The Story of Surfa Sam as told by the creator Dr Leo Kalokerinos
How Australian Surfa Sam skateboard manufacturing started - (1964)
Leo was visiting his friend (Kevin Cooper) at his home in Bondi, Sydney. Kevin’s son was nearby and showed the pair what he had put together from a set of broken roller-skates. Kevin’s son had fashioned a wooden board and attached the set of skate wheels to both the front and rear of the board and created a piece of equipment that he was able to ride and perform a variety of tricks on. Kevin remarked to Leo what a great idea it was and encouraged him to manufacture and market this new apparatus – and so commenced the journey.
The Land Surfa (making of the first production board). top right
Leo started manufacturing the first boards from his home at Rose Bay. The original design was a plain blank board with a curved semi circle nose, and a square shaped tail. (As shown in the early advertisement) The truck assembly was a forged design that was riveted to a circle shaped metal plate. This original design used a bearing race in the wheels unlike the loose bearings of the later models (“Anthony Bearings” - Melbourne). The wheels were embossed with “Land Surfa” in the moulding process, and later changed to Detroit Super Wheels in the next incarnation.
The first standard production boards sold in 1965 at the price of 89'11 each. (That's pre decimal currency)
The Surfa Sam (making of a legend)
After a short period of manufacture, the shape of the board evolved into what is now the (current) shape. This shape lasted over a decade and remained in production to the end.
A friend of Leo’s (Ron Slater) suggested a more efficient and economical design for the truck assembly. This involved cutting and bending the truck into shape from sheet metal, and subsequently became the method of production for the trucks on the standard board. The wheel bearings moved from a race ball bearing, to loose balls (3/16th) imported from Japan.
The board itself was made from Tasmanian Oak timber. This hardwood was chosen for its strong close grain and its durable attributes that has more than stood the test of time. The iconic surfing guy on each board (Sam) was screen printed on the board over a coating of lacquer and helped identify the genuine article. The first production models were lacquered clear, later followed by the fully painted red and blue boards that were dipped in a vat of paint in the manufacturing process. However to reduce production costs (and remain price competitive with imported cheaper boards beginning to flood the market) the whole board was coated with shellac and a screen printed either blue or red on the top face only, then the Surfa Sam motif over the colour block. This method remained constant until 1976.
“Sam” himself was conjured up by a small team of creative minds from the advertising agency Cruikshank’s, which at the time was located in the Sydney suburb of Broadway. Charles Cruikshank the proprietor of the business took on the portfolio and appointed Victor Violet, who personally worked with Leo throughout the process. Vic was the fellow to conceive the name “Surfa Sam”, whilst a colleague named Henry created the iconic slightly plump Sam who eternally rides each and every Surfa Sam board.
After a short period of board production the range was expanded to two size boards, the standard board which was (24”) (600mm) in length and the long board which was 30” (750mm) in length.
Finally the deluxe board was added to the range and featured a modern and technically superior truck design. Leo had these trucks manufactured in Australia out of cast aluminum and it bore the first half of his last name “KALOK” on the axel shaft housing - incidentally this translates to GOOD in Greek.
The well-known Detroit Super wheels were first manufactured by Ryan Rubber in the Sydney suburb of Beralla. They were originally branded with Land Surfer and later changed to Detroit Super Wheels. Ryan Rubber happened to be located down the road from where Dr Leo Kalokerinos would later make regular visits to some of his patients in a nearby nursing home. Leo named the wheels “Detroit” after the motor vehicle manufacturing capital of America.
For a period Leo subcontracted out the manufacturing process, which helped to keep up with rising demand, and also allowed him more time to focus on his medical practice. He later took back the production side of the business and started his own full scale operation in a factory at Erskineville (1970).
The production life of the Surfa Sam ran from 1964 to 1974. Although there are no accurate records of how many units were produced, Leo recalls it would be in the tens of thousands. They were sold all around Australia and also exported to New Zealand.
The Business Name
The Surfa Sam skateboard manufacturing company - L.H. Nicholas Pty Ltd was named in honour of Leo’s father and was derived by incorporating Leo’s own initials L.H. with his fathers’ christian name Nicholas. The boards can be period dated by inspecting the manufacturing sticker on the underside of each board. The place of manufacture is marked on the label.
Leo the man
(Born September 1934)
Leo’s father worked extremely hard in order to put his four sons through university. Ultimately all four sons graduated as Doctors of medicine and made their parents extremely proud.
It was during these early years of skateboard manufacture that Leo was studying medicine and would juggle his rigorous medical studies with time at the production plant. He would often go to work in the morning before university, call in again during his lunch break and then again later in the evening and regularly into the early hours of the morning in order to keep the wheels turning. Weekend work was also necessary to make his skateboard enterprise a success.
Yes! Leo was a skateboard rider - nothing fancy he claims - it matters not, as far as I am concerned he is the man.
Story as told by Leo Kalokerinos Vaucluse Sydney December 2007