LOOKING through the history of Street Machine, you have to wonder what’s happened to all of the cool cars featured or captioned across these pages. A lucky few survive unscathed, others still exist but only appear either totally reborn or battered and broken, and the majority disappear to never be seen or heard of again.
Custom panel vans have probably copped this worse than any of the other car sub-cultures. Their meteoric rise in the mid-70s was equalled by a rapid fall from grace a decade later, leaving a legacy of styling excess that became the butt of many jokes. You couldn’t walk through a wreckers in the 80s or early 90s without seeing refugee show vans stripped of their detailed drivelines, fluted guards and factory sports dashes, but desperately hanging on to their glory days with tattered crushed velvet, crusty mattresses and vandalised murals.
So it’s always exciting to discover a panel van that’s been forgotten by the mainstream to remind us of this important era of Aussie car culture.
Steve Towers’s 1970 XW Falcon van, Scorpion, was a regular on the show scene from the beginning of the van craze, and underwent some major changes as the scene evolved. He was working as a Ford mechanic on Sydney’s northern beaches when he bought the XW in 1971. “It wasn’t very old,” he explains, “but it had copped an absolute hiding in that time and was in poor condition.”
For the first build, Steve left the factory white duco but added a heap of airbrush art and patch-panelling, which was set off by the obligatory chromed steelies, bonnet scoop and roof spoiler. Everything that could be unbolted was chromed or detailed — it even had Scorpions engraved on the head bolts — and it was in this guise that it featured in an early Moove milk commercial and a pile of magazines, including Custom Vans & Trucks and Street Machine predecessor Van Wheels.
The factory six cylinder was retained but heavily modified and constantly refined over the next decade. The cast inlet manifold was machined off and a number of inlet combos tested before Steve settled on triple 48mm Webers.
The crank was offset-ground stroked, custom conrods were made to suit and the head scored extensive porting and larger valves. An owner-designed nitrous kit was added and more than a dozen different solid cams were tested.
“The motor went hard and I used to rev it to insane rpm but of course that brought out driveline weaknesses. I blew about 15 clutches in 12 months, until a speedway engineer made a clutch plate with copper pads to fix that. Then I started chewing through gearboxes until a V8 top loader was adapted. An XC Cobra LSD was eventually fitted to solve the diff troubles.”
The interior was an on-going project for Steve, and his handiwork revolved around various combinations of velvet and carpet.
“I decided to do radical interior changes for every fifth show so no-one could copy my ideas; I designed plenty of different cupboard and archway patterns to keep it looking fresh and competitive. In 1978 I smashed the front end so the time was right for some wild body mods and a respray.”
It was extremely well known in white and this makeover resulted in a totally new look that confused people who didn’t realise it was the same van.
A Concorde bodykit was bought — a design that was already making waves on its Ford show van namesake and was soon to achieve eternal coolness on the Mad Max Interceptor. To fit the XW body, Steve lengthened the bonnet then narrowed the nosecone before adding flares and a roof spoiler, which were ’glassed into place.
He and his brother-in-law, well-known drag racer and ex-vanner Lucky Belleri, applied 12 coats of metallic dark blue acrylic. That was highlighted with airbrushed flames and extra body artwork by Steve and vanning icon Rick Pacey. XY tail-lights were fitted and a massive pair of 14-inch 12-slotters were whipped up to fill the rear guards.
When Scorpion hit the show scene again, it scored a heap of tinware at various NSW & Victorian meets and was shown in this guise until the late 80s when it was traded for a tunnel-rammed XB GT.
Fast forward to 1996 and Steve was driving through Gosford when he saw the van parked in a front yard.
“The motor had been changed, the artwork was trashed, the interior was ripped out and any panels that weren’t rusted had been kicked in; it was a terrible mess. It had been dumped there by the bloke’s son but he said if I helped him do a clutch in his 4WD, the van was mine. It was soon dragged home and put to rest behind my garage — I decided that if its days were over, it was going to be on my terms.”
Look past the rust and damage and its amazing to see how many of the original features still exist — the paint colour, signage, flames and huge rear wheels are the same as when it was traded all those years ago. Even the ‘Scorpion’-engraved door handles remain. But there’s one element that could be a hopeful sign for its future; “The fibreglass work has survived virtually unscathed,” Steve says, reflectively. “Maybe I’ll buy another XW and build Scorpion 2.”