1955 FJ Holden on display at the Gippsland Vehicle Collection, Maffra

It doesn’t get more classic than this.

It’s fair to say James Monahu has a bit of experience with cars.

He has, after all, been honing his skills for 55 years. He started work in the motoring industry when he was 15, built his first car when he was 16 and, his lifelong passion for Holden cars is as old as he is. His earliest memories are of riding around in his Dad’s 1953 FX Holden, a car that rolled off the factory floor the same year he was born.

You can currently meet one of James’s great loves at Maffra’s Gippsland Vehicle Collection – a stylish 1955 FJ Holden in mint condition. And while many of the vehicles accompanying this car in the current Rods and Custom exhibition are highly modified, this one is in almost original condition.

But it hasn’t always been that way. When James bought the car in 2001 it was an ex-drag car.

“It was clear that someone had taken great pride in looking after this car. The body was immaculate and it clearly hadn’t been left out in the weather, but it had been fairly well butchered to turn it into a drag car,” James said.

“It came from the Cobram area, so there was no rust, but it was really just a shell. When I heard about it, it was owned by a guy who had had it in his shed for 15 years. I went and had a look at it and I paid what I thought was an awful lot for it then. But by today’s standards I practically got it for nothing.”

At the time, James was working with the Victorian Automotive Chamber of Commerce and had access to every old motor garage in Gippsland.

“I purchased a lot of new old stock from Neerim South, Warragul, Yarram and Fish Creek and I spent five years scouring swap meets to collect all the parts I needed,” he said.

“There are no new components other than the carpet inside. The interior trim is original, I’ve had the leather repaired and re-stained the leather on the seats to match the original colour.

“I modernised the suspension so it would handle well, keep up with the new cars on the road and stop when it needed to stop. I wanted it to handle properly.

“It’s been lowered for looks and handling, it has a Volvo rear end, and complete Volvo brake system. When I got this car I vowed I would make it go, and I would make it stop.”

The car’s engine was built by Brian Sampson, who ran Motor Improvements in Melbourne, and was also a racing driver, who co-drove with Peter Brock for the 1975 Bathurst 1000 victory.

“He was an agent for Speco, and with his driving career, he built his engines to go. This one was apparently built, started once and then sat idle until I heard about it.”

Frustratingly, once James had built, registered and driven his car a few months, another driver ran into him and it had to be completely pulled apart again. This is where Chris Henry used his vast skills to bring the body back to what it once was.

And in order to make a positive out of a negative, James used the opportunity to have everything detailed and painted.

Many of the parts in the car have been made by James, simply because they were needed but unavailable.

“And I owe a great deal of gratitude to Darren Franks, who took all the parts when I stripped the car down again, painted them and brought them back to me completed so I could assemble the car – again.”

James said his passion really is embedded in him, and this impressive car is only one of many he has built.

“It’s a sickness I’m afraid,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d rather polish it than drive it.”

Then he headed back out to the shed to work on his current project.