WITH COVID tax inflating the asking prices of most desirable (and many previously thought undesirable!) Aussie cars, the barrier to entry for our sport can look fairly daunting. But have no fear; there is still plenty of great raw material out there. With a small budget and a truckload of passion, even the most unassuming of models can be transformed into something special.
First published in the April 2021 issue of Street Machine
A case in point: the humble XH Falcon panel van. The last of its kind, the XH married the ancient rear of the XD Falcon van with the nosecone and dash of the then-new EL Falcon sedan. And while much of the XH was super old-school (check out the barn doors at the back!) it did benefit from the 4.0-litre straight-six, four-speed auto and much improved suspension and steering.
The XH ran from 1996 until the debut of the AU Falcon in 1999 – at which time the panel van was quietly dropped from the line-up.
My own 1997 XH van has been a much-loved member of our family for years now and served us well as a parts hauler, tow car and road-trip companion. The first thing I did when I bought it was convert the old girl to column shift and swap in a bench seat so the kids could join me out on the road.
However, the van had reached the point of needing serious attention, and a decision had to be made: Do we sell it off and buy something newer, or take the opportunity to save it and update it via a custom makeover? I was pretty sure the blacked-out sill panels would conceal some hasty repairs from previous owners, but even so, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending our faithful companion off to the automotive glue factory.
The biggest repair job you’ll encounter on this era of Falcon is going to be those sills. Often it’s not just the rust that’s visible on the outside, either; the inner sill may be rotten, along with the pillar bottom. Adding to the difficulty is the sill panels’ positioning along the bottom of the vehicle and the fact that they usually overlap or underlap other panels. So fixing them can be a real pain.
Still, if it had to be done, I was going to make sure the result would be an improvement on the factory offering, style-wise. Replacing the older XD/XE/XF-style sill with a tweaked version was the perfect opportunity to give the van’s lower section a more bulky appearance while still tying in with the curvature of the XH front and rear bumpers.
To achieve this, a full-length custom sill was made to suit a hand-formed template. This meant chopping off the bottoms of the front fenders – the ideal solution for not having to deal with rust in those areas.
Once welded into place, the sill ends were boxed and new mounting points for the fenders were made, which also required a bit of work to the factory plastic guard liners.
With that completed, the next job was done for purely aesthetic reasons – removing the side windows. There are numerous ways to tackle this popular but tricky task; the best course of action is to attack it with a TIG and a helpful mate!
When TIG-welding panels together, you’d usually aim to leave no gaps, but in this case we were dealing with such a large panel that I left a small gap to allow for movement and stop the edges coming into contact or overlapping during the process. The welding was done with the assistance of filler rod and a mate helping to release the weld with hammer-and-dolly work.
The same process was used on the rearmost section of the roof, as this was badly damaged by previous owners.
Smaller details such as door locks, the rear vent, side indicators, side moulding and badges also got the flick in favour of a smoother look.
The rear barn doors received some loving too, with the windows replaced with painted aluminium panels. This was done for security reasons and also to replace the large factory seals with thinner, more modern rubber.
The finishing touch to the body was an EL XR6 front bumper and lights, giving the van a far sportier vibe.
The solid N64 grey two-pack paint is straight off the Australian Standards colour chart – nothing special here. The idea was to go to a darker metallic grey once the barn doors were replaced with a lift gate/tailgate combo. However, having been showered in stones by a pair of oncoming road trains during the van’s first big trip back on the road, we might be rethinking that one!
Suspension-wise, it was always going to go low; the issue was getting the van to sit right with its top-heavy proportions.
The rear leaf springs were pulled out as a unit and the spring pack carefully pulled apart. From here, the second-bottom leaf met the bin and the rest were cold-rolled in a tube roller. Heat takes the temper from spring steel, meaning it loses its ability to bounce back, so taking the arch out of a spring without using heat is ideal.
The front suspension was much easier. Ball joints and tie-rod ends were replaced, and the original springs were ditched for a set of aftermarket items.
Then came the make-or-break moment of rim choice. Something aftermarket with dish would have probably been ideal, but just how crazy do you go on a budget build like this? In the end, a set of Ford Territory steelies received a lick of paint and fresh rubber. They really look the part and work well with the van’s ‘commercial’ DNA.
During the van’s time off the road, an AU XR8 was purchased for its driveline, but after having a hard time finding a factory loom to suit the XH, it was decided to leave that job until later on. Instead, we chose to just push ahead for rego by installing an AU Intech six. This was hardly the coolest engine swap around, but it was easily done and budget-friendly.
So there we have it – a tired ‘modern classic’ transformed into a head-turner on a budget, with plenty of scope for future upgrades. If this is the future of street machining, count me in!
Special thanks to Mitch for the constant assistance and push to get the van back on the road.
1. The original 1980s-style sills needed replacing, providing the perfect chance to do a repair and modernise the van’s look at the same time. With the newly shaped sills in place, attention can now turn to shaping the front edge to flow with the lower fender
2. Replacing the side windows in panel vans is almost a national pastime these days! Clamps come in handy to hold the sheet in place and leave a small gap for welding
3. Here we see one window tacked and the other fully welded into place. Also note the roof repair, necessitated by a speaker installation by a previous owner that had stretched the metal
4. Once fully TIG-welded, the sections can be fully dressed with hammer and dolly – having a mate help out at this point is a must.
At this stage, everything is bolted together and aligned for sanding as a unit; this avoids wobbles from over-sanding on the panel edges
5. Satin-black two-pack revives the faded stainless trim and blends the B-pillar between the doors and quarter window glass. The door locks, badges, side indicators and more were all given the flick in the name of smoothness
6. I have an AU XR8 driveline ready to go into the van, but time and parts pressures meant I settled for a cheap and quick AU Intech swap for now
7. Various wheel and tyre combos were tried, including the classic Moon disc, but Ford Territory steelies got the nod
8. The rear ‘glass’ is actually aluminium sheet, scuffed with a Scotch-Brite pad, etch-primed and painted in two-pack gloss. This meant we could run thinner, more modern rubbers, but it does make a reversing camera a necessity!
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Street Machine is the bible of Aussie modified auto culture, celebrating wild muscle cars, customs and hot rods – and the incredible humans who create them.
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