AFTER DARK – DALE HIGGIN’S 1954 CHEVY

How does a tradie and a family man find time to piece together a killer custom Chevy?

BY GREG FORSTER, PHOTOS CAPRICE PHOTOGRAPHY, FEATURED CRUZIN #200

For those of us who have built our own cars, we know what a budget is. It’s that financial figure we conjure up after estimating the value of the build, minus the chunk on top that we present to the department of war and finance in the hope we get the go, knowing full well our estimated budget is set to be blown to smithereens in the process!

But not Dale Higgins, he’s right onto it, especially since his skills and experience allows him to take care of the majority of manual labour himself. Dale, a home renovator by day, has had no less than 26 dream machines come through his garage over the years, seeing them leave in much better shape than when they arrived. That includes Aussie classics like XY Falcons, Cortinas, EJ and HR Holdens, XL Falcons and even an XM ute with a stroked V8. He’s gone custom on a ‘57 Hudson which he chopped and bagged, and even scored a Cruzin magazine cover back in March 2007 with a baby blue, hiboy style ‘28 Ford tudor with a blown side valve. So as you can see, Dale’s wealth of experience in the car building game gives him enlightenment, especially when it comes to DIY and financial purchases. 

With such an eclectic taste in automobiles, why a ‘54 Chevy four door?

“I saw a nutty brown ‘53 Chevy about 10 years ago at the Queenscliff Rod Run. I thought that it had a really cool shape to it and one day I’d like to build one myself. I finished an XA Fairmont factory K code and hadn’t built anything for a couple of years and I was starting to get itchy fingers to do something. I started looking around for something and the Chevy came up. The car was a total rust bucket when I bought it, but I thought I’ll just put it in the garage and just tinker along. If it takes me 10-15 years, that’s cool as it gives me something to go to in the garage and play with. But I couldn’t help myself! Impatience sets in and you can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and before you know it, in a couple of years you’re done!”

The stock Chevy with its inline six and three on the tree had seen better days. Previous parties had passed on the mammoth task of resurrecting the forlorn sedan back from the dead, the car failing to find a bid on Ebay, leaving the door open for Dale to work up a good deal for himself and the dejected seller. A bunch of spare parts were thrown in on the deal, but their condition didn’t fare much better than the car itself.

Looking down the barrel of a time consuming schedule just to get the body back up to scratch wasn’t an issue for Dale. While many of us struggle to find the time to get out to the shed on a regular basis due to work and family commitments, Dale has a plan of attack that works well for himself and his family.

“It’s like people who come home at the end of the day and go to the gym or play sport. For me, I come home, have dinner and do the family thing and then at eight or nine o’clock, go out to the garage and work on the car. The way I see it, if I spend four hours a night five days a week, that’s 20 hours, the same as half a week’s work.” 

Dale had a rough idea of what he wanted to do before firing up the angle grinder, or so he thought.

“Originally I was going to two door it along with the chop. I was going to move the pillar back and weld up the back door. Then I thought, no one chops a four door, everyone chops two doors. I mean, it’s more work with more doors but I thought stuff it, I’ll take the challenge. Even when I looked at other ‘54s on the ‘net, I preferred the look of the four door to the two door.” 

The roof chop itself is the biggest modification on the vehicle, with Dale removing 3 ½ inches out of the front and 5 inches from the back. He also moved the rear roof line forward around 4 ½”, balancing out the proportions of the altered side profile. As with all custom work, one treads an unbeaten path when it comes to sourcing suitable parts to blend in with our vision and Dale’s new roof line required a custom rear window to fit the updated opening.

“I looked at Volkswagens, Vauxhalls, Mini Minors, ‘39 Fords, ‘41 Willys, anything with a small back window. I even considered a split rear window but figured it wouldn’t look right. My mate, Carlo the trimmer was at the Bendigo swap meet. He rang me and asked if the back window area had a contour and I said it had a slight one. He said, ‘I’ve got an FJ Holden window here and it’ll fit perfect.’ It had been cut out of the roof and was for sale for $20, it came with the moulds and all. It was the perfect fit.”

The sixties style graphics laid over the roof are another new skill added to Dale’s arsenal of talents, having never attempted them before. 

“I’ve painted plenty of cars over the years. I used to paint trailers and sheds for my Dad when he used to build them. When I was 13 or 14, I used to come home from school and get stuck painting red oxide on industrial sheds for the rest of the day. I figured I’d give the graphics a crack and if worse comes to worst, I’ll just send it to the panel shop to be fixed. I wanted the lace work but not too much. I spent a whole day trialling various designs on the roof until I was happy with the layout, then started laying down the pinstriping tape and masking tape. I painted the whole roof silver before masking it all up and painting the graphics. It took a couple of days to complete.”

The running gear in this Aussie born machine keeps with the Aussie born and bred theme, but not as you might think. Dale had originally planned to locate a good 350 small block before a friend offered up the driveline from a smashed VQ Statesman.

“A mate of a mate had a VQ Satesman that got t-boned and written off. He bought it back off the insurance company and my mate was going to put the 304 motor into a Nissan Patrol, but it never happened. By chance, I was chatting with him one day about the Chev and he suggested putting the injected motor in it. I said ‘Nah!I don’t want an injected motor in the Chev!’ At the time I was looking for a stock 350, but by the time you buy one, pull it down, do the heads, etc, it owes you five grand. He said I could have motor, box, diff, pulleys, fans, looms, computer, aircon, power steering pump, rack and pinion steering, the whole lot for 500 bucks! How could I go wrong. The car it all came out of had only done 107,000 kilometres.”

Built with family in mind, Dale’s trusted good friend Carlos from Reservoir Motor Trimmers for the upholstery styling ideas. Dale’s only stipulation was that the inserts be of a hardy nature for daily use and he chose the colour from a number of samples. Carlos went for a tweed material commonly found on long haul truck seats and proven to handle wear and tear, covering the factory bench seats with rows of wide pleats. 

The dash retains the original speedo, but a laser cut polished stainless panel houses a duo of Stewart Warner gauges in place of the rectangular factory pieces. Early chrome Mustang switches replace the aging Chevy items, while a heater from an XT Falcon keeps the winter chills at bay. When it comes to summertime cruising, an under-dash air conditioning unit from a 1959 Dodge hooked up to the VQ Statesman compressor keeps the interior as cool as a cucumber, as Dale found out after his January trip to the Kustom Nats.

“We went to the Kustom Nats and it was 34 degrees! We had the windows up with the air conditioning on and were stuck in the traffic for half an hour. The temp gauge just sat on 160 degrees without a problem. It works great!”

Dale attacked the wiring work himself as another challenge and found today’s aftermarket wiring kits to be a walk in the park thanks to good instructions and labelling.

“I bought a 12 volt wiring harness kit from Sydney. It has a 29 fuse circuit and you just bolt the fuse box in before running all the wires out, they’re fantastic! I hadn’t done wiring before and thought I’d have a crack. If worst comes to worse, I’ll just take it to the auto electrician. The hardest part of the wiring was the Commodore computer as I had to bypass antilock systems and stuff. I went up to the local Commodore wreckers and he’s an old drag racer and good mate of my upholsterer, he showed me which coloured wires go where and bingo, she fired up straight away!” 

Dale’s rapt with the end result and the blend of both Aussie and American components.

“It’s probably one of the best cars I’ve ever had as far as reliability and driving. It doesn’t overheat and is great on fuel. I just turn the key and go.”

So, are we keeping it? 

“I never wanted to sell any of my cars but everything has a price. I’m already starting to think about something else. I don’t know what yet but I’m getting itchy to get something on the go. Problem is I don’t have much room in the garage with the Chev and a couple of custom choppers. I can’t sit still long enough and it’s a passion, I love doing it.”

Dale would like to thank his wife for her patience and understanding throughout the build process.

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