Takin’ The High Road

Words & photography: Zack Stiling

This guy is celebrating 40 years of vannin’ with his custom CF, and while the trend since the Eighties has been towards ground-scraping street rods and Mini-Trucks, this one is still…

Over time, the custom van scene has witnessed some real talent: great painters and bodyworkers bringing to life the vivid fantasies of left-field imaginations. With so many high-class creations out there, what has the aspiring builder got to do to make his van rise above the rest? Jack it up, of course.

Graham Halsey first caught the vanning bug with his ’67 Split-Screen VW, which he mildly customised with a bigger engine, big’n’little wheels and other small touches. The influence of Roger Pocock led Graham to start hanging out with the National Street Van Association in 1976 and, succumbing to the club’s infectious enthusiasm, it was inevitable that before long he’d be needing something a bit more attention-grabbing than the subtle Splittie.

A lot of people experience that pivotal moment when they see ‘the one’, the supreme custom that dictates the future course of their lives from the second they lay eyes on it. For Graham, that vehicle was High Roller, Cliff Marsh’s high-riding CF that landed on the scene circa 1977. With its chunky bull bar and All-Terrain BFGs, it rejected the popular style of elaborate paint jobs and fantasy themes in favour of a no-nonsense, go-anywhere look.

Graham rescued his 1976 CF from its daily drudgery as a carpet delivery van when it was three years old with the intention of making a street van of it, his main guiding principle being that it had to have the rugged demeanour of High Roller. “A lot of people were putting their vans in the weeds, but I preferred the tough kind of look,” he says. To achieve it, Graham fitted a three-inch box section between the chassis and the front crossmember, and another three-inch box under the back axle. The result, Graham believes, was the second hi-rise CF ever to be built and, since High Roller was sadly vandalised and subsequently broken up in the late Eighties, that would give it the peculiar distinction of being the earliest surviving hi-rise CF in the world.

An interesting side-line developed from this, when Graham decided to produce his own jack-up kits for CFs. “The High Roller look was starting get more popular, so I started to make these kits. I only ever sold them to friends, though, and I never made them more than three inches taller. Some people started taking their vans to ridiculous heights, but they just looked stupid in my opinion. The kits were not designed to be welded; they just bolted together. This was in case you were ever stopped by a policeman – you could bring the van back down again. I never had any trouble with the police, though.”

Following its metamorphosis into a custom in 1979, Graham’s CF went through three engines, two paint jobs and one interior before arriving at its present guise. Starting with the original 1.8-litre engine, Graham first fitted a two-litre unit, then a 2.3-litre unit (all Vauxhall engines) to which he added overdrive, before introducing the van to the 3.5-litre Rover V8 with Borg-Warner 65 automatic gearbox. Graham also opted for a gold paint scheme with brown interior before deciding he’d prefer the silver with red and blue graphics and crimson upholstery. “The aim of the graphics,” Graham explains, “was to emphasise the van’s tall proportions.”

Since the van had already been lifted by the time Graham came to fit the Rover motor, the task presented none of the usual difficulty. “Usually, people fitting Rovers have to cut into the bulkhead, but with the extra space it just sat nicely on the crossmember with no cutting required.” At the other end, Graham fitted the back axle from a long-wheelbase CF minibus, which is stronger and has a higher ratio than the standard short-wheelbase axle. It also comes equipped with 10” drum brakes where the standard axles are only nine-inch.

Front braking was upgraded through fitting Jaguar disc brakes with four-pot callipers, which hide behind 15” wheels of uncertain identity (though they resemble a variation on the Turbovec) that Graham picked up second-hand, shod with All-Terrain General Grabbers. Stronger springs give the van a little bit more height, and the addition of a steering damper is a safety precaution to prevent violent kickback at the steering wheel if the big wheels bumped the kerb.

On the outside, Graham made a few visual improvements, fabricating twin bonnet scoops and a set of Carlos Fandango wide arches, from steel overlaid with fibreglass and resin. As for the paint, “it was all off-the-shelf mixes, and I coated it with two-pack lacquer, but there’s no way I can remember any more than that.” Like everything else on the van, Graham did the paint in his own garage, except for the shading around the graphics. “That was done by Baz Clark from Eastbourne. I’d tried to do it myself first, but I only mucked it all up.”

The interior also exhibits the influence of High Roller, all surfaces covered in plush crimson carpet. The view from the aftermarket truck recliner seats is of the stock dash, just carpeted and set off with an accessory-shop steering wheel. The van’s living space contains a pine cabinet made by Graham, in which cooking hobs are concealed, and a bar resides on the side door. The obligatory bed occupies the rearmost portion of the load area. The dividing arch between the bedroom and the living room was made from some office shelving that was being chucked out, while Graham turned to the skills of his wife, Jacqueline, for the curtains. One nice detail is the portable TV in the corner of the bedroom, which, in addition to all those framed magazine clippings, really adds to the vans appeal as a retro time capsule. “It doesn’t work any more,” Graham apologises, “but it is an interesting accessory.”

In the roof, Graham has fitted a pair of sunroofs, and the back doors contain another period accessory in the Perspex bubble windows. Even the front glasswork couldn’t escape modification, with intricate floral engraving bordering the corners of the windows. “That was done by Hugo, who was chairman of the Belgium Street Cruisers at the time. You just had to buy him a beer and he’d sit there with his engraving stone and get to work.” The windscreen was also engraved, but sadly a replacement screen has had to be fitted since then.

We can thank Midge Ure for the knowledge of precisely when the ultimate version of the CF rolled out of Graham’s workshop. “I couldn’t give you a date, but it was finished on the weekend of Live Aid, if anyone can remember when that was.” Well done if you said Saturday, July 13th, 1985.

With the van racking up miles, Graham acquired the CB handle ‘Country Drifter’, on account of his transnational travels. “I used to go all over Europe to vanning events. I was a member of the Belgium Street Cruisers, Lowland Vans & Trucks and other clubs on the continent, not to mention my local club, the Solo (South London) Truckers. The only reason I don’t still travel is because the vanning scene is so much quieter than it was. I ended up laying the van up for a few years just because there was nothing to go to, but I’ve since started digging it out again for day events.” Graham is optimistic that recent years have seen a revived interest in vanning, so there’ll be plenty more truck-ins ahead of this CF yet.