As you can imagine, it was pretty hard to miss Ian Wood’s bright orange EH panel van in the unveiling hall at Meguiar’s MotorEx earlier this year. At first glance, that eye-popping colour might seem like the van’s main party piece, but it’s what lies beyond the shiny hue that makes it truly special.
First published in the December 2022 issue of Street Machine
Ian has had a passion for custom panel vans since his teenage years, reading every issue of Van Wheels while rocking his 1980 Escort Sundowner. “I loved those vans from the 80s, and I’d always had a soft spot for EHs, as I learned to drive in an EH ute on the farm when I was nine,” he says.
A proper custom van had always been on Ian’s wishlist, but at the time the maths just didn’t add up. “I was studying back then, and the cost to build one, or to buy one already built, was just too much,” he says.
Fast-forward to now and Ian’s fortunes have changed, culminating in his dream van he calls ‘La Catrina’, built by Brad Pizzi and the team from Stripped Back Customs in Dubbo, NSW.
“When Ian approached me to do the build, he gave me a 10-page brief of what he wanted, with heaps of photos, so I knew he was pretty serious,” Brad says. “Obviously things changed during the course of the build, but the overall idea with the theme, colour, engine, wheels and so on is very much how he wanted it from the beginning.”
Ian’s other big passion, which he shares with his wife Paola, is Mexican culture. “I remember the first time we went there, and I just fell in love with the place,” he says. “I felt like I was home; I just love everything about it.”
Right from the beginning of the build, Ian wanted to combine his love of vans and Mexican culture by giving the EH a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme. Contrary to what you may think, rather than being a gloomy time of mourning, Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is actually a celebration of the lives of those who have passed away.
“It’s a colourful celebration that to me embodies what I love about Mexican culture, so it was exactly what I wanted as a theme for the van,” Ian says. La Calavera Catrina (Spanish for ‘the elegant skull’ and often shortened to La Catrina) is an iconic image from the festival, so Ian chose it as the name for the van and had a traditional La Catrina design airbrushed onto the tailgate. “All the vans back in the day had names with some sort of theme, so this is also a nod to that scene,” he says.
Funnily enough, the van that now wears a Day of the Dead theme actually spent a decent portion of its life as a morgue vehicle. “That’s purely coincidental,” says Ian. “It was in much better shape than another van I had, so we opted to use this one as the starting point.”
Even though Brad says it was one of the better EH vans he’d seen as far as rust goes, Ian still gave him all the NOS and reproduction panels he’d been collecting over the years, including new guards, door and tailgate skins, front apron and so on. “We replaced the plenum, but the rest of the car was quite good,” Brad says.
Even with the styling modifications made for the build theme, Ian still wanted to retain as much of the Holden aesthetic as he could both inside and out. “I know with custom vans people used to go pretty crazy, but I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; more just build on what was already there as an EH, with my own personal touch,” he says.
That’s why the bodylines, trim, seats and dash are all basically as Holden intended in the 60s, albeit now with a touch of Mexican flair.
The other big deliverable Ian had for Brad was that he wanted this van to go, stop and handle like a new car, with all the modern-day creature comforts you’d expect of any daily driver from this century. The LS conversion was a big part of that, with Ian bringing a Gen IV 6.0-litre LS and 6L80E transmission from a written-off VE SS for Brad to retrofit to the EH. “It was just the easiest way to get the power and driveability I wanted,” says Ian.
For Brad, fitting the driveline did come with a few challenges. “This was the second LS EH I’d done but the first with the bigger auto,” he says. “The firewall stayed factory, but we did have to embiggen the tunnel quite a fair bit, and all the accessories had to be moved around to fit in the bay.”
The engine is completely standard, with Ian opting to focus on fitting power steering and air conditioning rather than chasing horsepower. A Rod Shop IFS front end was used, with a front-mounted rack and LS pump, while the air con is piped through a handmade centre console.
“I based the console design off an EH Premier one, and what people can’t see are neat things like the a/c evaporator hidden behind the driver’s seat,” Brad says. “There’s also the switches for the power windows and the electronic handbrake, which took some nutting out to make work.”
Further mod cons include the touchscreen stereo system, which also doubles as the monitor for the reversing camera – a neat and handy inclusion on a windowless van.
The EH is fully engineered and legal in NSW, with Brad consulting with an engineer throughout the entire build. “It didn’t overcomplicate it all that much, because we were talking to the engineer right from the start so there were no surprises,” he says.
Since its unveiling at Meguiar’s MotorEx in May, Ian has taken the EH for the odd gallop. “People don’t realise how small these old cars are, so while the LS is stock, it still gets up pretty well,” he says. “It doesn’t bump steer, the brakes are good and it’s a nice cruiser.”
Ian plans on taking the van to big-name shows for the next 12-odd months, but after that, La Catrina will see some real use. “I own a staging business, and our corporate colour is orange, which is partly why I chose the colour for the car, so it can be a part-time promotional tool for the company,” he says.
“I’ve taken it to a few client meetings and it’s a good conversation starter, so once it’s done all the shows, it’ll definitely be getting used more.”
1964 EH HOLDEN PANEL VAN
|House of Kolor Emperor Orange
|6.0L Gen IV LS
|Rod Shop sump
|Rod Shop headers, stainless 2.5in system
|Standard VE 6L80E
|9in, 31-spline, 3.5:1 gears
|SUSPENSION & BRAKES
|Rod Shop IFS, coil-overs, rack-and-pinion steering
|Wilwood discs and twin-piston calipers (f & r)
|WHEELS & TYRES
|Foose Nitrous Chrome; 17×8 (f), 17×9.5 (r)
|Falken; 225/45R17 (f), 275/40R17 (r)
Brad Pizzi and the Stripped Back Customs team; Mark Attard and the Blackneedle Automotive Upholstery team; Callum Hinchcliffe; Morteza Pourmohamadi at DQ; Simon Copping at Doulman Automotive; Dean Petley at Blue Jay Fabrications; Doug Pope at Outback Auto Sparky; John Sheldon; my wife Paola.