We all love a sleeper, but in the history of Australian street machining, one sleeper stands above them all: Shane Bridge’s Mk1 Cortina (SM, Apr/May ’90). We thought it was time to chat with the creator of this little weapon to see how this all unfolded more than 30 years ago.
First published in the December 2022 issue of Street Machine
What got you interested in cars in the first place, Shane?
I started out like most of us do, I think; I was just a young kid watching my dad and helping him out. I was amazed at what he could do with his hands and the things he could do and fix with limited tools.
He loved his cars – especially large American cars with big engines – and I guess it got me hooked.
What was your first car, and what was the first build you modified?
It was one and the same, actually – an EK Holden panel van that I bought when I was 15. I flared the rear guards to put a big set of mags and Gates Renegade tyres under the back, completely wire-brushed the underbody, and then painted the entire car black.
It still had the stock sideplate grey motor, but I made a mustard-yellow, diamond-tuft interior for it.
Was there a particular car that inspired you as a young bloke?
One street car that caught my eye early on was from a US magazine back in around 1977.
It was a black 1955 Chev built by Gary Kollofski; that car was outrageous to me then and still is today. It was a Hot Rod magazine-featured street car that ran a blown big-block Chev with huge rear tyres tucked under tubs, along with a Dzus-clipped front end; this was well before the whole pro street scene took off, too.
I also loved everything to do with American Pro Stock drag racing; they seemed like grassroots factory cars that went real quick and looked awesome, especially when they started to tuck those huge rear tyres under the body. I just knew I wanted to build one for the street, a tubbed ’67 Mustang fastback.
When was that?
It was 1975, and I was 17 years old. I found that Mustang for sale near where I was living in Townsville. The plan originally was to tidy it up and flip it to help fund a ’37 Willys roadster I was building, but after driving and street-racing the Mustang, I felt it could become the ‘street pro stocker’ I’d been dreaming of – the term ‘pro street’ wasn’t around in the late 1970s.
So I sold the Willys, swapped out the Mustang’s 302 Windsor for a big-block, added Center Line Auto Drags, and then drove it all the way from Townsville to Albury for the 1979 Street Rod Nationals; that thing didn’t miss a beat. The rear tyres were big but still too small for me, so in late ’79 I decided to up the ante for the 1980 Narrandera Street Machine Nationals and completely back-halved the car.
A 21-year-old cutting up a ’67 Mustang fastback wouldn’t have been too common in 1979!
That’s for sure. I did a lot of research and studied pictures in car magazines, and I was lucky to have met a local hot rodder called Ian McConnell, who showed me the finer points of design, fit and finish. His guidance was a big confidence booster, and I just used a lot of basic common sense, too.
I built the chassis, narrowed the rear end and did the 10-point ’cage and aluminium interior. The largest tyres I could find with tread were McCreary sprintcar tyres – they were huge – and my ‘pro stocker for the street’ vision all came together.
Let’s fast-forward a few years; I think your Mk1 Cortina with big-block Ford power was one of the first true, iconic sleepers. How did that build come about?
That Cortina makes me smile every time I think of it. The inspiration for that also harks back to 1977, and a story I read about a little street-racing Mustang II called ‘Sudden Death’. It was built by Wayne Gapp and Jack Roush for one of their customers and had a Roush-built big-block Ford set way back in the engine bay.
Their reputations precede them, of course, so you can imagine that the Mustang was very successful. I loved the concept of this car, and wanted to build something similar but put my own spin on it. Whereas Sudden Death looked fairly plain, it still had massive rear wheels under the back, but I wanted my version to look completely tame.
Nowadays, the ‘grandpa’ look is popular, but back then, cars like the Mk1 Cortina were still common on the road and it was rare to want a car that looked like something your grandpa would drive!
You’re 100 per cent correct, but for me the sleeper idea always made sense, and my Cortina just blended in with all the rest. Especially in Queensland at that time, modification laws were so strict, which is why it became the ‘sleeper state’, with whitewall tyres and a venetian being the norm well before many of the other states followed that trend.
I even owned a matching, stock-standard ‘rego’ Cortina to help get away with the whole ruse; that too was more common than you’d think.
To have a car that had lots of engineering and fabrication under a stock exterior was the ultimate betrayal [laughs]. Cortinas were the perfect platform for a sleeper, too; they were a proven choice for drag racing by that stage and had surprisingly large engine bays for their size.
“I fabricated the engine plates and tube work behind the firewall so the engine itself became part of the frame”
The one I found was a perfect low-mileage original just begging for that big-block transplant. Some of the sleeper details that I’d been thinking about over the years I could finally put into this build.
I reckon if I showed nearly anyone of that era the photo of the 2.5-inch-into-pea-shooter exhaust from our 1990 feature, they would know it was your Corty instantly.
Totally. That exhaust mod was necessary for the discreet look. I ordered a brand-new stock rear muffler from an exhaust shop, and when I went to pick it up, I measured four inches from the end and got them to put the drop saw through it.
I then went home and welded it all together; it was sneaky, but it worked well. The skinny wheels and hubcaps, sickness strap and rear venetian were now important ingredients for that whole illusion, whereas that was normally the stuff we used to throw away to get the cool look.
A 429-cube Ford engine is called a big-block for a reason. Was it difficult to fit that and the C6 automatic?
It definitely took a lot of thought, engineering and hard work, but it’s fun when you’re doing it with a pretty set outcome in mind. I fully seam-welded the body to strengthen it, and fabricated the engine plates and tube work behind the firewall so the engine itself became part of the frame.
The car became like a white engine stand you could drive [laughs]. I made a removable trans tunnel and two-section engine sump with twin large balance hoses, which itself sat over a recessed crossmember.
I built 30-inch-long, equal-length two-inch extractors, but I had to split the primaries on each by running two of the pipes in the engine bay and the other two through the inner guards to make it work.
They ran through to a twin 2.5-inch exhaust, which of course funnelled into the deceptive rear muffler.
Setting up the nine-inch diff width and rear-wheel offset to match that of a stock Cortina rear end is perfect, and the near-standard interior with the subtle shifter and minimal gauges looked great.
I hid a couple of sneaky switches in the ashtray, too, and had to cut the back off the original radio because the firewall was directly behind it [laughs]. That was the fun stuff – just like shortening the glovebox to two inches deep for the same reason, but retaining the original owner’s manual.
How you see it in the feature is exactly how I drove it – with my wife Robyn and younger brother Jon – from Queensland to the Summernats. I sold the Cortina pretty soon after it was featured, and am glad it still survives; it actually came up for sale again not long ago and still looks the part.
Is there anything you miss about those foundation years of Aussie street machining?
I think we were happy to try all sorts of modifications to different kinds of vehicles back then, and some awesome, iconic cars were built because of that. Things started to get harder for street machiners with more rules and regulations making registration difficult, but that seems to be easing in some areas nowadays, with better engineering practices and approval methods being implemented.
At least there’s more chance of building your dream car if you’re prepared to put in the hard yards.
And what’s in the garage nowadays?
In the mid-90s, I built a black-and-purple XK Falcon for Robyn (SM, Dec ’95), but lately I have been working on a 1955 Ford Customline that used to be my dad’s. I’ve cut out a heap of rust and lengthened the front doors to make it a two-door, but this’ll stay just as a stock-ish cruiser. I also have an ’85 Toyota HiLux Xtra Cab; I’ve given it a bare-metal respray and added some custom touches.
So I definitely have enough to keep me busy. I had an absolute ball building cars like the Mustang and Cortina, and they changed my life for the better. My wife Robyn and my family have always been by my side and I can’t thank them enough, and we’ve met so many great people along the way.
Where is the iconic Cortina now?
The Shane Bridge Cortina is still around and was recently purchased by Sydney-based engineer Con Constantinou, who loves the car’s history and intends to give it a much-needed birthday.