CAST your mind back to 2001. Fast fours like the Subaru WRX had been hot for a decade, a little film called The Fast and the Furious was laying them dead in the cinema aisles and the Auto Salon series of shows was a Big Deal.
First published in the December 2020 issue of Street Machine. Photos: Kent Mears
Auto Salon started as a gig for four-pots in 1996, with around 100 entries. It soon grew into a fully fledged national series for post-’86 cars that spawned a highly successful magazine and race events. The promoters had captured the zeitgeist, making the Auto Salon shows the biggest indoor modified-car events of their time – we’re talking more than 40,000-plus punters at the Sydney events.
Auto Salon brought a new flair to the show scene. Rather than strictly points-based judging, Auto Salon rewarded showmanship and impact, with a trophy list that included such gongs as ‘Bachelor of Babes’, ‘Master of Defect’ and ‘Too Damn Low’. The top car of each show was dubbed the King of Auto Salon, while the overall winner for the year was – naturally – The God of Auto Salon.
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Much like the van scene of the 1970s and early 80s, Auto Salon turned into an arms race of outrageous modifications, including televisions mounted to wheels, operational fish tanks in boots and a centre-steer WRX. It was a wild circus, but it couldn’t last forever. The last show was held in 2010 and the scene moved on.
But before that happened, a 21-year-old bloke from Sydney named Jamie Kochaniewicz dared to enter the top echelon of the Auto Salon arena with a V8 VS Commodore ute. Jamie and his old man John debuted the horror-themed PSYCO at the 2001 Sydney Auto Salon and surprised themselves by winning a stack of trophies.
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They decided to take on the remainder of the series, but this was no simple task. For starters, the judging system rewarded entrants who changed up their cars for each show – again, much like the van scene at its most competitive. And those hoping to win King of Auto Salon also had to subject their cars to the dyno shootout.
With this in mind, Jamie and John stripped the undercarriage and set about detailing the entire driveline and suspension, while the body was sent off for fresh paint and a mind-boggling suite of murals by Wayne Harrison.
Thus equipped, the pair hit the Melbourne show and took out a bunch more awards – but their performance on the dyno meant that the King title eluded them. The same happened at the Adelaide show a week later. This was because Auto Salon awarded points based on power per litre rather than the outright number. Jamie needed more horsepower, and in 2001, the easiest way to liberate some grunt from a Holden five-litre was with a Vortech supercharger, complete with front-mount intercooler.
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So, just two weeks before the Brisbane event (Jamie’s last chance to win King of Auto Salon), the engine was removed from the car to facilitate the blower fitment, and the firewall and engine bay was smoothed over. A 15-inch Flatron monitor was grafted into a custom panel behind the rear glass so that Jamie could play horror movies to the crowd.
The hard paid off, with PSYCO winning its first King title in Brisbane – albeit by a hair’s breadth.
“I look back on that year now and it was crazy,” says Jamie today. “Dad and I were working full-time in our engineering business; then we’d go home and work on the car at night, get a couple of hours’ sleep and go back to work. My mate Ben was living with us at the time, so he was right in there too.
“The trips to the shows themselves were insane,” he continues. “I think we only made it on pure adrenaline. After driving straight through to Brisbane, something had gone wrong with the amps, so we had to pull it out all out and fix it.”
The series culminated with December’s Final Battle back in Sydney. Jamie had a clear points lead in the series and only two of his rivals could potentially steal his glory.
Knowing the competition would be pulling out all the stops, Jamie debuted a fibreglass interior that transformed the looks and functionality of the cabin. Behind the seats, a pair of massive 12-inch subwoofers, airbrushed as gruesome eyeballs, peered down over the occupants.
The piece de resistance was the display. Pushing the horror theme to the nth degree, Jamie and his crew hand-built a replica cemetery that surrounded the car, a fake waterfall that spewed torrents of faux blood, tombstones and a 10m-wide backdrop that featured a horror house in fluorescent paint. To cap it off, Jamie strolled around the show dressed as the Grim Reaper, complete with a motorised mask that dripped enough fake blood to make Gene Simmons jealous.
The result was that PSYCO laid waste to the competition, winning nine of the 31 awards on offer, including God of Auto Salon 2001.
To achieve such a feat in his first full season of competition was unheard of in the Auto Salon scene, and he backed it up with a Top 60 placement at Summernats, winning Top Murals and Top Car Display along the way. It is also worth noting that PSYCO placed either first or second in the People’s Choice vote at every Auto Salon event that year – the true sign of a genuine crossover hit.
While PSYCO had a reputed $200,000 spent on it over the span of its show career, it was no chequebook creation, with the Kochaniewiczes working around the clock in their spare time to keep the car competitive in between shows. This may have been a ‘high-tech’ car, but the boys put in old-school show-car effort, including the machine work on the stainless engine bay dress-up items; polishing the gearbox, blower, intercooler pipes and more; de-burring the driveline prior to chroming; fitment of much of the audio gear; driveline R&R; the incredible cemetery display; and much more.
They say trends move in cycles; the van scene reached its peak in the early 1980s and Auto Salon followed suit in the early 2000s. Twenty years on, are we due for another car craze that prioritises fun and pure outrageousness above all else? Who knows – it might be just what the world needs!
WHERE IS IT NOW?
JAMIE sold PSYCO a few years back. “I am kicking myself a bit,” he admits. “We’ve got four kids now; we needed a new family car and we didn’t have enough garage space.
“The ute was still in great nick; it only had 3800km on it and Wayne Harrison had completely updated the murals. I’m not sure where it is now – I don’t really want to know,” he laughs.
“But I still love buildings things. After the ute went, I built my own 23-foot caravan on an aluminium chassis. We call it CYCLONE, because that’s what we are whenever we go anywhere with four kids! That has been a fantastic thing for us. We did a six-week trip via the inland right up to Cape Tribulation and then back down the coast – 8400km and it didn’t miss a beat.
“Our eldest is 11 years old now, so it would be cool do another car,” Jamie muses. “They referred to the ute as ‘Dad’s scary car’ because of the murals; they would never get too close to it. But they like going through and looking at the magazines it was in; it spins them out.
“Now I’m building another house – this one will have a 14x9 shed, fully lined and with power for a hoist. So when I get back into building another car, I’ll be ready. I’m not sure what I’d build, but I do like the look of the new Camaros. We have a bunch of cool machines at work that we couldn’t have dreamed of when we were building PSYCO. Now with CAD, if you can draw it, you can make it. It certainly gets my imagination going!”
Holden VS Commodore UTE
Engine: Stock 5.0-litre
Blower: Vortech S-trim, air-to-air intercooler
Gearbox: Getrag five-speed
Brakes: HDT slotted rotors
Body kit: V8 Supercars front bar, ClubSport skirts
Rims: Simmons FR18 18in (f & r)
Rubber: Falken 225/40/18 (f & r)