When you’re sick of your race cars and street cars getting too serious, what better than to build and drive something that’s purely about having fun?

“Have you seen, it’s got nitrous?” laughs Rob Gilmore the moment we walk into his shed. Wondering why the statement is accompanied by such laughter, we soon see exactly what he’s talking about. The nitrous he refers to isn’t for the engine; instead, it’s a rare 1930s McKesson Nargraf nitrous machine that once aided dental patients through their procedures.

This twisted sense of humour is evident all through the 1930 Essex sedan, which Rob has owned and modified over the last two years. The two previous owners had both done a bunch of work to the car before it came into Rob’s possession, but he’s found no shortage of things to refine and customize further.

Originally built in Palmerston North by Alan ‘Bones’ Burton as a true budget build, the car was first on the road for the sum of just $4000, thanks to lots of freebies being used along the way. From there, the car was sold to Auckland’s Gavin Vowell, who bought it for his wife Sue as a birthday present. Sue and Gavin added their own touches during their ownership, including having Lee from Diffs R Us replace the Jappa diff with an eight-inch Chev item. To change the look, the car was painted oxide red with flames, the latter done in a camping ground a day before Americarna. The car was later painted black, but the flames remained, albeit pinstriped by Alastair Davidson. A set of red rims with white walls was then added, and the sun visor fitted up front to finish the look. Despite this, with various cars passing through the Vowells’ shed, it wasn’t long before something else took Sue’s fancy, and the car was on sold to Rob. 

Someone who drives a Mercedes during the day is probably the last person you’d expect to have such a car, but it was just the stress reliever Rob was after. No stranger to cool cars, he’s had his fair share over the years, predominantly with a Holden badge on the front of each. Adding the Essex to the collection gave him something a bit more carefree that he could customize in any manner he wanted. 

With Rob having a bit of a macabre side to him, it wasn’t long before the car was adorned with a few skulls, the six Stromberg carb set-up sourced from Vintage Speed in Florida giving him the option to run six open-mouthed versions. Setting up the carbs was no small task, and for this, as well as many other aspects of the build, Rob turned to Lance Walsh at Freelance Automotive. 

Once the carbs were sorted, the car was completely rewired, a process that incorporated fitting a new MSD ignition system and new dash complete with gauges sourced from Traditional Speed Supply. 

While some of Rob’s changes were purely for cosmetic reasons, most were done with the aim of making the car nicer to drive. While Rob laughs that with no roof or windows in it, you’ve got to be a bit selective about your outings, the car now gets used on a regular basis. 

The old surfboard that is more often than not found attached to the roof fulfils both form and function — it was put there simply to look the part, but Rob’s quite stoked at how well it keeps his head from getting sunburnt over summer. The rails that the board is attached to are another of Rob’s efforts and consist of some palings ripped off a nearby fence. It’s that total disregard for any rules that makes the car so much fun, and the reactions on people’s faces as it passes make it all worth while.

One of Rob’s bigger tasks was removing all the previous paintwork. This was a task faced with trepidation, as he wasn’t sure what state the body underneath it all would be in, but, much to his surprise, the body was in amazing condition, with not a patch of rust to be found. With the paint gone, you can clearly see where the four inches were removed from the roof height and the 12 inches taken out of the body length. The one weld line that has people scratching their heads is the vertical one right up the centre of the rear end. With the Essex being bigger than most rat rod bodies, the original builders decided to narrow the whole rear of the body, although it’s been so well done that with the paint on you would never have picked it. 

One of the more recent touches is the addition of a genuine Essex grille shell and custom three-core radiator, which sits a whole lot lower than the previously fitted item did and has really helped nail the proportions of the car. 

The custom gear lever added by Rob was another place for him to fit a skull. With the car running a TH350 transmission, the ridiculously long lever doesn’t cause any issues. In fact, there’s nothing in the car that does, as it’s a great all-round driver, even with cross-ply tyres up front. With the new seats Rob has fitted, there’s a surprisingly large amount of room in the car, and visibility is far better than you’d ever expect from a chopped and channelled car.  

It’s the newly fitted nitrous machine that Rob likes the most, though, and we’re sure he’ll have plenty of laughs over the coming summer months when the public sees it for the first time. While chances are that some people may not get the nitrous joke, or may not get the car in general, the confusion it offers only adds to the fun of owning it, and Rob wouldn’t have it any other way.

1930 Essex sedan

  • Engine: 350ci small-block Chev, six twin throat Stromberg 48 carbs, Offenhauser 6x2 manifold, alloy drop tank, MSD Pro Billet distributor and coil, internally baffled Lakester pipes, Champion 3-core aluminium radiator 
  • Driveline: Turbo 350 transmission, 8-inch Chev diff, AU Falcon 4-link rear
  • Brakes: L300 disc front, Chev drum rear, under-dash booster
  • Wheels/Tyres: 15x6-inch Toyota front rims, 15x6-inch Falcon reversed rear rims, 6.50x14 cross-ply front tyres, 265/75R15 rear tyres
  • Exterior: 4-inch roof chop, 2-door conversion, narrowed rear end, channelled floor, custom grille surround
  • Chassis: Custom 2x4-inch box chassis
  • Interior: Morris Minor front seats, HT Monaro steering wheel, custom shifter, aftermarket gauges, custom dash, 1930 McKesson Nargraf nitrous machine
  • Performance: OK in a straight line; not so good on corners 

Driver profile

  • Driver: Rob Gilmore
  • Car Club: Hibiscus Rodders
  • Age: 58
  • Occupation: Civil engineer
  • Previously owned cars: HT Monaro, HZ ute, Sandman panel van, Commodore race car, E63 AMG
  • Dream car: Used to be a Ferrari F430; now more like a supercharged flathead rat rod
  • Why the Essex? I like the basic honesty of rat rods; they aren’t trying to be anything they are not — this car makes people smile
  • Build time: Two years and continuing
  • Length of ownership: Two years
  • Rob thanks: Lance from Freelance Automotive for his help with the build, Dale from Traditional Speed for the parts supplied

This article was originally published in NZV8 Hot Rod Special Vol. I. You can purchase a print copy of the magazine below:

Todd Wylie

Todd Wylie has been involved with NZV8 magazine since before the first issue was printed, and has been the editor for the last eight years. Growing up in the heyday of the Jap-import scene, he's not adverse to Japanese vehicles, having worked for NZ Performance Car previously, as well as owning a few well-known examples. These days he cruises at a slower pace in a 1956 Cadillac Coupe and dreams of building a Model A tudor.