Step back in time as three of Australia’s most-loved panel vans reunite after more than 30 years – Gary Pierce’s HJ Sandman Jade, Ken Dawson’s Foxy Lady HG and Steve Abbott’s yellow Vanrat HJ
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Street Machine
IT’S NICE to know that sometimes when everything changes, nothing really changes. That’s the warm and fuzzy feeling I get when casting my eyes over this pic: a trifecta of legendary Aussie panel vans – built and shown nearly 40 years ago by three close mates – reunited and living on in the care of three passionate custodians.
This is vanning royalty. Gary Pierce’s HJ, Jade, Ken Dawson’s Foxy Lady HG and Steve Abbott’s yellow Vanrat HJ come from a time when high-end show-winners could be built at home for modest bucks and were driven to shows for maximum enjoyment.
Immaculate collection: Foxy Lady (left), Jade (centre) and Vanrat (right) reunited after more than three decades, having lived vastly different lives
Just reading the names of these vans will stir the emotions in many. Those monikers are inextricably linked with each van’s distinctive personality and are the key to their longevity; I’ve been loving seeing this old-school concept re-emerge in the modern burnout scene.
What also sparks my interest is that these vans have led such varied lives in the decades between. You have Jade, the unmolested survivor; Foxy Lady, who continued to evolve as styles changed; and Vanrat, who left the spotlight and returned to a bread-and-butter existence, a shadow of its former self.
This reunion was the brainchild of well-known Victorian vanner and van historian James Ellis, who has dabbled with a number of high-profile vans. He is the current owner of Jade (SM, Jun ’15) and the last surviving Easy Roller Bedford promo van.
“The famous tug-o-war between Jade and Vanrat 35 years ago at the Mildura Van Nats has long been on my mind and I was initially keen to recreate that,” James explains. “When I heard that Foxy Lady had been bought by my friend Alan Potter, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to reunite the three original builders with their three old vans – an ultimate reunion.
“It was a plain-Jane white HG ex-plumber’s van running a 161 and three-speed,” Ken explains. “The first build had all the usual gear – Premier front, spoiler, curtains, lots of chrome and Hustler mags, while a red and timber interior was the first of many combos used to deck out the rear.”A teenage Ken Dawson – Dawso to his mates – bought Foxy Lady in the mid-70s, keen for better comfort on surfing trips and looking for more street cred than his old Commer van could offer.
Foxy did well on the show scene, but the van movement was soon spreading like wildfire and by the late 70s it was time for Ken to up the ante. Not one to mess around, Ken brought Foxy back with a completely new look. A full grille and XC GXL headlamps were fitted, while dark blue paint, shaved door handles and Superior mags added to this fresh identity. A 253 and four-speed were slotted in, topped by a 6/71 blower and twin Holleys. A Jag rear and even more chrome helped Foxy Lady continue her winning ways.
“I won more than my fair share of gold but winning Australia’s Top Van continued to elude me,” Ken remembers. “The HG was again stripped down in 1983 for one last crack.”
True to Ken’s vision and commitment amongst an ever-evolving car scene, Foxy Lady returned in ’88 with yet another completely different persona. The new round of mods included a three-inch roof chop, maroon paint and a return to a Premier front, while a 350 Chev and mind-boggling engine bay and undercarriage detailing saw Foxy come of age and out of the traditional vanning shadow.
“The hot rod, street machine and van movements were separate entities back in those days, so my whole concept with the maroon build was to unite those three scenes,” Ken explains. “The hot rodders loved the roof chop and Jag rear; the paint, wheels and small-block Chev nestled it within the street machine ranks; the interior and mild custom touches pleased the vanners.”
It’s a concept that worked too, with Ken netting Australia’s Top Van at the 1990 Nats. “I had finally accomplished what I had wanted with the Lady and sold her to my brother-in-law Wayne Wakefield. I helped Wayne show the van up until 1992, before he eventually sold it on.”
Fast-forward to 2016 and Alan Potter was settled into the Easter Van Nationals at Moe with his Bedford camper van and Mad Max Lord Humungus Truck replica. “My son Matthew and I had been talking about how awesome it would be to buy an old show van,” Alan says. “A friend from the Wagons United club days, Gary McDiarmid, rolled in with Foxy Lady. I’d heard on the grapevine that it was for sale so got chatting with him about it.” A deal was later struck and Alan has loved tinkering with Foxy ever since.
“We’ve fixed a lot of little things to make the van more driveable, and the plan is to visually return her back to how she looked in 1990. I’ve found a set of Dragway tri-spokes and have the original GTS bonnet, plus had the ‘Foxy Lady’ gold leaf recreated on the B-pillars. The SLICED number plates confuse a lot of people who don’t realise it’s the original Foxy.”
The 1990-spec rear interior is long gone, so Alan has a replacement in the works, along with another plan to better educate show-goers of the Foxy Lady legacy: “I’m building a trailer from another HG van that will resemble the blue incarnation of Foxy and serve as a tribute to the various guises of the van. The rear will include design elements from each of the major refits, so it will be almost like a mini-museum. A lot of people remember it from the old days and that is what I love about it; it’s a bit of nostalgia and will always be out on show.”
Gary Pierce is the original owner and builder of Jade, and is thrilled that she’s still a show-stopper. “The biggest buzz is knowing that Jade is still around and in one piece,” he says. “To see it unchanged is humbling and it’s nice that people think so highly of my original theme.”
When it comes to creating the perfect combination of impact and longevity, you can’t go past Steve Abbott’s Vanrat (SM, Apr ’13). It pops up regularly on social media and is instantly recognisable due to its trademark full grille and tunnel-rammed big-block. It even silences the modern-day ‘wrecked-a-classic’ crowd by retaining virtually stock body and paint compared to many other legend vans.
“I was never into wild custom bodywork, so I let the engine and attention to detail do the talking,” Steve says. “It was originally a 202-powered 1975 HJ Sandman that I bought brand new. I always planned to fit a tough motor so spent the next few years collecting bits before doing the 454 conversion in 1980.”
The LS7-spec build was backed by a Turbo 400 and narrowed 12-bolt diff, and this combination gave the van a fierce reputation for raw grunt and massive burnouts. “I never needed any encouragement,” Steve laughs. “1980 was the year they chained the ’Rat and Jade together at the Mildura Van Nationals and Gary and I both just destroyed the tyres! We had a ball.”
In 1981 the ’Rat was stripped down for a thorough revamp including an engine rebuild and tunnel-ram, along with extensive engine bay and undercarriage detailing in a mix of paint, chrome and copper-plating. The orange shag interior was replaced for a fresh look, along with a bigger set of Dragways whipped up by Ian Splatt.
Success on the show scene ensued before Steve sold Vanrat in ’87 to Sam Ivanic. “Sam also owned the ex-John Evans Tangerine Dream II, and swapped my big-block and detailed driveline into that van during a rebuild,” Steve says. The ’Rat scored TD’s old 308, and it wasn’t long before its other styling identifiers were lost through a succession of owners. “The major tell-tale was the VR454 number plates that stayed with the van; every now and then I’d hear rumours of a sighting and hoped that it was still on the road,” Steve says.
Thirty-seven-year-old Marty Blum was just a young tacker when Steve and Vanrat were making waves, and stumbled onto the van in 2014 purely by accident. “I’ve always been a car guy and currently have a late-model Camaro and Caddy hearse in the shed,” Marty says. “I’ve always loved Sandmans and the idea was to buy a clean, fairly reliable van to take surfing. I found this stock-looking yellow HJ at the Sunshine Coast and it seemed clean and reasonable, so I flew up from Melbourne to have a look.
“As I was leaving the seller said to me: ‘This is Vanrat, you know.’ And I said: ‘What’s a Vanrat?’” Marty laughs. “He told me to Google Steve Abbott and Vanrat, and pictures of the van back in its heyday filled the screen. I found Steve through Facebook and he verified the chassis number, so its history definitely had me intrigued.”
Marty drove the van as-is for the next 12 months before a blown head gasket sidelined the tired 308. “It seemed a pity not to revive its 80s glory, so the broken 308 forced my hand and I had Anthony Spiteri fit a 454 crate motor and Turbo 400. Anthony and I have tracked down more necessary pieces such as the full grille and roof spoiler to lock down its identity, and as time progresses it will receive a fresh interior and new Dragways.”
With Marty keen to drive, show and shred tyres in true Vanrat fashion, his original beach van concept is well and truly out the window. “Yep, I’ve since bought an HX Sandman to be that clean, fairly reliable van to take surfing, and I know for a fact that one doesn’t have any show-winning history!”
It all started for Gary back in 1980 when a friend offered him a Jade Green HJ Sandman at the right price. “He was a meticulous panel beater so the paint and panel were immaculate,” he says. “He’d even resprayed it after buying it new as he wasn’t happy with the factory finish.”
Gary wasted no time in putting his own stamp on the van, fitting a tunnel-rammed 350 Chev, Turbo 400 and Jag rear, while a brand new WB Statesman front clip and matching rear bumper were fitted along with WB tail-lights. Custom 15x10in rims were made by Gary’s father using Globe centres, while Paul Barker murals adorned the exterior and locked down the mystical idol theme that Gary had in mind for Jade.
The first interior was a stunner, with a mix of diamond-tufted green and white crushed velvet highlighted by green Perspex, and in true 80s fashion there was oodles of chrome.
Jade was an instant trophy-magnet, but like many show cars of then and today, it wasn’t long before changes were planned to make it even more stunning.
The body was removed from the chassis and given a complete refinish, including the masterstroke chrome front chassis-rail covers – they fit so beautifully you’d swear the original rails had been dipped. The 350 scored a 6/71 huffer whining through a Perspex bonnet, and the original interior was swapped out for the current tan and brown velour version framed with brass tubing.
Jade was driven to the Wodonga Van Nationals in ’85 – clear bonnet, blower and all – where it took out Australia’s Top Van. “The supercharger was just a minor detail,” Gary laughs. “A police officer pulled me up at Shepparton more out of curiosity than anything else; he could see everything he needed without even popping the bonnet, he just looked straight through it!
“You had to drive them in those days. It was nearly an unwritten rule that if you turned up to a show on a car trailer you lost credibility straight away.”
James Ellis has long had his finger on the Jade pulse, having worked for Gary in the mid-80s and remained friends with him ever since. “It sat in storage for many years and I even helped Gary sell it back in 2005,” James explains. “I bought it myself in 2012 and invested a lot of time detailing it back to show standard. I managed a Fifth Top Van placing at the 40th Bathurst Nationals last year, which just goes to show how high the quality of Gary’s original build was from 30 years earlier.”
The Perspex bonnet is the only missing piece of the puzzle, otherwise Jade remains untouched; a true survivor from Australia’s vanning heyday.
“The van scene has changed immensely since the early years,” Gary says. “People seem reluctant to show their own individuality and personal flair like we used to.”
This is especially true when it comes to custom bodywork and interiors, and there is a much bigger focus on stock paint and near-restoration style van builds in many instances.
“Trends do come and go, so it’s pleasing to see that people still react so positively to Jade,” Gary concludes. “Steve, Dawso and I had so much fun building vans and catching up at shows as young blokes. Forty years on and we are still great mates who have never lost the passion for talking shit and building cars. Steve has a Corvette and Dawso has a thing for ’68 Impalas, so they’re more into US stuff nowadays, while I’m in the process of rebuilding a ’76 Kombi and have my eye on a splitty too; that will keep me busy for a while yet.”