ART OF THE VEHICLE – DAVE DUNCAN

It all started when I spotted a picture on the South Australian Hot Rod Heritage Page on Facebook. A low slung channelled ’32 roadster, the candy apple red paint gleaming in the sun as it made its way along the dirt road into Brooksfield Dragway in South Australia. But this wasn’t an SA car, it was the roadster of West Aussie hot rodder Dave Duncan, and although I’d heard his name mentioned over the years and vaguely remembered something about the car ending up in France, I’d never met Dave or seen this picture before.

The car struck such a chord with me that I vowed to track Dave down, hoping that he was still around as I figured he’d be into his 70s by now as the photo I’m talking about was taken back in 1968. I put the word out and it wasn’t long before I had a contact number. I was a little hesitant about approaching him as I’d heard he liked to keep a pretty low profile and wasn’t sure how he’d take to someone wanting to put his story in a magazine.

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I’m glad to report that Dave was more than welcoming and we had a great chat about the early days of WA hot rodding, his car and what he’s been up to in the last 50 years or so. Although he prefers to fly under the radar, he’s still been very active in the car scene — but that’s not the only place his talents lie. Whether it’s graphic design, interior and set design or fine art, whatever Dave sets his mind to, you can bet it will be done to the highest level — except for electrical wiring, he can’t do that.

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Dave when he was just 16 back in the 50s.

Tell me about this photo. What was the car doing in SA?

That was 1968. They financed me to get the car across for their hot rod show and for me to attend so that they could have a representative from each state. I only stayed there for about four or five days from memory and then the car was given into the trust of David McDonald, who also was a hot rod builder.

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Was the ’32 your first hot rod?

I had a ’40 Ford coupe, I bought that — I’m a bit vague about years now because they go back so far — around about 1960 or ’61. It was brought to Australia by the American Consul and the guy from Planet Fisheries bought it for his son and he smashed it. Word got around that there was a ’56 T-bird as well at a place called Kimber’s [the towing company] so I went down there and the T-bird was there but I couldn’t see the ’40. They gave me the guy’s address and he eventually sold it to me for 180 pounds. It needed a new fender and a few bits and pieces and away I went — much to my father’s disgust.
As I said, I was totally obsessed with hot rodding and it started to develop and I wanted to do these things with the vehicle, but I was driving it as my daily driver, which made it difficult to pull it down. I would have had to have got another car.

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What was the inspiration for the styling of your roadster?

I saw a movie called The Lively Set and the hot rod in it had the front set very much like that [pointing to picture of roadster] and it was channelled, of course. I just said: “That’s how I’m going to build the car, and that’s the way it went.”

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Was it a complete car when you started with it?

There were no doors, there was a grille, no boot lid and I had to go around and acquire all those. It had a chassis, it was bobbed and Z-ed, someone had started on it, but it was in bits and pieces and I brought it back in a trailer.

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Were you reading American hot rod mags?

Oh yeah, of course.

Were there many others to bounce ideas off in Perth back then?

No, we were on our own really. A guy that helped me a lot was Colin Nasso, he was doing a ’32 simultaneously, it was quite a nice car painted metalflake purple. We knocked around a bit together, went on runs together and got into a bit of strife.

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It looks quite different to most Aussie channelled cars I’ve seen.

It did have a stance. It had a lovely profile and I have a shot [Dave digs through his photo album], there [pointing to a lovely overhead shot of the car]. Just the way it sat, little bit bobbed, but it drove like a pig, honestly. I liked the suicide front-end, and I don’t know if there were any others [in Perth] at the time that we had the first show [Car Spectacular] in ’66. I had a Compact Fairlane and they were beautiful cars to drive. It was horrible getting out of the Compact into this thing.

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Was there much planning in achieving that look?

I pretty much did it by feel. Rob Greentree was a speedcar driver who went to the US, but before he went he helped me. He’d built a speedcar, so Rob did a bit of welding for me, so I learnt a bit from him in that sense. But setting the car up and sitting the diff in and everything like that, quite frankly, it made sense. I read an article on how you set your motor in with a plum bob and just make sure the clearances were there so you can drive down the road.

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The car was originally white, why did you change to candy red?

That was how I envisaged the car from the beginning. It was called Moonstone, I liked it at the time but then I just got this bug. I pulled the car apart and completely rebuilt it.

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It wasn’t just a quick blow over?

No, I pulled it all apart and everything was done. Took about three months.

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Dave looking smooth in the T-Bird

How did it come about that the roadster was sold to a Frenchman?

I had it at a dealer in Hay St and he was happy to have it there because it attracted attention and he saw it in there. Him and his wife were travelling around the world and on their way home, saw the car and got in touch with me. We negotiated a deal, but it had to go to LHD, so I converted it for them. Not only did I get a sale, I got a job out of it as well!

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The car over in France 

And you did all this with a background in advertising, so you are self taught?

Absolutely. I spent around 15 years in graphics and advertising and then went out on my own dealing with cars and interior design and a whole range of different things. I gravitated to cars, because I wanted to. It wasn’t very clever — I don’t think — as I look back now, it didn’t make me a lot of money, but it gave me a lot of joy.

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Your photo-realistic art is amazing too.

I’ve done a series on motor cars — a Cord, a ’59 Cad rear end, Jag XK120 front end, ’48 Cadillac and I’ve just finished a ’40 Lincoln. What I’ve dealt with is mainly reflective surfaces and chrome. What I’m doing at the moment is a copper lift. I’m breaking away from cars a bit because I get labelled as ‘the car painter’. I want to continue in the realm of fine art.

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Some awesome paintwork from the man himself – so cool for the 80s!

It’s great to see that you’re still playing with cars too. What’s the latest project?

It’s another pickup truck, this time it’s a ’59. I’ve gone Gen 3, six-speed, Jag suspension all round — it’s taken a long time. I do all the paint and body and the concepts, this one’s got a chopped roof.

The other one was a ’57 that Lloyd Collier finished off. That looked amazing with the Cadillac front end.

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The ‘Black’ car has been completed but I am yet to shoot it – I must track Dave down again

There was quite a bit of surgery. You wouldn’t believe how some things lined up, the shape of the bumper blending into the wheel arch was uncanny, it was just unreal. It lined up perfectly, but there was a lot of surgery to shape the bullets in and get the bonnet right. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but unfortunately, I suffered a marriage breakdown and again, I didn’t have room to keep it.

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You were also involved with one of our favourite movies, Running On Empty.

It was terrible, embarrassing. Women ran it, the whole production staff were women and they didn’t have a clue. They wanted to know why we weren’t using Mini Minors. We had a bit of fun, we just went hot rodding. I was there for about two month; I pulled the pin, I snatched the rent, I got pissed off. The sheilas were driving me crazy, I couldn’t put up with it.

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How hard was it to get a hot rod registered back in the 60s?

It was an enjoyable day. The guys were interested, they looked around it, someone took it for a drive and came back and said OK. I went and got the plates, put them on and went driving. I don’t think there was a lot of animosity towards it, I didn’t see that, I thought there was more ignorance than anything.

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You were also the inaugural president of West Coast Street Rod Club who put on the Car Spectaculars through the 60s and 70s.

The first show that we put on in 1966, the car was virtually just finished, we had Charles Court [Minister] and Garry Meadows [TV personality] there, it was quite an official affair.

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How do you think hot rodding has changed in the last 50 years?

I didn’t actually have big facilities, the car was built without too much equipment. I drove the car quite regularly — I was in advertising at the time — and I had a car park and I used to drive it into the city. When I wanted to stop using it, the only thing to do was to sell it. I didn’t have the space to have it hanging around because I went on with other projects. All I had was a fibro shed to work in.
These days it’s another world, but the concept is essentially still the same — we love hot rods — and that’s the art of the vehicle but with the upgrading of the mechanicals.

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Words // Boris Viskovic

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