This article was originally published in issue #14 of Street Machine's Hot Rod magazine, 2014
WHAT is it? An Airborne Eight, another once-proud part of the American automobile industry that is now long-gone, along with the likes of Cord, Hupmobile and Stutz. First came the Airborne Four in the early 20s, which was a failure as it couldn’t pull the skin off a proverbial rice pudding. Its successor was the Airborne Six, nicknamed Pinocchio thanks to the long front, needed to fit the straight-six. With the Airborne Eight, the company got it just right, but that didn’t stop them sliding into oblivion in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
This particular Airborne Eight is owned by a Sydney hot rodder known only as Bluey. Bluey first made an impression on me through the pages of Street Machine, circa Dec '83/Jan '84. There, amidst the GT Falcons, Toranas and Chevs, was a blue oval window VW Beetle with a Windsor jammed in the front. It wore a ’40 Ford front and made my hair stand on end.
While the VW went on to become an icon of the Sydney hot car scene, it was never accepted as a hot rod. It was turned away from the Valla Rod Run when Bluey took it there almost three decades ago.
Unperturbed, Bluey began formulating plans for a new body, one with wild body mods that could easily be swapped to give the car a different look. “It was all systems go, I had a body and Paul Kelly had done a lot of work on it. But then I was talking to a bloke with a 60s hot rod. He was telling me what he was going to do with it and I said, ‘Instead of wrecking a piece of history, why don’t you just build another car?’ He said, ‘Good point, but isn’t that what you are about to do to your VW?’ That stopped me in my tracks and I decided to take my ideas for the VW and apply them to something else.”
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The bodywork on the Scar contains parts from 68 different models of car. Can you pick them? A jeweller mate of Bluey sculpted the Airborne Eight badges in green wax, then cast them in phosphorous bronze
That something else was a sad 1935 Airborne Eight pick-up cab, which looked remarkably like a Ford of the same era. Bluey took the remains home and, despite being advised to take it straight to the tip, began putting his ideas into action. Helping to guide him was artwork drawn up by his mate Scotty Harrod. The intention though wasn’t to build something shiny. “I wanted it done in eight months and I couldn’t afford to paint it,” Bluey says. “Then the Chief at Indian Automotive offered to lease me a space to build it. He threw me the keys and said ‘make sure something good comes out the other end.’”
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Bluey bought the Thrush pipes for his VW, but was knocked back by his engineer. “So I stuck them up in my roof where they stayed for thirty years,” Bluey says. “The car is channelled 10 inches and because I wasn’t going to use running boards, I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish off the bottoms of the doors. Then I was up in the roof, saw them and knew what I had to do”
Another mate, Little Dave, was instrumental in getting the project moving. “I don’t weld very well,” Bluey admits. “Dave volunteered to come in on a Thursday evening and do some welding for me, so I’d cut things up with the angle grinder, and then tack them into place and he’d weld them.
“Dave started saying it was going to be too good to be a rat, and that I should paint it. I kept brushing off the idea, so he took the dash home and brought it back in 2 pack primer. It looked so good that I knew I had to paint the car. And that is how an eight month build turned into eight years! The only tools we had were the Chief’s MIG welder, a hammer and a couple of dollies, a little one metre folder, a hacksaw and some spanners. Oh and I went through about 13 angle grinders.”
As the build progressed, Bluey envisioned it as a tribute to his childhood family friend and idol Billy Swillborne. “I looked up to Billy as a hero when I was a kid,”
Bluey says. “He had a big scar on one shoulder and so he was known as the Scar. I decided to give the car a scar of its own – on the left hand side of the roof – and name the car after him.”
The concept also gave Bluey a firm timeline of parts to work with. “Billy was born in ’33 and died in ’67, so I decided to only use parts from cars from that era, which ended up being 68 discrete cars. And that is just the body; I don’t count driveline parts in that tally.”
Parts were collected over many years by scouring swaps meets and lots of detective work. “I’m offline, so I don’t do eBay,” Bluey says. “Over the years, people started hearing about this top secret project I was working on and that tended to open doors, even with restorers. Most of the time, guys would offer to lend a part to me, so I could take it home and see if it was going to work. It was pretty cool.”
Since the Scar debuted at MotorEx 2012, it has racked up almost 40,000km, which included a triumphant return to the Valla Rod Run, the scene of the Volkswagen’s rejection over 30 years earlier. This time, Bluey won a spot in the Top Ten and the Top Engineered gong. The Scar has won many other awards, including being selected as Charley Hutton’s choice at the Goulburn Hot Rod Shakedown last Easter.
And Bluey continues to tinker. He has built a new front-end for the car and is currently working on a new rear-end that will be a ‘transformer’ capable of presenting two different looks after only 30 minutes work.
The interior is a highlight and has a concept car feel. “I’ve known the trimmer since he was a little fella,” Bluey says. “When I talked to him about trimming the car, he told me my money was no good there. I said that was okay, but I’d pay for the materials. He said ‘In that case, we’re doing it in leather.’”
“I went berserk on this thing. I don’t want to build another car, but by mixing up the different fronts and rears, I’ll be able to have a dozen different cars in one,” Bluey says. “The best thing about it is getting out on the road. I don’t want to be in the hospital on my last legs, trying to tell some spunky young nurse that I’ve got a cool hot rod in my garage. I want her to know about Bluey and the Scar already.”
The VW is one of the few highly modified Australian street machines from the early 80s to remain on the road and is about to click over a whopping 550,000 miles. And yep, that is miles, not clicks! “When I was building it, people told me that it wouldn’t work and that I’d never get it registered,” Bluey smiles. Powered by various Windsor V8s, the Bug's had a few different identities and was chopped by Bluey’s good mate Paul Kelly sometime after the car was featured in Street Machine. It remains, he says, a super-fun car to drive. “The Airborne is a really nice car to get in and cruise in. I’ve never once dropped it back a gear. But the VW, every time you look at the speedo you are 20km/h over the limit! With 3.55:1 gears in it, you can take on motorbikes at the lights [laughs].”
Colour: HOK Lady Sandra Silver
Type: 326ci Airborne V8
Carb: Four barrel
Gearbox: Airborne Hydro-Thrust
Diff: Airborne 12-bolt
Front: Transverse spring
Rear: Four Link