Feature: Paul Kelly - custom car builder

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Ellen Dewar/Mark Bean

Presented by

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A career that goes from Morris Minors to buses to award-winning show cars makes this customiser one of a rare breed

From the archives: First published in Unique Cars #293, Dec 2008

Paul Kelly

He shares his name with a hero of Australian music, but the soundtrack to this Paul Kelly’s world is governed more by the twang of a Chuck Berry guitar than Uncle Bill’s banjo.

Behind the wire gates of his nondescript southside Brisbane workshop, the man who claims he would be unrecognisable out of his ‘uniform’ of blue overalls and flannie shirt was busy when we called, finding space to mount a modern steering rack on the underside of a 1934 Chev.

The name and face may not be familiar but if you were at the 2008 Meguiar’s MotorEx display at the Sydney Showgrounds you would definitely have stopped and gaped at two exceptional examples of Kelly’s creativity. But building cars like Paul McKennariery’s 1948 Hudson and the ’37 Ford Roadster, nicknamed "Obsession" and owned by Peter Elliott, only partly define the diverse achievements of this quietly-spoken but opinionated character.

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"I started my motor trade apprenticeship in the early-1970s but years before I had met Jeff Dellow of Dellow Automotive and was hanging around his dad’s backyard garage at Bardwell Park in Sydney," the proprietor of Smooth Customs begins. "Just to give me something to do they showed me how to drill holes in bits of plate and eventually how to weld. Because Jeff was a member of the Roman’s Hot Rod Club, I got to meet other hot rodders and people from the motor trade."

Kelly was apprenticed originally as a mechanic but "always wanted to design" so he then completed a second qualification in the panel trade as a painter. During his panel shop years, he learned the skills of fabrication and body repair from senior tradesmen, then went on to work in several businesses before establishing his own workshop, specialising in general repairs and custom work. He also founded a business which has existed since the late-’70s and supplies components that are still used world-wide.

"Kelly Products started out because I had a lot of friends who had Morris Minors," he explains. "They were cheap to buy and run and when they broke down or went rusty they would bring them to me. We started out making kits to adapt Japanese motors and transmissions to the Morris or just to put a five-speed gearbox behind the original A Series engine.

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"At the same time we started manufacturing rust repair sections out of steel and eventually fibreglass panels including step-side bodies for utilities. And, of course, there were customs."

During the 1980s, customising began to play a larger role in Kelly’s crowded life.

"I’d always been interested in that side of the business and we’d done a few jobs for various people. This brought Geoff Paradise from Street Machine to us, to be involved with the magazine’s Project 57 Chevrolet."

In the mid-’80s, with a new and expanded workshop in the Sydney suburb of Revesby, Kelly’s work was featured in a TV segment for Good Morning Australia, using a Holden Premier owned by his then business partner. The print and electronic media exposure led to "a whole lot of things" including a magazine How-to column and more customising work.

"In the beginning it wasn’t enough to keep the place running so we still did general repairs as well, including painting garbage trucks," he says.

One of the cars that Kelly produced would quite inadvertently spark some serious consternation for the GM-H executive who stumbled across it at a motor sport event.

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"A mate of mine’s Monaro got hit up the backside, so instead of fixing it with Monaro parts we used the rear cut off an HQ Statesman. One day he took it to a race meeting and got back to find this suit-wearing bloke looking perturbed and very anxious to know where it had come from because ‘it was supposed to have been destroyed’. Hmmm."

For family reasons, Kelly and his family moved to Queensland and he soon began working for Sports Car Services, rebuilding and restoring mostly British models including Austin-Healeys and MGs. After returning to Sydney he worked for Les Buckley’s Midnite Spares and Repairs where he rebuilt the star car from Corvette Summer.

Returning to Queensland in 1991, Kelly worked for several years in the bus-building industry; eventually producing a new design and seeing it through to production for the now-defunct Motorcoach company, before returning to customising. He would later undertake contract work for other bus companies on their new model developments.

"The first work I did for Paul, who owns the ’48 Hudson, was a few small jobs on his first Hudson before he decided to give me a complete project. The original design and development for that car goes back 11 years and it was built over about seven years because it changed and evolved along the way."

Car -parts

The car started with concepts and drawings by artist Aden Jacobi, then a scale model before Kelly began to rework almost every element of the Hudson’s shape and structure. His approach to design and customising is based on a belief that the most impressive show cars must hide more than they overtly reveal.

"People look at that car and have no concept of the changes that were made to it. I believe in the minimalistic approach that less is more. The less obvious something is, the more likely that people are going to look at it and try to appreciate the thought and work that’s gone into creating a particular design, or just an aspect of that design. As an example, the rear window in the Hudson is from a Morris Marina turned upside down, but it fits the shape so well it looks like it was an original part."

His input to the show-stopping ’37 Ford followed much the same path, with the owner determining the car’s mechanical specification and Paul working on the car’s total style and colour-scheme before Aden Jacobi again became involved.

"Aden sketched what we came up with so Peter could see how it would look and then he entrusted me to do the chassis and body to pull together the hundreds of custom-made parts that were needed to make the total package work. Once we had everything built and prepped it had to be pulled apart and sent to Bowral in NSW for painting before being transported back to the owner, where he did the final assembly.

"In three shows, that car has probably won more awards on debut than any hot rod and is likely to be remembered as one of the most innovative hot rods ever built here."

Kelly believes that he has been fortunate in finding clients willing to trust his judgement and experience in developing cars that he has visualised, perhaps years beforehand, before ever committing the design to paper.

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"I had the concept for that Hudson ages before I ever knew what kind of car it would be," he says. "What you need then is an owner to walk through the door who wants a car done and is prepared to look at the project from a different perspective.

"I was really proud when that Hudson started appearing in magazines around the world. It showed acceptance by their car culture that something built in a country of 21 million people could also be seen as good in a much wider spectrum."

Having produced two totally different cars that reached the pinnacle of local show-car acceptance in the same year, is there anywhere else that this master artisan’s talent and imagination can take him?

"Plenty of places," Kelly laughs. "I’d love to do something in the style of the 1950s bubble-top dream cars and a few years ago did build a chassis but there were too many other pressures so it never happened. I have hundreds of ideas I am yet to use."


Name: Paul Kelly
Born: Sydney, 1957
Claim to fame: Two Elite Class cars at the 2008 MotorEx
Career highlight: Seeing my work on the covers of major hot-rodding magazines across the world
Career lowlight: Current shoulder injury that restricts what I can do
Inspiration: Designs I see in my head
Favourite quote: "Shit happens, arseholes create it."


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