RAT REVIVAL – JOHN PALMER 1951 CHEVY

When John Palmer embarked on creating a custom from an unloved lowly four door Chevy sedan, I don’t think even Nostradamus would have foreseen its future. Almost three decades after being transformed into a two door version of its former self, this ‘51 Chev has recently undergone a resurrection of its first incarnation. 

John Palmer is not just your average back yard car enthusiast. He is exceptional. I believe anyone with the innovative vision and gutsy determination to not only complete, but also revive an individually constructed custom after 25 years of service as the family vehicle, is pretty special. An outstanding display of dedication, rarely seen in the current climate of ‘flipping cars for cash’. 

Before the ’51 became reality, John honed his home grown skills on a 1948 Chevy that he chopped and modified into a reliable rod. It was this car that would ultimately bring together himself and wife to be Heather, who had been enjoying the car scene long before their meeting. John recalls that Heather owned a Morris at the time and admits he never shared the same fondness for the little English marque and offered his ’51 Chevy as a more suitable replacement. John had owned the car for a few years by then, which he originally dragged back from Loxton in Western Australia with full intention of building a custom.  

John explains, “I wanted a 50s car that I could customise and see how good I could make it look! I didn’t care if it was rusted or not I just wanted to cut it up, tack weld it together and see. If it turned out the way I wanted it too, I’d look for one in better condition.  A friend phoned me about this Chev that had no rust, no dents and no interior. It still ran and was at the right price of $800 bucks… perfect! With Heather’s full support the Chevy was attacked in earnest and John could explore the ideas previously only relegated to daydreams and sketchpads.  

John researched books and images falling in love with the voluptuous lines of the lead sled. He went to America for a holiday and studied many cars in the flesh for inspiration and techniques. While on vacation he had the good fortune to meet some of the customising greats like Dick Dean and George Barris, sharing images of work he had performed on cars for other people back home. 

“I bought a set of coupe doors from Pomona swap meet and planned the whole car in my head,” John recalls. “I made the car into a two door first and then chopped the top. The roof is still the standard length and as I brought it forward I just laid the rear window into it. I had to widen the rear sheet metal to match up with the sail panels that need to be pie cut and stretched. With the roof tack welded in position of the desired profile I just filled in the gaps.” Sounds easy right? John continues, “the rear quarter windows are from a ’48 Chev dictating the angle of the door pillar, then I chopped the door tops to match the rake. I spent five years building the car originally taking my time and making everything just right. My first attempt at the rear taillights I installed a pair of ’59 Caddy bullets that I welded into position. When I stood back and had a proper look at it I said NO! It didn’t look right and I redid the back end to almost standard, and started again.”

Undeterred John chose 1954 Mercury taillights that are now housed in fabricated openings welded to the guards. One of the streamlined modifications carried over from the first build was the removal of the split windscreen resulting in a smoother appearing custom while the ghost flames he considers adds a touch of old school charm. The stock bonnet was butterfly style, hinged in the centre but John clipped its wings and made it into a one-piece panel with rounded corners deleting the big bird emblem in the process as a nod to all good customs of the past. 

The six-cylinder running gear for this custom may seem a little docile for 2013 but when John was piecing together his creation almost three decades ago, it was a reliable and budget conscious decision. Today, other than an internal refresh, the motor hasn’t been touched and retains all the go fast goodies of the time sporting twin carbs with finned and polished alloy accessories. Why choose an old Aussie 186 red motor rather than a blue flame six from the parent company I asked? Money! John explains that back then a 186 cost him about $600 and the inline Chevy was more like five grand. Point taken. “When I was younger I couldn’t pay for all of the work necessary to complete this project but I was ‘as keen as’ to learn and just took my time. I asked loads of questions and accepted tips from professionals and friends along the way.”

When I asked John about the hardest challenged he faced throughout the construction of his custom I immediately thought the answer would derive from the body transformation… I was wrong. John found his biggest obstacle was choosing the paint colour and ghosting the perfect flames. Once again this industrious individual tackled the entire paint process with remarkable success, twice! The second endeavour comprising of a gloss black base coat embellished with subtle violet flames overlaid with Spray Chief scarlet purple pearl. The final result is even more astounding considering all of this bodywork and paint was performed in his humble backyard shed. John is quick to acknowledge brother Ron for his help laying out the flames.

In round 1, Heather was the seamstress responsible for the interior, providing many memorable miles for the Palmer family. In round 2 the passenger compartment was stripped bare and Dynamat was adhered to every conceivable surface before a complete makeover of fresh white tuck ‘n’ roll was stitched over Mazda 323 front buckets and original rear seat by Chris at Woodard Motor Trimming. Purple piping and a pearled XP Falcon steering wheel lends a touch of pizzazz to the virginal white interior while black loop pile carpet is purely for functionality. John says between the insulation and the newly installed air-con it’s just like driving a new car. I’m sure the complete renewal of existing suspension components contribute greatly to the comfortable cruising conditions. 

If like me, your still wondering about how a rat licence plate finds its place on a well finished sweet custom, it all started from a suggestion from Heather when the plates first became available, and were affixed to all three cars owned at the time. With different numerals of course!  I did propose it might characterise the driver more than the vehicle, only to be retorted by a chuckle and absence of denial. With all jokes aside the Chevy’s second coming at the hands of its creator defines John’s affection for his beloved custom, which he describes as a refined version of his original conception. 

Winning Top Wild Custom at the coveted Melbourne Hot Rod Show back in 1986 would be hard to beat but taking out Top Car at Port Fairy Rod Run 26 years later and earning Top Post ’48 at the Goanna Run 2012 is a massive feat. John quips that it now receives many more compliments than it ever did. I believe they are well-deserved accolades for a down to earth, daily driven custom.

BY DALE HABERFIELD, PHOTOS JOHN ANTONIW. FULL FEATURE CRUZIN #156, OCTOBER 2013.
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