Nick Cockinos – My Life With Cars Part Two

More of the vans and characters that shaped Nick Cockinos's journey through the panel van heyday


IN PART one we were treated to the early vanning memories of Nick Cockinos and his mates in Renegade Vanners. Here we meet some of the vans and characters that shaped their journey through the panel van heyday. Nick’s collection of photos from old-school vanning shows are a goldmine, so let’s tuck in and take a look. “They were great times,” he says, “and I’d like give a special thanks to the Renegade crew: Scott Wilson (RIP), Peter Mordue, Dave Peterson, Stuart Flood and John Strachan for their support and inspiration.”

This article on Nick’s vans was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Street Machine

1. INNERVISIONS is one of Nick’s all-time favourite vans, with its unmistakeable custom nosecone and a heap of other cool body mods. “I really liked the vents grafted into each front guard, and the blown small-block Chev and undercarriage were detailed to perfection,” Nick says. “The owner and builder, Craig Godbee, found his calling creating interiors and went on to establish Newcastle Custom Trim.” Newcastle was a hub for groundbreaking vans like Innervisions, along with the likes of Checkmate, Buccaneer, Innocents and Street Legal.

2. These photos of Dave Marsh’s Street Legal are pretty special, as they show the van with plain black paintwork prior to the gold fogging being applied, and before it was rebuilt with blue detailing and a blown 308. “Vans like Street Legal featured true custom bodywork, not just bolt-on stuff,” Nick says.

Street Legal van“Normally at van shows we’d all walk around and admire the exteriors but not pay too much attention to the undercarriages. When vans of this calibre came along the whole scene shifted and the underbody detailing left us gobsmacked.”

3. Greg Mercer’s Invader 2001 was the peak of custom vanning in Australia and featured gullwing doors, a split-level wagon roof conversion, custom front end and a cut-down Porsche whale-tail for a roof spoiler. The interior was bursting with the latest in electronic gadgetry, moon-like burnished metal panelling, and 3000 LEDs. “Invader started life as an HZ Sandman and ran a Weber-fed 308. It blew us all away when it hit the show scene, and the Frank Lee murals were pretty risqué for the time – as was most of Frank’s work,” Nick laughs. “Mods like the frenched aerials and shaved door handles were straight from the early hot rod and custom scene, and it’s interesting to see how certain styling cues morphed from one car scene to the next.”

4. Nick once met vanning legend Fuzz Heinrich at John Strachan’s business, The Chrome Exchange. “You wouldn’t meet a nicer bloke,” he says. “His HZ Sandman, The Wizard, initially ran a 308, but then returned after a rebuild in the 80s with tunnel-rammed 429 big-block Ford power. It was a groundbreaking van that mixed and matched hot rod styling with vanning, but made it work. The Wizard epitomises the ‘dare to be different’ approach that was prevalent in the panel van and early street machine scene; people came up with a theme and stuck with it.” Imagine the whinging purists nowadays if you did that engine conversion – you’d melt the internet!

5. Many will recognise this heavily chopped HQ panel van as the infamous Alien, which has skirted the van scene in unfinished form for the past 30-plus years. “One of our Renegade Vanners, Phil Roseman, bought it from a car show and removed the body from the heavily detailed chassis to sort more of the panelwork,” Nick explains. “It ran a 308 with the tunnel-ram and carbs off Alley Cat, but didn’t progress much further under Phil’s ownership. That chop was six inches or something wild; this project definitely wasn’t for the faint-hearted. It had a really cool fabricated centre console, and I heard recently it is still around, so it may get finished one day.”

6. Craig Norman from South Coast Van Club built this clean Holden van dubbed Centrefold, which was typical of mild custom vans of the late 70s and early 80s. A full grille with quarter bumpers, Ford side vents, sunroof and wagon rear bumper may have been fairly common modifications, but choosing an identity for a van and wrapping that theme up via colour, artwork or styling choices was often all it took to make your ride stand out from the rest. “The beauty of Holden, Falcon and Valiant panel vans is they’re all great shapes that lend themselves easily to personal touches,” Nick says. “Sure, there were a heap of Holden vans around, but our club was proof that you could make that same basic body shape look markedly different using a bit of individual creativity.”

7. John Strachan, of Alley Cat Jag V12 van fame, became an honorary member of Renegade Vanners and is pictured here at the counter of his old business The Chrome Exchange. “John’s shop was a mecca for hot rodders, street machiners and vanners alike, and I was like a kid in a lolly shop with all the cool stuff he had available.” The business started here in a rented half of a Shell service station at Kensington, Sydney, before shifting to larger premises in Arncliffe. John shaped vanning in many ways with his various builds of Alley Cat, and his innovative personality was evident in what he offered at The Chrome Exchange – like his mail-order Big Mutha 80A alternators or his Hotbitz range of Allen-head bolt sets: “They were great; you could walk in and buy a shrink-wrapped packet with all the chrome bolts you’d need for, say, a 308 Holden or 350 Chev, or for the engine bay of your FX-WB Holden or XW-XD Falcon.”

8. A move to the west coast saw Nick shift focus to his passion for two wheels, and his current ride is a 2008 Kawasaki ZX-14. “I’ve owned this since new and have clocked up plenty of miles, including a return trip home to Sydney,” he says. “I airbrushed the front guard to personalise it a little. The love for modified cars still burns brightly too; travelling around on this bike has opened my eyes to what sorts of raw materials are still lurking around, so you can never say never – there are plenty of vans here in WA that are just dying to be bought up and built, so maybe it’s time to dust off my Renegade Vanners jacket and turn back the clock!”