San Francisco Streetcar

Words & photography: Zack Stiling

We always love to see old customs on the streets, but in the case of this survivor Cortina, the streets are on the old custom!

Without doubt, the Seventies was the greatest decade in the history of television, thanks in a very large part to the plethora of action-packed crime shows imported from the States, all crammed full of sharp dialogue, gritty showdowns and indulgent car chases. Starsky & Hutch and Charlie’s Angels are perhaps two of the best remembered today, but other high points of the genre included Kojak and The Streets of San Francisco.

Everyone had their favourite, and for Robert Skilton it was the pairing of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as homicide inspectors in the Golden Gate City. Early Seventies Ford LTDs and Galaxie 500s had the leading automotive roles, but they weren’t so readily available over here, so a MkIII Cortina was the next best thing.

A Rover V8 fits easily, because the Cortina has a bay as wide as San Francisco’s…

The 18-year-old Robert was the third owner of his 1972 Cortina 1300L when he bought it in November 1978. He hadn’t even had the car a week before he’d swapped the steels for Appliance slot mags (5.5x13in front and 7x14in rear) wrapped in Kelly Supercharger tyres, with new shock absorbers and a rear jack-up kit to make the chunky rubber fit. So began a long-term labour of love, with the car evolving through 1979 to gain a front spoiler, Thrush side pipes and the grille and twin headlights from the 2000 GT or GXL model. In the summer, the wings and sills came off so that a flared wheel-arch frame could be made up and welded on, then plated with sheet metal. Then came a respray in late August, the new colour being Ford Hawaiian Blue with the arches highlighted in emerald green.

It was from his brother, Robin, that Robert caught the custom-car bug. In the mid-Seventies, Robin belonged to South London Custom Cars, a club that met at the Blue Anchor and cruised Croydon’s Wellesley Road, counting the legendary Harris Brothers among its ranks. Says Robin, “I had a MkII Cortina called Grave Robber around that time. My mum hated that… It started off a mustard colour before I sprayed it black with graveyard murals on the side, then added red flakes.” We might take this opportunity to appeal for any information on the later history of that car. Robin sold it to a buyer on the Shrublands housing estate in Shirley, Croydon, but lost track of it after that. Does anyone in reader-land know more?

Although Robert was happy to fettle, he wasn’t overly mechanically minded, so Robin carried out the more involved mechanical work on the car. The purchase of a Jag S-type back axle in December 1979 hinted at what was to come in 1980. Of course, the axle had to be stripped for chrome-plating and fresh paint before it was allowed anywhere near the car, and in May 1980 it was introduced to its partners in crime, a Capri three-litre V6 engine and gearbox, both of which were also stripped and repainted. A pair of mounts was made for the new motor, and a Jago crossmember was welded to the rear for the axle to bolt onto. A propshaft was sourced, and servo-assisted brakes were fitted to cope with the extra power.

After less than two years in blue-and-emerald, Robert found he preferred the look of Honda Windermere Blue and so the car was resprayed again in June 1981. With the new running gear, the car was now a serious street machine but it needed to look the part, which in the language of the Seventies and early Eighties could mean only one thing: murals. The eldest Skilton brother, Reg, was a commercial painter, so he undertook this side of the job. Golden Gate Bridge was airbrushed on the driver’s side and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on the passenger’s. A coat of lacquer was applied, then a layer of rainbow flakes followed by several more coats of lacquer, the whole job taking until October.

The car was rebuilt over four months in 1982, with a new, home-made dashboard being fitted to accommodate extra gauges, a stereo and a television. With all the Skilton brothers involved with the build, Streets of San Francisco was a family project through and through, but none of them were quite handy enough with a sewing machine. Luckily, Aunt Vera came to the rescue and trimmed the car with sumptuous blue deep-button Dralon upholstery and headlining, while matching shag carpet covered the floor and dash top.

Reg began work on the boot mural in 1984 and it was finished by the end of the summer of ’85, a fantastically detailed piece depicting a nocturnal scene on Broadway, San Francisco’s red-light district, including the famous Condor Club and Big Al’s. Towards the start of 1986, blocks were made up and fitted between the body and front axle to raise the height by four inches, as the V6 was weighing the front end down too much.

The first part of 1987 was occupied mainly by maintenance jobs, with a new boot floor and petrol tank being fitted at the same time as the IRS was re chromed and repainted, but the side pipes were swapped for straight-through pipes exiting at the rear. With that out of the way, the Cortina could finally be completed, with the one blank panel, the bonnet, receiving its airbrushed art of a tramcar travelling along Nob Hill, with Alcatraz visible in the distance. The final flourish is a Ford Pop and the Cortina itself being depicted at the side of the road.

As far as the casual observer would know, that’s the end of the story, but a lack of antifreeze during the snowfall of April 1991 caused the V6 to crack, so a 3.5-litre Rover V8 and auto ’box were sourced to replace it. These, too, were stripped, cleaned and painted, but the engine bay and gearbox tunnel had to be cut back five inches before they could be installed. This being done, new panels were formed and welded in.

The engine mounts were modified and new gearbox mounts fabricated from scratch. Modified MGB exhaust manifolds were fitted to the engine, with an Edelbrock inlet manifold topped with a Holley 390 carburettor and Holley fuel pump. A new, made-to-measure propshaft was also required. With the engine fitted, the bay was panelled with aluminium heat deflectors and the car was back on the road after 10 weeks. Due to the engine swap, the dashboard had to be rebuilt in 1993 with new gauges and switches along with the combined cassette and CD player.

Taking the car to shows then gave Robert great pleasure every summer from then on, until he sadly, and unexpectedly, passed away in October 2005. The Cortina went into the care of Robin and Robert’s nephew Nigel, whose childhood had been spent going to shows in the car and lending a hand in the garage. Streets of San Francisco was recommissioned for the road in 2008, with updates including a new Holley carb, new stereo and speakers and a new stainless exhaust system. After an unfortunate accident caused by the car slipping itself into gear and reversing into Robin’s house, a B&M Pro Shifter was fitted to prevent this happening again.

The car’s current appearance was realised in 2010, when the boot interior became a showpiece as well. The boot floor was cut out and replaced with a Perspex panel, another great Seventies-style touch, to show off the IRS. The aged fuel tank was replaced with a nice, shiny alloy one and what was left of the boot interior was trimmed in blue velvet. Meanwhile, the alloy panels from the engine bay were removed and the paint was touched up, with the wiring tidied up and new steel-braided hoses fitted. The exhaust pipes were rerouted at the same time, so as not to interrupt the view through the Perspex.

Rodders from south London and neighbouring parts of Kent and Surrey will recall the much-missed Ravens Wood School Custom Car Show. From the inaugural show in 1981, Streets of San Francisco was present at almost every event until the last one in 2010. Robin remembers, “We took it to the Worthing Sunny Sundays as well, where it won prizes for Best Interior in 1987 and ’88, the show’s first two years.” Today the car continues to be driven just as Robert intended, as a useable show car. Forty years later it still attracts attention like nothing else, as both a time warp and a work of art.