1981 Ford Sundowner - Reader Resto

By: Justin Harding (owner) with Guy Allen

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Built at the tail-end of the local van craze this ultra-rare Ford turned out to be a gem

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Ford Sundowner Resto 

Having done up a GT sedan in the past, we were looking for a panel van project. My wife’s a Gold Coast girl and she wanted one. Being a Ford nut there was no way I was going to buy a Sandman. But this turned up and it was just up the road.

It was in pretty ordinary shape although it wasn’t too bad for rust. This was originally a country car and came from the St George area in south-western Queensland. But it was totally worn out. It had no engine or gearbox in it, and it had been modified. However the bare bones were pretty good to start with, which is why we took on the project.

We weren’t having to weld floors or anything like that. There were some rust repairs in the sills and we had to straighten out a few panels.

Have your say and vote for this car in the 2019 Reader Resto of the Year!

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We bought quite a few new-old stock parts for it, such as the spare wheel door, the tailgate, a front guard and a few other bits. We changed them over once it was stripped and we got stuck into the panel work.

This was originally a factory V8 manual, so we are running a 351 Cleveland with factory power steering and air conditioning. We’ve done a few internal mods and used a Holley carburettor, but we’ve tried to keep it close to that dead-stock look. Even so, we wanted something that performed just that little bit better than a standard 351.

| Related: Ford Escort Sundowner review

We’re running the original-style box – a Borg Warner four-speed, with a stock Borg Warner diff. Obviously everything was completely reconditioned along the way.

Brakes are four-wheel discs.

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When it came to the interior we had to strip it back completely, down to the panels, and start again. The whole thing ended up on a rotisseries, so every nut, bolt and screw was replaced or replated and reconditioned.

When it comes to parts, it’s a challenge and can be very expensive if you want the real thing. Parts are out there but you have to go the extra mile to get them and you have to pay the price as well. I was lucky that during the whole process I collected quite a lot of NOS pieces.

Of the two-and-a-half years it took, it spent around 18 months in the panel shop. That’s not too long, considering the scale of the project and the fact we were back to a bare metal shell. What shortened the process was I had just about everything ready to go back in the car once the body was done. So the engine was ready, the gearbox was done, the dash reconditioned, the seats redone – it’s quite a list.

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There are some areas of the project which I’ve heard someone describe as looking deceptively simple, like the graphics. They’re big and bold, but that probably also gives you an opportunity to get it wrong in a big way! A company in Ballarat is reproducing them, slightly different to the way they were in 1981. He does a very good kit. We had to change the colouring on a few pieces to get the contrast we wanted, so I got my sticker guy to do a little of it.

It was a bit of a process. We had a really good guy who had lots of experience putting big stickers on cars and he spent two weekends doing this job. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

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Incredibly, the spoiler on the rear of the roof was with the car. It’s a very rare piece and was factory-fitted. It’s made from a rubber-like compound and is quite flexible and can crack quite easily. That was one of the reasons we bought the car – I knew how hard they were to get.

We reconditioned it as best we could, and repainted it.

Tracking down the numbers on these cars is difficult – they’re really sketchy. There are approximately 250. By 1981, when the panel van scene was starting to wind back a bit, I think only around 90 of them were built. There were even less in 1982 and then the Sundowner badge disappeared.

Ford -sundowner -2Getting the stickers right took a lot of time and patience – and skill!

It’s a really nice thing to drive. Of course with everything being brand spanking new, you’d expect it to be pretty good. We attended the panel van nationals in Port Fairy in Victoria – a big drive from Queensland – last year and drove it down along the Great Ocean Road, which was a really nice trip for it. I could easily get in it tomorrow and drive it the length of the country.

The performance is interesting. When you’re used to driving a high-performance modern car, it can feel a bit ordinary. But I think back in the day it was good. There was a good amount of torque, which helps driveability. It’s got enough power to spin the wheels if you really want to.

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If you’re thinking of tackling something like this, buy the best one you can find. You need to start with a really good base, something that is complete. And when you start the restoration, make sure you keep and label everything as you pull it apart.

It pays to chip away at the other components while the paint and panel is underway – the engine and gearbox, so you have them ready when it comes back . Make sure you have a pretty stout budget, too, as it’s not a cheap project to do, particularly if you’re aiming for a concours-level finish.

Justin -harding -25Happy owner. Justin clearly went into this with all guns blazing

When I started this, I had some idea the car was always going to be worth something, but no expectation that the overall market would climb as far as it has. However it’s really hard to judge what one of these is worth for insurance, as so few come on the market. A Sandman in equivalent condition would be some sort of benchmark.

In the end I built it to keep and drive and that’s worked out well.


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Rust rid
Okay there was some rust - there always will be in a car this age. But it wasn’t bad.

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Halfway there?
Not even close at this stage, but a lot of the heavy-duty work is done and we have a straight body.

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Primer stage
Now we’re looking like a car. We’re at primer stage, and can start thinking about the colour.

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No sudden moves
This is the stage where everyone tiptoes around the car, terrified of chipping the fresh paint.

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Sealing time
It’s nice to see someone has gone to the trouble of properly sealing and finishing the underside.

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Piece by piece
This where it pays to have the mechanical components ready to go as soon as the paint is dry. A time-saver.

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Get it steering
Fresh components as far as the eye can see. No wonder it drives like a new car.

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New panels
The owner was fortunate enough to track down new old stock panels for the tailgate.

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Multiplier effect
This is a good example of how just one area of a relatively simple car can be a major project.

Original car: 1981 Ford Falcon XD Sundowner

Length of restoration: 30 months 

1981 Ford Sundowner

BODY 2-door van
ENGINE 351 Cleveland
150kW @ 4300rpm
415Nm @ 3000rpm
TOP SPEED180km/h
TRANSMISSION four-speed, synchromesh manual
Front – independent double wishbone, coil springs
Rear –live axle with leaf springs
BRAKES discs f/r
PRODUCTION approx 250

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