IT’S A fine line between pleasure and pain when building a retro-inspired project.
Balancing the elements of new and old is crucial in order to avoid an identity crisis that can see your finished build looking a little ‘confused’. You know what I’m talkin’ about, Willis: It’ll be the early Holden painted Harlequin but dripping with Nasco accessories; the nostalgia hot rod rolling on 20-inch rims; or – heaven forbid – the flat-black Hyundai Excel sporting 50s-style flames.
That said, the 70s custom panel van and modern-day street machine would be two of the most challenging polar opposites to combine into a single build.
Why? For starters, you’re morphing an era of styling excess – where more is more – with one of measured restraint. Then of course there are custom van hallmarks such as wild interiors and murals that clash with the sophistication and refinement of current elite builds.
Sure, there have been a number of panel vans built as street machines, but it takes a keen eye and dedicated build plan to properly execute a modern-day, old school-inspired van.
Frits Pel has proven he is more than up to the task with the build of his XC Falcon Sundowner – dubbed Jaffa – which has netted him plenty of tinware and a significant following over the past three years.
“Everyone can relate to a panel van, regardless of the make or model,” Frits asserts.
“They’re an Aussie icon, with a shape that makes them recognisable to people of all ages. It’s this connection that makes a big difference when compared to building a sedan, wagon or ute – you can really go to town with the personality of a van.”
And Frits would know. He’s been around the van and car scene since he was a young teen and purchased this particular XC when he was just 18; having just celebrated his Hawaii Five-O, that’s a cool 32 years of ownership.
“I started with an XA van when I first got my licence, and had just begun customising it when it was written off by a red light runner,” he recalls. “I found this XC in the old Photo Buys magazine [the forerunner to Unique Cars – Ed.]. It was Flame Red, and as a Sundowner came with stripes and tailgates instead of the normal barn doors.”
Colour: Candy Apple ‘Jaffa’ Red
Make: Ford 4.1L
Block: Factory cast Crank: Stock Camshaft: Crow hydraulic Head: Cast-iron crossflow Intake: Redline Carb: 350cfm Holley Ignition: Scorcher electronic, ICE leads Exhaust: Pacemaker extractors, 2.25in single system
Gearbox: Four-speed single-rail Diff: BorgWarner, 3.23 gears
Front: 2in-lowered King springs Rear: Heavy-duty leaf Brakes: XF Falcon discs (f), standard drums (r)
Rims: MC Racing; 18x8.5 (f), 20x9.5 (r) Tyres: Sailun; 225/40 (f), 255/35 (r)
My partner Tracey Freeman; John Bronstring, JAB Airbrushing; David ‘Sway’ Watson; John Robins; Joel Davis; Gary Scicluna; Michael ‘Micka’ King; Budgie; Domenic Ravi-Pinto; Janet Considine; all of the iconic vanners who have guided me over the past 32 years
The Jaffa moniker was a done deal within hours of its purchase; Frits’s mates in the Northern Suburbs Panel Van Club made certain of that. “They thought it looked like a Jaffa, being red with a brown interior, and the name stuck. But I liked it and it gave me a theme to use straight away.”
It wasn’t long before some changes were made, and Frits scored 29th place in the Top 30 at the 1986 Combined Nationals held in Wagga. “I got the bug, no question,” he laughs. “I would annoy the judges for advice and hound the big gun van builders like Dave Marsh [Street Legal] and Ken Dawson [Foxy Lady] for advice on how to improve it. When you’re 18, those guys are your idols and I just wanted to be like them with a van of the same calibre; the hobby had turned into a passion.”
It’s this passion that marks the van’s latest incarnation – build number five in the Jaffa legacy, and the toughest to date: “It was a nightmare to be honest and hard yakka from start to finish,” Frits says. “It was never meant to be so complex but it had to stay driveable and practical. Too many old show vans left the scene for rebuilds and never came back; Jaffa deserved better than that, so it was all about persevering until it was done.”
Three decades as Frits’s primary interest meant the windowless body was in very good condition for its age, so it required only minor tweaks such as shaving all the badges and a focus on panel alignment to ensure it was ready for paint. Wallan Smash Repairs took care of any necessary body updates before the van was shipped off to a different business for paint.
Candy Jaffa red was laid down over a silver and white base before John Bronstring from JAB Airbrushing weaved his amazing talent, initially covering just the main cargo surfaces with movie-inspired murals. After all, rolling Jaffas down cinema aisles is a time-honoured Aussie tradition, so a film theme was a logical choice; check out the tailgate art!
Frits made it to the 2014 Moe Van Nationals with the XC in an unfinished state, but it wasn’t long before trouble began brewing with the van’s exterior.
We’ve all heard horror stories of guys laying down hard-earned coin for horror paintjobs that need to be stripped bare and redone, but spare a thought for Frits, who not only lost complex candy top coats but hours of high-end airbrushing. “The red was starting to bleed through the murals, so there was no choice left but to strip it back and start again,” he says. “It was a devastating blow, but the 40th Australian Van Nationals at Bathurst was less than 12 months away, so I just picked myself up and got busy. It had to be there.”
The candy Jaffa was reapplied, before John once again created a movie-car and robotic masterpiece, this time covering all body panels bar the roof to create the XC’s tattoo-like bodysuit.
Frits and good mate David ‘Sway’ Watson tackled the undercarriage and engine bay, detailing the suspension and driveline with a mix of chrome and paint, while additional mural work adorns the under-bonnet, fuel tank cover and door jamb areas.
The van retains its matching-numbers six-cylinder, four-speed running gear, which was a Sundowner rarity even when new. “I’ve never seen another six-cylinder XC Sundowner in the flesh, and chose to keep it this way to be different,” Frits says.
This specification, from an era when V8 conversions were king, creates a uniqueness similar to that of a 186S Monaro – you just don’t see them. The 250-cube straight-six remains essentially stock but received a tickle-up by way of mild headwork, a Crow hydraulic cam, 350 Holley and sports exhaust.
The brakes and suspension remain as per Ford Australia, albeit with an XF front disc upgrade and a two-inch lowering job. Jaffa has worn a number of different wheel and tyre combinations over the years, the latest being MC Racing five-spokes in 18x8.5 and 20x9.5 sizes wrapped in Sailun 225/40 and 255/35 rubber respectively.
Sundowners featured front interior appointments matching that of the GS and GXL range, which remain intact on Jaffa, but retrimmed by Joel Davis at JD Auto Interiors in a custom mix of chocolate vinyl and velour with red piping.
Slip on through the custom-era archway and you’ll find matching materials have been employed to deck out the rear of the van, which houses a significant Clarion sound system and clever Jaffa detailing.
“I’m always asking myself how I can improve the van,” Frits says. “When you build a vehicle you know its faults or idiosyncrasies, so it’s currently stripped of its running gear again for a full floorpan and undercarriage makeover.
“I’m lucky to have an amazing partner, Tracey, who is my backbone and muse with the build of Jaffa; she supports me unconditionally and gives me a push when I need it. I also have a fantastic support crew who are always willing to lend a hand and pep me up when things get tricky.
“Once the undercarriage changes are done that will be it; it’ll be time to rest easy and cruise the wheels off it,” he declares. “I have an XB GS panel van in the build and an XD S-Pack van nearly on the road, so those two will be enough to keep me busy and keep my hands away from making any more changes to Jaffa – I hope!” s