OhAs you can imagine, Ian Wood’s bright orange EH panel van was hard to miss in the unveiling hall at Meguiar’s MotorEx earlier this year. At first glance, that eye-popping color looks like the main party piece of the van, but it’s what goes beyond the bright hue that makes it truly special.
First published in the December 2022 issue. Street Machine
Ian chose the house of color Emperor Orange partly because it suited the theme of the car, but also because it matched the company’s colors for his business.
Ian has been obsessed with custom panel vans since he was a teenager, reading every issue. Van wheels “I’ve loved these vans since the ’80s, and I’ve always had a soft spot for EHs, since I learned to drive in an EH ute on the farm when I was nine,” he says, rocking his 1980 Escort Sundowner. ” they say.
A proper custom van was always on Ian’s wish list, but the math just didn’t add up at the time. “I was studying at the time, and the cost of building one or buying a pre-built one was too high,” he says.
Fast forward to now and Ian’s fortunes have changed, culminating in his dream van he calls ‘La Catrina’, built by Brad Pizzi and the team at Stripped Back Customs in Dubbo, NSW.
“When Ian approached me about building, he gave me a 10-page brief with loads of photos of what he wanted, so I knew he was serious,” says Brad. ” “Obviously things changed during the build, but the overall idea of the theme, colors, engine, wheels and so on is how he wanted it from the beginning.”
The artwork on the tailgate was airbrushed by Damian Darroch, while the ‘La Catrina’ lettering and artwork on the dash is by Adrian Marchio of Airbrush World.
Ian’s other great passion, which he shares with his wife Paula, is Mexican culture. “I remember the first time we went there, and I just fell in love with the place,” he says. “I felt like I was home; I just loved everything about it.”
From the start of construction, Ian wanted to combine his love of Venice and Mexican culture by giving EH a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme. Contrary to what you might think, instead of being a somber time of mourning, Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is actually a celebration of the lives of those who have passed away.
Ian wanted some properly polished spinners for the van, so 17in Foose Nitrous Chrome wheels were purchased before the build began. They measure 8 inches wide in the front and 9.5 inches in the rear, wrapped in Falcon 275 rubber.
“It’s a colorful celebration of what I love about Mexican culture, so it was exactly what I wanted as a theme for the van,” says Ian. La Calavera Catrina (Spanish for ‘beautiful skull’ and often shortened to La Catrina) is an iconic image of the festival, so Ian chose it as the van’s name and the traditional La Catrina design airs on the tailgate. What was the brush? “All the vans of the day had names with some theme, so that’s a nod to the scene,” he says.
Funnily enough, the van that now wears the Day of the Dead theme actually spent a decent portion of its life as a mortuary vehicle. “It was purely coincidental,” says Ian. “It was in much better shape than another van I had, so we chose to use it as a starting point.”
Stripped-back customs had to cut and raise the floor to fit both 9in and a pair of mini-tubs for the 17×9.5 Foose wheels. The def housing and tailshaft are matched to the body color.
Although Brad says it was one of the better EH vans he’s seen rust-free, Ian gave it all the NOS and reproduction panels he’d been collecting over the years, including new guards, doors, and more. And tailgate skins, front apron and so on. “We replaced the plenum, but the rest of the car was pretty good,” says Brad.
Even with the styling changes made for the architectural theme, Ian still wanted to keep as much of the Holden aesthetic as he could both inside and out. “I know people used to go pretty crazy with custom vans, but I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Build on what already existed as an EH, with my own personal touch,” he says. are
That’s why the body lines, trim, seats and dash are essentially the same as Holden intended in the 60s, albeit now with a Mexican flair.
The other big deliverable Ian had for Brad was that he wanted the van to go, stop and handle like a new car, with all the modern creature comforts you’d expect in any turn-of-the-century daily driver. can expect from the driver. The LS conversion was a big part of that, with Ian bringing a Gen IV 6.0-liter LS and 6L80E transmission from a write-off VE SS for Brad to return to EH. “It was the easiest way to get the power and drivability I wanted,” says Ian.
Car builder Brad Pezzi wasn’t a fan of the off-the-shelf LS engine cover, so he made his own from sheet metal. Ian then commissioned engraved steel strips with skull artwork.
For Brad, fitting the driveline came with a few challenges. “It was the second LS EH I did but the first with the big auto,” he says. “The firewall stayed in the factory, but we had to embed the tunnel quite a bit, and move all the accessories around to fit in the bay.”
The engine is completely standard, with Ian choosing to focus on fitting power steering and air conditioning rather than chasing horsepower. A Rod Shop IFS front end was used, with a front-mounted rack and LS pump, while the air-con is piped through the hand-built center console.
“I based the console design on the EH Premier, and what people can’t see are the neat things like the hidden a/c evaporator behind the driver’s seat,” says Brad. “There are also switches for the power windows and electronic handbrake, which took a while to work.”
Further mod cons include a touchscreen stereo system, which also doubles as a monitor for the reversing camera – a neat and convenient addition to the windowless van.
The red stitching pattern on the seats draws you in, but a closer inspection of the white bolsters reveals more detailed patterns embossed into the material itself, inspired by ‘Day of the Dead’ decor. Ian also had skull buttons in the seat backs and 3D printed door cards in solid nickel.
EH is fully engineered and legal in NSW, with Brad consulting with an engineer throughout the build. “It didn’t overcomplicate it all, because we were talking to the engineer from the beginning, so there were no surprises,” he says.
Since its unveiling at Meguiar’s MotorEx in May, Ian has taken the EH for a wild gallop. “People don’t realize how small these old cars are, so when the LS is stock, it still picks up well,” he says. “It doesn’t bump steer, the brakes are good and it’s a good cruiser.”
Ian plans to take the van to big-name shows for the next 12 months, but after that, La Catrina will see some real use. “I own a staging business, and our corporate color is orange, which is why I chose the color for the car, so it can be a part-time promotional tool for the company,” he says.
“I’ve taken it to a few client meetings and it’s a good conversation starter, so once it’s done at all the shows, it’s definitely going to get a lot of use.”
1964 EH Holden panel van
|paint:||Home of the Color Emperor Orange|
|Type:||6.0L Gen IV LS|
|Fuel System:||Aeromotive pump|
|Oil system:||Rod Shop Sump|
|Emissions:||Rod Shop Header, Stainless 2.5in System|
|Converter:||Standard VE 6L80E|
|Difference:||9in, 31-spline, 3.5:1 gears|
|Suspension and brakes|
|in front:||Rod Shop IFS, coil over, rack and pinion steering|
|brake:||Willwood discs and twin-piston calipers (f&r)|
|Wheels and tires|
|codes:||Fuze Nitrous Chrome; 17×8 (f), 17×9.5 (r)|
|Rubber:||Falcon 225/45R17 (f), 275/40R17 (r)|
Brad Pizzi and the Stripped Back Customs team; Mark Attard and Black Needle Automotive Upholstery Team; Callum Hinchcliffe; Murtaza Pourmohammadi in DQ; Simon Copping at Doulman Automotive; Dan Petley at Blue Jay Fabrications; Doug Pope at Outback Auto Sparky; John Sheldon; My wife Paula.