights:

1. Lincoln Camilleri drove his ’64 Thunderbird up from Melbourne for a 2000km trip! “It’s a static drop, which is probably my favourite bit of it,” he said. “It rides pretty hard.” Lincoln is also an accomplished pinstripe artist and part of the Misled Youth car club.

2. “It was someone’s unloved project in America they’d given up on,” said De-Troy Smith of his elegant and rare 1956 Mercury Montclair. “It’s been an awesome event – nice and cruisy with unreal-calibre cars.”

3. Andrew Smith of Smith’s Kustoms has been flying the custom-lifestyle flag for over 20 years, both with his own builds and his pinstriping and illustrations. His Chevy panel truck is a rare beast. “There’s not too many ’52 panels around, maybe 10 in Australia that I know of,” he said. “It’s been a great weekend; hats off to Mick for putting it on.”

4. James and Kendal Chisholm brought this ’54 Bel Air, which James imported from California in 2012. “I’ve had a heap of cars,” he said. “I bring them in from the States, drive them for a year and then let them go, but I’m not selling this one.”

5. Mickey Moon’s ’38 Nash is a rare bird – the only one curently rego’d in NSW.

6. Jason Kennedy’s ’50 Ford features work by some of the best in the biz, including a roof chop by BMV, clean trim by Northcoast Custom Trim, LS drivetrain and airbag suspension by Memphis Hell, and wild flamed paint by KDS Designs.

7. The ‘longest distance travelled’ gong went to Scott Dohnt from Adelaide, in his purple ’53 Chev. He overcame a broken ball joint on the Hay Plain to be there.

8. Paul Vanzella’s 1968 Zocchi-built Dodge Polara on The Entrance bridge.

Michael didn’t do it all on his own, of course. He relied on his A-team to ensure the event ran like clockwork: Sue; Alex; Phoenix; Shane; Madeline; Kobie; Olivia; Brett; Renee; Al; Ellen; Ian; Billy; Norm and Ryan. Sponsors also lent their support, donating stuff for the nightly auctions to keep the event alive: Smiths Concepts; Oxygen Design; Lincoln Camilleri; Kustom Lane; Desert Speed; Moot (Evan Daines); Retrolines; Melomotive; Morris Signs; Richard Dabbs; Kool Kulture Mooneyes; Australian National Street Machine Association; Canton Beach Holiday Park (Troy, Teena and Dan); Heatherbrae Pies; Toukley Lions Club; Cruzin Cappuccino and Cool Az Hot Rods.