The incredible legacy of Mario Colalillo

Hot-rodding and customising legend Mario Colalillo left behind a lasting legacy

Photographers: Peter Bateman, SM Archives

One of the best parts of working for Street Machine is that the stories you get to write are usually feel-good yarns about someone’s journey with their car where there’s a happy ending. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with this one, although it’s still a privilege and an honour to share some of my memories of a man who ended up becoming a big part of my life, a man I met right at the start of my career as a freelance journalist with SM. Sadly, Mario Colalillo passed away on 12 November 2018 from a heart attack aged just 60, and while he had achieved so much, he still had so much more to offer – not just as a car guy but as a father and husband.

First published in the February 2019 issue of Street Machine

I first met Mario and his son Andy on my very first assignment covering the Sydney Car Festival at Rosehill Racecourse back in March 2004. I knew of the man from reading about his cars in many magazine features, so when I tracked him down I went up and introduced myself. Mario was at the event because he had his amazing custom ’55 Cadillac, King Cad (SM, Sep ’03) on display inside, but because he never liked to do things the easy way, he also had his ’34 Ford coupe and his ’40 Ford pick-up (SM, Nov ’01) cruising around outside. As most people will attest, after five minutes of meeting him he made you feel like part of the family.

Proof of that was when he threw me the keys to the pick-up and Andy and I chucked a few laps around the racecourse. The fact that ’40 pick-ups are one of my favourite body styles – and Mario’s one particularly thanks to its stunning flame job over silver paint and killer stance – made it all the more an amazing experience.

Over the ensuing years I got to know Mario a lot better. He had plans, big plans, and was always open to telling us at SM what he was up to next. He knew the benefit of getting the word out and building excitement around his projects, as well as letting the rest of the people in the scene know what he was up to and, in a sense, staking a claim on a particular build style or design element.

He was also pragmatic about the build process and knew these major projects took a lot of time. I vividly remember him telling me while we were chatting about Wild Cad (SM, Oct ’10) that he had to think about where trends would be in five years’ time. It was no use following the current styles, because the car would be dated before it even hit the show scene.

Mario was deeply passionate about custom cars and was doggedly determined to increase the profile and popularity of customs in Australia. This passion led to Mario creating a partnership of sorts with legendary US painter and customiser Gene Winfield, bringing him to Australia to paint several cars and hold metalworking courses. He even pulled together a bunch of cars at MotorEx 2012 for the Kavalkade of Kustoms, a show within a show featuring most of the coolest customs in the land. This was all made a lot easier thanks to the success Mario had achieved in the US.

After debuting Wild Cad at MotorEx in 2010, the car was shipped over to the US to tackle the show scene for 12 months. It competed and took home trophies from two of the most prestigious shows in the world, the Grand National Roadster Show and the Sacramento Autorama.

But following the car’s appearance at the SEMA show in Las Vegas, Mario’s body told him it was time to slow down. The stress and physical effort to get the car on display resulted in Mario suffering a heart attack and completely missing out on the show. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery and did manage to make it back to the US to enjoy the car’s successes.

While it was customs that kept him busy most recently, deep down Mario was a hot rodder with a long history in the hobby. While he was flat-out chopping roofs and dreaming up wild metalflake paintjobs, a couple of his earlier rides waited patiently in the shed. His ’39 Plymouth coupe had evolved from an old 60s mild custom owned by George Clark to a jet-black street rod nice enough to be featured in Australian Street Rodding #67. It then underwent another major overhaul that saw it gain a set of tubs, ground-scraping stance and a high-revving, blown and injected methanol small-block that powered the car to nine-second quarters. It was so cool we featured it in the August 2002 issue of SM.

He also had a traditionally styled ’34 roadster way before it was cool to have that kind of thing in Australia. From that car he developed a side business creating exacting replicas of ’34 grille shells. There was also a chopped ’63 Pontiac Parisienne (SM, Nov ’01) and a ’34 Ford coupe, as well as a couple of motorbikes to fill any gaps in the shed. Yep, he didn’t stuff around, he just made it happen.

It’s fair to say that cars were a massive part of Mario’s life, but alongside him every step of the way was a tight-knit group of family and friends. His son Andy is well on his way to carrying on the Colalillo tradition of having way too many cool rides in the shed, and if you look at the line-up of cars at the recent memorial event for Mario and the number of people that came to pay their respects, it’s plain to see how many lives he touched.

What is most heartbreaking about the whole story is that Mario and his soulmate, the beautiful Catriona, had just finished setting up their new life away from the rat race with a stunning new house and a massive shed on the NSW South Coast. They were set for many more years of time spent together, playing with cars, fishing and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Sometimes life sucks. We’re all going to miss you, bro.

Some of Mario’s iconic creations:

1. Above: After half a lifetime building hot rods, Mario gave customising a trial-run with his Pontiac (pictured below), and then dived in the deep end with his 1955 Caddy De Ville, King Cad. Inspired by US custom kings Richard Zocchi, Rick Dore and John D’Agostino, Mario and his team hit the ambitious concept out of the park.

2. Mario bought this Pontiac for just $800 and turned it into a wild chopped cruiser.

3. Catriona’s FB van started life as a ute and was chopped by Gene Winfield on one of his many visits to Australia – and treated to a fade-away paintjob too.

4. Mario was one of the original Nostalgia Drag Racers of Australia and developed his ’39 Plymouth into a weapon, running a best ET of 9.03. It also won the Supernats Grand Champion gong three times running!

5. The ’40 pick-up was originally built by Ron and John Zelukovic, but became one of Mario’s signature rides.

6. Mario took his incredible Wild Cad to the US in 2010, where it wowed the Yanks every at every show it appeared at. He came away with trophies from the Grand National Roadster Show and the Sacramento Autorama.

It was pretty epic watching Gene Winfield paint Wild Cad. Here’s Mario with Gene and a few of his Beatnik bros admiring the amazing, and still wet, fade job.