BRETT Birch loves custom vans built in the 70s and 80s. “There is nothing else like them,” he enthuses. “When it comes to cars they are the ultimate form of self-expression.”
Brett is the proud owner of one of the classics of the era: a custom Bedford van dubbed The Beast. And he’s got plenty of prior form. As a former custodian of iconic Australian show vans The Judge, Checkmate and Street Legal, he has a deep-seated passion for the historical aspect of custom vanning, which stems from being right in the thick of the action at a young and impressionable age.
“I got my licence in 1976, just as vanning was hitting its stride,” he says. “I would haunt Melbourne caryards back in those early years too. They were like mini-car shows with the amount of tough vans and cars on offer, jacked up on ramps, just waiting for starry-eyed young blokes like me to wander in and buy them.
But we never had the cash; I could’ve bought Bill Nagel’s Stargazer HQ for $13,000 back in ’78, but that was huge dollars at the time.”
Stargazer was one of Australia’s top show vans at the time, so Brett settled on something more in tune with his wallet. An HK van decked out in fur was soon filling the driveway, later upgraded to a tough purple HQ pano sporting plenty of 70s sniffer rake and 15x12-inch Mickey Thompsons hanging well clear of the rear guards.
As the years progressed, Brett deviated into classic cars, which was an interest he shared with his dad, Lance, and the pair tinkered with all manner of Benzes, Jags and Rolls-Royces.
“After my dad passed away, the classic stuff lost its shine,” he says. “My heart wasn’t in it anymore, so I sold the cars off. It was the mid- 90s by this stage, and I was flicking through the old Auto Supermarket weekly mag, and here’s The Judge Bedford for sale for $3000!
I couldn’t believe it. The old memories of the show vans I dreamed of came rushing back, and as soon as I saw those square-shouldered, fat-arsed Mickey Thompson tyres I just had to have it. It needed heaps of work, but I just loved owning it and seeing it in the shed.
“The rekindled passion snowballed from there. I bought the ex-John Roach Checkmate HJ Holden in ’97 and sold The Judge soon after, then purchased Dave Marsh’s old Street Legal Holden in 1998. You could buy old show vans for next to nothing back in those days
because no one wanted them, which was just fine by me,” Brett laughs.
“I drove the wheels off Checkmate; it was the best van I’ve ever had. But it was starting to need some significant cosmetic work, which I wasn’t too keen to do, so I sold it in 2006. In the meantime, Street Legal had been chosen for the Penrite Oil ads, which was very cool, but having the blower and all the fruit made it pretty high-maintenance for street use. I missed the ease of Checkmate and was really keen to get back into a van I could use more regularly.”
Rewind 30-odd years, and Adelaide couple Paul and Lorraine Pedler were putting the finishing touches on their wild custom 1972 Bedford van known as The Beast. And what a fitting name; the sinister black paint combined with Paul Barker murals and the evil-looking front end mods were a far cry from this Beddy’s years as a workhorse.
Initially bought as a tow car for their HQ show van, Obsession III, Paul and Lorraine created a multi-award-winning ‘big’ van that went on to be named Australia’s Top Van in 1987.
The original Holden red donk was turfed and replaced by a four-bolt 350 Chev that featured a Crane cam and fuellie heads along with an Edelbrock Torker intake and 750 Holley, with nitrous added for extra punch. In true vanner fashion, the engine was detailed to the nth degree and was viewable through a clear Perspex cover.
A shift-kitted Turbo 350 was installed, along with a nine-inch diff from a Galaxie, later replaced with a fully chromed Jag unit. The front end was upgraded with heavy-duty shocks and a sway-bar, and the old front drum brakes were swapped out for HZ discs. The entire undercarriage was detailed to perfection with extensive chrome and paint highlights, along with a polished alloy fuel tank.
But it was the in-your-face panel and paint that sealed The Beast’s identity, most notably that wild-looking front! Custom headlight units were fitted and covered with Perspex, shaped to complement the slotted aluminium grille. A steel bonnet scoop and front spoiler completed the nose.
The rear doors were welded shut and stacked tail-lights created using aftermarket Hella units, with twin aerials frenched into the upper roof corners. The side door was modified to open in gullwing fashion, and large Perspex bubble windows were blown and fitted, in keeping with the popular US trend at the time. A Charger fuel cap, Leyland P76 rear bumper and a VH SS Commodore rear spoiler were added in an era when mixing parts from different auto manufacturers was the norm – not punishable by death via social media. All door handles were shaved and the window apertures tapered at their rear edges for a more aggressive look.
Whopping great steel flares were added, necessary to cover a fat set of Dragway Splatts, shod by an even fatter set of Kelly Super Chargers.
Midnight Black Acran lacquer was layered on in multiple coats before legendary oldschool airbrush artist Paul Barker covered the exterior in appropriately themed murals.
The interior was treated to some serious square metres of blue crushed velvet and velour, covering TC Cortina front bucket seats,
Colour: Midnight Black
Engine: Holden 253ci Block: Factory cast Intake: Stock Carb: Stromberg Heads: Stock Cam: Mild hydraulic
Transmission: Trimatic Diff: Chev 12-bolt
Rear: Leaf springs Front: Factory wishbone and coils, lowered Brakes: Holden discs (f), drums (r)
Rims: Speedy Kalifonia; 14x7 (f), 14x10 (r) Tyres: Yokohama 245/50 (f), Kelly Super Charger G50-14 (r)
Custom front and rear restyling, VH Commodore rear spoiler, Leyland P76 rear bumper, Charger fuel cap, gullwing side door, tapered window apertures, large smoked bubble windows
A special thanks to Mick at Glenlyon Motors; Shaun Digby & Paul La Sala at Sunbury Collision Centre; Steve & Darren Hulett at S&P Hulett Truck Repairs; Peter at Sunbury Towing/Unique Car Transport; David Pinner for reupholstering the front seats
the overhead console and a custom dash. The spacious rear was outfitted with a double bed, cupboards and a TV, and a mirror-clad archway was created to separate the lounge and bedroom areas.
Soon after the 1987 Top Van win, The Beast stepped away from the spotlight and was missing in action from the vanning world for years, presumed lost for good. Then out of the blue it fronted at the 2003 Van Nationals held in Gympie, Queensland, looking a little age-weary but unmistakeable, before Brett spotted it at the Geelong Nationals in 2009.
“I hadn’t heard many positive comments about its condition, but after seeing it at Geelong I realised it wasn’t that bad,” Brett says. “I always liked the van and kept tabs on it for the next few years before finally purchasing it in 2012. I sold Street Legal and started getting the Bedford up to scratch.
“It’s taken a lot of elbow grease to get it to this stage both mechanically and body-wise, with some rust work above the windscreen and repairs to the roof spoiler – pretty much anywhere I can stay away from the murals!
“I’m lucky to know a great group of tradespeople who appreciate it and have gone above and beyond to help iron out any bugs and make it a fun, reliable van,” he continues. “I have made a few personal touches along the way, but they are in keeping with the era so don’t look out of place.
“I’m always curious to learn more about its history too; it disappeared for a long time and I would like to know where it has been; you know, to fill in the gaps.” s