THE late 1970s and early 80s were the panel van boom years in Australia. While the hot rod and street machine scenes have remained healthy for decades, the custom van scene came and went in a short-lived explosion of fibreglass, crushed velvet and murals.
Only a handful of the show vans still survive, though the legends of many live in the hearts of enthusiasts. One such legend is Leon and Karen Harris’s XB Falcon, ‘Mr Damage’. If the name’s got you humming the song by The Angels, it’s no coincidence – that tune inspired the van.
Mr Damage smashed onto the show scene in late 1981. By mid-’83 it was gone, never to be shown again. The XB won more than 60 trophies at 18 shows, collecting tin for People’s Choice, Best Exterior, Mural, Engine Bay, Top Van and Car of the Show.
I first saw Mr Damage in the flesh as a van-obsessed nine-year-old. Dad took me to the 1983 Brisbane Hot Rod & Street Machine Spectacular and my jaw dropped – literally. I ended up wearing a Hungry Jacks Yumbo down the front of my Ghostbusters T-shirt.
The name evoked an evil presence, reinforced by the red windows and deathly murals floating on Candy Apple Red blood. It had a beautifully detailed engine bay, tunnel-rammed Clevo, huge rear bubble window in a one-piece steel tailgate and a monstrous pair of 12-slotters on the back.
The XB came from humble beginnings. Leon and Karen were a young couple living in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, and in 1977 traded their XR GT for a white GS van with a 302 and column auto. It soon got a few minor changes as they became active members of the Sun State Van Club and the Custom Ford Van Club.
The first major change was black paint and flared rear guards to house the 14x10 12-slots. By 1980 Leon was keen to tackle the show scene head-on.
“I’d grown up reading US car magazines,” he says, “and was inspired by their level of detail.”
He wanted to apply the same standard to a panel van, so the XB was stripped of every last nut and bolt and sandblasted in preparation for the rebuild.
Leon and a mate rented a shed to build their vans and later hooked up with three other friends who’d started a business called 3CC. Leon and 3CC (3 Custom Creators – Garry Burlinson, Mike Parsons and Brian Tisdall) got stuck into the van and carried out all the mods in-house, including the one-piece tailgate.
“Most people thought we modified the original barn doors, but we made a totally new door out of steel. The bubble window was tricky; we made three or four before we got it fitted without cracking it.”
With the van stripped to a shell in silver basecoat, the decision was taken to make an all-out effort to finish it for the 1981 Ipswich Van Show. Once it was reassembled and the Candy Apple was applied, Brian began airbrushing.
“He spent 60 hours a side doing those murals and was in the chair day and night; once we came back to find him fast asleep with his head against the driver’s door and a big paint run where he’d kept airbrushing as his arm had dropped.
“It was full-on; I worked 54 hours straight to get it to the show. We got everything done except the rear interior and the candy on the door jambs.”
By now the 302 and auto had made way for a healthy 351, Top Loader and nine-inch combo from a written-off XY GS panel van.
They won Best Unfinished and Best Murals at Ipswich and were soon winning Van Of The Show awards before the rear had even been decked out!
“It pissed other guys off because I was beating finished vans on the points I was receiving for engine bay, body and paint.”
In late ’81, the door jambs were candied, and Leon sorted the rear upholstery. However, while the doors were off, some lowlife broke into the workshop and stole the driver’s door. Another door was sourced and Brian recreated the mural.
“We got the original door back about 18 months too late and it had been repainted by the thief to try and disguise it.”
Around Christmas 1982, Leon entered the Gold Coast Auto Spectacular and won nine trophies including Car Of The Show, but he overheard some southern vanners claiming that it wouldn’t even win Best Ford at a Sydney show. A couple of days later he packed the display gear and hit the road.
“I saw the same guys when I turned up at Fairfield [Sydney] and their jaws dropped – they couldn’t believe I’d driven it down.”
They were right; he didn’t win Best Ford. He scored too many points and took Van Of The Show, People’s Choice and Top Custom Paint.
“I was hoping to go up against John Strachan’s ‘Alley Cat’ but it didn’t show; it was getting the V12 conversion. We tried again at the Windsor Show later in the year but it didn’t make it there either.”
After the second Sydney trip, the van needed detailing for the 1983 Brisbane Hot Rod Show.
“I used to give it a hiding, doing burnouts and paddock bashing, so it had its fair share of stone chips,” Leon says.
At Brisbane, it won Top Van and beat the rods and streeters for Top Engine Bay Overall and the Custom Paint/Exterior Overall awards.
By August ’83, Leon had had enough of the show scene so he returned it to street use. Mr Damage lasted a couple of months before being defected.
“When I saw the guys at the Pineapple Street Inspection Centre taking care and using rags on their trolley jacks I thought I might be in with a chance; two pages of defects told me otherwise. It was enough for me to take it off the road.”
In late 1983, the van was readied for a 460 big-block and conversion to a sedan delivery using a wagon turret. The running gear was sold off but that was as far as it got.
“I couldn’t get anyone to do the roof conversion; plenty of panel beaters were capable of doing it but no-one wanted to because they all knew how fussy I was.”
The van was untouched for a few years, then sold to a Redcliffe local in 1986.
“We were told it ended up at Redcliffe Ford Wreckers, where it was stripped some more before being sold again, but we’ve never heard what happened to it after that.”
Leon and Karen own a trimming business at Clontarf in Brisbane now, and have a schmick HT rolling on 20s as a workshop ute. They still have a few parts from Mr Damage, including the rear bubble window, muralled bonnet and turret header panel, candied helmet, muralled glovebox insert, and chromed, muralled and candied trolley jack. Those last three items help explain why ‘Mr Damage’ was so successful and influential – not only on the show scene but for nine-year-old kids who dreamed of one day building something just as cool.
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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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