SPORTSMAN RACER

Novice golfer Neil Harbison determined that his spare time was better spent chasing flathead parts than little white balls!

 

BY GREG FORSTER     PHOTOS CAPRICE PHOTO

 

What’s a car enthusiast to do when he lives in a seaside town with a great golf course in seasonal Victoria, and his average golf game consists of little more than a lot of walking, disappointment and bad arithmetic? The answer? Rekindle that love affair of tinkering with old school cars and parts, out back in the shed!

Neil Harbison explains, “I’ve got a house in Anglesea and on a good day you go to the beach, but on a bad day you sit around twiddling your thumbs. I decided in the early days, I was a lousy golfer so I decided to buy a flathead motor and sit it in the shed and on a bad day, I can go out there to see if I can put it together. I bought one for $500 and it started from there.”

Neil decided to go down the path of building a HAMBster rather than a street registered hot rod.

“How this roadster idea all started was back when I was 17. I was right into hot rods and I bought a ‘37 Ford coupe with a flathead motor. I started to build the hot rod but I never finished the project. I helped a mate build his car, well I was the gofer anyway, and he joined the Thunderbirds Rod & Custom Club so I did too. My theory was that I’d help him build his car and then he’d help me build mine, but as soon as we finished his, he headed off to the mines in Queensland, not to be seen for the next 30 years! After that I got out of the rodding scene and went Formula 3 racing. After that I got married and raised a family for the next twenty five years. I always regretted not finishing the ‘37.”

Neil’s first flathead motor was sourced from Simon Muntz in Castlemaine. Once stripped, it was sent to Octane Alley in Geelong for the rebuild. Simon recommended Corey Swift for sourcing parts and expert advice and his assistance has proved invaluable. Corey and his father, Peter have a long history in the Australian (and Castlemaine) hot rod scene.

After a long slow build of the flathead, which in hindsight was too ambitious for the ageing block, it failed on the dyno with water seeping into bore number 6. After two further blocks proved inadequate for the project, it was decided to import a brand new French flathead block from the USA. According to SF Flatheads, they are the sole source for the new blocks, sold direct or via resellers, after securing the bulk of the surplus military castings in 2006. In Neil’s case, he purchased one via the SoCal Speed Shop in Sacramento.

“You know what the army’s like, they need two blocks so they build 2,000 and they sit the other 1,998 on a shelf. These blocks were cast 50 years ago and have never been used, so it made sense to ship one over. The blokes at Octane Alley were top blokes to deal with and really helped me out.”

The Octane Alley crew oversaw the rebuild, using various parts that Neil has already secured during other shopping encounters, like the Edelbrock alloy heads, water pumps and sump. A set of triple Holley 94s with alloy spun Muroc injector style air cleaners sitting on top of a Sharp inlet manifold top off the fresh engine.

When it came to the actual construction of the classic racer, Neil was introduced by the guys at Octane Alley to Kenton Ferguson, who was instrumental in the build.

“While it’s been my vision, Kenton’s been the physical talent behind the build. We’d discuss things and I’d put my two bobs worth in. My background is designing houses, and while houses and cars are two entirely different things, design is design. So when it came to balance and proportion, I designed some parts in CAD and that was handy for getting the creative juices flowing. Take the roll cage for instance, a roll cage that is well proportioned is much neater than a roll cage that is boxy and doesn’t flow with the car.”

While Kenton’s not into rodding himself, his automotive experience comes from speedway as well as circuit track racing in the Commodore Cup, winning the Australian Championship three times in a row on a limited budget while utilising his skills as a fitter and turner. Neil’s machine has benefitted immensely from the years of experience and knowledge. If Kenton couldn’t make it, his good mate Langy had the skills to do it. According to Neil, the tolerances on ball joints and steering knuckles can be measured down to the finest of microns, giving the driver precise steering when on the go.

It was Corey Smith that directed Neil to Jamie Croker in Canberra, who was prepared to sell his unfinished HAMBster project as a roller. The chassis was originally constructed by Joseph Rodriquez in Sydney, one of the founding members of the Australian HAMB racing community.

“Joseph and some of his mates got together and wanted to build HAMB racers, so Joe built all of the the chassis and then a couple of spares. This is one of them. When I say chassis, they only came with two main rails, a couple of cross rails and the tow tongue!” explains Neil.

HAMBster rules require a manual gearbox, Neil decided to think outside the box and settled on a Toyota Hilux 5 speed.

“What I like about the Japanese gear boxes is that they’re easier to change and when you’ve got the shifter sitting between your legs, my thoughts were, why not pick a box that changes like a hot knife through butter.”

Mating it to the Toyota diff required a short tailshaft from A1 Automotive, measuring around 400mm, and fully encased in an ANDRA spec trans tunnel for safety.

A Toyota Landcruiser steering box and speedway pitman arm with a go kart rear axle bearing helps point her in the right direction. Six months was spent on getting it all right and working properly.

“We looked at what others did and decided on our own design, Kenton doesn’t just knock things up.”

The same attention to detail and design has been carried over at the back too. The main transverse spring was formed from scratch with the original load springs mounted on top. Neil and Kenton wanted the rear suspension to be functional, yet simplistic in its design.

“We knew we wanted a particular dimension and shape to the rear end so there was a lot of discussion on clearance and length in our shockers. The whole set up looks simple but there’s fair bit of thought gone into setting it all up to be workable. Hopefully we don’t get any axle bounce as it’s all been theory at the moment.”

One of the first pieces on this sparse roadster that grabs your attention is the bulbous Fordson radiator shell. Finding a radiator to fit inside proved to be a challenge, but Geelong Radiators came through with flying colours and found a radiator out of a Toyota forklift was the perfect fit. All that was required was to add the right inlets and outlets to suit a flathead and adjust the filler neck to fit symmetrical in the original hole.

“We went to a lot of effort to make sure the radiator cap lined up central with the original tractor grill radiator hole including the height and diameter. To me it’s important that if it’s going to look real, it needs to be real!”

Spark comes from a high performance battery tucked neatly under the radiator, keeping it out of the way from disrupting the overall design flow of Neil’s creation while sending power to the starter as well as the one seat cockpit. A Moroso fuse box next to Neil’s right hand houses the necessary switches and fuses for easy access, while three essential gauges sit in two small alloy panels, once again designed by Neil using drafting ideas and creatively turned by Kenton.

The body itself is modelled off a ‘27 T bucket after it was decided that it would be easier to make one from scratch, rather than try and work with the original 90 year old steel piece. That task was handed to Keith Bakker in Moolap.

“I had all these 1927 bits and pieces so we started to chop a couple of the parts up to make it, but in the end we decided it was going to be too hard. That’s when we met Keith Bakker and gave him the T model bits. In the end we decided that with the body work skills Keith has, it’d be easier to start from scratch, so Keith used the original parts as a template for the current body.”

Running with a red, white and blue theme, Neil had the body painted white by a mate of Kenton’s before Matt Begg from Online Signs wrapped the red scallops around the tub in vinyl, along with the various sponsors and brands. The crowning stroke for this eye catching designer HAMB racer would have to be the name ‘Tractor T’ wouldn’t you agree?

“The name is my idea as it has a tractor nose and it’s a T bucket. I sat down for a few hours and nutted out the design.”

While Neil was yet to unleash the power of the flathead on the strip, hopefully by the time you read this, he’ll have christened those rear boots with a couple of liquorice sticks and find out if their theoretical build comes to fruition. As for the unfinished bug within, did Neil cure it?

“It’s definitely a keeper. While I wasn’t the physical builder of the project, I enjoyed the thinking process behind the creation as well as sourcing parts half way across the world and now I’m feeling the loss of not doing that anymore. I enjoyed the problem solving involved in the build. Everyone tells me drag racing is addictive, so we’ll see!”

It’s gotta be much more fun to race the iron than swing the iron! Ask any golfer with a race license!

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