Surf's Up: The Waxhead Diaries

Photography: Luke Ray.

What were you doing at 23? Traveling the world surfing? Cruising around in a custom Valiant wagon?  Matt Chojnacki is living the dream, and he may be young, but he knows his stuff.

Growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches, an area rich in surf history, Matt has not only become one of the country’s best surfers, but one of surf culture’s greatest historians. His attraction to the past has influenced every aspect of his life, from his surfing style, to his musical tastes, to the car he drives.

Surfing was introduced to Australia in 1914, but it was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that it really gained popularity. Before this time surfboards were long and harshly constructed out of a variety of wood products; hence the activity was almost exclusively reserved for experienced water men and lifeguards.

The year of 1957 was Australia’s first introduction to a lighter, more user friendly surfboard called the ‘Malibu’. Coupled with the emergence of Hollywood films, music and television programs like ‘Gidget’, surfing really hit the mainstream and people’s lifestyles around the world began revolving around the ocean.

Emerging surf culture has influenced Matt’s life, in the same way as it influenced the lives of youngsters worldwide 50 years ago. By the early ‘60s a complete genre of ‘surf’ music had developed along with a popular dance style called the ‘Stomp’, which challenged the popular 1950s rockabilly and blues played throughout the western world. An evident shift in clothing, hairstyles and even language further tested the dominant ‘rocker’ image, and a clear rift formed among youth in the towns along the East Coast of Australia.

It didn’t matter if you were a surfer or a rocker, you still needed a car to get around and impress the ladies. While the rockers, (or greasers) could choose any car they pleased, the surfers needed cars that would fit plenty of mates and surf gear and still have enough grunt to get around at speed. They also were usually limited by budget – surfers weren’t making big bucks – so a distinct style of surf mobile emerged. Older or wealthier surfers favoured practical vehicles, such as wagons, panel vans and Kombi’s, but the most desired among both the younger set were the ‘yank tanks’. They were expensive but generous in space, had great lines and always sported large engines that could haul ass up the coast.

Car companies noticed the trend, to the point where Chrysler Australia hooked up a deal with prolific surf film maker and photographer John Witzig. They gave him a brand new Valiant Safari wagon to transport surfers and his filming gear while shooting a new movie. It was a smart move, as the Val features in a few of John’s photos and films, which are considered some of the most iconic and collectible surf nostalgia ever produced.

Times have changed, but the basic requirements for a surf vehicle are still the same; space, durability and power. Sadly style and aesthetics seem to have fallen by the wayside, with many surfers driving European SUVs and sports wagons, but the common family wagon, van and 4wd’s are the still most popular among hardcore surfers.

Matt always keeps his eye out though. “Finding clean examples of the classic surf wagon are rare, most are in neglect with cool patina replaced with chronic structural rust, although there are a few nice wagons on the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and in Torquay. My friend Hayden at Quiksilver owns a beautiful mild custom XP surf wagon. In saying that, I get a lot of surfers who like my wagon, but my father’s VW kombi collection is the ultimate in attracting the stereo typical ‘surfie’ down at the beach.”

As a professional ‘free surfer,’ Matt is lucky enough to spend most of his time surfing around the world while documenting his exploits through photos, editorial and video. When he’s not travelling, he works with his father in the family business at Taylor and Botham Bodyworks in Brookvale. Established in 1963, it is one of oldest trading body repair businesses on the north side of Sydney. In the evenings he studies Automotive Spray Painting part-time at TAFE. Smart man.

The Val is Matt’s first project and he says he has well and truly caught the bug. “Growing up I had limited skills to work on basic mechanical, body and auto electrical problems. I loved the 1950s and 1960s and the cars that came out of that era, but I was too busy surfing to even think about anything else. I was constantly throwing every hard earned dollar into the Val, but my father taught me you either take the time to fix it yourself or bite the bullet and pay an expert to get it right. Over the last 7 years I have gained a huge appreciation for skilled car builders and tradespeople, I tinker with my car almost nightly trying to learn as much as I can. Through this, I have developed an even greater passion for customs, hot rods and ‘60s Aussie classics and it now feels like I’m becoming a car guy who just so happens to know how to surf!”

Matt’s gravitation towards ‘50s and ‘60s styling was a major factor in his choice of car. The sleek design of this model wagon wins out over its Ford and Holden comrades and the VC model body lines are accentuated by the Regal chrome mouldings. “I also really enjoy the Mopar camaraderie at shows, there’s always a chat to be had between two enthusiasts,” muses Matt.

The car originally belonged to a friend in Avalon and had lived a coastal life. As a result, there was some terrible rust in all the usual spots and the original paint was looking more than a little tired. It had good bones though, and the slant 6 motor had been recently rebuilt and only needed a bit of a tune up and a carb change before it became a bit of a sleeper. After cruising around with the original paint for 6 months the rust was getting out of control. Matt remembers: “It was right around the time of the provisional driver crackdowns in 2006 and I was constantly getting pulled over by the Highway Patrol, who often suspected it was not roadworthy due to the rust.”

Something had to be done. “I drove it into my dads shop before Christmas 2006 and drove it out fully restored in January 2007 looking brand new. In 2010, I lent the wagon to a mate to look after it while I was travelling overseas. The day before I got home he rear ended a Holden Commodore in the rain. He wrote off the other car but my Val was salvageable. My father, my buddy and I got straight back into the rebuild. The parts were sourced from around Australia and locally, and luckily I found everything that needed replacing within a few weeks.”

Having essentially rebuilt the car twice in 4 years, Matt is more than familiar with the process and his intentions. “I wanted it to be a clean and sleek looking surf wagon; the inspiration is loosely based on the early 1960s Customs in California and inside is slightly tiki inspired. I think the lines of this car are comparable to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s US wagons, hence the wide white wall tyres and chrome accessories, pinstripes and louvered visor, which all fall in nicely with the lowered stance and clean paint. It may not be period correct, but It’s a Valiant, not a ‘40s or ‘50s radical custom, so the mild touches suit it in my opinion.”

The whole restoration and rebuild took place at Taylor & Botham Bodyworks, where Matt was hands on deck during the whole process. He dismantled and assembled the car, sanded and prepared it for the paint, sourced most of the parts and tried to learn as much as possible from his father Mark. “He has been in the trade for 35 years, he did an excellent job with the paint and panel, I was completely thrilled when I drove it out of there,” remembers Matt.

The louvered visor and custom bullet caps were fabricated by Evolution Custom Industries and Kyle Smith laid down the pin striping on top of Mark’s paint work. The finer mechanics were handled by John Psaltis, and air system was installed by Custom Works.

Most of the replacement parts were sourced through existing contacts Mark had in the industry. Finding genuine parts was the hard part, as there is an abundance of cheap replica restoration parts that don’t really withstand the test of time. The visor was donated by an HQ Holden and the accessories are from Mopar, Mooneyes or handmade.

The crash of 2010 provided an opportunity to add more custom touches. Matt wanted traditional style wheels and decided that the paint needed a spruce up. In addition, the team

de-badged the Regal insignias and shaved and relocated the aerial knob, fully reupholstered the interior and sprayed internal panels gold, gave the slant 6 a clean up and some more headwork, upgraded the cooling system with a Valiant V8 radiator, installed a new period correct twin exhaust, swapped the carb to a Pacer 2 barrel, tidied up the electrics, fitted a subtle CD deck and appropriately placed sound system, fitted a louvered HQ Holden sun visor and added tasteful pinstripes to the bonnet, dash and visor.

New Firestone Diamond Back wide white walls tyres wrapped on gloss white 14” steelies completed the look and the original Valiant hubcaps were stripped, chromed and a moon bullet fabricated on with chrome trim rings. Lucky it crashed, really.

With all this work done, it’s only fair that Matt makes the most of any opportunity to show the car off. He enjoys the community spirit within the car scene and is a member of the Night Riders Car Club in Sydney. “We head out to shows and cruise meets a few times a month and at 23 years old I am the oldest in the club! We all have a range of ‘50s-’60s rides that are customised, with the focus of the club being predominantly geared toward traditional customs and hot rods. None of us are cashed up enough to take the plunge into a real hot rod yet, but everyone is still studying, working casually or are apprentice tradesmen so it’s only a matter of time.”

He says reactions vary to the wagon; “Some older enthusiasts don’t see where I am coming from with the stance, but they’re entitled to their opinion. In saying that though, people do get pretty stoked when they see the Val cruising around with the period luggage, boards and beach equipment stacked in the back.” And that’s just it. This is a car that combines form and function, style and substance. While the style is heavily influenced by days gone by, Matt has added his own personal touches to create the perfect surf mobile for our time, and to hopefully continue the legacy he loves so much.


Make:   Chrysler

Model:  1966 VC Valiant Regal Safari

Paint:   2pac Protec Paints, custom mix

Engine: Slant 6 225ci

  • Bored out 60 thou

  • Custom ground stage 3 cam

  • Ported and polished head stage 3

  • Larger exhaust valves, extractors and twin exhuast

  • New heavier valve springs, new rods and lifters

  • High flow fuel pump

Gearbox: Torqueflight 727 (rebuilt)

Carby: Carter 2 barrel (Mopar)

Diff: Stock

Wheels: 14” steelies, Val centres with custom bullet caps

Tyres: 185/75 Firestone White Wall radials by Diamond Back


Rear:  Lowered around 5” fully adjustable air shocks

Front: Lowered 3” on the torsion bar

- Rebuilt and replaced from suspension components and sway bar

Please include names of people you'd like to thank for their help.

My father Mark Chojnacki and all the boys, Taylor & Botham Bodyworks, Brookvale

Kyle at Smith Concepts, Cromer

John Psaltis Automotive, Brookvale

Evolution Custom Industries, Brookvale

Custom Works, Brookvale

Of course my sponsors Quiksilver, McTavish Surfboards and Uppercut Deluxe Pomade for helping turn my dreams into a lifestyle.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 11.

Follow Matt: @thewaxhead.