The KDS Van: Part 1

Words & photography:  Luke Ray.

Words & photography: Luke Ray.

You don’t have to go far to stumble across Karl Stehn and his work. Karl has successfully built up a reputation for himself and his studio KDS Designs as one of the finest custom painting outfits that Australia has to offer. His blog,, sums it up in just one statement.. “POSSESSED TO PAINT”.

In his own words, Karl describes himself as: A traditional sign writer specialising in gold leaf, hand lettering, pinstriping and kustom automotive painting. KDS has a strong presence at events around Victoria and nationally too. The folio of work with the KDS trademark style on it is large and of the highest quality, so when we heard that Karl was working on a custom van just an hour out of Melbourne, we couldn’t get down there fast enough. This was going to be good. No, this was going to be awesome.

We haven’t really covered builds in Fuel Magazine previously, and now two in the same issue? “What the primer’s going on”, I hear you ask. Well, the Porsche is mine so it was inevitable that would be forced upon you at some point, and this is a fully custom painted Bedford with rare bodykit being built close to Melbourne. Any complaints so far..?

Karl’s plan as it stands is to have this van painted up and ready to show at Chopped Rod & Custom here in October. Karl and I have decided between us that covering the build will not only be good content to share with you, but it will put a rocket up him to keep the progress on track. These photos show my first visit and, all digits crossed, we will have a full shoot of the finished van in issue 19 at Christmas. It makes me nervous putting stakes in the ground that far in advance, but hey there you go, it’s done.

However, in the meantime, I’ll be keeping the visits to KDS HQ going and regularly posting updates on our website. Just head to and hit the ‘vans’ tag down the right hand side and you’ll see what’s going on every few weeks between now and December. You can also like our Facebook and Instagram pages and be spoonfed new snippets.

The van is a 1973 Bedford CF. As far as local product goes, we don’t have the history and range of the Chevy and Econoline models that the States do, so pickings are pretty much limited to Transits and CFs in the midsize van category from this era. Karl resides in the Geelong area of Victoria and recently moved the KDS HQ to a new workshop, just last year. It was after this when something caught his eye.

“I moved to this new place, and on my new way to work I kept seeing the van outside a panel shop in Ocean Grove,” says Karl. “It must have been nearly a year and I saw it every day.” Finally stopping in to have a chat paid off for Karl, as after some simple negotiation he walked away with a partly customised Bedford CF. How you see the van in these photos is pretty much how Karl took delivery of it, and the precise history of the CF and its modifications is not all crystal clear. The seller had done a bit of work to it, but run out of funds, and hadn’t really done much to it either. There are some signs of past-life customisation such as chrome rocker covers and other various trinkets, but Karl has to look at them as unknown fossils as there wasn’t any knowledge passed on to him with the van.

The larger modifications do have a bit more information attached. The front bumper and wheel flare kit are relics from a competition run in the ‘70s by radio station 3XY and Coca-Cola, from which a custom CF was the main prize, called Easy Roller. It’s not clear how many kits were made, but punch ‘Easy Roller 3XY’ in to the big G and there’s plenty of detailed history available.

The history of the side gullwing door is less known. It may have been part of the Easy Roller kit, but regardless it’s a cool addition that Karl doesn’t have to take on himself, apart from updating the hinges from the “Kitchen cupboard brackets” to a more sturdy subframe, which he has done. Karl doesn’t have any more big plans for the body. “The main thing for me was the rear lights. I restored a Holden HZ Sandman some years ago, amongst other Holden work, so I’m very familiar with them. I had a vision of putting these early Holden lights in the back of the van. I’ve been thinking about it for much longer than I’ve actually owned this van, so it’s a bit of a dream come true. This is the sort of mods that the guys were doing to custom vans back in the ‘70s, so I wanted this detail to be a fitting tribute to that era. The whole project has been in my mind for years, so it’s great that it’s actually happening now.”

If you think that’s going to be a tribute, wait until you see what he’s got planned for the paint and trim. To start with, Karl’s focusing on getting the body done in one colour first to offer up a blank canvas. All the bodywork is being done by Cam’s Metal & Speed in Geelong who are “Worth a feature in themselves,” says Karl, “They do awesome work.” Noted.

Karl wants the whole van to be painted in metal flake silver as a base. That’s quite a starting point for any project, and then the fun will begin. “I’ll just start sketching and see where it goes,” says Karl. Just sketching over a silver flaked custom Bedford? Yes, we’re excited too. The interior will be mildly-wild with simple upholstery and full white angel hair through. Karl plans to move the shifter to make way for a bench seat across the front compartment. He’s a family man, so there has to be a place for team KDS to hang out on road trips. The dash is a custom item that came with the van. It’s called a Custom Cab Dash and was a common addition to CFs back in ‘the day’.

The engine is a 5L with a 9 inch diff. No huge plans there, just clean it all up, hook up the LPG tank and get everything going reliably. It sounds healthy now, so that all should work out well.

All in all, this is shaping up to be a very cool project. With a sound base to start with, a gun bodywork guy on the job, and a head full of custom paint ideas, Karl is on track to deliver a striking addition to the new wave of custom vans that is sweeping the scene, or in his own words: “For me, it’s expression on wheels and a dream come true.” Keep an eye on our website for updates, and the full, wild, final result later in the year.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 17.

Follow Karl: @kdsdesigns.

Luke RayAustralia, Van, Custom