West Australian Dave Duncan built one of the finest hot rods of the 60s, then he sort of disappeared for a while. Here's a look back on all of the cool cars he’s built over the years
This article on Dave Duncan was originally published in issue 16 of the Street Machine Hot Rod magazine
IT ALL started when I spotted a photo on the South Australian Hot Rod Heritage Page on Facebook: A low-slung channelled ’32 roadster, candy apple red paint gleaming in the sun as it made its way along the dirt road into Brooksfield Dragway. But this wasn’t an SA car, it was the roadster of West Aussie hot rodder Dave Duncan. 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.
But the car struck such a chord with me that I vowed to track Dave down, hoping that he was still around. I figured he’d be into his 70s by now, as the photo 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.
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 past 50 years or so. Although he prefers to fly under the radar, he’s still been very active in the car scene, but he’s a man of many other talents too. 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.
The image that started this whole adventure. A home-built Aussie hot rod that wouldn't have looked out of place in a US magazine. People need to start building hot rods like this again. Photo: Bob Moule
Tell me about this photo (above). 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 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.
Was the ’32 your first hot rod?
I had a ’40 Ford coupe. I’m a bit vague about years now because they go back so far, but I think I bought that around about 1960 or ’61. It was brought to Australia by the American consul and a 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. But they gave me the guy’s address and he eventually sold it to me for £180. It needed a new fender and a few bits and pieces and away I went – much to my father’s disgust.
What was the inspiration for the roadster’s styling?
I saw a movie called The Lively Set and the hot rod in it had the front set very much like mine, 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.
It’s pretty easy to see the inspiration for Dave’s car in this movie poster
Was it a complete car when you started with it?
There was a grille, but no doors or boot lid. I had to go around and acquire all those. It had a chassis, it was bobbed and Z’d; someone had started on it, but it was in bits and pieces and I brought it back in a trailer.
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 of it [Dave digs through his photo album and points to a lovely overhead shot of the car]. Just the way it sat, a little bit bobbed. I liked the suicide front end, and I don’t know if there were any others [in Perth] in ’66. But it drove like a pig, honestly. I had a Compact Fairlane and they were beautiful cars to drive. It was horrible getting out of the Compact into this thing.
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, and 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 plumb bob and just make sure the clearances were there so you could drive down the road.
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, went on runs together and got into a bit of strife.
The car was originally white; why did you change to candy red?
[The original colour] 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.
It’s got a Y-block in it, but what was the rest of the running gear?
I bought a complete 1955 Cusso for £100 and boned it. I used everything out of it, including the diff. I’ve pretty much done it again with the project I’m on at the moment – I boned a VU Commodore for the Gen III and six-speed to go into my ’59 Chevy pick-up.
How hard was it to get a hot rod registered back in the 60s?
It was an enjoyable day [when I got it registered]. The guys were interested, they looked around it, someone took it for a drive and came back and said okay. 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.
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 [WA minister] and Garry Meadows [TV personality] there; it was quite an official affair.
How did it come about that the roadster was sold to a Frenchman?
I had it at a dealer in Hay Street and he was happy to have it there because it attracted attention. [The Frenchman] 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!
And you did all this with a background in advertising! So you’re 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, as I look back now – it didn’t make me a lot of money, but it gave me a lot of joy.
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.
It’s great to see that you’re still playing with cars too. Tell us more about your ’59 Chev pick-up project.
I’ve gone Gen III, six-speed, Jag suspension all ’round. It’s taking a long time; we’re still wiring it, but after that it will go for trim. I do all the paint and body and the concepts – this one’s got a chopped roof.
I used to have another pick-up, a ’57 that Lloyd Collier finished off. That looked amazing with the Cadillac front end.
There was quite a bit of surgery. You wouldn’t believe how some things lined up – the shape of the bumper blending into the wheelarch was uncanny. 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 I didn’t have room to keep it.
Don't worry, it was just a rust four-door that Dave carved up to create this '59 Cadillac couch
You were also involved with one of our favourite movies, Running On Empty.
It was terrible, embarrassing. The whole production staff 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 months, then I pulled the pin. I snatched the rent, I got pissed off. I couldn’t put up with it.
How do you think hot rodding has changed in the past 50 years?
Back then I didn’t have big facilities; the car was built without too much equipment. I drove the car quite regularly, 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.
DAVE DUNCAN'S CARS:
1a. This was the first time I’d heard about Dave Duncan. A friend had purchased this pick-up to finish off and spoke very highly of the custom work that Dave had already completed on the truck.
1b. The blown big-block and big-inch American Racing five-spokes were pretty wild for a Perth car back in the early 2000s.
2a. Dave’s latest project is this chopped (just 60mm) ’59 Chevy pick-up. It runs the engine and ’box out of a VU Commodore with Jag suspension front and rear.
2b. No airbags, but on a narrowed Holden chassis and built to ICV regulations.
3. Dave’s roadster was featured in the winter ’67 issue of Custom Rodder, when it still wore the Moonstone white paint. In the story it was called The Bandit, because “it took most of my money.” Some things haven’t changed over the years!
4. From the movie The Lively Set. The Roger Brousseau roadster was a pretty famous car in the 60s, but arguably more famous in its original track-nosed guise when first built by Eddie Dye.
5. At the second show in 1967 Dave had painted the car red and fitted the triple carbs, although it didn't have the chromies and mags yet. Millmasters was Dave’s new club, but it wasn’t long before he figured out clubs weren’t his thing.
6. The roadster at the South Australian Hot Rod Show with its impressive trophy haul. Photo: Larry Kavanagh.
7a. The roadster was only just finished when the West Coast Street Rod Club put on their first show at the Army Drill Hall on the Canning Highway in South Perth.
7b. What is in the background in the shot above is just as interesting: Neville Marney’s ’36 roadster, the car Deuce Customs pulled the mould from for their bodies. Photos: Vince Berriman.
8a. The car as it looked around 1980 in France, a little worse for wear but pretty much untouched from when it left our shores.
8b. The car has a new owner but was in pieces, although still fairly complete. It appears to be in good hands and hopefully will be returned to its former glory soon. Photo: Benoit Pigeon.
9a. For the past 10 years or so, Dave has been concentrating on his photo-realistic fine art.
9b. Using acrylics on canvas, the techniques he employs result in such a fine finish that it’s hard to believe you’re not looking at photo (above and below).