WHEN the van craze all but died in the late 80s, a few vanners kept the dream alive. One of the stalwarts was Steve Dobson and his HT Belmont panel van, Midnight Express.
Bought in the mid-70s, the ex-Radio Rentals TV repair van was the perfect basis for a show ’n’ go machine and go-kart hauler. But it wasn’t long before Steve began to make his mark.
“My good friend Bernie Taylor had a prizewinning Falcon van called Cosmic Mermaid. After helping him prep it for a display, I was bitten by the show bug and got stuck into the HT.
“I was a huge fan of Robert Knott’s FC van from Tasmania that went by the names Today’s Paint and Screwsville, and its influence can be seen on Midnight with the flares and mild custom styling.”
Andy Capp Customs took care of the metalwork, while the black with blue pearl paint was applied by Radar Customs. The murals by Kit Chambers are regarded by the wider vanning community as being some of the best to ever grace a panel van; an honour that evolved by going against the vanning grain.
“I was keen to make the artwork more family friendly. The norm for panel vans was naked chicks or blood-soaked warriors slaying evil creatures, so I chose the locomotive concept as it evoked a feeling of strength and power. Kit actually based it off a Hornby model train!” Steve laughed. “Midnight Express was a hit movie at the time, so a combination of the two became the theme for the rest of the build.”
The Ford parts bin was looted for a GT bonnet skin, fuel cap, mirrors and XC GXL headlamps, with the latter used in conjunction with an Austin Kimberley grille (remember those?). Thrush sidepipes and a crushed velvet interior keep it pure panel van, while period Aunger mags filled the guards nicely.
The 161 and three-on-the-tree made way for a tunnel-rammed 253 and four-speed, all detailed in aqua after an initial build in red. Brakes, suspension and an LSD rear were sourced from a wrecked HK GTS Monaro.
Midnight Express stayed in this guise for more than 20 years, covered a heap of road miles and scored a feature in Street Machine (Jan/Feb ’86), but it couldn’t last for ever.
“In 1998 I was shifting to Perth and was at a crossroads with the van. I didn’t think I’d be able to register it there and I couldn’t bear to sell it in case it got trashed, so I donated it to the National Motor Museum. I knew it would be maintained as it was, which was really important to me, and would stake a claim for the influence of vanning in Australia.”
And Steve couldn’t happier. A stint at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney was hugely popular and since its return to SA it has been a mainstay for the array of vehicles that are displayed — federal pollie Alexander Downer even got behind the wheel to help open a new wing of the museum.
“I’ve been out of the scene for a while but when I see photos of Midnight Express I get keen to build a modern version with another HT,” says Steve. “Either that or find and restore Robert Knott’s FC that got me inspired all those years ago!