Summernats creator Chic Henry profile - flashback

By: Steve Nally, Photography by: Julius Goboly

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Few people have made a greater impact on the sport of street machining in this country than Chic Henry. We caught up with him back in 2008 to talk about his love of cars and how he became the founder and promoter of the annual high-horsepower event, Summernats

From Unique Cars #284, Mar/Apr 2008

Chic Henry

He’s the founder and promoter of the annual Summernats car festival in Canberra; the event that over 21 years has introduced more car builders and trends and given more people a start in the modified car industry than any other.

But while he always liked cars, Henry, 62, drifted into the game via some very interesting career choices, including being a blacksmith and an undertaker but these days Summernats is a full-time job. He has a nice collection of modified Chevs and drives a blinged-up Chrysler 300C wagon but how did the bug bite?

"I was probably about nine. My dad had a ’37 Chev roadster that he’d painted blue, which I thought was cool. He and a couple of uncles put a Bedford truck engine in it," Henry recalls in his Summernats office.

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Summernats creator Chic Henry is a car guy for sure but it’s his organisational ability that has helped create one of this country’s most successful motoring events

"It wasn’t that he was into hot rodding; they figured out that it would fit and it was an efficient way of keeping the car on the road. Dad was always mucking around on cars but I spent most of my early days swimming, surfing and playing water polo in Tasmania. Dad was always mad about motorsport and I remember going to races at Baskerville in Hobart and to Longford.

"I used to love the smell of the motorbikes and there was a car that used to race there called a Tornado; it sounded angrier than anything else. But the last time I went there in 1962 or ’63, I remember seeing Bob Jane’s E-Type Jag; it was the coolest looking car because an E-Type was pretty exotic back then."

Tasmania was a hot bed for racing, both on tracks and on the street, Henry says.

"A fella named Gene Cook, who became a speedway champion and also raced NASCAR, lived across the road from me and at the other end of the road was a fella called Wayne Mahnken who became well known in Melbourne for turbocharging. He lived over the hill on a T-intersection and everyone used to try and take ‘Mahnken’s Corner’ as quick as they could.

"Mankhen had an FJ ute with a Jag front-end on it and a weird-looking back. It was real fast and he called it a Cougar. But it was off the road and one night he got in his dad’s Vanguard and flew down the hill, rolled it, took the letter box out and crashed through the front of his own house! His mum and dad were sitting inside listening to the radio…"

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Henry’s first cars were nowhere near as exotic or as quick but he quickly got into customising them, so that at least they looked and sounded fast. "I always had vehicles that were different to everybody else’s. My first car was a Morris Oxford station wagon, then my Dad bought me an Austin A40 and he couldn’t believe that I wanted to put a copper exhaust pipe on it and paint a white stripe over it. I don’t know why the hell I did it either."

Henry joined the army in the ’60s and did a blacksmith’s apprenticeship. "That apprenticeship taught me to be very versatile and gave me a great understanding of metals," he says.

"I had a Morris Messenger van when I was in the army and I painted it B-Company blue with a brush. It had a double bed in the back; I had a shaggin’ wagon before people called them that."

With a Defence Department cheque in his pocket every week, Henry could afford to upscale a little in the transport area. This was 1967 and all of a sudden he was a street machiner, although the term hadn’t been coined back then.

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"I bought a second-hand red-and-white EH Holden; that was when the rot really set in. It was my first decent car. I put in solid lifters, a Kane manifold, twin carbies, Impala floor-shift and extractors because you had to have a hotted-up car. I used to be able to sit on 105mph which was pretty cool for a 179; most people could only do 98mph.

"I used to go to the beach with a hotted-up car but none of that Beach Boys surf car culture really registered with me because I wasn’t actually a hot rodder, I didn’t even know about the scene. But there were some really radical EHs that used to drive around Sydney and race at Castlereagh drags. I really wore two hats: I surfed and I was a street cruiser, so the roof racks for my surfboard were chromed!"

Moving around with the army, Henry ended up in Townsville and by this stage his need for speed had increased and the trusty EH had to go.

"I got much more into the car scene and traded the EH in on a VE Valiant, which was Wheels Car of the Year in 1968. I spent a lot of money on that car. I had the engine rebuilt with a big Wade camshaft, triple 1¾inch SUs, and it had an original set of ROH 7.0inch mags that I hand-polished. The car was turquoise and I painted the slots in the wheels the same colour which was very progressive. I raced the Valiant at the Savannah strip and was happy to run 13.9secs in it. "At this time I became much more associated with the drag racing scene. When I got out of the army in 1973, I moved to Brisbane and bought a VH Valiant with a 318 V8. But after that I bought a ’57 Chev Bel Air from Jeff Burnett, who became a well-known drag racer; he’d built it to be his push car. I raced it at Surfers Paradise; it had a strong 350, a close-ratio Muncie four-speed, 9.0inch diff…"

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After he left the army Henry worked as a welder on plant equipment and in heavy forging and even worked for a funeral director where he had a fun time, it seems.

"I was the maintenance mechanic for a funeral director for seven years and as well as keeping all his cars on the road I looked after his three 4WDs and three boats and I used make stuff for the funeral industry," Henry recalls. "When it was busy I’d go out on the road as a funeral director. I once got the (American) LTD hearse off the clock at way over 120mph, fortunately there wasn’t a deceased person in the back."

While Henry retained his love of drag racing, he was increasingly attracted to the street side of modified cars. "With all the effort and money that I’ve put into cars it would have been easy for me to run a race car but it’s the street thing that really grabs me and that’s the essential element of the Summernats; showing off your car and skills."

The first Street Machine Nationals was held in Griffith in 1975-76, promoted by the Australian Street Machine Federation. It subsequently moved to Shepparton and Narrandera in the late-’70s. It was then that it was decided to form an umbrella organisation to run these events. By this time Henry was the national director.

In 1985, Henry moved to Canberra and ran the 1986 ASMF Nationals in Easter at Canberra’s showgrounds. But things weren’t all that hunky dory and Henry "fell out of love" with his fellow directors. He resigned and that’s how the Summernats was born; Henry went out on his own, with major sponsorship from Street Machine magazine and other corporates that are still with him two decades later.

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"I got a lot of moral support and some serious help in Canberra for the first Summernats in the summer of 1988 but after it was over I was $200,000 in debt; I fought my way out of that. After the second Nats I’d paid all those bills and actually made some money."

Since then Summernats has gone from strength to strength and today attracts hundreds of entries and 100,000-plus fans.

"I’ve never thought about how long Summernats could last," Henry says. "I’m realistic to know everything has a shelf life and to some people this is a wild and crazy event and could tip over at any minute."

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SNAPSHOT

Name: Chic Henry 
Born: December 15, 1946
Best known as: Summernats founder/promoter
Career highlight: Reaching 21st Summernats
Career lowlight: When a drift car went into the crowd, thankfully without any major injuries
Inspiration: The hundreds of car builders who have entered the Nats

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