Mario Girbin’s VJ Valiant hardtop

Mario Girbin's VJ hardtop is a simple take on an Aussie Mopar classic, executed to perfection

Photographers: Jordan Leist

It’s a brave man that takes on the restoration of a Valiant hardtop. They were rare when they were brand new, with only a few thousand built, and without the level of aftermarket support that Holdens and Fords enjoy, you either need to buy a pretty decent car to start with or have a sizeable network of contacts so you can track down parts. As it turned out, Mario Girbin had neither.

First published in the January 2022 issue of Street Machine

Relatively new to the Mopar scene, Mario hadn’t yet established those vital contacts when he picked up a VJ hardtop that initially seemed a lot more solid than it would prove to be. Mario had played with cars in his native New Zealand, but they were mainly K-series Corollas. They’re cheap to buy and cheap to run, and, unlike the barge-arsed Valiants, they actually go around corners – something that NZ has a lot of. He’d also dabbled with some other interesting rides like a Lexus V8-swapped HiLux and a Mitsubishi L300 van with an Evo engine in it!

Mario was actually on the hunt for an XA or XB sedan to fill up the garage space in his newly acquired home. He finally had the room to tackle a project – nothing too crazy, just something he could tidy up and cruise with his mates.

“I bought the hardtop about a week after I moved into the house,” Mario recalls. “But I ended up owning three Valiants, because I bought a CL wagon, which got cut up for parts, and a VK sedan, which I bought so I had something to drive around while I was doing the hardtop.”

The build took around two years to complete, which is pretty good going, so you’d think it must have been a fairly tidy car to start with, yeah? Nah.

“When I bought it, I thought I’d done the right thing by making sure it was pretty complete,” says Mario. “The guy had done a very good job of including just enough stuff to make it look complete, but the more I learnt about the car, the more I worked out that I didn’t have the right bits. Even the bits I did have weren’t useable.”

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The car had been painted black around 10 years prior, and, while it wasn’t a great paintjob, there wasn’t anything nasty popping out indicating that it might be rusty. Mario decided to get the body sandblasted, and guess what?

“The sandblaster got along the driver’s guard and halfway up the A-pillar, then stopped and gave me a call,” says Mario. “He didn’t want to blast it any further until I got there and told him what to do. Hearing that gave me a sinking feeling in the stomach.”

Obviously, Mario decided to go ahead with getting the whole car sandblasted, and on the upside, it had never had any major repairs or accident damage; it just had rust everywhere.

“As soon as we started blasting it, it turned to lace, basically,” he says. “There isn’t a panel on the car that hasn’t been repaired. Every hanging panel was replaced, the A-pillars were cut off, and half the radiator support, the whole passenger-side inner guard, the entire floor, the roof and the boot floor were replaced. The plenum was repaired, the panel behind the rear window had to be hand-fabricated, and I put a NOS rear scuttle panel on as well. Even the front and rear window openings had to be remade.”

The magician that performed all of the rust repairs was Luke Pakenham, a good friend of Mario’s who had a three-month window before he was moving his entire family to Darwin. “I employed him full-time for three months to do all my panel beating, and he worked his arse off in my garage smashing it out,” says Mario.

For those of you who might be keeping tabs on where all the Val hardtops have ended up, this car left the factory wearing Star Bronze metallic with a Parchment vinyl roof and interior. But restoring it back to that combination was never on the cards for Mario. Some Valiant fans are a bit sad it didn’t end up Sherwood Green. Instead, Mario chose Deep Chartreuse metallic, a Chrysler colour from the VG Valiant range. “A lot of people wanted me to paint it silver, but sometimes it’s nice to paint a car a colour that people don’t expect. Plus, there’s a lot of silver hardtops around, and I’ve always liked green.”

Another mate’s talents were tapped to paint the car, a bloke with the unlikely name of Hillbilly Bingham, although there’s definitely nothing hillbilly about the quality of his work. Just check out the photos – the reflections, the gaps, the sharpness of the body lines. It’s one of the nicest paintjobs you’ll ever see.

When it came time to address the interior, Mario knew it had to be black. He admits he’s a bit of a grub when it comes to cars, so there was no way a white or light-coloured interior was going in, but he’s also a firm believer that muscle cars look best with black interiors. No arguments here.

“There isn’t a single part of the interior that is original to the car, so I had to source the entire interior from elsewhere,” he says. “The back seat I brought back from New Zealand as checked luggage on an Air New Zealand flight!”

The dashboard is another part of the puzzle that adds a real muscle-car vibe to the reimagined interior. It’s an R/T dash that Mario had refurbished, which wasn’t a cheap exercise, but it sure came out nice thanks to the talents of Karl Jensen in South Australia.

In the interests of not having the build time blow out, Mario went with a pretty mild drivetrain donated by the sacrificial CL wagon. The engine had been rebuilt by the previous owner and only had around 20,000km on it. Pretty standard, but Mario did the right thing and put a cam, 650 double-pumper and nice exhaust on it. With the 3.92 gears in the back, it scoots along nicely, but Mario’s got plans.

“Sometimes these things need to be done in stages, funds and time permitting,” he says. “As far as a cruiser goes, it’s great, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more power out of it, so I’m just starting to get some parts together to build a stroker 408 with around 500hp, along with a 727 Torqueflite and a shortened nine-inch to fit some 15×10 Convos.”


Paint: PPG Deep Chartreuse metallic
Type: Chrysler 318ci
Inlet: Weiand Stealth
Carb: Holley 650 double-pumper
Heads: Standard
Valves: Standard
Cam: Hughes Whiplash 213/[email protected], .320/.344 lift
Bottom-end internals: Standard
Radiator: Triple core with AU Falcon fans
Exhaust: Pacemaker headers, twin 2.5in stainless pipes
Ignition: MSD 6AL
Gearbox: 904 TorqueFlite, Stage 2 shift kit
Diff: BorgWarner, 3.92:1 gears
Front end: Lowered 2in
Shocks: Standard (f & r)
Brakes: Discs (f), drums (r)
Rims: Cheviot Trident 14×8 (f & r)
Rubber: Bridgestone Eager 245/50R14 (f & r)

Hillbilly Bingham for the amazing paintwork he laid down in an unfamiliar booth, and FARC panel shop for pulling through with a booth at the last minute; Nick Harris for all the mechanical and assembly hours he put in with me getting the car back together; Martin Smith in NZ for not only supplying me a roof for my car, but also coming through with a lot of hard-to-find, hardtop-specific parts that no one else would part with at the time