John Viles creates the ultimate surf wagon with his custom 1949 Ford Single Spinner Woody
This article on John’s Ford Woody van was originally published in the February 2014 issue of Street Machine
JOHN Viles grew up in the 1950s in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches. When he was 10 the family moved away from the coast, but as soon as he got his licence John was back down the beach everyday in his Ford XP panel van with his surfboard. He soon swapped the XP for a HJ Sandman and as the years rolled on, marriage and kids saw surfing fall by the wayside. But his love for panel vans, utes and commercial vehicles of any type stayed with him. In the late 90s, John toyed with a couple of single spinner Ford utes in various shades of disrepair, but couldn’t get motivated and sold them off.
Over the next five years John bought, built and sold other cars, but there was one he kept – a 1:24 model of 1949 Ford single spinner woody station wagon on his mantle piece, which he took out of its box to look at and dream.
John didn’t know of any ’49 woodies in Australia, but going by what he saw in Yank magazines, if there were they’d cost mega bucks. “I’d been looking in American magazines and the ones which had been done up and modified were going for over a hundred grand,” he says. “There’s no way I could afford to buy a car like that.”
But he could build one. He tracked down a ’49 ute body and its chassis that he had sold off previously and bought it back. This was in 2007 and he had a plan: it was just a ‘small’ matter of turning it into a station wagon.
John is a motor trimmer and knows what car builders can do. It would require somebody with skill and vision. Somebody like panel-beater and spray painter Garry Ward.
“I called Garry and said, ‘I’ve come up with a silly idea – do you reckon we can build a woody?’” John recalls.
Garry Ward’s a veteran rodder who’s been building cars professionally for 20 years. He could tell this was going to be a tough job. “I knew it could be done, but it was kind of, oh yeah, this is a challenge,” Garry says.
That’s because they weren’t starting with a woody. What they had was a ute in three pieces – the chassis, the body from the cab to the bonnet and the tray. It was decided to cut the cab so only the cowl and windscreen forward remained. This and the bare chassis rails were all they had.
“We used the little model as a guide to give us an idea of the lines. We’d sit it on the roof of the big woody as we worked.” says John.
They started with the chassis. A Jag front end went in and the diff was built, then it was airbagged to get it sitting low on the wheels. Next was the body.
“We had to get a roof,” John says. “We went to the wreckers and found a HR Holden station wagon.” They hacked the lid off that and mocked up the roofline so they could picture where the rear pillars and tailgate would be. Then they hit a hurdle.
“It was three quarters of an inch too narrow,” John says. “We thought about splitting it down the middle and pushing it out but decided to move the windscreen pillars in.”
The pillars also got a 3-inch chop and were slanted back. Garry tried to cut and extend the original doors but found that without their skins they weren’t rigid. The solution was to cut them off at the hinges and build new door frames.
Before they started on the sides they focused on the tailgate, which they nicked from the HR.
From here Garry built the frame that the wood would screw onto. “Building the frame for the wood was the most challenging part,” says Garry. “You’re working on three levels. You’ve got your painted level. Then you’ve got the dress timber – and that has to stay level with the paint but that’s 20mm thick and then you have the ply level, so you have to come in an inch.” The wood, you need to remember, is not a veneer; it’s the panel of the car.
The frame was built and John attached ply to see what it might look like. That’s when he decided that it should be a pano, not a wagon.
While John and Garry were wrestling with the body, a 351Cleveland was being rebuilt by Manuel Cambourakis from Wyong Performance. A C6 transmission came out of an old F100 along with the 9in diff and driveshaft.
By October 2012 it was ready to paint.
“I gave Garry the opportunity,” John says, “but he said he didn’t want to because he didn’t have a spray booth and he knew I wanted something a little bit better, so the job went to Merv Hardimon in Morisset.”
When the car was ready for the wood John chose Huon pine for the timber borders and Hoop pine ply for the large inset pieces. Crafting the wood was the suitably named Justin Wood from Mangrove Mountain. The car went to Justin’s workshop and then John began to lose interest. “I’d had enough. I wanted a break,” he says. So he built a Model A roadster pick-up, with Garry’s help. It didn’t stop there.
“Next minute he’s building a jailbar Ford pick-up!” Garry laughs. “I swore at him and said, buy one more project and I quit.”
Needing a deadline they aimed for Motorex 2013. Putting his motor trimming skills into action, John produced the outstanding interior. Italian leather wraps the 1964 Thunderbird seats, the door and steering wheel.
It was a race to the finish but when the doors opened at Motorex last year, John’s woody was there, sitting on its sandy island display with its green paint, chrome and wood gleaming.
The Smart-Shift push button electronic shifter continues the futuristic old Ford
“I couldn’t believe I’d made it. I was watching people looking and talking about car. One bloke pointed at the wood and said to his mate, ‘That’s great airbrushing,’ and I said, ‘Nah mate, that’s real wood.’”
John’s woody went on to win the Custom Cruiser Pinnacle Award and the Silver Medal for Impact and Display in the Street Elite Class.
After receiving their awards, John and Garry were asked what they planned to do with the car. “We answered at the same time: ‘We’re going to drive the wheels off it!’” John laughs. “The reaction you get when you’re driving is great, people wave and honk their horns. The car’s starting to loosen up. I haven’t given it a good hard run yet.”
That’ll happen in April when John drives it to Tasmania for the Street Rod Nationals. “It’s not going to be parked in the garage, it’s get it out and wear it out,” says John.