Where are they now? Nev Philips’s LEGAL8 EH Holden

This blast from the past is Neville Philips’s legally regoed, V8-powered EH Holden street fighter. But this ain’t no second coming: LEGAL8 never went away

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Photographers: Troy Barker

We are gathered here today to worship one third of South Australia’s Holy Trinity of street machines: Neville Philips’s EH Holden sedan, LEGAL8. Nev’s EH is the Father, Colin Townsend’s fat FJ Holden, 308-053, is the Son, and Mark Sanders’s P76-powered RPM Torana is the Holy Spirit.

First published in the June 2024 issue of Street Machine

Think about what ruled the streets in the 1980s; it was either drag-inspired big-and-littles or Bathurst-bashing tributes, in equal measure. That’s because, unlike the States, Australia’s motorsport history is as much about corners as it is about quarters, and some guys just love to drive. Hard.

Turning your Torana, HK-WB Holden, VH-CM Valiant or XR-XE Falcon into a tarmac-tearing terror wasn’t too difficult back then; if the options sheet had a box marked ‘V8’, then you could drop one in. But if you lived in South Australia, heaven forbid you try and V8-ify your early-girl Holden, Ford or Chrysler. The SA Government banned that particular practice wholesale in the late 70s, likely due to a bunch of half-arsed conversions. The only way to get a pre-V8 car with a bent-eight in the bay after the ban was to buy one already converted and hope you didn’t die driving it.

Fortunately, the guys and girls at the Street Machine Association of SA (SMASA) got sick of the discrimination, so a congregation of the like-minded formed to forge a way forward. “I was at that meeting,” Neville Philips recalls. “They asked who was interested in the ’V8 Early’ engineering project, and a dozen hands shot up. ‘And it’s gonna cost 400 bucks,’ they said. Suddenly there was nobody! I knew this was coming, so I slapped 400 bucks cash on the table: ‘Here you go,’ I said.”

Understandably, the crew at SMASA had no idea who this be-mulletted young man was. “They said they were gonna need a car, which I had. And it needed to be a bare shell, which it was. And they’re realising, ‘Oh, this guy’s actually serious!’” Neville laughs. “They had a look at it in Colin Townsend’s shed, and that’s where it started.”

At the time, Colin had already kicked off the build of his soon-to-be-iconic FJ, but it was Nev who had the paper pineapples to make things happen, so it was his EH, to be dubbed LEGAL8, that took centre stage. “Colin’s FJ and LEGAL8 had all the same running gear,” he says. “And they were developed together. It’s just that mine was finished first.”

In a land before tubular bells and whistles, a set of bespoke A-arms couldn’t just be ordered and sent with the click of a button. Colin therefore relied upon his CAD program – part Computer Aided Design, part Colin’s Awesome Dome – to superimpose the future over the past, modifying Holden’s reasonably basic HR-model front end as the main ingredient in the V8 legality recipe for Nev’s EH. The changes seem so simple now: trim a bit, weld a bit, re-fold a bit, and suddenly you’ve got a V8-worthy, disc-brake front end with more camber than a BMX berm and that stops and turns better than it really should.

“My car became Mark Sanders’s first customer car,” Neville says. “The ideas were Colin’s, but the car had to be built in an engineering workshop, so that’s where Mark came in. I’d go there every week with some dough, and the things got done.”

That’s not to say Neville wasn’t hands-on. He got his hands plenty dirty before, during and beyond the build. “When Mark’s work was done and the authorities were happy, it came to my shed for reassembly,” he says. “I’d stripped it down, and I put it back together.”

Forty years later, Neville’s got the EH up on a chassis stand, allowing me to see the fabbed front end. Then he drops LEGAL8 back to earth and tweaks up those beautiful Simmons V5s. A clatter follows a whir, and the 355ci V8 clears its throat and settles into a loping idle. “Well, it’s on,” Nev yells over the rumble. “Let’s go!”

“I’ve got no mechanical sympathy whatsoever, or so I’m told. But if I break it, I build it again. Better,”

It’s clear that Nev is still excited by his creation even after all these years, and why wouldn’t he be? It’s exactly the car he wanted to build. Like, precisely. That’s why he’s kept it for 40-odd years. Ain’t no itches to scratch, no bugs to sort. This car is ready to race every time he backs it out of the shed.

“I’ve got no mechanical sympathy whatsoever, or so I’m told. But if I break it, I build it again. Better,” Nev says. A reasonable mantra, and one that has seen the motor come out for a freshen-up five or six times over the past four decades. “I was told I couldn’t do what I do with this car: ‘It’s a show car.’ I never built a show car; I built a driver’s car, but people said I should show it.”

Nev nabbed a Top 50 spot at Summernats 4 in 1990 and a swag of other trophies across that year and the next, including Top Interior at the Street Machine Nationals in 1991.

These days, however, the award-winning interior, with its leather-trimmed SAAS seats and matching rear bench, is now safely stowed in the mezzanine above us. In its place are a pair of MOMO Corse race seats, a half-rollcage with side intrusion beams, and a mounting bar to accommodate two spares (required for Nev’s tarmac rally assaults). “This is fully registered as a two-seater, four-door EH Holden,” Nev says.

But despite our original feature on the car (SM, Jul-Aug ’91) being entitled ‘The Untouchables’, LEGAL8 hasn’t been entirely so. “I was on Jaf’s Cruise 2019 when I got pinged for the rollcage, which wasn’t part of the original build,” he explains. “That and the harnesses – fine at 300km/h, but no good at 60.” Never one to sit on his hands, Nev found the car’s original engineer, Tim Bartrop, now of Dr Tim’s Auto Engineering in Queensland, and flew him down to re-engineer the car. “We had to do the stability lane change and all that fun stuff,” Nev recalls.

There was a moment of stress when the government inspection guys pulled down the roller doors and impounded the car for two weeks. “They suspected it of being stolen and rebirthed, because they transposed some digits 35 years earlier,” Nev sighs. “No worries, as they transposed two more the second time!”

With the Holden V8 warmed up, Neville deftly drops into LEGAL8’s deep racing seat, just as he’s done hundreds of times since the car’s completion over Easter 1990. Once I’ve strapped myself into the passenger side, Nev pulls carefully out of his local backstreet, gives it a few neddies and suddenly I see God. Then a Stobie pole. Then God again. But I’m at peace.

Once we’re rolling straight, acceleration from 400-and-a-bit horsepower removes the air from my lungs; LEGAL8 is good for a 12.5-second quarter, after all. When we return, I feel I’ve well and truly touched the divine. So, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, here endeth the sermon of how LEGAL8 got legal. Amen.

NEVILLE & NAOMI PHILIPS
1964 EH HOLDEN

ENGINE
Type:355ci Holden V8
Intake:Edelbrock Performer
Induction:EFI
Heads:Aluminium
Pistons:Forged flat-top
Crank:355ci stroker
Oil pump:Bill Hanson custom
Ignition:MSD
Exhaust:Colin Townsend special
TRANSMISSION
Gearbox: Tremec TKX five-speed
Clutch:Twin-plate
Diff:Ford 9in
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front:Modified Austin 1800 rear-mount rack-and-pinion, custom Universal Springs, Koni shocks
Rear:Custom three-link, Spax coil-overs
Brakes:Commodore vented discs and Falcon calipers (f), HJ front drums (r)
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims:Simmons V5; 16×7 (f), 17×9 (r)
Rubber:Bridgestone Potenza 225/50R16 (f) Nankang Sportnex NS 255/40ZR17 (r)

THANKS
My wife Naomi; my son Hamish; Colin Townsend; Robert Wann; John Keen; Dave Addis; Ray Szach; all the people who helped us raise over $80,000 for the charities supported by the Aussie Muscle Car Run.

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