I’ve been reflecting a lot on my car life lately, thinking about vehicular loves lost and those still strong, and gently pondering the cases where I may have got it all wrong – the times where the continual evolution of a project somehow made it less fun to use.
First published in the January 2024 issue of Street Machine
You know the deal: you wind up with a $40K engine you’re too scared to lean on for fear of failure, or a $20K paintjob that seems merely to be a magnet for wayward fools to scratch. Depending on your point of view, those figures will feel either light-on or way over the top, and personally, I think I fall into the latter category.
Years of trial and error have afforded me skills as something of a jack-of-all-trades, able to tackle all manner of mechanical, paint and panel, electrical and upholstery tasks myself. This has ultimately kept most of my projects on budget, but even so, just the sheer commitment of time and effort can sometimes dull the most important element of car building: the fun.
I was reflecting on just that topic over a few beverages with some mates recently, and talk turned to one of my old cars, a VF Valiant Safari wagon we dubbed ‘The Brown Hornet’.
A mere $100 scored me this Regal wagon back in 2000 – cheap even back then – and although shabby inside and out, it was an honest old girl that boasted such luxuries as a disc-brake front end, and a super-clean plenum area and driver’s chassis rail – the holy grail when it comes to a Valiant purchase.
Its only real drawback was that it sported the world’s smokiest slant-six. Mash the pedal and it was seriously like a bushfire emitting from the exhaust; you’d swear that the downturned tailpipe was painting a line of oil on the road! As for the engine itself, I had never seen blow-by like it before out of the oil cap and PCV valve! You’d pull up at a set of lights and smoke would just waft across the intersection from under the engine bay. With that oil cap off, it’d chug smoke like a 1980s dad!
That said, in true slant-six form, it would still pull a mean pro-peg burnout from the right rear tyre, and run a grey pipe (the measure of a good tune in the old days of leaded fuel) with light throttle on the highway.
I managed to improve the car’s city manners by fitting a non-venting oil cap and channelling the smoky blow-by from both this and the PCV back through the port of the carb via a T-piece and some garden hose. This, along with some 40-70-grade oil and two bottles of Stop Smoke, kept the monkey off my back while I saved some coin to freshen up a new donk.
The paint was pretty rough, and there were plenty of dings and crow’s feet, but it polished up okay. The driver’s door was stoved in, however, so I picked up a white $40 special from the old Symons Wreckers at Redcliffe, and, as I was working at a sign shop at the time, I designed and cut out a Felix the Cat to adorn it. I laid down some second-hand household carpet to cover the bare floors, and sorted the car’s stance with a decent lowering. I was now ready to hit the streets.
We had so much fun with it in this guise; it was a party car and town cruiser that you could park anywhere and not even tell if it got damaged. It laughed at hailstorms and repelled fellow commuters with its homeless appearance, while a blast of full throttle would smokescreen anyone stupid enough to tailgate me.
My favourite memory of the car was when I was heading to my sister Jacquie’s 30th birthday party on swanky Park Road in the Brisbane suburb of Milton. With the bench seats jammed full of people and a couple more even stuffed into the cargo area, we scored pole position at La Dolce Vita café in front of the Ferrari that was always there – a total fluke of a park on a really busy Saturday night.
I swear the whole place stopped in horror as they watched me perfectly reverse-park this Uncle Buck-spec, heavily smoking, rattling, brown piece of shit (wankers didn’t call cars like these ‘classics’ back then) into the spot in front of the Ferrari. We all hopped out laughing, leaving the ol’ wagon with the windows down and running-on for the next three seconds, vomiting backspin smoke out of the engine bay. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Eventually, I fitted a VG front to the VF and converted it to Hemi-six power, before painting it flat black, which was kind of cool in its own way. I later added flames, which saw it draw even more attention, but of a totally different kind – I was now starting to give a shit about this car! I felt myself falling into that trap of not wanting to park it anywhere safe, let alone seedy – those flames took me hours to mask – and the thought of an interior filled with cherry-burning cigarettes and open container spills now filled me with horror.
A little while later, I reimagined it again in fresh, clean, virginal white as a stock-looking cruiser, before selling it to fund the VF hardtop that would become ‘Old Daze’.
Looking back, I wish I’d just left the VF exactly as it was when it was ‘The Brown Hornet’, apart from the Hemi-six and VG grille conversion.
I did buy it back a couple of years later, but I needed cash to buy a house, so I just tidied it up and moved it on.
I’ll never forget the good times though, and consider them priceless memories. And whenever I’m thinking of pulling the ‘rebuild’ trigger on one of my rides that I know is already perfect the way it is, I always think back to the lessons learned from my time with this great old girl.