Fade To Orange: Bob Pankhurst’s Custom 1965 Buick Riviera

Words: Karlee Sangster Photography: Luke Ray

Bob Pankhurst first encountered the custom scene at a home for delinquent boys in the late ‘60s. Not that he was a resident, the home was the venue for a hot rod show and Bob’s brother-in-law had taken him along. “He was driving an early model Cortina at the time, which he’d hotted up, and that impressed me,” remembers Bob. “He even made his own mag wheels for it, which fell apart! He had to put them on the car to see if they actually worked or not, and they just fell to pieces!”

Fast forward to 2011 and Bob had become a respected signwriter. Signwriting has a history rooted in custom culture that’s hard to ignore, and by this time, Bob was no stranger to the cars and their obvious draws.

It was in planning a trip to the States that his wife suggested they buy a car whilst on holiday. “She said to me, ‘Bob, why don’t you buy a car over there?’ I thought: Hello.. I’d better start looking! I’d been given this free ticket to get a car, so what am I going to get? I didn’t want a Mustang, not a Camaro, I felt they’d all been done to death. Then I was thinking, maybe an Impala, but there’s plenty of them here already.

And then it just came into my mind, I remembered a model car that I built as a kid. I remember it was painted gold on the box, but I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t remember the car exactly, so I started to fish around on the internet to figure it out. The headlight design helped, the way they open up and that was it, a ’65 Buick Riviera. Now that I’d worked out what it was, I started looking around for cars for sale and this one came along on Craigslist in the US. The seller, Buddy Enea, hadn’t advertised it anywhere else, he didn’t want tyre kickers wasting his time, and he wasn’t in a hurry to sell it.

This Riv was located in Peasanton, San Fransisco, and by coincidence we were headed that way for a hot rod show, so the stars were aligned.  

“It was raining on the day the we went to see it, just drizzling, and I thought I’d take it for a drive. I asked Buddy and he said ‘No, you’re not driving it. It’s never been wet, and I ain’t going to spend two hours washing it.’ I said I wanted to buy it and he said ‘You can buy it, but you’re not going to drive it. You’ll go away, it’ll be dirty and I’ll have to clean it again’.”

Bob had better luck 24 hours later. “The next day it was fine, Buddy brought the Riviera over to the hotel where we were staying and I got to drive it. I thought it was a cool car, but I had others to look at whilst in the area, so... I just left it. I saw a few cars whilst in the States, but nothing that jumped out at me, and I kept thinking about the Riv. Six weeks later, I got back to Australia and rang Buddy up and asked if the car was available. It still was, so we made a deal and the custom Buick was on its way over to Australia.”

Buddy had built the car from the ground up. He was initially planning to keep the car as a restored example, but peer pressure led to a mild custom makeover. Buddy told the boys at Sahagon’s Custom Car Concepts that he was thinking something ‘melon-like’ in tone, and after experimenting with the House of Kolor range, painter Logan Davis presented Buddy with his Tequila Sunrise blend. Buddy was sold on the spot.

To complement the amazing paint job, Buddy kept the body simple, shaving handles and badges, but otherwise leaving things be. The chrome brightwork was paired with true sixties style elements like 15 inch chrome steelies with bullet caps and skinny whitewall radials. The interior was a point of pride for Sahagon, who designed a pale gold Naugahyde and Italian velour scheme, which, when paired with the wild exterior colour, comes off as an orange sherbert. While it’s true that the majority of the car is stock, Buddy created a vehicle that certainly turned heads, including Bob’s. It’s refreshing to see that as the new owner, Bob has stayed true to Buddy’s vision, changing very little on the Riv. “I just changed the rubbers, the fuel lines. The heater coil was buggered, so I had to change that, but apart from that, really nothing,” he says. “It wows everybody. The colour is just sensational.”

The Riv spends its time sitting proudly out the front of Bob’s newest endeavor, Fat Bob’s burgers. Recently credited with producing the best burger in Melbourne, Bob was inspired to create the popular, yet out of the way roadside café during the same trip to the States. “We went to Cincinnati because I wanted to go to the American Sign Museum. My wife rolled her eyes, but we went. I went weak, I just absolutely loved it, and my wife could see why I love my trade so much. You get bombarded with neon and enamel signs, gold leaf. It’s amazing.

While we were there, a guy suggested we go to a burger joint called Terry’s Turf Club in an industrial area downtown. I had no idea what to expect. We get there and it’s just neon central. The owner is a neon collector, the place is absolutely covered in old school neon. I walked in there and it’s like Disneyland on steroids. We sat at the bar and I said to Deb that with with my extensive sign collection, we could do something very similar back in Melbourne.

“I had a client who was a restaurant entrepreneur, who helped me get it up and running with the right employees. It was a big learning curve, as far as I was concerned. My wife jokes that I thought I’d just get a BBQ and some Eskies and I’d have my burger joint, but it was a lot more involved than that. When the factory came up for sale, I decided that I could have my sign shop in the front and the burger joint out the back. As far as staff go, we got the right people at the right time. They’re all great, the atmosphere’s just what we wanted. We’ve had an amazing amount of press, it’s been astounding. The Herald Sun named us Best Burger in Melbourne. We had to turn away seven hundred people at the front gate the weekend that article was published.

It’s been an incredible ride and way more successful than anything we expected. When people heard I was building a burger place in this location, they thought we were crazy. Two police officers were murdered on this street a few years ago, there’s no one here at night. I said that was why I was opening it… there’s lots of parking. I thought that if someone came and found it, they’d claim it as their own discovery, take ownership of it and tell their friends, which they have done. And it was important to me that we made the best burger. Not just burgers, but the best burgers.”

Besides burgers and Buicks, Bob has some other enviable rides. His daily driver is a black 1954 F100, purchased in 1982. “I’ve loved them ever since I was a kid. I also built a model of one back then, so when the opportunity came up, I bought one. My brother and I did it up, we painted it in the shed. It was already fitted with a 302 Windsor so I didn’t have to do much there. My brother and I stripped it, sanded it, painted it and put it all back together. I enjoyed doing it, but at the end of the day my core business is signs and I believe in horses for courses. I’d rather the experts do things that would go sour on me if I tackled them.” It’s a fair call.

The biggest build to date in Bob’s garage is his ‘36 5 window street custom. Once a regular (and bright!) sight at events around Victoria and interstate, the all steel coupe now quietly sits along with the others. It was a big build, and one the Bob is very proud of.

Then there’s a ’33 3 window Ford that Bob plans to turn into his version of an “Aircraft inspired, military style car. You know, aluminium interior, army green.”

That’s not all. Bob and his wife Deb have made another trip to the states since buying the Buick, and again, Deb suggested picking up a car. The couple ended up in Texas, and returned with a blue Chev pick-up that they drove across the states before loading it into a container. The trip was a month long joyride, and they made up the route as they went along. No drive of that length is without incident, but apart from replacing tyres and fixing the steering, the Chev performed well. “I’d like it to be part of Fat Bob’s. What better delivery truck can you get? Just put up a sign on the door, fill it full of beers… Yeah cool!”

Bob has honoured the origins and history of his cars and injected just the right amount of personality into each. Whether as a car owner, a signwriter still practicing a traditional craft, or the owner of a simple, successful burger shop, Bob’s hard work and personal ethos of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has served him well. And that’s pretty cool.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 17.

Follow Bob: @robacme.