IN THE August ’11 30th anniversary issue of Street Machine, we printed the reader-voted Top 20 Street Machines Of All Time. The list threw up a few surprises, not least of which was Greg Mercer’s Invader 2001 van in 17th spot.
The fact that a car built during the long-defunct van craze could still capture your imagination 30 years after it appeared in the mag points to it being Australia’s most radically finished van and the epitome of the extreme styling typical of the early 80s van craze.
Like many vans, Invader’s impact was massive but short-lived. It disappeared from the show scene as quickly as it appeared, but it’s been worshipped by van aficionados ever since.
In 1980, Greg Mercer was a 23-year-old surfer when he plonked down the beans for an Atlantis Blue HZ Sandman.
“I’d been knocking about in an Escort pano for five years and enjoyed the freedom of having a van,” he says. “But I felt it was time to step it up a notch and build something to mix it with the big guns.”
The HZ was already decked out in the rear and had side pipes and murals, which gave Greg the chance to hit the ground running.
“I drove it around for four months and entered a few shows, all the while generating ideas and planning the build. The show bug bit hard at the St Ives meet and I decided then and there that it wouldn’t reappear until it was up to standard.”
The build began with work shared between Greg, some close mates and John Clifton from the now-defunct Kustom Image.
“John did the specialised cutting and forming mods but let us work on it after hours to do the menial filling and body prep tasks. This helped me save a few bucks and keep my eye in on how it was all coming together.”
The rear guards were split, widened and reshaped and Fairlane tail-lamps fitted to a custom rear bar. The wild roof spoiler was cut down from a Porsche whale-tail and an aerial was frenched into each side. Full skirts were blended into a matching pair of front guards, and the frontal treatment was finished with an L88 Corvette bonnet scoop and a modified Sceptre fibreglass nosecone from Kustom Image.
It was initially finished in dark blue but immediately redone with a heap of metallic to make it more showy. Airbrush legend Frank Lee did the first round of murals and was given free rein.
“The only theme I gave Frank was that it had to look futuristic, and true to form he managed to not only pull this off but still include his trademark topless women!”
The van was never shown in this guise; it went straight back to Kustom Image for the next round of mods.
“When it was Midnight Blue it still had the original doors, upper tailgate and roof. I wanted every panel to be altered in some way, to maintain the futuristic theme. The second visit was when the gullwing doors and custom upper tailgate were made. A lowered station wagon roof was used to replace the standard front half.” The van was refinished in a lighter shade of blue and Frank Lee was again called in for the mural work.
IN THE COCKPIT
The 308 and four-speed were retained, the motor treated to mild internals and twin Webers. The Salisbury diff was swapped out for a Jag item and the entire drivetrain was heavily detailed to match the new exterior. The interior was totally redesigned with custom front capsules for seats and a cockpit-like dash. A wild overhead console, hammered moonscape inner panelling and flickering electronics in the rear continued the futuristic theme, making the van look like it had just been delivered to earth by the Battlestar Galactica.
In less than a year, Greg and his crew had converted the van from an HZ Sandman into Invader 2001 and they hit the show scene in early ’81.
THE SHOW SCENE
“The first show we went to got totally out of control; people swamped us and the van to the point that we struggled to set the display up properly. We hid amongst the crowd when the judges came around and let them poke and prod to try and open the closed gullwing doors. Once they were sufficiently confused, I popped them remotely to the appreciation of the crowd. It was like a sideshow but was a hell of a lot of fun!”
Greg scooped the pool that day but still chatted to one of the judges for feedback on where things could be improved. “He pointed to the undercarriage and said: ‘You can start by taking the brown paper wrapping off the chromed tailshaft!’” The day was that hectic that I’d totally forgotten to do it!”
Invader featured in the Dec ’81/Jan ’82 issue of SM and later on the cover of The Best Of Van Wheels and was shown for the next 18 months before Greg started to lose faith in how the shows were being run.
“You’d smash the competition at some shows but walk away empty-handed against the same vans at others — it became clear that not all was as it seemed. You’d win certain categories but never receive the prizes, so it all got too shady for my liking.”
MISSING IN ACTION
Greg still had plans for the van, though. “I’d lined up a blown big-block Chev from the States but after that fell through combined with the show dramas, I just lost interest,” he says. “I sold it in 1983 through a caryard in Lansvale to two guys who were keen to show it. The rumour mill went into overdrive, saying I sold it because it was starting to rust and the gullwing doors were too heavy and collapsing the roof, but that was all false; it was sold in perfect show condition. The last I heard was that it was stolen from Campbelltown and the chassis and driveline were slid under a ute. The complete body was apparently left sitting on pallets.”
Thirty years on and Greg continues to own Holden V8s, an SS Commodore being his latest ride. He is humbled by the ongoing attention that Invader 2001 receives and only has a couple of regrets.
“I should have never sold it! I also wish I’d stuck with the plan to fit a blown big-block, which was why we’d left the original driveline basically stock; it really needed something through the bonnet. I reckon that engine would have finished it off perfectly and made it the type of car that people would still be sticking up on their walls today.”