With a chopped top, gullwing doors and Chev power, was this Australia's best Bedford van? You be the judge
This article on 'The Judge' van was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Street Machine
THE LOCAL custom scene was blessed with a number of cool big vans back in the day, but there aren’t many that can hold a candle to this iconic Bedford known as The Judge.
The Judge’s history spans 40 years and was the brainchild of Victorian vanner Rick Hall. Rick picked up this ex-postie, 1971 sliding-door model in the mid 70s to use as his weekly work hack and weekend party bus. It wasn’t long before Rick got sucked into the van scene and the Beddy was taken off the road for a full build.
Custom bodywork was the order of the day and the Bedford was treated to a healthy set of steel flared guards to house whopping chrome 12-slot rims – they never used to be labelled as ‘Ford only’, any car was fair game – along with one of the most attractive front- and rear-end makeovers ever applied to the Bedford model, created using parts from new-model cars of the time.
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XC Fairmont headlamps in specially made surrounds complement a custom grille, bonnet scoops and steel front spoiler, while out back traditional-style tailgates and split-lens CL Valiant sedan tail-lights flank a red Perspex centre panel. The latter was illuminated and embossed with ‘Chevrolet’ as back-up for the grille-mounted Bowtie badge. And these tags weren’t just for show.
A late-80s revamp of The Judge saw the front portion of the roof given a pseudo-chop by sectioning the firewall, with the existing gullwing door tops shortened to suit. Fresh murals were added, along with a black vinyl roof and black paint to the upper surfaces to create a graphics effect
The tradition of Aussie car manufacturers jamming big six-cylinder donks into four-cylinder Pommy-based jobs like the Torana, Cortina and Centura spread to the commercial range as well, with both Bedford and Transit vans scoring six-pot love. But Rick hadn’t been that lucky; his van copped the reliable yet wheezy Vauxhall-based slant-four on the assembly line. This was deemed unacceptable, so Rick skipped the six altogether and fixed his power woes by dropping in a 327-cube small-block Chev out of a ’68 Impala, which was then treated to a Crane cam and Holley four-barrel for more go.
A Turbo 400 transmission was rebuilt and shift-kitted, and an XR Falcon BorgWarner diff was widened – yes, you read that right – to suit.
Many Bedford vans copped all manner of body mods at the height of the custom craze, but the frontal treatment applied to The Judge was one of the first – and best. A one-off grille and bonnet scoops tie in nicely with the handcrafted front spoiler and huge steel flares. Special surrounds were made to house the XC Fairmont headlights
Jack-of-all-trades Rick laid down the original Ford Satin Brown paint and decked out the interior in a mix of timber and diamond-tufted red crushed velvet along with highlights in red, brown and gold velour. An electrician, he even wired in self-retracting curtains!
Rick then hit the show scene, which was when the van’s ‘The Judge’ moniker came about quite by accident. Asked by one of his mates how he’d fare against other well-known Bedford vans like Dream Warrior and Mandingo, Rick’s response was: “I don’t know, you be the judge.” The name stuck.
The Judge was sold in 1979 to Danny Woodham, who set about taking the van to the next level. The most notable change – and unquestionably The Judge’s calling card – was the combination gullwing/suicide conversion to the front doors, which was ably handled by master craftsman and engineer Nick Venardis of Ariel Customs and Strip Tripper HD Holden fame (SM, Sep ’17).
Rick had fitted a Falcon wagon rear bumper later in his ownership, which Danny removed and returned to a rolled rear pan, as well as frenching the existing Valiant tail-lights. A colour change to GM Burgundy along with murals highlighted the exterior revamp, and the fitment of Chevy Bowtie-embossed bubble windows, tinted headlamp covers and ’glass-packed side pipes sealed the deal.
Danny enjoyed plenty of show success with The Judge, amassing in excess of 50 trophies, and was the owner most responsible for nurturing and cementing the van’s identity.
The Judge first featured in Custom Vans & Trucks #7, way back in 1978. Rick Hall was the initial owner/builder and created the van from an ex-Australia Post four-cylinder work hack. Ford Satin Brown paint was the first showy hue, and many of the parts used to customise the Bedford were from then-new models. The next incarnation of The Judge was at the hands of subsequent owner Danny Woodham and the van was featured for a second time in Custom Vans & Trucks (#25) in 1982
The Judge was treated to a frontal roof chop to mimic what was hot in the States at the time, and if you look closely you’ll notice a lack of visible windscreen wipers (it does have them) and that the bottom of the windscreen disappears under the bonnet. This is because the chopped roofline was actually achieved by cutting and sectioning the firewall to drop it lower, with the gullwing doors cut to suit. The van had already been resprayed and re-muralled, and a black vinyl roof was added to further freshen the Bedford’s look.
Amazingly, the 40-year-old interior remains largely intact, apart from a fresh gold crushed velvet bedspread – probably a wise move – and inner tailgate liner. “Chris also remade one of the cupboards and I replaced the original carpet with burgundy shagpile,” explains one-time owner James Ellis. “It was long overdue, believe me; the first lot looked, felt and probably smelt like Humphrey Bear,” he laughs
In the late 80s Danny sold The Judge to a Carlton car yard. Vanning historian and one-time Judge owner James Ellis (Jade, SM, Jun ’15), remembers it well: “I wanted to buy it but I had too much on the go at the time,” he says. “The next few years of its whereabouts are a mystery but it was believed to have lived around Swan Hill for a while before resurfacing in a Campbellfield car yard in the mid 90s.”
Interestingly, there were no speakers fitted to this van, it has headphone jacks throughout; is that old-school or what?”
The Judge’s current custodian, Chris Brown, has owned the van since 2000 and has researched its history during this blank period.
“The van was for sale in a Preston car yard minus the engine and ’box, and apparently the car yard struggled to shift it as a roller,” Chris explains. “The Judge was then said to be sold to a wrecking yard and facing a very bleak future. A young guy supposedly knew the van and felt compelled to save it, so forked out $3000 with another engine and stored it in his garage for a rainy day. The Bedford did see some action – shed skids with his mates was the order of the day – before it reappeared as mentioned at Campbellfield for a matching $3K.”
The driver’s compartment was updated with TC Cortina buckets mounted to swivel bases, while a GTS steering wheel and Charger floorshift for the Turbo 400 are cool period fixtures. “The dash housing is all steel and was the prototype made by Vancraft for their ‘Custom Cab’ fibreglass version,” Chris says
Its days in the wrecking yard and as a skid pig left The Judge looking worse for wear, but custom van aficionado Brett Birch (The Beast, SM, Jul ’17) snapped it up from Campbellfield before selling it a couple of years later to a fellow Diamond Valley Vanner who then soon sold it on to James Ellis.
Nestled beneath the dash, a 327-cube small-block Chev backed by a Turbo 400 transmission provides ample go
“It had been stored out of harm’s way since it reappeared, but needed heaps of work,” James says. “The body was a mess, so I repaired it all and had it carefully resprayed around the murals, before selling it to Chris.”
“I missed out on buying it once before so wasn’t going to let that happen twice!” Chris laughs. “I displayed it at the Victorian Hot Rod Show between 2000 and 2004, and at the 2009 Geelong Van Nats with two other legend Bedfords, The Beast and Mystic Fantasy. In the past few years I’ve attempted to touch up the murals and did pretty well for someone with pretty limited artistic skills! I also replaced the Chevrolet light across the rear with new Perspex and a laser-cut fascia.”
Chris is keen to revamp and upgrade parts of the van and it’s next in line after he finishes his long-term T-bucket project.
“It’s on McDonald Brothers chassis #7, which should give you a hint as to what I mean by long-term,” he laughs. “But it’s nearly there and I’ve given myself a deadline of January 2018 to finish it, then it’ll be full steam ahead on The Judge.
“It desperately needs a brake upgrade to make it safer, and new tyres are a must – you can’t buy fat 14s like this anymore, so I may have to go for something bigger – and I want to rebuild the engine and transmission too.
“Exterior-wise I’m keen to change one mural and add a few more, but at the end of the day it’s a 40-year-old show van that has survived the ravages of time, so any changes will be appropriate to that era.”
Having resurfaced in the mid 1990s, The Judge was looking the worse for wear, so was treated to body repairs and a respray, tasks made more difficult by the desire to retain the original murals. “I’ve touched up what I can, how I can,” explains current owner Chris Brown. “I’m no artist, but think I’ve done okay and will look at having them redone properly when I give the van a makeover”
And then there’s the chrome.
“It’s a typical 70s build so there is chromed parts absolutely everywhere. I know what I’m in for and it will be a polishing nightmare – I think I need to strengthen my arms and start stockpiling Autosol now! It’ll be totally worth it though; I love this thing to bits."
1971 CFS BEDFORD VAN
Paint: GM Burgundy
Engine: 327ci Chevrolet
Block: Factory cast
Intake: Cast four-barrel
Cam: Crane mild hydraulic
Transmission: Turbo 400, shift-kitted
Diff: XR Falcon BorgWarner, widened
Front: Factory wishbone and coil, lowered
Rear: Leaf spring
Brakes: Bedford drums (f), XR Falcon drums (r)
Rims: Chrome 12-slots; 14x10 (f), 14x12 (r)
Tyres: Mickey Thompson; H50-14 (f), N50-14 (r)
Divided roof chop and gullwing/suicide door conversion; XC Fairmont headlights in custom surrounds; custom all-steel flares and front spoiler; frenched CL Valiant tail-lights; rear tailgate conversion; Falcon GT fuel cap; Chev embossed smoked bubble windows and side markers; rolled rear pan; frenched aerials