Looking back on Gary Beardsley street-legal Aussie classic that pushed retrotech to the cutting edge back in the late 90s
This article on Gary's FX was originally published in the December 1999 issue of Street Machine
THE DASH was a real nightmare,” Ken Neilson says, reflecting on an amazing street-machine project that is unquestionably the most time-consuming and challenging build he’s ever tackled – effectively, a 48-215 FX Holden that thinks it is a V8 VN Commodore Calais. Or is it the other way around?
“The FX has a welded dashboard,” Ken explains. “There were a lot of things we had to mount behind it but space was very limited, so it was a real mind-bender trying to figure out how to make it all fit.”
Neilson is talking about a Vintage Air air-conditioning unit with separate ducting for footwell, console, face and windscreen. A full glovebox. A hidden wiper motor. Plus there’s all the Commodore’s vital organs such as electronic ignition module, manifold vacuum sensor, climate-control heater tap and a lot of wiring. In fact, it was such a tight fit, Neilson finally had to wire and fit each gauge in strict installation sequence.
The end result of all that brain strain – and a hell of a lot more – is just incredible. This is retrotech to the max; the classic character of Australia’s first successful car combined with all the performance and creature comforts of a Holden more than four decades its junior. It’s done only one show so far – the Street Machine, Muscle Car and Mega Bike show in Melbourne – and the results speak for themselves: Top Five, People’s Choice, Top Engine Bay and Top Modified.
Neilson may have provided a wealth of build skills and a mental encyclopaedia of problem-solving, but a bloke called Gary Beardsley actually owns the car. Gary, who runs a dairy distribution business out of Melbourne, has carried the keys to this classic FX sedan for 30 years, the last seven of which have been dedicated to transforming it into the standard-setter you see here.
Seven years ago, Gary’s build plan naturally included things like a carbed small-block Chev, later-model front end and narrowed Ford nine-inch diff, but with a national swing to unleaded petrol underway at the time, Gary set a course beyond 2000. How about that – this guy was into retrotech years before we’d even dreamed up the name!
In place of the FX’s spindly old front coils and rear leaves, Gary’s retrotech stunner scored fabricated four-coil suspension based on VN V8 Commodore bits, including the big brakes
“I wanted it to be like a Statesman,” Gary says. “It had to be an injected V8 with an automatic, late-model suspension and all the luxury-car comforts inside.” The plan was to buy a complete Commodore donor car to strip, but Gary faced a major engineering challenge if he wanted to use the Commodore’s MacPherson strut suspension. Well, that was until he met Traralgon-based Ken Neilson, who works under the Streetwize Rod and Custom banner.
“Ken had already built a small-block FX with a beautiful strut front end,” Gary recalls. “He let me drive it. I was so impressed with the car, we ended up having a long chat about my plans and he agreed to get involved.” Ultimately, it became Ken’s pet project, from initial planning, engineering consultations and construction right through to the project’s completion.
Mechanical donor car was this totalled VN V8 auto Calais. Bought for $5000, this wreck provided engine, trans and plenty more for the FX
First stop was the vehicle auctions, where a written-off but complete VN V8 Calais went onto the trailer for $5000. Anyone contemplating a complete retrotech conversion like this would be well advised to follow Gary’s lead. It’s much easier – and cheaper – to buy a complete car and strip it, rather than fossick through wrecking yards looking for all those fiddly and hard-to-get bits that drive you mad.
“Nothing fell into place on this car,” Ken says. “Every component required time and careful planning to make it fit and work properly.”
Given free rein, Neilson’s steel-fabrication skills were put to the test. Sure, he’d built front struts before, but this one had to use stock Commodore struts to maintain the stock geometry.
The FX shell sits on a full steel-tube chassis, with the Commodore front struts mounted on sturdy top hats and fabricated adjustable lower wishbones. Steering is via a modified power-assisted Peugeot rack and pinion. An equally robust fabricated rear suspension, with four parallel bars and a Watts linkage, provides location for the Calais rear axle, which carries 3.08 gears and an LSD centre.
The firewall is recessed 150mm to shoehorn in the engine, five-core stainless-steel radiator and stainless exhaust headers. To make more room, the air intake now resides behind the left of the engine grille.
A wider handmade transmission tunnel, which sits 100mm higher than the original, runs the full length of the car to provide enough space for the Calais’ TH700 four-speed auto transmission and fabricated tailshaft. The HPC-coated exhaust headers feed into a single 2½-inch system, complete with factory cat and 2½-inch muffler.
Interior hardware from the VN – with added woodgrain – looks just as good as a VS Statesman
Brakes are stock VN V8 Commodore; with big 11-inch vented rotors up front there was no need to upgrade. Urethane bushes tighten up the suspension, as do Bilstein shocks and stiffer springs. Neilson credits Jim Doxley at Quadrant Suspensions for his help in tuning the chassis. What catches your eye are the wheels – 18x7 and 18x8-inch Budniks with 225/40 and 245/40 rear Dunlop Le Mans rubber. New age, large-diameter rims under a classic body like this make a great contrast.
Look beyond the layers of Spies Hecker Calypso Red two-pack, sprayed to perfection by Super Fine Panels, and you’ll pick Ken’s detailing. There’s almost no badges or chrome strips. Tail-lights have been frenched and the cowl vent smoothed over. Recessed HQ Holden door handles have been grafted in, plus there’s moulded electric door mirrors, custom fuel filler and a VN electric radio aerial in the left front guard. The battery and toolbox now live in the boot, together with a stainless-steel fuel tank that uses the VN Commodore’s electric high-pressure fuel pump, pick-up and swirl pot set-up.
Upper dashboard is a highly detailed FX stuffed full of classic instruments calibrated to the modern running gear. A marriage of old and new components made in heaven!
The interior was another mind-bender to piece together and is loaded with retrotech tricks. Car owner Gary and his wife Lesley like the idea of a luxury cockpit; a combination of VN Calais and VQ Statesman with all the bells and whistles including electric glass, central locking, climate control and even walnut trimming. This is lush all right!
Honda Prelude buckets (chosen for their low headrest height) provide the basis for the front seats, ahead of a rebolstered original bench in the back. With new door trims and kick panels, VN Commodore console and under-dash trim panels all modified to fit, Adams Auto and Marine Upholstery stitched it all together using the grey factory fabric originally used in a VS Statesman.
The original front quarter-glass has been binned in favour of one-piece windows, which slide on special runners powered by Commodore rear electric winder motors. Check out the interior console details, too: an early HQ Stato clock replaces the VN heater-control switch; a VH Commodore headlight switch replaces the VN vent control and the Vintage Air aircon controls replace the old coin tray.
Detailing on the 48/215 dash is a work of art. Apart from the vents, there’s a row of gold-faced Precision Classic instruments calibrated for the modern mechanicals, including a 200km/h speedo. For a special treat, look closely at the two original gauges below the speedo. They now display warning lights for modern things like ECU malfunction.
It’s the heaps of little things like that which make this car so outstanding. The attention to detail and the thought that has gone into the installation of every component is a credit to Ken Neilson, Gary Beardsley and everyone who got involved. The fact that it’s 100 percent street-legal – and genuinely street-driven – is the icing on the cake.
“It’s everything I expected it to be,” Gary says. “Ken has done an incredible job. It accelerates hard, stops and handles really well and with all the luxury options it’s as comfortable as a Statesman to ride around in.” Does it pull many looks, Gary? “Yeah, heaps.”
HOLDEN FX SEDAN
Colour: Spies Hecker Calypso Red
Type: VN V8 Commodore
Exhaust: HPC-coated 21/2-inch system
SUSPENSION & STEERING
Steering: Peugeot rack & pinion
Shocks & springs: Commodore front struts, adj. lower wishbones (f); parallel bars and Watts linkage (r)
WHEELS & TYRES
Wheels: 18x7 (f), 18x8 (r) Budnik
Tyres: 225/40 (f), 245/40 (r) Dunlop Le Mans