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Nick Cockinos - My Life With Cars Part One

By Simon Major, 14 Feb 2018 Features

nick cockinos van 1896 nw

Old-school vanning memories of Nick Cockinos, one of the founding members of the Renegade Vanners club

THE vanning boom of the 70s and 80s was a massive scene, bolstered by numerous passionate van clubs. These groups normally drew members from specific regions, in the process linking smaller local scenes together to create the greater web of street and show van action. Now based in Perth, Nick Cockinos was living in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire when he became a founding member of Renegade Vanners – a group of friends who built a dedicated club on the values of mateship and a shared passion for all things panel van.

This article on Nick's vans was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Street Machine

Ford Escort van1. Nick started his vanning career with a white MkI Escort panel van that he later replaced with this bronze version, dubbed Dreamweaver. “I bought it as a 19-year-old in 1981,” Nick says. “It came with the flared guards, but over the next couple of years I added the bonnet scoop, tramp rods and seven-inch gold Hotwires, and decked out the rear with mirror tiles and all the good stuff. It ran a 1600 Crossflow engine with a 45mm sidedraught Weber and extractors that split away to twin sidepipes. It went well and had a nice, deep note. I had grand plans to fit a Capri V6 and narrowed Jag diff, but decided to build a larger van.” How cool is that pic at Kurnell Beach with the catamarans? You’d swear it was a 1980s cigarette ad!

Holden HZ panel van2. The Esky was traded in 1982 for this Panama Green HZ Sandman, running a 308 and four-speed. It wasn’t long before Nick treated the van to the mandatory archway and interior makeover, while a bonnet muralled by airbrushing legend Frank Lee (SM, Jun ’15) was bought from Kustom Image at Parramatta. “They had all the cool stuff like spoilers, sunroofs and Monza front ends,” Nick remembers. “We’d stare through those front windows and dream of what could be.

Conan The Barbarian muralThe Conan The Barbarian mural was an awesome Frank Frazetta design, but sadly that bonnet only lasted two weeks before a bloke pulled out of a side street and wrote the whole front end off.”

Renegade newsletter3. Our pioneering hot rodders, vanners, street machiners and even restorers trod the hard yards when it came to forming clubs. Manual labour was the order of the day, well before you could easily spread the word via Facebook or internet forums. “The late Scott Wilson was my best mate, brother-in-law and work colleague, and we both loved vans,” Nick says. “We found there were no van clubs in the Sutherland Shire, so we created our own. We researched all the dos and don’ts – via telephone calls and desk time mind you, there was no Google – to form a properly constituted car club, and Renegade Vanners was born! Scott drew up the logo and we got busy on the manual typewriter punching out a newsletter and leaflets that we’d leave on vans we spotted out and about. Our first club shirts were light blue Bonds Ts with a snake and that felt block lettering you used to get. Once we hit 15 members we upgraded to jackets, which were pretty cool. Membership peaked at around 20, but sadly as the van scene faded so did Renegade Vanners and the club folded.”

Holden HZ panel van4. With the front end repairs sorted and the muralled bonnet relegated to scrap, Nick decided on a fresh look for the HZ. A blacked-out Statesman grille was fitted and matched with tinted headlamp covers for a tough look, reinforced by the bonnet scoring a letterbox scoop.

Holden panel van engineFamily commitments slowed the revamp, but Nick did manage to build a tough 308 with flat-top Chev pistons, a 650 double-pumper Holley and worked heads. “I had a Jag diff ready to go in and my dad and I were building the cradle to mount it, when a few life changes came along and I sold the van as a roller,” Nick says. “I kept the 308 and eventually fitted it to a four-door HQ Monaro. I went to town on that one, with extensive engine bay chrome and braided hoses, and added an HQ Statesman front to the factory red-with-orange-stripes GTS exterior.”

Holden panel van5. Standing proudly here with his blue HQ van is Renegade Vanners member #3 and club treasurer Dave Peterson. “Dave’s van looked tough with the Trans Am front and ran a hot 202 six-cylinder along with a full interior decked out in blue crushed velvet,” Nick recalls. “Do you like the rocks and pot plants? They were part of our club display, and my dad was a signwriter so he painted the banner for us. This pic was taken at the Merrylands Show; I remember it clearly because it was where Fuzz Heinrich relaunched his HZ van The Wizard with big-block Ford power and blew everyone away!”

Holden panel vans6. Nick's green HZ is flanked by Kurt Jensen’s Holden (left), which sported Ford Concorde show van-style stripework against its silver hue. It originally ran a six-cylinder but was converted to 350 Chev power, with said donk appropriately painted in era-correct cyan blue. Scott Wilson owned the Persian Sand HJ (right), which ran a 253 and four-speed and looked mean with a full grille and tinted headlight covers. “It was all about building something individual,” Nick says. “Sure, there were similar mods going around, like letterbox scoops and tinted headlight covers, but the canvas to which they were applied made all the difference. This photo was taken at a motel in Canberra; we’d driven there to buy fireworks but couldn’t find any!”

Nick Cockinos7. Stuart Flood’s MkII Escort van, The Den, scored him a heap of trophies and was the Renegades’ most-winning van. “Stuart’s attention to detail was second to none and that’s what set The Den apart from so many others,” Nick says. “The mix of chrome and paint detailing was well balanced and it was a tough little van too. It’s great to see him wearing the club jacket in this pic; I still have one and Stuart is part of the old Renegades crew I’ve managed to reconnect with through Facebook. It’s been fantastic to catch up on old times.”