Hot rod and custom pioneer Dave Hart – interview

After half a century on the tools, local rod and custom pioneer Dave Hart can tell some wild tales

Photographers: Ben Hosking

TAKING up the tools more than 50 years ago, Dave Hart has pretty much done it all when it comes to customising cars. Mechanic, painter, ’beater and graphic artist, he has designed, built, beaten and painted countless cars, vans and bikes, and he’s still building them today.

First published in the January 2021 issue of Street Machine. Photos: Ben Hosking

Dave has a rare blend of vision and skill, which he has applied in a variety of arenas throughout his life. While he has done his fair share of your typical ’32-34 hot rods, he isn’t afraid to tackle unusual makes and models, and he can put seemingly mismatched stuff together with the best of them. He has also painted surfboards for world champions, created crazy T-shirts for his club mates, and fixed choppers for the Hells Angels!

He’s a founder member of the Northern Beaches Hot Rod Club, a veteran of the NSW Street Rod Committee, and a chronic collector of all things rod and custom.

We stopped by his Central Coast shop to have a long chat – about the only kind there is when someone has as many stories in the vault as Dave!

How did you get your start working on custom cars?

I just wanted to be a mechanic, so I got an apprenticeship with the council when I was 15, which was in 1967. I was there for the four years of the apprenticeship, although they tried to get rid of me a couple of times because I wouldn’t have a haircut. After that I bummed around the Brookvale area before partnering with Rick Pacey, starting Kustom Kreations. He was a signwriter and painter and I was the mechanic. That didn’t last long and I went and worked at an exhaust shop in Brookvale that was also big-time into drag racing.

Ben Hosking photographed a couple of Dave’s previous builds in 2011, including this ’33 roofless tourer. The car first hit the scene in 1986 as a burnt orange ’33 coupe that featured on the cover of Custom Rodder. “I pulled the car down in 1991, put a ’33 grille on it and flamed the heck out of it,” he says. “Then I pulled the body off and swapped it for a Tourer body from New Zealand. It’s the same basic chassis as the 1986 version”

What was the first car you built?

A four-door Model A sedan, which I started when I was 16. I saved up a few dollars from my council apprenticeship and bought it from a bloke in Engadine who was initially planning to restore it. I sold off the original running gear, and I didn’t realise those original bodies had a lot of wood in them. I didn’t know much about wood in those days, so I sourced a body that was mint and put all that together with a 283ci Chev, which I bought off Speedway racer Bill Warner, and a Powerglide, which was almost brand new out of a ’69 Monaro. It was one of the first Chev V8s in a hot rod in Australia.

A long-haired Dave getting some early media coverage standing in front of his first Model A four-door sedan, which he says was one of the first rods in the country to boast a Chev small-block

How did you get involved in the classic Aussie biker movie, Stone?

By 1973 I had made my mind up to get in my Model A and move to the Gold Coast. But before I had the chance to leave I got an offer to paint 15 bikes for the Stone movie. The Hells Angels somehow got the contract to do the work but didn’t even have a painter, so they set me up with a compressor in a garage in Redfern and I spent two weeks painting the bikes. I had picked up the basics of painting when working with Rick Pacey and used all the simple little tricks at the time like bubbles, fish scales and stuff like that.

Dave’s latest personal project is this 1948 Commer cab-over that he found in Dubbo. Starting with just the cab and a pair of rails from what Dave guesses was a 1920s luxury car (due to their size), he shortened the wheelbase by 30in and mounted a crate 350ci SBC he won in a raffle, a TH400 and a 9in that a mate built and widened by 4in. There’s a similarly widened Mustang II front assembly at the pointy end, and Dave is currently wiring up the cab and installing airbag suspension

How long did you end up working with the Hells Angels?

About four years. I was pushing out 12 bikes a week sometimes, doing everything from paint to sissy bars, fabricating exhausts, welding up coffin tanks, building entire choppers. It was a shopfront with a residence upstairs. I’d be rubbing down panels in the bathtub and spraying them in the kitchen! Occasionally members would stay there, sleeping amongst the bike parts. I even found myself painting police Kawasaki bikes. They’d arrive brand new in crates and we’d paint the black and white on them for the cops. The Hells Angels working for the police!

Dave has drawers full of illustrations, photos and press clippings from his lifelong involvement in the rod and custom scene in Australia, including this intricate History of Top Fuel poster from 2005

Where did you go from there?

I worked out of my parents’ garage for about 12 months painting surfboards for Morning Star and pro surfers like Nat Young and Mark Richards. After that I did more normal painting work in a shop with one other guy, picking up panelwork skills along the way. By the time the licensing system came along, I was a mechanic, painter and panel beater.

Dave showing some of the modifications he’s made to the Commer truck’s front guards

You must have seen a lot of change take place in the scene over that kind of timeframe.

I was there at the start of the Australian Street Rod Federation and the first Nationals. It was always hard getting these cars registered, and we all went along to a public meeting of hot rodders at Parramatta, where it was decided to form a committee to try and make things better for mainly home-built cars like T-buckets. That was the formation of the NSW Street Rod Committee. I joined the committee in about 1984 and have been with them since then. Now I’m one of four inspectors that inspect the cars to be registered all over NSW. We inspect them and process the applications without the RMS ever seeing them.

Dave didn’t get too much into the vanning craze in the 70s, but did build this Bedford van known as Dream Warrior for a customer. “I basically put all the 60s custom tricks into a van,” he says. The bus features double headlights, sideways-opening doors, flared guards and more, and Dave slathered it in suitable murals

Did any of the early rodding pioneers influence you?

Obviously Ed Roth with the crazy cars and monster T-shirts. I got to see most of his cars in person over about eight trips to the USA. They were what they were, you know. They weren’t supposed to be street rods – they were radical show cars. Being a bit of a drawer myself, I was able to do my own monster shirts. When I was working for the bike shop I did one for myself to wear to a car show, just using coloured Texta markers on a white T-shirt. People liked them and I ended up doing a few dozen just for the guys in the club – all hand-done and one-off. A bit of a sideline developed there doing crazy T-shirts.

Some recent graphics on Dave’s daily driver ’48 pick-up, which he won as the door prize at the Rosehill Hot Rod & Custom Auto Expo!

Are there any Australian builders that you admire at the moment?

I admire Kyle Smith [Smith Concepts]. I knew him in the Northern Beaches Hot Rod Club when he came in with the Valiant ute he had. He started by learning the pinstriping stuff himself and now he has a business cranking out real good custom cars, bikes and lowriders and he’s really kicked on. He’s done real well. He puts the hours in and he gets the rewards.

Another of Dave’s current personal projects is this Model A that features hand-formed rails, a ’34 Ford truck grille and a horde of found and saved pieces from other jobs

How many cars do you think you’ve built over the decades?

I probably had a major part in about 40 cars; maybe a dozen of those have been complete builds from the chassis up. There has been a lot of finishing-off work over the years, too. There would be times where I would fly into a shop for the weekend and do a flame-job on a car, do a couple of 14- or 15-hour days masking and painting.

Just a portion of Dave’s vast automotive model and toy collection. He says he’s ready to start parting with a lot of it before it becomes a burden for his wife and daughter. “I’ve had to sort through the collections of mates that have died, and it’s not fun,” he says

Do you see yourself ever hanging up the tools?

Nah, I’ll keep on. I’ll be limited to what I can do in the future, like, sanding back a whole car – I go a day and end up with aches and pains because I don’t use those muscles much anymore. Small jobs will be okay, like roof chops! A couple of hours on a Model A coupe and I’ll have it down by myself. Custom work, like changing head- and tail-lights, and working on a good car. Most of the cars I’ve had to work on have been rust-buckets or shit-heaps; you have to do so much work to them to get them solid again before you can even start the custom work.

1. Dave’s magazine collection dates back to 1948, and he reckons there are around 12-15,000 of them lurking in the shed. Also pictured is the Ford Flathead V8 that will one day power his Model A roadster project

2. A current customer build is this T-bucket that was originally built by two brothers in 1968 but never registered. After being stored for decades and recently rejected for rego (“It was all too old-school,” Dave says), Dave was commissioned to get things up to code, which included a new chassis from Designed Chassis, complete with Jag rear end. Up front there’s a 401ci Nailhead V8 with a unique Offenhauser manifold, backed by a C4. It has since been finished, and original owner Trevor Rockcliffe is cruising it around Sydney’s Northern Beaches

3. This woody began as a cartoon illustration on a Northern Beaches Hot Rod club T-shirt, but it turned into a real-life project over casual banter at a Christmas party. Besides a ’35 truck cowl, the entire car is custom-fabbed, from the 6×2 RHS rails to the square-tube body and all the bespoke woodwork that is currently being completed. It will be powered by a 425ci Buick V8, with a TH400 and 9in sending grunt to a pair of 20x10in billet wheels that Dave says are more than half the car’s total height!

4. Dave was commissioned to build this wacky Ferrari/FB Holden hybrid for a TV commercial for an automotive polish company in 1991. “I took an FB Holden and grafted a fibreglass Ferrari kit onto the front of it,” he says. “It wasn’t a roller and was held up by sticks. The guy we rented the genuine Ferrari wheels from made more money than I did building it!”