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Armed and dangerous: 1982 Datsun Ute

14 June 2015


Weighing around 800kg and putting out close to 800hp, it’s fair to say that Shaun Smith’s Datsun has achieved his goal of building one of the wildest burnout cars in the land

Go back a few years when import drag racing was in its infancy and you would find the classes full of highly strung, hyperactive front-wheel drives, sneezing, coughing and farting their way down the quarter-mile and looking not unlike a dog with a bad case of worms dragging its arse along the carpet for relief; no offence, but you call it like you see it. 

Terry Bowden and Rod Harvey were at the forefront of the import scene with something a little different, now in the hands of Australian drag racing moguls Victor and Ben Bray. Their potent pint-sized Datsun 1200 coupe was tube-framed, rear-wheel-drive and soon had the rest of the import crowd paying attention. With a giant hairdryer hanging off the side of the potent four-cylinder, the ETs continued to fall as the combination was fine-tuned. It appeared that big power and rear-wheel drive was the way to go, who’d have thought that!

Not wanting to be left behind in the import drag scene was Rotorua’s Robbie Ward, from R.I.P.S. He wanted a piece of the action and needed something to showcase his huge-power Nissan RB engines on the drag strip. This is where the diminutive little ute pictured here takes its first steps in a colourful journey that starts and finishes at opposing ends of the traction spectrum.

Robbie and his boys at R.I.P.S had only two things in mind when they rolled the ute into their workshop: to remove anything that was heavy, and make this thing go very rapidly in a very straight line. The standard diff the Datto started life with was given the biff and a much stronger unit from a Toyota Hilux was hung in its place. Everything else behind the cab was discarded, leaving only two rear guards and a tailgate. The front end was set up in preparation for a potent straight-six to be slotted in. 

A full custom cage was bent and twisted up and shoehorned into place, tying the two ends together and stiffening things up nicely.
All things start with good intentions and this project was no different, unfortunately for the Datsun this would be where things would come to a grinding halt thanks to Auckland drag racer Matt Fryer. At the same time the import scene was roaring into life he too was (in a roundabout kind of way) writing his way into the import record books, but from a whole different direction. 

Matt was racing his small block Chev-powered Datsun 240Z to great success with the V8s, and while the car was at the peak of its career he decided someone else deserved to finish what he had started. He put the proven car up for sale and Robbie purchased it, wrenched out the eight and slipped in the six. The rest, as we all know, is history, and all the while, a little ute waits.

The Datsun was eventually moved on, and when Shaun was trawling Trade Me one night he spied it for sale at a stupid price, buttons were pushed, emails were exchanged, funds were transferred and Shaun now owned the ute he had seen a few years prior sitting in Robbie’s workshop.

Import racing was never really high on Shaun’s agenda; although he’d owned a few Jappas in his time, he’d also owned a very tough blown and stroked ’65 Impala so was certainly familiar with the noise and enjoyment that a healthy V8 delivers. 

For a few years the pint-sized project sat dormant in Shaun’s shed while the lads from ASR Spray Painting and Ross Francis Panelbeating (Shaun’s businesses) figured out how to turn all their dreams into reality. As this was going to be a team project they all had a lot of ideas to go through before anything could be started. After many late nights and countless carbonated beverages, a plan was hatched that would turn the ute from something that was initially destined for maximum traction on the drag strip, into something that would create maximum smoke on the burnout pad and “piss the missus off” in the process.

Six-cylinder power was never on the agenda, and with that in mind, everything north of the A-pillars was removed. Out the back, the Hilux diff also became redundant as the V8 Shaun had in mind would turn it into a handful of shrapnel in no time at all.

Once everything had been chopped off or unbolted, what was left was loaded onto a trailer and sent off to Rivers Speed and Spares Ltd. A Competition Engineering rear end set-up was decided upon, consisting of a nine-inch diff filled with 35-spline Moser axles, and a 4.3:1-ratio diff head with a full spool all connected to the chassis rails via Competition Engineering shocks and a four-link. Topping off the rear end is a Competition Engineering sway bar. Filling the massive rear tubs are 15×10-inch Weld Pro Star rims wrapped in Hoosiers measuring 325/50R15. 

With all bases covered out the back it was time to turn the attention to the business end. Remember, everything forward of the A-pillar was made redundant, so a custom firewall was fabricated by the team at Shaun’s panel shop and a tube front end was grafted into place by Dean Scott at Rivers. Strange front struts were bolted in along with Strange four-pot calipers and rotors. Super-skinny 15×4.5-inch Hoosier-shod Weld Prostars keep everything off the ground.

While all the hard work on chassis modifications etc. was going on, Shaun’s latest bargain purchase off Trade Me was making its way up the island. If you are going to re-power something you might as well go mental, right? And 406 cubes of methanol-consuming Donovan from a sprint car should do the trick. Overkill? Nah, we don’t think so either.

The Donovan was also handed over to Grant Rivers and his team, and it was found that Shaun’s purchase was a good one. The Donovan is filled with JE pistons and rings, Oliver rods and a Callies crank. Brodix -10 heads are topped with TD rockers. The valves are opened and closed courtesy a Comp Cams camshaft and springs. The task of lubrication is handled by a dry sump system. In keeping with the engine’s Sprint Car roots, a Kinsler fuel injection set-up finishes things off nicely. With street driving duties on the not-so-distant horizon, a simple change of the pill and change in tune, Shaun can exchange the 
alcohol for pump gas and go import hunting should he so desire.

To provide the spark there’s a Mallory Super Mag and leads. The by-product of burning methanol and air is formaldehyde gas, which is vented to the atmosphere via a custom set of wrapped 1 1/8-inch headers made by Wanganui Exhaust Centre.

With the engine given a clean bill of health it was lowered into the de-loomed and all-custom engine bay. A shortened sump was fitted to clear the steering rack and dry sump lines. Bolted to the back of the estimated 780hp set-up was a GM Powerglide, built by Automan in Wanganui and backed up with 4000rpm stall converter. The final piece to the driveline puzzle is a PDL driveshaft.

With propulsion and driveline sorted, a quick trip to Shaun’s other business, ASR Spray Painting, was embarked upon and a custom gunmetal grey hue was mixed up from PPG and squirted onto the panels which had been straightened by Shaun’s panel beating team (clearly owning a panel business and a paint shop comes in quite handy).

Creature comforts, understandably, are virtually non-existent, nevertheless the interior sports Momo seats and belts, a Red Lion steering wheel and Hurst shifter. Auto Meter liquid-filled gauges keep an eye on vital signs and liberal use of alloy panelling found its way into the cabin. Shaun lists the stereo as: “406 Donovan and smoking 15×10 Hoosiers!” Windows that wind up and wind down are also present, which is good considering how much smoke those rears can produce in a very short time.

With the car designed to make smoke, Powercruise 2012 was the logical place to make its debut. Shaun would love to say things went smoothly in the lead-up to it, but if that were true he would be labelled a liar. With well known Wanganui smoke maker Tristan Teki just round the corner, and with a burnout pad calling his name, the temptation was far too great. With a tank full of methanol gagging to be burned the little ute which had lain dormant for years decided to unleash its fury on the world in spectacular fashion: arson! 

After a little bit of fun, smoke was found to be exiting from under the rear guards and under the bonnet at the same time, not a bad effort, guys. With fire extinguisher at the ready the bonnet was raised and the fire — which had melted the fresh paintwork — was quickly doused. After a lengthy investigation the cause of the combustion remained a mystery, and it was back to the paint shop for hasty repairs.

Once the rain cleared on day two of Powercruise finally the ute could show the public what big power in a little package could do. There was no mistake that this thing could smoke and smoke a lot. But the ute would again set fire to itself in the process, the fault this time traced back to the puke tanks under the bonnet. They were filling up with a mix of oil and methanol and were found to be vomiting their contents onto the hot exhausts. Enough was enough, and they now reside out the back, away from anything combustible. Since Powercruise, Shaun has had the ute out at the 4&Rotary Nationals, where he deservingly took out the burnout competition.

Shaun would like to take the time to give a huge thanks to the ASR and Ross Francis Boys for all their ideas, vision and hard graft, and also to all the sponsors, friends and families; this truly has been a team effort and without you guys Shaun’s dream would never have been achieved. 

Now all that is left is to bolt on some tyres, go make some smoke and “piss the missus off”. Remember, looks can be deceiving — I would suggest you think twice before picking a fight with this little Datto. 

The little Datsun was featured in NZV8 Issue No. 96 (May 2013).


  • Engine: 406ci small-block Chev, alloy Donovan block, JE pistons, Oliver rods, Callies crank, Brodix -10 heads, TD rockers, Comp Cams cam, Comp Cams springs, Kinsler methanol injection, Waterman fuel pump, aluminium fuel cell, Mallory Super Mag, Mallory leads, 1 1/8-inch headers, alloy radiator, Davies Craig water pump
  • Driveline: Powerglide transmission, 4000rpm stall converter, nine-inch Competition Engineering diff, Moser 35-spline axles, 4.3:1 ratio, full spool, PDL Driveshaft
  • Suspension: Strange Engineering alloy struts, Competition Engineering four-link, Strange front shocks, Competition Engineering rear shocks, Strange 300lb springs, 150lb King Springs, Competition Engineering torsion bar
  • Brakes: Strange four-pot calipers and rotors, Nissan two-pot calipers and rotors
  • Wheels/tyres: 15×4.5- and 15×10-inch Weld Prostar rims, Hoosier 325/50R15 rear tyres
  • Exterior: Custom firewall, PPG gunmetal grey
  • Chassis: 50x50mm box tube, rear by R.I.P.S Rotorua, front by Rivers Speed and Spares
  • Interior: Momo seats and belts, Red Lion steering wheel, Hurst shifter, Auto Meter liquid-filled gauges, full roll cage, alloy panelling
  • Performance: Approx 780hp at the flywheel