Art Deco-inspired 1962 Willys Jeep wagon

A couple of Queensland surfers took a boxy 1960s 4x4 and turned it into this sleek art deco-inspired custom masterpiece

Photographers: Nathan Duff

This brainchild of two surfers, Gavan and Julie, will blow you away.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Street Machine.

When Queenslander Gavan Starr-Thomas bought a ’62 Willys Jeep wagon, he had no intentions of turning it into the wild art deco-inspired custom you see here. In fact, he was forbidden from touching it. “I gave the owner a commitment that I wouldn’t modify the car in any way, as at that time I had no reason to think otherwise. Sorry!”

Sure, he may not have kept his promise, but only the most rigid purist could fail to be impressed by the two-door wagon’s transformation. Instead of building something really in-your-face, Gavan has turned the car, dubbed Swell, into a classy art deco custom thanks to the lowered roof height and new 1930s front and rear ends, as well as one of the craziest interiors we’ve seen in a while.

“I wanted to build a woody wagon hot rod, as my wife and I are avid surfers, and our holidays always involve surfing, camping and, more recently, caravanning in our vintage 1964 Sunliner caravan,” Gavan says of his initial ideas for the build. “Swell was going to be a woody, but after seeing two green woodies at consecutive MotorEx shows, and with an ever-increasing love of [Japanese hot rod, custom and lowrider builder] Junichi Shimodaira’s work, I decided to follow a different path.

“A mate of mine, Warren Flynn, and I started the build with modifications to the chassis,” he continues. “We mounted the donk, ’box and diff, and then proceeded to chop it. And that was when we both ran out of talent.

“The car sat for two years while I endeavoured to get someone on board to finish it off for me, but I didn’t realise the enormity of the project. I had 12 people look at the car, but then while attending a vintage caravan weekend we met up with Brad and Joanne Sellick from Kingaroy who had just started El Rancho Kustoms. He subsequently visited us and was happy to do the car, as well as paint our Sunliner caravan.”

Brad, Gary Sellick and Carl Hillman from El Rancho chopped the top nine inches, and switched the plain-Jane front end with a far more curvaceous ’37 Willys front clip, paired with 1939 Willys rear guards. The running boards are custom, while the Chrysler Airflow provided inspiration for the custom spats and a continental-style spare tyre cover. A Fulton sun visor lives up top, the headlights were frenched and custom LED blinkers and polished stainless grille trim were fitted up. Out back, 1939 Chev tail-lights featuring LED technology have been used.

“In 2014 we took the car from El Rancho to do the plumbing, get the engine running and the car driveable,” says Gavan of the 5.3-litre LM7 Gen III V8 that powers Swell. “I’d bought the engine in 2004, so I had genuine concerns about its willingness to start and run reliably.”

Thankfully, these 327-cube late-model truck motors are super-hardy and the stock motor was all good to be pressed into service once more, hidden under a custom engine cover and expelling gases through a custom exhaust. The stock 4L60E auto has been used behind it, with a nine-inch slotted out back.

With the fab work done, Gavan and Julie decided to take Swell to Brett Wentworth. An old mate of Gavan’s, Brett runs Flat Six Motorsport, a Porsche Motorsport shop in Brisbane. “The day the car arrived [at Flat Six] we had it disassembled and the chassis on its way to being sandblasted and painted,” Gavan explains. “Brett is a one-man band approaching 60, and to this day I am amazed at his ability to work every day with enthusiasm and commitment.

“Directly across from Brett is Precision Body Works. After seeing a paintjob on a mate’s 911, we chose them to do the preparation and paint, and they were outstanding.”

Once the car was painted and assembled, Cameron Hayward and the boys at North Coast Custom Trim in Warana worked overtime on the cabin, blending parts from all Big Three car corporations. Ford Ranchero seats live up front, there are door handles from a Nash, and a ’55 Chev donated its electric window switches and its tiller, which was resized to a 15-inch diameter. The gauges are ’47 Oldsmobile with upgraded internals by Williamson’s Instruments plus extras from Dakota Digital. The brake pedal is custom, Lokar supplied the accelerator and handbrake, and the Maori gear shifter was hand-carved by Marcus Thorn at Tiki Beat, as were the armrests.

“The glass needed to be custom-cut and fitted by A Vision Windscreens at Kunda Park, who were very accommodating and enthusiastic about their work,” Gavan says.

Amazingly, despite their dream taking almost 16 years to become a reality, Gavan and Julie have only entered Swell in a couple of shows, as they never intended for it to be a trophy hunter.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of special Porsches throughout my life and I wouldn’t drive them unless the temperature and humidity was right. I figure, at 62, I may not have many years of driving left, so I’m going to drive the arse off Swell and let the family worry about the maintenance when I pass on,” Gavan says.

“I didn’t build the car to win trophies but to be a daily driver. I wanted a piece of art, a sculpture of the ideas I had in my head throughout the build. I love detail, and making people stop and look. I love art that is different and being out there with design.”

Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but we reckon Swell is a killer piece.