MARZ ATTACK – MARIO BONNICI’S 1957 FORD RANCHERO

There are many ways in which a new car enters our lives. In the car guy’s world necessity is never really one of them. It usually comes down to a want rather than a need, or to replace the gaping hole left from selling off your last four wheeled baby. The fairer sex always talks about retail therapy as a sure fix for the blues, for us of the opposite gender it may just be a big blokie band aid. Well that’s the excuse the owner of this beautiful ’57 Ranchero confessed to me.

Mario Bonnici, or better known as Marz, was enduring the final days of a long term relationship and as the sound of stilettos faded from the front door he retreated to the soothing confines of the internet. Marz had been keeping an eye on a saucy little number over in California and needed no more self justification to bring her home, just a mate with a shipping container. It just so happens good mate Keith does just that… frequently, and with that he bought his new project within 10 minutes of being single.

Ford pulled out all the stops when they produced this particular model back in 1957 adding power steering, air conditioning, twin exhausts and the first of the legendary 9” rear ends. Couple this with a 4bbl 292 Y block, black with red trim colour combo and this rare hauler would have been a factory fresh killer. Unfortunately in 2011 it wasn’t quite so fresh after sitting stagnant for about 18 years and in a million pieces, but the price was fair and he luckily enough possesses the skills to bring it back from the dead.

To quote Marz as a car guy would be a huge understatement to people that know him. As of last count he has owned, built, bought and sold over 136 cars. Comprising of mostly Fords and American imports they include four ‘65 Galaxy coupes, four ’66 Fairlane coupes, a ’58 Edsel, ‘51 Mercury coupe, two ’40 Merc coupes and the list goes on. Born of Maltese descent, Marz completed his ticket as a panel beater and opened his own shop in 1989. Since those raw beginnings of working solo, Cool Customs and Restorations enjoy a comfortable working environment of four employees. “Just enough to still keep my hands dirty without the need to become just a manager,” he says.

With Keiths help the Ranchy landed on Australian shores late September 2011, only to be held up with customs for longer than anticipated. Once it rolled through the shop doors Marz made a very bold statement. “If this car fires up and runs good, I’m taking it to Bright!” As there were only five short weeks until the famous rod run kicked into gear, the retort of, “ya f#*kn nuts” bellowed high above a contagious fit of laughter.

Buying sight unseen vehicles from overseas is always fraught with disappointment, but on closer inspection of the ’57 all seemed to be in order of the owners honest description (rust included), except for the noisy water pump. At the first inkling of a fresh battery the pump literally disintegrated on ignition. Undeterred Marz simply cut any connecting belts and reignited the spark. “We couldn’t believe how good it ran as it just sat there idling,” he said. Filled with enthusiasm Marz declared Cool Customs closed for business for a week and got stuck into the rebuild, starting with the water pump. The fuel system was thoroughly cleaned, new hoses installed and the brakes were rebuilt front and rear. “At 9am on that first day we started paint stripping the car”, Marz explains, “by 1am it was in bare metal.”

Apart from the pre-informed rust all were surprised and relieved at how good the overall condition was, making life much easier to complete the bodywork in just 11 days. Although Marz had many customising plans hatching inside his head while working on the car his major goal of attending Bright kept him focused on simplicity, hence its coat of hot rod satin black. One thing he just couldn’t live with was the headlights. The factory bug eye appearance just had to go! An old school remedy was applied by frenching the headlights around 2 1/2” into the stock openings using rims from a ’56 F100. Fresh bling was handled by dipping the shaved bumpers and grille into the chrome tank. Chrome plater Vinni did it in an amazing four day turnaround. It’s good to have friends. 

Marz noticed that the windshield had been shot blasted by grinding sparks whilst cleaning up the floor area and soon was on the hunt for a replacement. Locating a suitable screen in Sydney with a week and a half to go he convinced the owner that shipping it ASAP meant yesterday. 

Being a forward thinker Marz already had the car booked into Vic Roads for a rego inspection one day before Melbourne Cup, just three days shy of the run. With the screen replaced he could move forward again helping Nick from Boss Trimming fit the interior, finishing the job around 2am, just two days before inspection.

Now Marz likes his tunes, like Bogart likes Bacall. “Ya can’t cruise without tunes!” To fulfil his musical desires he installed 2×12” subs, 2×9” rounds, 2×5” mids and 2 tweeters. All that in a pickup cab! Marz really lucked out with this one, as the complete system was donated by a customer who had no further need for it. Not wanting to screw up the original interior by adding a modern stereo, alternative measures of hiding the head unit were explored. The glove compartment was way too far out of reach  so he devised a plan to make it pop up from the centre speaker grille. Sounds simple yeah? 40 hours spent on a stupidly tight build would be washed away as Marz cranked the first note through the hidden combination. 

With time running out fast they fabricated a hard lid to tidy up the huge pickup bed fitting it with only hours before rego D-day. Once he had the appropriate paperwork firmly in his grasp it was back to the shop where the hard lid was removed for trimming. Now stitching tuck and roll takes a bit more time than gluing on just a piece of vinyl and their ambitious start at 6pm soon became 3am very quickly, Bright day. That was it, times up. Marz slipped behind the wheel and headed for his brothers house where he basically passed out for about an hour (still in the car) and then headed for Bright. “We made it! That was my first real drive of the car and I loved it,” he said.

With the mad thrash over, a mate bet Marz that he wouldn’t keep the Ranchero in flat black for 12 months, as he was a shiny car guy. He replied “Put your money where your mouth is!” and $500 bucks was laid on the table. “People think that they know me and they don’t. I wanted to prove a point… the money would be just a bonus,” he confessed. Although keeping the car in a stasis form really started to get to him he used this time to plan the next phase of the Ranchero’s evolving life. After 12 months and one day, Marz pocketed the cash and started on the next incarnation. 

Inspired by customs of the late 50s and early 60s he set out to execute the plans accumulated in his head by extending the existing rear fins and rounding the corners of the doors and tailgate. The fuel filler cap was deleted, as were the door handles emphasising the clean and unbroken original body lines. Secret mechanical actuators now allow access to the red and white interior. One of the really neat additions this time round was tunnelling the original taillights into fabricated buckets for an original twist on an old custom look. 1962 Ford headlight rims provide beauty to the depth whilst chrome plated hand crafted tri spears present a unique appearance and work extremely well with the four bar spinner caps. Appleton spots and single lakes pipes continue the well balanced mild custom approach to the finessed vehicle. 

Once again Marz found himself with only five weeks to make it to the Bright rod run with an unfinished car. Using the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method, it was scheduled to be repainted in flat maroon, but all that changed with a question from good friend Trevor Davis, “Why don’t we cut and polish it?” That was the trigger, which blew out into the awesome paintwork now glistening over the ’57 sheet metal. Working from old magazine photos the pair panel painted the pickup paying homage to spray gun gurus Dean Jefferies and Larry Watson. 

This year Marz and his Ranchero didn’t make it to Bright, but the end result of time spent with Trevor in the workshop more than made up for it. All along his intention for the ’57 was to create a daily driver that was cool. Rain, hail, shit and shine is how he best describes the driving conditions he and the car have encountered and riding shotgun all the way is his son Matty, who Marz says will be the true custodian of the car, just after he finishes the next incarnation that is. 

Marz would like to thank Trevor Davis, cousin Richie, Andy (Festa), brother Darren, Nick, Wayne and anyone he may have forgotten. Cheers.

FULL FEATURE CRUZIN #151. WORDS AND PHOTOS BY DALE HABERFIELD / MILLBROOK STUDIO

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