Legendary street machine builder Howard Astill – interview

After decades in the sport, Howard Astill is still hard at it

Photographers: Will Horner

HOWARD Astill is, without question, one of the all-time greats of Aussie street machining. Howard has spent decades on the tools building countless top-shelf show cars, both for himself and for customers. He has won just about everything there is to win, including our own Street Machine of the Year in 1995, and Street Machine Summernats Grand Champion in 1991, 1992 and 1997. He’s also won the Master Craftsman award and is a Rare Spares Legend, so he’s about as highly decorated as they come.

Howard got his start in the sport in the late 70s, and he’s still hard at work as a one-man band in his Astill Designs home workshop, churning out high-end builds for customers at an impressive rate of knots. But with two interesting and very contrasting builds on the go – one of which is a personal passion project recreating his dream version of his first car – we thought it was high time we caught up for a chat.

First published in the January 2021 issue of Street Machine. Photos: Will Horner

It may not look like much in these pics, but there’s already an incredible amount of fab work completed on the XC sedan build. The FG floorpan is already in place, and here you can also see the trial-and-error stage of grafting in the FG firewall. It’s a hard slog, but in the long run it will make fitting the FG dash a whole bunch easier

Give us the highlights reel of your involvement in street machining.

I’ve been at it a long time! I started back in the late 70s. My cousins and brother all had different types of cars and I got into panel vanning. Then when we had a baby I went to a four-door, went to the ’86 and ’88 Nationals and had a fair bit of success at those, then I rebuilt that car into Rock 3, which is the blue Falcon most people know. I went on a roll from there and built a ’63 Fairlane for Street Machine; the Pioneer coupe, which was 1994-96; then a ’66 Mustang that debuted at Summernats 21. Since that time I’ve been building customers’ cars, normally about one a year. The current build is number 15 of the Astill Design cars.

Tell us about the current customer project you have on the go.

It’s an XC sedan. It came to me from another shop with some work done, and most of that we’ve already changed or cut out. As with most builds, it’s evolving. It came to me with a John Kaase big-block – a very nice engine – running an FG Falcon six-speed behind it, and it’s got a Kugel independent, inboard disc-brake rear. It’s got a Rod-Tech front end with Brembo brakes, and the outside will be what I class as super-clean factory, with the gaps all done nice and changes to the bumpers. Inside we’ve put the floor and firewall out of an FG, with an FG dash and door trims, and all the electrics will operate, hopefully including the braking system out of the FG.

Howard’s original van was dubbed Magnum Force, a 351, four-speed XC Falcon, inspired by Gary McGuigan’s XA van, Firetruck. “My use of colour comes from the panel van era,” he says

And you have a project of your own happening, too?

Yes, it’s my own car, so it’s the weekend and night-time car. It’s an XC panel van. My first car back in 1977 was a brand new XC, so I’m going back to my roots, I guess. We’ve managed to pick up a four-speed, BorgWarner, air con, power steer, Rally Pack car from an auction. I’m now in the process of rebuilding that, and it’ll be more old-school with a bit of current flavour, in that it’ll have 18-inch wheels and a bit bigger brakes. I’m sticking with the single-rail gearbox and the BorgWarner rear, but everything will be done nicely. I’ll retain as much factory stuff as I can, like the rear sway-bar and tramp rods, but they’ll be redone with today’s technology in terms of bushings and those sorts of things. It will evolve as well, but that’s the main plan.

What is the customer’s brief to you for the sedan build?

Obviously it already had the engine and the rear end, and I said, “Okay, so we’re building a show car?” And he said, “No, not really.” I asked why you’d buy a fully polished big-block if you’re not going to show people? If someone comes to me and doesn’t want to build a show car, I normally send them away, because that’s what I do – it’s difficult to do something at half-level. So he’s taken that on board and the car will be shown. But as I said, it’s evolving. Usually when people work with me they see what’s possible and it just keeps going. I guess Tailspin [Adam and Kylie Perry’s back-to-front FB Holden] is a good example, where there was an initial goal but you usually end up overachieving because the customer’s goals end up greater than when they first came to me. This will be engineered in Queensland through Dr Tim and it will be very driveable. The air con and power steering will work and it will have good wheel clearance everywhere, but still with massive wheels and a nice sound system. It will be a nice car to drive, but at the same time be pretty much a full-on show car.

Howard’s van is very original and has a number of key factory options, which is what appealed to him about it in the first place. The factory powertrain, suspension and braking systems will be retained with subtle and appropriate upgrades, and what we don’t doubt will be an impeccable level of fit and finish

It sounds like that contrasts a lot with the objectives for the panel van build. What are you hoping to achieve with that?

I wonder why I got started sometimes! When you’re out the back getting into the rusty stuff on the wire wheel you think: “Why am I doing this?” My wife Heather and I both drive nice cars – an FG and a BF Falcon; both V8s, both red, both very nice. But we don’t have a chrome-bumper car. When we talked about it, my other choice was an XA four-door; I’ve always loved a Red Pepper/black trim XA four-door. But we just kept coming back to the idea of a van. The thoughts are it could end up being my daily, but I’ll see how it turns out. I might get rid of the BF and use the van every day of the week as a work car. It’ll be a nice 351, solid cam with a Holley on it. Nice set of extractors and a three-inch exhaust, with the manual and power steering and air from the factory. The dash fascia will be as per original and I’ll probably go with some Cobra door trims. Just a really nice, slick car that sits right. I’ve got a set of 18s under it at the moment and I’m 90 per cent sure that’s what will end up on it, and I’ll do some paint treatments on those. But I want it to drive nice, handle nice, not get hot, air con works, and Heather or myself can hop in and drive it. We can go to Summernats or Powercruise and have a car.

You’re reusing and reconditioning a lot of OEM parts for the van. It’ll probably be a relatively cost-effective project.

With this particular build, because my time doesn’t have that cost-factor associated with it that a customer’s build does, I can justify the difference between wire wheeling something by hand on a Friday night rather than sending it off to the blaster. The blaster saves us money on customer projects on a daily basis. The rear brakes on the van, for example, I can rebuild them and it’ll probably cost me $200 in parts, but if I go and put a set of Wilwoods on it, it’ll cost me way more money. But for a customer’s car, the Wilwoods are probably more cost-effective because of the offset of the wages to re-co the old stuff. That’s why restos are so expensive. With something like the Cobra 400 I did, the cost can blow out because you have to fix all the old parts. But for me, I don’t have that cost because the labour is my own time. I’ve stayed with the BorgWarner because I’m not into burnouts and I don’t plan on racing the thing, so I think it’s plenty strong enough. I’ll rebuild the factory rear disc brakes and I’ve sourced some factory tramp rods from a P6 LTD so that I don’t get the axle tramp. I’ll run Bilstein shocks and Lovells springs and all new bearings and I’ll rebuild the brakes, and I’m more than comfortable with that. A lot of people will say, “Those original brakes were no good.” Well, I had one of these brand new and they were fine. The reason a lot of people have trouble with the old PBR brakes is that they’re either not rebuilt properly or not rebuilt at all; that’s why they don’t work. I’m more than comfortable with the factory front end, Lovells lows, Bilsteins and some AU III Falcon brakes, which is a kit that someone like Hoppers Stoppers does that we pulled off a car and put RRS brakes on. I’ve just rebuilt those, and they’ll be more than enough for what I want to do with the car. On top of that, there’s no requirement for engineering, because nothing has changed.

For a bloke who works largely by himself in the back shed, Howard doesn’t muck around. Since our visit he’s managed to stitch in the firewall, fit the monster-cube Kaase big-block, ZF six-speed and ultra-trick Kugel IRS, along with the FG master and booster, rad support, grille and associated hardware, and get it all rolling on its massive billet wheels

Tell us about your business in the broader sense and the kind of work you do these days.

We’re pretty much boutique. I like to work with a customer who’s got a story, and 400 and Tailspin are probably the two best examples because one is restored and one is fully modified. The owners both approached me personally and came with a story of what they wanted to achieve. With 400, it was a car that he’d owned for 25 years and had pulled apart and could never see himself getting back together. It was never about showing it, he just wanted to get it finished and he actually ended up moving it on, because it became his goal in life to rebuild that car. So to help him achieve that was great. With Tailspin, it was a young couple [Adam and Kylie Perry] who approached me on advice from a friend of theirs, and that has become a lifelong friendship. They’ve become like a couple of kids of ours now, because it’s that sort of age difference. What I loved about that project and why I put a lot of extra time into it was their eagerness to learn and grow and develop with the car. I would go to their place to work on the car for a couple of years for one weekend a month, and then when the car came here, they stayed with us and worked on it. What they asked me when they first came to me was whether I would teach them to build a car. I spoke to the wife about it and I felt that at my age that’s something I should be doing; to try and pass it on. Adam and Kylie have taken it on gangbusters and will go on to build a lot of cars, which makes that story nice. For me, having a big-dollar customer doesn’t necessarily interest me; it’s more about helping someone achieve their goals, keeping my hand in what I love and paying a few bills.

The pano is a labour of love for Howard, an after-hours project that takes him back to his youth and the formative years of our sport. It will be mildly modified by his standards, but still a very tasteful and considered build, designed for Howard and his wife Heather to enjoy

You’ve parted ways with a lot of awesome cars over the years. Given that you’ve come full circle with the panel van, do you reckon it’s a keeper?

That’s a hard question. Nothing is ever a keeper, I don’t think. It depends on where you’re at in your life and what happens. But it’s been built so I can still drive it when I’m older, so we’ll see where it goes. But I don’t plan on selling it the day it’s finished, that’s for sure.