Custom car builder Paul Kelly – interview

Paul Kelly's gas axe kept the flame of traditional custom car building burning bright

Photographers: Dallas Blackmore

Best known for his work on Paul McKennariey’s award-winning Hudson (SM, July ’05), Paul Kelly has been customising almost anything with wheels since the early 1970s. Besides altering countless cars in ways their manufacturers could never have imagined, Paul has worked tirelessly to preserve the history of Aussie customs with his camera and pushed the case for customising in magazines like Street & Custom, Super Street and the Newsledder.

First published in the July 2006 issue of Street Machine

He has also spread the word through countless technical articles – not only in Australian mags, but also overseas publications such as Cruisin’ (Japan), Custom Rodder (USA) and Custom Car (UK). Paul kept the faith during the years when vans, resto rods and pro streeters ruled the roost and has hung on to see the wheel of fashion has swing back in favour of old-school cool.

When did your customising life start?

When I was about 10 years old. I was into hot rod magazines and found out that one of the guys who put together Custom Rodder lived in the next suburb over from me. So I rode over there to get some back issues and found Geoff Dellow working on cars in his parents’ shed — basically the beginning of Dellow Automotive.

I hung around and after a while I got taught to use a stick welder, drill holes in brackets and eventually how to fabricate. Geoff was also instrumental in founding the Romans hot rod club and I got to meet those guys and go on runs. In those days you could see a hot rod in someone’s driveway, stick your head in the front door and ask about it. There was no ‘don’t talk to strangers’ back then. [laughs]

Where did you do your trade?

I did three years as an apprentice motor mechanic and then did my full time as a spray painter with a panel shop that did top quality work and restos. After hours, I tortured the older guys to learn the panel beating side — they wouldn’t teach me to customise but they were brilliant tradesman.

What cars did you start with?

Model cars in the beginning; I think most guys my age did that. Then I started on a T-bucket and a Model A but they didn’t really ring my bells — the custom thing was what stuck. So I got into Holdens — I’ve had at least one of every model up to HQ, including 20 FX-FJs.

What did you do with them?

A lot of mechanical stuff. I made my own disc-brake front ends and through Geoff I ran one of the first Datsun four-speed conversions in Sydney. We also ran Volvo disc-brake rear-ends — pretty unusual in the early 70s.

We’d take that car to Big Chiefs and cop a hard time for having a Jap gearbox and a Volvo diff but then you’d show them just how much punishment it could take and they’d change their tune! Geoff’s stuff changed the attitude a lot of guys had about Jap transmissions.

Where did you go from there?

A lot of it was trying to emulate what I saw in American magazines. Roof chops were always pretty rare in this country so there was no-one to teach you how to do it. Besides, no-one was interested in customs by the 70s.

My first attempt at a top-chop was with an FC. I did it the way they show you in the American books, where you cut the roof in four pieces. When I tried to put it back together it was a nightmare! So I went down to Dollar Wal’s, bought another roof and put it back to stock!

Then I did an FJ using two pieces and it worked. A little bit of information can be dangerous! It was the same with fibreglass. I read about what Ed Roth had done, so I tried it and made a shocking mess of my dad’s shed. It was never as easy as they showed it in the magazines.

What about paint?

That was trial and error, too. We did candies, flake, lace painting, panel painting and airbrush murals. I did a lot of vans, tow trucks, even stuff to hang on the wall, Star Wars scenes, the whole bit.

You had a Morris Minor fetish?

Well, that wasn’t really my fault! Most of us were into Holdens but some of my mates went on to fifth and sixth form and uni and they initially bought Morris Minors ’cos they were cheap as chips. So naturally Paul got the job of fixing them and bought a Morris van as transport.

I started doing engine and gearbox conversions for them, then brakes, sway bars and panels. That created some interest so I started making kits and Kelly Products was born. I sold that business but it’s still going strong after 26 years.

Favourite material to work with?

I hate fibreglass sometimes, but it is worth it because you can get stunning results and it’s easy to make multiples. I like working with metal — I’d never make a carpenter. I want to build a Twin Spinner woody for my daughter, but I’d do it in fibreglass and paint it in timber grain. I like working with plastics too, making custom tail lights and such.

Advice for budding customisers?

A project is always likely to cost a lot more than you originally thought. The little things like the rubbers, chrome and wiring tend to trip you up. You also need to be realistic with your aims first time out — it’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking you’re going to build the best thing ever and then get overwhelmed.

Guys think you have to strip a car back to bare metal first time out; you don’t have to. You can build a great 30-foot car that may not win any trophies but will make a big impression all the same.

Keep it a driver, do some subtle mods and see if you can handle it, and if you can, go for your life. The other big mistake I’ve made is to build a car, then pull it to bits and change it! Keep it on the road so you have something to enjoy and build another one.

Where would you turn to source material for building something different?

I look at classic British, European and Japanese cars. Mercedes, Mk 10 Jags, Toyota Crowns. Very often they are scaled down versions of American designs so they’re a great place to start. For example, a Vauxhall Cresta PA is really a miniature ’57 Buick; early Volvos look like small ’48 Fords. Forget what the marque is — look at the silhouette.

What inspires you these days?

Chip Foose’s stuff. Some of his work uses a 30s European style and I like that. I’m still influenced by guys like the Alexander Brothers — their work was so balanced and tidy. I’m lucky we were able to go to Paso Robles a couple of times and meet a good percentage of the West Coast customisers who were around in the 50s and 60s — Gene Winfield, Joe Bailon, Bill Hines, Dick Dean — the guys I read about when I was a kid. We don’t have that heritage here.

Dream car to build?

I’d love to build a clone of Tony Andrew’s Blue J to raise people’s awareness of early Australian custom cars — we had our own style and culture. They didn’t paint cars matt black with flames in the 60s! I’ve also got a thing about building cars that look factory but were never made — it plays with people’s heads.

What keeps you at it?

I can’t help it. I’m worse than an alcoholic or a gambler. My head is full of ideas but I have to rely on customers allowing you to build something you’ve got in your head. To be able to go from a mental image to a finished vehicle is the best.