WHEN Queenslander Gavan Starr-Thomas bought a ’62 Willys Jeep wagon, he had no intentions of turning it into the wild art deco-inspired custom you see here.
In fact, he was forbidden from touching it. “I gave the owner a commitment that I wouldn’t modify the car in any way, as at that time I had no reason to think otherwise. Sorry!”
Sure, he may not have kept his promise, but only the most rigid purist could fail to be impressed by the two-door wagon’s transformation. Instead of building something really in-your-face, Gavan has turned the car, dubbed Swell, into a classy art deco custom thanks to the lowered roof height and new 1930s front and rear ends, as well as one of the craziest interiors we’ve seen in a while.
“I wanted to build a woody wagon hot rod, as my wife and I are avid surfers, and our holidays always involve surfing, camping and, more recently, caravanning in our vintage 1964 Sunliner caravan,” Gavan says of his initial ideas for the build. “Swell was going to be a woody, but after seeing two green woodies at consecutive MotorEx shows, and with an ever-increasing love of [Japanese hot rod, custom and lowrider builder] Junichi Shimodaira’s work, I decided to follow a different path.
“A mate of mine, Warren Flynn, and I started the build with modifications to the chassis,” he continues. “We mounted the donk, ’box and diff, and then proceeded to chop it. And that was when we both ran out of talent.
“The car sat for two years while I endeavoured to get someone on board to finish it off for me, but I didn’t realise the enormity of the project. I had 12 people look at the car, but then while attending a vintage caravan weekend we met up with Brad and Joanne Sellick from Kingaroy who had just started El Rancho Kustoms.
He subsequently visited us and was happy to do the car, as well as paint our Sunliner caravan.”
Brad, Gary Sellick and Carl Hillman from El Rancho chopped the top nine inches, and switched the plain-Jane front end with a far more curvaceous ’37 Willys front clip, paired with 1939 Willys rear guards. The running boards are custom, while the Chrysler Airflow provided inspiration for the custom spats and a continental-style spare tyre cover. A Fulton sun visor lives up top, the headlights were frenched and custom LED blinkers and polished stainless grille trim were fitted up. Out back, 1939 Chev tail-lights featuring LED technology have been used.
Hidden behind the Ford Galaxie 15-inch steelies are a set of Falcon disc brakes from Hoppers Stoppers, with AU 300mm drilled discs and twinpiston calipers up front on HQ stub axles, and single-piston AU calipers in the back. Hoppers also threw in a VN Commodore master cylinder to suit
As with so many pieces on the car, that stocklooking dash hides heaps of work, as Gavan explains. “Brad and I were walking past one of the cars in his yard, and I thought the ’47 Oldsmobile dash was so cool. It was rooted, but he thought it’d fit, so we tacked it in. The gauges were stuffed so I sent them to the USA to be rebuilt. The glovebox lid is a clock, and that was missing, but the guys in the USA had a clock and restored the instruments, and it came back just amazing”
Complementing the sleek art deco designs on Swell are the Harley fishtail-style exhaust tips jutting through the custom rollpan. They match the custom stainless trim on the nose, and the racks on the Porsche black vinyl roof
Swell rides on an HG Kingswood front end, featuring HG bushes and springs, with Koni shocks and an SV21 Camry steering rack hooking into an Ididit column. The rear end still uses Jeep leaf springs, aided by Chev Silverado tow-assist airbags and Koni shocks
The Ranchero seats were trimmed in portcoloured distressed leather supplied by Relicate Custom Leather & Care, custom-dyed to match a similarly hued Laminex chip Gavan had chosen.
The Hawaiian barkcloth headlining and side panels provide a wild contrast to the cowhide and satin Rescue Green dash, and it’s all finished off with pinstriping on the dash, Hemco blood red seatbelts and sand-coloured Porsche Germanweave carpet with port-coloured beading
The engraved glass adds an awesome lowrider touch to the car. “We did a tiki-carving course and met Tertia Starr-Maynard, who fleshed out a rough sketch of mine, and then Kelly Crane from Kingaroy sandblasted and engraved the drawing onto the rear cargo glass,” Gavan says.
“The Polynesian theme flows through the glass, the carved armrests and tiki shifter. I wanted to involve elements from surfing, custom cars and Polynesian culture”
“In 2014 we took the car from El Rancho to do the plumbing, get the engine running and the car driveable,” says Gavan of the 5.3-litre LM7 Gen III V8 that powers Swell. “I’d bought the engine in 2004, so I had genuine concerns about its willingness to start and run reliably.”
Thankfully, these 327-cube late-model truck motors are superhardy and the stock motor was all good to be pressed into service once more, hidden under a custom engine cover and expelling gases through a custom exhaust. The stock 4L60E auto has been used behind it, with a nine-inch slotted out back.
With the fab work done, Gavan and Julie decided to take Swell to Brett Wentworth. An old mate of Gavan’s, Brett runs Flat Six Motorsport, a Porsche Motorsport shop in Brisbane. “The day the car arrived [at Flat Six] we had it disassembled and the chassis on its way to being sandblasted and painted,” Gavan explains. “Brett is a one-man band approaching 60, and to this day I am amazed at his ability to work every day with enthusiasm and commitment.
“Directly across from Brett is Precision Body Works. After seeing a paintjob on a mate’s 911, we chose them to do the preparation and paint, and they were outstanding.”
Once the car was painted and assembled, Cameron Hayward and the boys at North Coast Custom Trim in Warana worked overtime on the cabin, blending parts from all Big Three car corporations. Ford Ranchero seats live up front, there are door handles from a Nash, and a ’55 Chev donated its electric window switches and its tiller, which was resized to a 15-inch diameter.
The gauges are ’47 Oldsmobile with upgraded internals by Williamson’s Instruments plus extras from Dakota Digital. The brake pedal is custom, Lokar supplied the accelerator and handbrake, and the Maori gear shifter was hand-carved by Marcus Thorn at Tiki Beat, as were the armrests.
“The glass needed to be custom-cut and fitted by A Vision Windscreens at Kunda Park, who were very accommodating and enthusiastic about their work,” Gavan says.
Amazingly, despite their dream taking almost 16 years to become a reality, Gavan and Julie have only entered Swell in a couple of shows, as they never intended for it to be a trophy hunter.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of special Porsches throughout my life and I wouldn’t drive them unless the temperature and humidity was right. I figure, at 62, I may not have many years of driving left, so I’m going to drive the arse off Swell and let the family worry about the maintenance when I pass on,” Gavan says.
“I didn’t build the car to win trophies but to be a daily driver. I wanted a piece of art, a sculpture of the ideas I had in my head throughout the build. I love detail, and making people stop and look. I love art that is different and being out there with design.”
Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but we reckon Swell is a killer piece. s
Gavan has a history of wild trim jobs, having had an era-correct pano back in the early 70s. “I bought an HQ panel van new that I did up in much the same extroverted style back in the day,” he says. “Cam the trimmer took my ideas for the Jeep’s interior and extrapolated it to perfection. I knew all the materials I wanted and he did things like making the sides up as a one-piece, like a panel van.
He did a perfect job”
Paint: Custom-mix Jeep Rescue Green
Type: 5.3L Chevrolet LM7 Gen III small-block Exhaust: Custom-made twin-system Management: Stock PCM
Box: 4L60E four-speed auto Diff: Ford 9in, 3.55:1 LSD
ROLLING Rims: Customised Rims: Customised Ford Galaxie steelies; 15x6.5 (f), 15x10 (r) Rubber: BF Goodrich; 215/65 (f), 275/60 (r)
Brad and Jo at El Rancho Kustoms for the effort they put into helping us achieve the outcome we have today; Chris Wells from BMV Engineering for some small fabrication jobs and his extraordinary enthusiasm, speed and craftsmanship; Troy Anderson at T&T Automotive & Marine for assisting me in getting the car to the point where engineering signatory Matthew Sawyer could provide the 12 blue plates required. During the build Mum and Dad passed away, and I will forever be indebted to them for the legacy they left, which has allowed us to get the car over the line