WHILE surfing and hot rodding been complimentary pursuits for decades, they have almost nothing in common, aside from the thrill factor. Surfing is about being at one with nature, with minimal gear required. Hot rodding involves a spending lot of time away from the light, stuck in dark sheds with only your tools for company. Not to mention the perils of iron oxide that surfing introduces to the mix! But maybe it is because the two sports are so different that they go so well together. After all, what better way to reset the body and mind after a hard day on the spanners than a session in the surf?
Matt Chojnacki is a young bloke from Brookvale, NSW who has straddled the two worlds since before he could drive, so we sat him down for a yarn to find out why.
This article was first published in Street Machine's Hot Rod magazine #20, 2019
How does the son of a Polish immigrant become a pro longboard surfer?
I grew up around the Northern Beaches of Sydney. My dad came to Australia from Poland in the 50s and he wanted me to be around the ocean because it was something he loved but never had a chance to explore when he was younger.
While Matt is best known for his prowess on a longboard, he’ll ride whatever suits the conditions
You’ve also got a keen interest in Aussie surfing history, yeah?
It was probably the time I spent around my dad’s car workshop in Brookvale that ignited my quest to research more about the rich surf history of the Northern Beaches. I’d see all the board manufacturers in his old magazines and photos, as well as in books at school – I was always the kid that had the surf history book out from the library. Those same buildings were still there in the 90s and I’d walk or skate around when I wasn’t helping Dad, and put the pieces together.
Matt’s Chevy panel van has copped a notch kit from Big L’s Chop Shop and is bagged on all four corners. There’s a 235 Chevy six under the hood that will be mated to a Turbo 700 and a ’57 Chev diff that’s located with a four-link built in-house
So you were working on cars with your dad from a pretty young age?
My dad started working in the panel trade in the late 60s, met my mum and moved to the Northern Beaches in the late 70s. He contracted to a variety of different shops and one of them was Taylor & Botham Bodyworks. In the 90s, Dad was managing the shop and they asked if he wanted to buy it. It was a no-brainer because he was already basically running it. He would give me a screwdriver to chip out rust. He’d say, “Go to all the bubbles and come and see me when you’ve stopped.” Sometimes I’d go a bit too far and he’d freak out. He’d drop me off at the beach for a few hours, I’d surf, then I’d come back and help him on the cars, so I had a good balance between surfing, surf history and the cars from the get-go.
I imagine your dad didn’t teach you to surf. Did you learn by trial and error?
On the Northern Beaches, nearly every kid had an idea how to surf or they’d been around the beach, so it was just spending time around the ocean and watching people. My parents put me through nippers [junior surf lifesaving] because unless I could handle myself in the surf, I wasn’t allowed to get my first fibreglass board. As soon as I got my bronze medallion I was able to go surfing by myself.
How did the longboarding come about?
It came out of necessity, I’d surf most mornings before school, but when the waves were smaller I’d pick up my dad’s longboard. Keyo Surfboards sponsored me from an early age. They were run, at the time, by the son-in-law of Denny Keogh [who started the company in 1959]. I was getting free surfboards from the age of 12 or 13 because they saw some sort of talent there.
The panno when Matt got it – with blue candy paint and diamond-tuck interior plus a few extra photos for inspiration
How did you pick up all the old surfing moves, like noseriding and walking the board?
I always had an affiliation with the 60s. For me, surfing a longboard was an extension of, say, driving a Cadillac, or in my case, a Valiant or Kombi. When I saw an old Valiant in traffic, I’d think: “Wow, how cool is that?” Then I’d see good longboarders and think they looked so smooth and so casual. I liked the idea of making it look easy and cruising.
The quiver – as surfers like to call their board collection – is substantial, but this is only part of it
Northern Beaches was a hotbed in the car scene as well. Is there a link?
I can draw comparisons between what happened in Australian surfboard history to what happened in cars, especially in hot rodding and custom cars, where our influences come from America. But around the mid 60s Australians began DIY-ing, using our own motors and speed parts. We used our ingenuity to come up with solutions and the same thing happened in the surfboard industry. From the mid 60s up until the 80s, Brookvale was the centre of surfboard manufacturing and design all around the world. There were more world surfing champions between Palm Beach and Manly than any other place in the world.
You’re not just a surf bum, you’ve got a real job at Taylor & Botham Bodyworks. Are you still picking out rust with a screwdriver?
There was a really old camper van parked on Manly Beach and I thought it was just dumped there. They needed rego and it was full of chicken wire and bog, but I actually didn’t know how to papier-mâché the thing. It was owned by two surfie backpacker guys and I had to tell them no one in the shop knew how to do it. I guess it was a really good moment for me because I didn’t know how to re-do someone else’s shitty work.
So you’re fully qualified as a tradesman now?
I started off doing spray painting for two years then swapped to panel beating. I’m just finishing off my courses now doing panel bonding, and removing and replacing high-strength steel components. In terms of restoration stuff and traditional panel-beating methods, I’ve done four years of formal training. I was one of the last TAFE students to learn traditional techniques like using an English wheel and a little bit of lead wiping, which was cool.
What do you mostly work on?
The majority is stuff that baby boomers grew up with – 50s, 60s and 70s Ford, Holden, Valiant and VWs, which are just a product of our environment and being around the beach. Having a surfer reputation, it was inevitable that the VW thing would happen. Dad had a VW bus that we used to drive to all the contests when I was a kid. It was just a daily driver but it looked pretty schmick, and you can’t really get better advertising than that.
What about your own personal cars?
My first car was a VC Valiant Safari wagon and Dad had the Kombi when we were growing up. I sold the VC to fund the Chevy.
That’s a pretty wild project. What’s the story behind it?
It had lowriding pedigree but was mostly original apart from the paint, diamond-tuck interior and Impala bucket seats. It was the original paint underneath and they’d sprayed some kind of candy over it. It couldn’t be painted over because it had too much material on it, so we needed to strip it back to metal, which exposed a pretty good body.
And what are your plans for it?
It’ll be a mid-60s, California-inspired car; clean and sleek on the exterior, and inside it will have a period-correct interior. It will definitely have my identity all over it and will be a very unique surf wagon.
IS THIS THE APE?
TWO doors up from Matt’s workshop is where APE, Alder Performance Engineering, was located. That shop used to run a wheelstanding Kombi, and Matt is pretty certain that the split-screen Kombi in the workshop is the very same car.
“The floor’s been cut up, the rear’s been cut up – for no good reason,” he says. “It’s had heaps of prangs. The customer doesn’t want to hear it. They’ve invested in a split-screen Kombi panel van; they don’t want to know that it’s an ex-drag racer!”
The motor in the Chev was taken to Mike Dyer, who rebuilds motors in what was Scott Dillon’s surfboard glassing room back in the 60s. As it turns out, Mike used to work on Dillon’s grey-motor Holdens for his speedway cars, but there’s also another connection. “Speaking to Gordon Woods, who is still a customer of ours, and Bob McTavish, they remembered that everyone used to take their cars to Doug Taylor and Jim Botham’s,” says Matt. “Scotty Dillon’s cars and engines were built in Brookvale, but we were repairing them, too.”