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Steve Roberts’ Thames 300E didn’t know what he had in store for it when it was taken apart for a rebuild eight years ago. Now it’s back with a radical new look — and roadtrips on the horizon…

If you’re in this for the long haul, it doesn’t just mean you like a roadtrip, and Steve Roberts, the owner of this 300E Thames van, certainly does. Long haul because it has history and long haul because it’s so subtle and trick it looks too good to be a driver, but it is. In fact, you’d really need to put it next to a stock van to see how totally different it is. To quote a very well used phrase, there isn’t a panel on this van that hasn’t been altered. Masses of work and from some very well known names in the business, but the important point — it doesn’t stop Steve driving the absolute nuts off it one bit.

thames 300e

Long haul because we need to go back many moons to reach the first incarnation of this 300E. There always have been cars built with a touch of comedy about them and this one was no exception. Steve’s a plumber so naturally, he erred towards a van and it had ‘Bodgit and Scarper’ airbrushed across its side panels. Extremely well known in the hot rod scene around the early ’90s; it’s actually a bit of a ledge — as the kids say.

thames 300e

Fitted with a 1703cc Pre-Crossflow, 2000E ’box, Anglia back axle, super-straight white paint, Centrelines and of course that signwriting meant it was one you’d never forget. Naturally, Steve drove it everywhere; because that’s what he does — never mind the damage a roadtrip can do, that’s part of the battle scars and enjoyment. “You’ve got to drive it; that’s what they’re for. Stuff that happens, you can fix but above all, get out there and use it.” Which is what he did. Although fate would have it that it was forced into retirement for many years rendering Bodgit to the back burner.

The long game

Eight years ago it resurfaced as a project and this time, it was altered — seriously altered. “I’ve never really like the proportions of a 300E plus I’ve got long legs, so I need a bit more room,” which is why; if you haven’t sussed, the doors are stretched using Prefect panels. The front’s longer too, and if you haven’t worked out the rear quarters yet, well they’re a mix of saloon bottom halves; seriously altering the van’s lines. Subtle it is and you’d have to know your Thames vans to really appreciate the difference — the thing is, it really works and works well.

The problem, if you can call it that, is that Steve is very good mates with two people; one of which is a bloke called Chris Hay — and again, if you go back into the annals of custom scene time, you may well know Chris’ exploits with Hillman Husky vans. I say vans, it was actually one; which he redid several times; eventually ending up with Cosworth turbo power. Like Steve’s 300E, that too was full of subtle custom tricks ironically called, ‘Rapid Plumbing’. But there’s a big element we’ve left out, yet another name from the north, Dave Rothwell, who also had a hand in Chris’ Hillman; in fact owning it, morphing it into it’s last, even tricker guise.

Dave’s better known for his business at the time, Straight Paint — he’s responsible for some truly iconic cars including an incredible Standard Flying 12 with hand-crafted trim and bumpers and more recently, a Hanomag; that is equally mind blowing. And, to further muddy the incestuous waters, Chris now owns! I truly hope you’re keeping up with this!

The thing is, Steve’s good at building rods; in fact he’s a good body man too; painting the 300E himself. But what Chris and Dave contribute is the serious enthusiasm, ideas and general passion to wade in, cut a car about and alter it to their way of thinking. When you’re wrapped up in their circle, things flow; not necessarily by smashing it out fast to get onto the next one but in terms of pure design, what they put out, has a stamp of its own. You end up with jaw dropping that’s almost too subtle, it can go straight over your head!

thames 300e

“Dave did a lot of the early work at my house — he’d come down and stay couple of days, which was almost dangerous because you’d leave him and he’d altered all the back doors; grafting in the back section of a Squire tailgate, piecing together the tops from several sections of van doors.” And there’s the rear quarters, which were sectioned and shortened and the windscreen area that’s been narrowed to allow a bonded in flush-fit screen. We could bang on endlessly and to be honest it would almost end up as a list of mods rather than the story of the car! For reasons, this wasn’t a quick build — it took eight years — Dave had a massive hand in the formative stages and Chris played an equal part in the final ones too – easy to gloss over it but the three of them seriously combined to the mind blowing results you see before you.

thames 300e

Top tweaks

To be fair, I think we may well have covered the custom bit to death but there are still bits you spot every time you see the van. “There’s so much we did, even I forget and surprise myself,” laughs Steve! And that kind of glosses over the rest, which is equally trick – it has a separate chassis; built by Steve and Dave to house a custom double wishbone front suspension and an almost de-rigour Zetec; which came brand new in a crate. That bit is dead handy for the driving duty that Steve is so passionate about.  In fact, the car’s first outing was the 350-mile round trip to the NSRA’s 2016 Super Nationals. “We’d driven it to the MoT station the day before, but the van’s shakedown run was that road trip!”

thames 300e

When we took the photos, Steve wasn’t afraid to rag it and when I saw him at the Supernats the following weekend he said, “I’m still wiping dust of the chassis and wheels from that quarry!” He’d got a stone chip, too… “No matter it’ll get some paint over the winter, probably.”

You need good components for driving though — hence the new Zetec but there is once piece that Steve is seriously impressed with. “For reasons I won’t go into, I needed a new Type-9, for which BGH Geartech were recommended time and time again. What they came up with has transformed the car no end. If you want to seriously drive it, and I mean drive it, you need a good gearbox. They’ve altered the ratios and it now has a long first and second; meaning you can give it plenty of punishment, it goes so, so well and it’ll take it all day long. If there’s one mechanical bit that makes this van, it’s got to be that; it’s transformed it!”

History revisited maybe, Bodgit’s back and it’s there to be driven — never mind the subtlety, hard work and determination, as Steve says, “You gotta drive it!” 

Words and Photos Jon Hill

This feature first appeared in the April 2019 issue

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