Meet the Silver Fox, the only nine-seater bus ever to have won Top Street Rod Commercial at the Queensland Hot Rod Show
This article on Graeme's Silver Fox bus was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Street Machine
NO BUS ever looked as flash as what is now known as the Silver Fox. Part 1936 Chevrolet Maple Leaf truck, part Mazda Parkway bus, this thing has ‘wow’ factor! It shimmers and gleams in silver, it’s luxurious inside, and is beautifully engineered.
Some guys build street cars to show, some build ’em just to cruise or to get dirty in a burnout or mud run. Others sell to the first passing admirer. But for Queenslander Graeme Collins, it is about engineering his amazing ideas into reality and adding to his collection of spectacular builds.
Graeme's V6 Morris J-type van was featured in Street Machine in July 2015; this was a project he’d coveted for 30 years. This latest build took far less time, but it once again proves his remarkable capacity for making practical beauty out of forgotten relics.
The rear door is from a Pajero, trimmed to fit perfectly, while the tail-lights are ’89-’93 Cadillac DeVille items, with Morris Minor indicators
When told of an old ’36 Maple Leaf truck in 2012, Graeme packed the tilt-tray with tools and helpers and set off west. The truck chassis had sat outback of Cunnamulla in western Queensland for decades, and the passage of time had not been kind. It had lost almost everything – wheels, cab, engine. Graeme rescued what was left: a very straight four-metre-long chassis with the remains of a C-cab, guards, cowling and grille. The bonus was a pair of Maple Leaf badges still on the bonnet.
A patina of rust covered everything, but in that arid area it never had a chance to do any real harm. Graeme carefully lifted the remains from the red soil and took it back home to Warwick. The bits were carefully laid out, measured, and slowly a plan was hatched.
Graeme soon spied an old circa-1973 Mazda Parkway bus. Having been in the motor trade all his life, Graeme’s mind must work in a different kind of way – somehow he saw something in the old bus’s bland, box-like form. He pulled out his sketchbook and visualised how he could engineer the Mazda and the Chev truck together to make his own unique bus. “I’ve always loved the idea of owning a bus,” he says. “Something to take the grandkids, mates, their wives and family for a spin.”
Graeme not only collects cars and parts, over the years he’s also collected a team of crack local workers. Nathan Tester started with him in ’03 as an apprentice fresh from school and stayed. Graeme also recognised the talents of Jamie Pollard and Nick Locke and made sure they joined his team. All play a part in his projects, not only with their skills but being on hand to objectively discuss his out-there ideas.
First, a solid steel bed on wheels was made to ensure the ’36 chassis would stay perfectly flat but moveable throughout the build. Then the old Parkway bus was given a serious trim. Chassis bolts were removed, a big grinder got to work and the rear was severed from the cab section. A forklift was then employed to pick up the bulky body – braced by temporary steel tube – and move it to the waiting Maple Leaf chassis. All looked pretty cool, but the roofline was far too high. A bit of a chop was called for.
After the ’36’s front and the Parkway’s body were placed together on the chassis at ‘ride height’, many hours (and a few tinnies) were spent looking closely at the bus’s general appearance. Marker pens were used to scrawl approximate cut lines for the roof chop, and after some further discussion, Acrow adjustable props were hired to support the roof. Nathan then got to work with the trusty grinder. With sparks flowing freely, the pillars were severed, and the roof, now only supported by the props, was then gently lowered until it looked spot-on from all angles.
With the chop sorted, the chassis became the focus of attention. The rear axle section was given quite a substantial C-notch to lower the ride height and then the whole chassis was fully boxed. Off-the-shelf parts like the steering rack, wishbones and springs were carefully checked and tested. In the rear, an Air Ride ShockWave system was fitted to keep the ride height constant whether fully loaded or empty.
Then it was time to think about what engine would power this beast. A vehicle that would eventually weigh in at about 2200kg, measure 6.1 metres, carry nine, be fitted with air-conditioning and travel long distances would place a monster strain on any powerplant. What could be better than an LS1?
With his motto in mind – “Buy the best car you can find with full service history for the right price” – Graeme bought a low-kilometre Statesman for its LS1 engine. Nathan checked the donk thoroughly and only needed to replace a few gaskets before giving it the thumbs-up. The Statesman’s 4L60E transmission feeds an Aussie Diffs-built Race Products floating nine-inch. The tailshaft needed a little bit of trickery so they called on another Warwick guru, Mal Wood, to make a two-piece shaft using an F250 centre bearing and XR6 Turbo CV joints. It runs like a dream.
This build is fully bespoke. Steel everywhere. Even the Parkway’s old skin has been replaced; Advanced Metal Products in Warwick folded a couple of large sheets for the bus’s skin and the guys set to work welding them in place. The floor is fashioned from sheet steel, cut to fit perfectly.
Having a huge amount of interior space is one thing, filling it efficiently is another. But the inside of this bus has been brilliantly thought out. The seats, from two Kia Carnivals, dictated the carrying capacity of nine. Each one houses its own seatbelt mount, so with the seats securely fixed, they are ADR-safe. The team from Kev’s Kustoms, up near Maryborough, reupholstered the seats in mustard leather; around 10 hides were needed for the job. You’d happily sit in these for a long-haul bus trip; there is ample legroom and all pews are easily reached through the old Parkway’s original concertina side door.
As the bus needed rear access, a few hours roaming around the wreckers with a tape measure in hand uncovered an old Pajero. Its rear was chopped, the door re-jigged and customised to fit the bus. Job done.
Kev’s Kustoms then employed a single aluminium composite sheet for the roof panelling, trimmed with Macrosoft herringbone fabric and topped with stainless-steel ribbing, water-cut locally.
Although there was not much of the Maple Leaf cabin left, the team made use of the original metal dash. The old gauge holes were filled, and the top modified and extended to smoothly follow the unbroken lines around both sides of the cabin interior. Centre openings were then cut to fit the new Classic Instruments panel and switches.
A 1400W Fusion amp and six RetroSound speakers comprise a killer sound system for the long trips.
And then there’s the final paint finish. That coating of a few hundred microns of thin urethane makes or breaks any build. Graeme decided on a lustrous silver metallic made up using PPG’s Deltron system, deftly applied by team members Mick Bougoure and Jamie Pollard. It glows!
For some years Graeme’s mates have called him the Silver Fox; Nathan and the team started referring to the bus by the same name, and it stuck. Getting used to driving the Fox might take a while though; the sheer length of the bus means there is never any corner-cutting. But passengers can look forward to many comfy, luxurious highway miles in this well-engineered, high-spec creation. For Graeme, it’s exactly what he’d dreamed of.
Since the Silver Fox’s successful debut at this year’s Queensland Hot Rod Show – where it took home Top Street Rod Commercial – the second part of the project is nearing completion: a trailer for the bus, but nothing like you’ve ever seen. This is going to be a converted vintage pop-top caravan, which will carry luggage and, when stopped, double as a den, with more comfy leather-trimmed Kia seats, a fridge, and widescreen telly. Who would want to go home?
In September the bus went on display at the 41st National Chevrolet Festival in Warwick, and now Graeme is looking forward to taking his mates and their families out for some long bus rides and a few good lunches. There is another project under discussion to test the skills of this tight team of craftsmen: a sloper based on a ’48 Buick. Another cunning plan from the original Silver Fox. Bring it on!
SILVER FOX BUS - IN THE BUILD
1. The ’36 Maple Leaf remains that kicked off the project. The truck had been delivered new by Godfrey Brothers – Chevrolet dealers of Cunnamulla – to Waihora Station. Abandoned, it had been stripped to its barest form before being rescued by Graeme
2. The Mazda Parkway bus body
3. After considered measuring, the bus was braced, given a careful, severe cut then positioned on the ’36 chassis
4. After more measuring, the roof was supported by props, the pillars cut, and the roof lowered back on until the look was spot-on
5. This rolling steel bed kept the chassis rigid and made moving the progressing build around the workshop a doddle
6. You'd think there would be heaps of room to fit the LS1, but the original shape of the '36 Maple Leaf's nose cowling kept the engine installer son their toes
7. The steel floor being welded into place
8. MDF patterns were made of the window openings, for Alfab in Brisbane to then make the windows to size
9a. The Silver Fox's body was fully re-skinned using new folded sheet metal made locally by Advanced Metal Products
9b. The re-skinned sides
10a. Nick Locke made a machine and dye to press the wheelarch trims and wide edges
10b. Wheelarch trims and wide edges complete
1936 CHEVROLET MAPLE LEAF CHASSIS, MAZDA PARKWAY BUS BODY
Paint: PPG Deltron custom-mixed Silver Fox, painted by Mick Bougoure & Jamie Pollard
Brand: GM 5.7L LS1
Cooling: Custom Aussie Desert Coolers radiator
Exhaust: VE exhaust manifolds, high-flow cats, 2.5in twin system
Diff: Race Products floating 9in
Front suspension: Custom IFS, Rod-Tech coil-overs
Rear suspension: F250 springs, ShockWave airbags, Currie sway-bar with air assist
Brakes: Hoppers Stoppers 330mm discs & PBR calipers (f), 270mm discs & PBR calipers (r)
Master cylinder: 11/8in-bore Corvette
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Intro Ram polished; 19x7 (f), 19x10 (r)
Rubber: Continental ContiSportContact; 245/40/19 (f), 295/45/19 (r)