IF IT has wheels, then it’s likely Rob Upton is a fan. Cutting his teeth on track bicycles and custom vans as a young bloke, Rob has spent the ensuing decades honing his passions for both pedal power and cool cars. His interest in bikes has seen him compete at an international level, while his love for four wheels was nurtured through a hands-on childhood. Here are a few rides from Rob’s past; we’ll take a look at his current collection in part two.
This article on Rob’s cars was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Street Machine
1. When your birthday is the same date as Christmas Day, it’s inevitable that you’ll score some great combo presents, and for a three-year-old Rob it was this sweet pedal car. “I loved that thing and clocked up some serious miles in it,” he remembers. “It was cool. It had battery-operated front and rear lights, and looked the goods with two-tone paint and chromies. It just seemed to disappear from my life, but it was a hand-me-down society back then so most probably got passed on to younger friends or family.”
2. Rob’s earliest living memory is the sound of his late father Dennis using a block and tackle to pull the grey motor out of his FE Holden. “It was the early 60s, so I would have been only two or three years of age,” he says. “I always loved playing with tools and parts, and in this pic I’m hard at work on the wheel nuts. The crazy part is I still have all of the tools in this photo, and even that grease can sits in my workshop! Dad loved his Holdens and the FE was traded on an ex-demo EH Premier in early 1965.”
3. Rob was an impressionable teenager smack-bang in the middle of the van era, and it wasn’t long before he had a tough pano of his own. “I was blown away by vans like John Evans’s Tangerine Dream HQ, Greg Tarte’s Misty Blues XB and Bill Nagel’s Stargazer HQ. I had to get in on the action, so bought this HQ Aquamarine-coloured HK van while still on my Ps. I paid $2999 for it in 1977 and it already had the 350 Chev and Powerglide, along with a GTS dash, guards and knee-knocker console tacho. The banjo diff lasted one night – seriously – so I fitted a 12-bolt Chev diff.” Dubbed Time Machine, the van’s identity was forged through plenty of cash and hard work, and looked tough with an XX308-inspired Statesman grille, moulded A9X Torana flares and Perry street zoomies. Extended rear shackles and a set of ROH Wildfire mags wrapped in fats found their way onboard, as did plenty of fur in the rear [we think he means the material! – Ed.].
4a. Sadly, Time Machine got stolen and stripped in 1979. “I pieced it back together as a driver, then traded it on a bronze LC GTR XU-1,” Rob says. “I always thought Toranas were a fun little car and my love for them stemmed from when an XU-1 would drive past my school every morning and I used to wait for it; there’s something about the sound of a hot six-cylinder that is just so ‘right’.
4b. We bought the yellow LC in 1980 for my wife Donna. It looked awesome from the street but was written-off down one side, so we fixed it up and my dad repainted it in the backyard. Dad was the go-to guy in our street, always fixing stuff for friends and neighbours, and he taught me how to weld, panel-beat and do mechanical work. This was actually a Bathurst-build GTR but for the ‘price’ class, so had coil-over shocks as part of a handling upgrade, while the 161 featured a steel crank and 186S carby; it was a freak performance-wise. We traded both of these LCs on a white SL/R 5000 Torana, which would ultimately become MR GAS.”
5. Mr Gas started life as a genuine 308-with-Trimatic SL/R 5000, which had been retrofitted with a Turbo 400 by the time Rob bought it in 1982. It served as a regular driver for a few years before Rob had a life-changing moment: “I was standing on Northbourne Avenue at the 1986 Street Machine Nationals when Wayne Pagel cruised past in GAS69 (Legend, SM, Jun ’17). My jaw dropped; it was the toughest thing I had ever seen, and the Brisbane Beauchamp/Carlson/Pagel conglomerate inspired me to go the extra mile for the ‘wow’ factor. I bought the McGee constant-flow injection from Graeme Cowin and convinced him I could adapt it for street use using a header tank and fuel bowl set-up I’d read about in a US mag. I even took his sons Andrew and John for a run in it once I got it sorted; they were only young kids back then.” We featured MR GAS in our December ’88 issue, not long before it was sold to help fund the purchase of a house. “It was crazy. I advertised it for $12K and didn’t get one enquiry; the next weekend I put it up for $20K and sold it for 15! It’s still around but has been given the factory L34 treatment with a drop tank and such, and sadly all the ‘street machine’ stuff is long gone.”
6. Cycling is in the Upton DNA; Rob’s grandfather was a medal winner in the 1920s and 30s, while his dad was NSW State Champion in 1942. “I was always going to be a bike rider and started racing in 1971 aged 11,” he says. “I was more an endurance rider than a sprint guy and raced overseas throughout the 80s. I retired when I was doing the car thing with MR GAS, but came back and trained hard for the Masters Series in the mid-90s.” Rob won 13 pro and elite medals in this time, and was crowned the World Points Race Champion in 1998. A serious crash sidelined him a number of years ago, and these days he chooses to dabble in low-key BMX and road rides, and keeps busy with his thriving business, Rob’s Bicycle Repairs at Broulee.
7. Rob’s wife Donna’s father owned this base-model VG Valiant Safari wagon from new, and it ferried her family all over Australia. “When we first met in the 70s, I had the bronze XU-1 and travelled up to Canberra to meet her parents,” Rob remembers. “I saw this parked in her driveway and thought: ‘A bloody Wog chariot. What have I got myself into?’ Eight years ago he bought a new Honda so gave us the wagon, which was such a great car to cruise around in; you always had a smile on your face driving it. It was a fun old thing but I had a weak moment and sold it to a board-shaper mate, who uses it as his surf wagon in Manly, so it’s happily living a charmed life.”