BUILDING a Summernats cruiser was a pretty popular pastime in the early years of the event, but it seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times. The whole idea is to create a high-impact, lowbuck cruiser that will turn heads and ensure you and all your mates have a great time at the ’Nats – and that’s exactly what Dave and Robert Stephenson decided to do after visiting Summernats 30 as spectators.
“We used to go every year,” Dave says, “but we hadn’t been in a while because of young kids and families. We’d never actually been for a drive in a car at Summernats, always just been there as spectators, but a mate of a mate had an XD Falcon there and he took us for a couple of laps. It was heaps better than walking around, so we decided to bring a car for the next year.”
One of the things that had held Dave back in the past was thinking that a car had to be really good to be worth entering and they didn’t have anything that fit the bill. “The only way we could make something good enough is to make a Summernats cruiser, because then it doesn’t have to be so good but it’s worthy of entering,” he says. “Then it ended up good anyway.”
A big reason for that was due to the input of a certain friendly neighbour, some bloke you may have heard of before: Howard Astill. “On our way home from Summernats we were already on Gumtree [looking for the right car],” Dave says. We stopped at Macca’s on the way home and had a bit of a planning session with Howard. Within a couple of weeks we’d bought the car and got stuck into the driveline.”
The end result is this glorious WH Statesman. As you can see, in addition to an immaculate paintjob and luxurious seating for seven, the car’s had a pretty serious roof chop. In other words, there’s none of it left.
The tops of the doors were filled using exhaust pipe, and the areas around the mirrors and windscreen were also smoothed off
Even though the car was always planned as a cruiser, Dave and Robert also had another stipulation: It had to be able to do skids. So a few changes were made to ensure this wouldn’t be a problem: “We got rid of the IRS and put a live axle in it with 4.11 gears, put a Turbo 400 in it, a high-stall converter, made tailshafts and did all the suspension,” Dave says. All of this work was done and tested before the car got attacked with a grinder so there wasn’t the usual mad rush at the end to get the thing running just before the event. Of course, nothing ever goes entirely to plan, and there were a couple of speed bumps along the way that created some challenges.
Keen to do the right thing, Dave and Robert got in touch with Summernats staff indicating their intentions, and were told they would have to engineer every seating position and seatbelt mount. All of a sudden this fun little project was starting to sound too hard. Thankfully a bit of common sense prevailed when Summernats marketing manager Adrian Hodgson dropped around to Howard’s place to pay a visit and Dave asked him to come over and have a look.
REAR: The rear seats might look a bit high, but they are mounted as low as possible. The boot floor is unmodified and the fuel tank is still in the stock location
ENGINE BAY: Under the bonnet it’s all stock, although Kon at Wollongong Automotive Services threw a bit of a tune at it. It’s also got a twin 2.5in system to make some extra noise
Basically, they agreed that there were much wilder cars cruising around Summernats that would never have a hope of getting fully engineered for road use, so Adrian went back and had a chat to the powers that be and got back to Dave and Robert with the good news: “Build it and we’ll let the Summernats scrutineers decide.” By now it was December.
“The seats had to be fitted correctly, seatbelts had to be firmly mounted and all seating positions had to have seatbelts, but lap belts were sufficient,” Dave says. “The car got pulled out of the corner, dusted off and we started the job on 1 December! It turned out pretty good for the rush it was done in. At that point, the steel work wasn’t done, the welding wasn’t finished yet, none of the bog work was done, no interior was even thought of.”
Weld the doors up, chop off the roof, slap some paint on and go cruising – it might sound pretty straightforward, but it’s never that easy: “Every modification we made created another challenge,” Dave says. “Because we welded the boot lid shut, we had to modify all the taillights to make another way of fitting them to the car, because normally you get to them through the boot.” The rear bumper also presented the same challenges, as did the side skirts and door panels, as access to them was also welded shut. All of these little things take time, something that was rapidly disappearing. Then there was the not insignificant task of getting the car painted.
The colour is a custom mix by PPG, which they’ve dubbed Chopit Blue, a choice that was more to do with Dave’s job as a boat mechanic than anything else: “I wanted it to be sparkly blue like an 80s ski boat.” Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to do the full bass boat giant-metalflake treatment on it, but there’s still a bunch of sparkly stuff in the paint and it’s a pretty nice job thanks to Joel Smith, a good mate. “He painted it about midnight on a Friday night in late December, wearing a pair of thongs, half-pissed,” Dave laughs. “I just think it makes for a cool story because everyone sees it and says: ‘Man! Who painted it? They did a good job.’ It just makes it sound funny, like the car is supposed to be.” The fact Howard and Joel then spent hours colour-sanding and polishing the paint probably helps explain the impact it has.
Although the budget did blow out to twice what the guys had initially planned, it’s still a pretty cheap way to have a bunch of fun. “We had a budget of $5000 when we started and ended up spending $10,000,” Dave says. “A whole pile of people have given us stuff for free; that’s the only way it happened.” So make sure you have a read of the thank you list to see who helped out.
After a pretty hectic month, all the work paid off; Dave and Robert were cruising the Stato at Summernats 31. But that’s not all: The car even made it into the Top 60 hall, something no one was expecting! It just goes to show that with a good idea, some wheeling and dealing and not much money, you can build a high-impact car without breaking the bank – and have a great time doing it.
The plan was to build the car that friends and family could enjoy at Summernats – and do skids. Mission accomplished
DAVE & ROBERT STEPHENSON HOLDEN WH STATESMAN SUMMERNATS CRUISER Paint: PPG Chopit Blue
DONK Type: LS1 Exhaust: Twin 2.5in
’Box: Turbo 400, manual valvebody
Converter: 3500rpm stall
Diff: BorgWarner, 4.11 gears, mini-spool
Front suspension: VE Commodore coil-overs
Rear suspension: V6 Prado front springs, Panhard bar, four-link by owner
Brakes: Slotted discs (f & r)
Rims: TSW Stowe; 20x8.5 (f & r)
Rubber: Kapsen SportMax S2000 245/35/20 (f & r)
Howard Astill of Astill Design for welding and neighbourly advice; Joel Smith for paint; PPG for paint supply; TSW Wheels; Mothers; Dave at Figtree Automotive Transmissions for donating the biggest-cost items completely free of charge; Wishart’s Paint Solutions; Bellambi Motors; Kon from Wollongong Automotive Services for the tune-up; Roger from Frankie’s Auto Electrics for the stereo; Mirka for sandpaper supply; Garage Graphix; Albion Park RSL Club for the pub umbrella
UMBRELLA: Dave reckons the pub umbrella was a stroke of genius. Plenty of shade and no restriction to the flow-through ventilation
BODY: To get some strength back into the car after lopping off the roof, the doors were welded shut. Getting the sides of the car back into shape and looking this good took a fair bit of work!
WHEELS: TSW supplied a set of its Stowe wheels. They’re 20x8.5 all ’round and wrapped in 245/35/20 rubber
INTERIOR: The stock console was modified to suit the B&M Pro Ratchet shifter, which is attached to a manualised Turbo 400 built to handle any abuse thrown at it. Finding another set of Caprice seats for the rear to match the fronts was one of the toughest jobs