The thought of building one car a year isn’t just a dream for Neil Surtees but a reality he’s lucky enough to be enjoying
If you’ve worked hard all your life, built up a business, and been lucky enough to sell it off; you’ve got plenty of fabrication skills; and, apart from the usual family commitments, your days are relatively free, what would you do? If we were in that position, we’d be doing exactly what Neil Surtees has been: spending some serious hours in the shed, with the goal of building a car every year — not just any cars, but ones that are different from anything else out there.
Knowing he was going to step back from the business, Neil knew he’d get itchy feet if he had nothing to do, so he built his shed before the business deal was done. Each and every ‘work’ day since, he’s headed off to the shed in the morning for a full day’s hard graft, and the result is some of the coolest cars in the country. Neil’s philosophy has been to go hard out into each build, and not rest till it’s completed: “If you stop, you’ll never finish things,” he says.
He calls himself an apprentice, saying he’s always willing to learn, and has taught himself what he’s needed to know to do as much as possible of the builds himself. It’s a successful formula, and one that’s seen him debut a new car at Beach Hop for the last five years running. Fabrication, wiring, painting, design — all done by the man himself.
When asking about inspiration, you don’t get the standard ‘I look at the American scene’ type of answer; instead, Neil’s well aware of just how creative Kiwis can be, and prefers to come up with his own ideas and designs rather than being influenced by others overseas. “Break the mould, have a gamble, do something different rather than being polluted by what other people think we should do,” he says. It’s this view that’s seen Neil create a bunch of standout vehicles in a relatively short time frame.The same ‘keep it Kiwi’ theme applies to Neil’s hunt for parts; he’s a regular at all the big swap meets around the country, joking that he may even sell something there one day. Till then, he’s happy to keep on picking up anything that takes his interest for a future project.
The most recent addition is a ’57 Chev wagon, built as a bit of a family cruiser. At first glance, it looks like a nice tidy car, nothing out of the ordinary. However, Chev aficionados will notice that it’s right-hand drive. The reason for this being that the car was going to be driven every day, so, for Neil, switching the handlebars over was safer than asking his young son, Zak, in the passenger seat, to see if anything is coming before Neil overtakes.
What makes the conversion a great talking point is the dashboard. Unlike the New Zealand–new ’57 sedans, which actually used ’56 dashes, Neil spent hour after hour customizing the ’57 dash to look like it came from the factory. An Isuzu steering box was used, resulting in a car that steers far better than ever before. Under the hood, you’ll find an injected LT1 — wired, of course, by Neil himself.
Parked next to the wagon is a car that is greeted with admiration wherever it goes. The white and red coupe has a rake unlike any other, and, despite looking like a big-dollar pro-build with plenty of clever fabrication, it was all done in the shed at home on a budget. Thanks to its scratch-built chassis, there’s a surprising amount of room inside, and, with a 327 small block Chev up front, it gets along nicely. The more you look at the car, the more clever touches you’ll find — which is how Neil likes it and an indication of how well he thinks every project through before tackling it head-on.
Over in the workshop shed, there’s every tool necessary to turn a dream, or a rusty shell, into reality. There’s no shortage of future projects sitting waiting. Up on a mezzanine, you’ll find a ’39 Chev, a ’27 Dodge, and a Model A, all with their reg on hold. Nearby, amongst assorted interesting engines, is a Cadillac flathead. A few years back, Neil made the trip stateside for Squeak Bell’s birthday, and, rather than hiring a car while there, he and the lads purchased a ’54 Cadillac limo. He brought the car back, and it now gets used occasionally for school balls, weddings, picking Zak up from school, and other random family outings.
While Neil has the ability to build cars for other people, he prefers not to, saying that there’s no pressure when he’s doing things for himself, and he can do what he likes when he likes. In saying that, if someone needs help, of course, he’s more than willing to lend a hand — in an attempt to pass the skills on as much as anything else.
With such an eclectic collection of vehicles, you may wonder what Neil drives every day. The answer is something as impressive as any of the other vehicles he’s built — a Ford Bonus pickup. At first glance, you’ll see some custom bodywork, like the handmade vented hood and flushed windscreens, but on closer look, you’ll see there’s far more to it than that. The late-model Toyota Hilux interior (from dashboard to seats, belts, steering wheel, etc.) is a bit of a giveaway, but it won’t be till Neil turns the key that you’ll really begin to wonder what’s going on. In a build that can only be described as genius, he’s grafted the Bonus body onto the complete Hilux chassis, using as much of the Hilux as possible in the process — part which is the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, which offers plenty of grunt at minimal running cost — it’s just the thing for a daily-driver with a difference.
Of course, Neil’s a hot rodder at heart, and more so a Model A fan, their compact size being part of the appeal. Probably the most well known of his collection is what’s referred to as ‘the hydraulic car’. Built purely for a bit of fun and to mess with people’s heads, the non–street-legal Tudor has a suspension system unlike any other. At the press of a button, it’ll not only drop its chassis to the floor but also lift its wheels high up off the ground. It was a bit of a challenge from a mate that pushed him to build it, and it’s just the thing for a few driveway burnouts at parties, or to enter the annual Jalopy Dust Up in. There’s plenty of complex fab. work in the build, and before the build went too far, it was all drawn out on the floor with chalk to make sure the dimensions were right, amongst other things. The Cadillac flathead in it amazes people, with its four carbs and unusual intake and exhaust placement.
Neil says the 331 Hemi–powered roadster in the collection was on the road for many years and will at some stage be rebuilt into a nice tidy car. For now, though, there’s far too many new and exciting projects in his mind for him to look back at what he’s already done. At the opposite end of the modification scale from the hydro car is a dead-stock original Model T, which was purchased from the old Te Puke car museum when it closed. Part of the motivation for the purchase was so that Zak could experience a true vintage car.
With a Model A Tudor, a roadster, and a coupe (all 1928s), Neil couldn’t say no when a pickup came up, as it gave him the full set. The pickup runs a hot four-banger, and that’s the way it’ll stay — for now, at least. The rusty truck is one of Neil’s original vehicles, first on the road around eight years ago, and has had a few bits pulled off it for other projects since. It still holds a place in his heart, even though he says he’s learnt so much since doing that build.
Neil’s automotive addiction and customizing ability aren’t limited to cars; he’s also got a bit of a thing for old motorbikes — as the one sitting above the kitchen cupboards attests. An old Jawa is being used to hold up a bar out in the dedicated party area, and a ’65 Triumph bobber is well under construction in the workshop. “They are a butt-ugly bike,” he laughs, “but re-done as a hard-tail, I’ll get the proportions right and fill in the gaps.” The tricky part of the bike build is swapping the driveline to the opposite side. Another look around the bar area leads us to an old flathead being used as a fireplace, amongst a myriad of other automotive-related art.
Neil’s not the only family member who is into the cars, as his wife, Mel, has a ’66 Mustang that is her pride and joy, and, of course, Zak has grown up around it all and looks set to follow in his dad’s footsteps. With no shortage of interesting project ideas floating around in his head, it looks as if the young fella is going to have plenty of opportunities to pick up the skills that his dad’s learnt along the way. And, with someone so passionate and talented teaching him, it’s fair to say the future of hot rodding in this country is in very good hands!
This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue No. 107 - to get your grubby mitts on a print copy, click the cover below