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Take a look at our top 12 ultimate V8 sleepers

27 July 2015


There’s a lot to be said for cars that pack serious power but look near stock, and we get under the hoods of some of the country’s best

Mark Coffey’s 1934 Chev Junior

Back in the mid 1980s, around the time Mark Coffey bought this little 1934 Chev Junior, hot rodding in the USA was going through a resto-rod phase. Cars were sympathetically restored with a few minor upgrades to the drivetrain and braking, essentially keeping the better aspects of the old and throwing in a bit of the new to have the best of both worlds. Fast-forward to today, and, when parked, Mark’s 1934 Junior still looks every bit the resto-rod, with its painted wire wheels, immaculate black paintwork, and spotlessly restored interior. Sure, a few concessions have been made, such as the radial tyres, but it looks every inch a restored car, complete with a trunk on the luggage rack and spare tyre on the side guard. But this is all part of the illusion Mark has created, one that quickly disappears as soon as the Junior is started. 

When the 572ci big block Chev lurking underneath that immaculate façade roars into life, you quickly realize that this vintage-looking car is something special. 

Mark has been a drag racer for most of his life and has had a few quick street cars, but this little Junior is the quickest, running 11-second passes at over 120mph with ease. Having a 620hp family hot rod would be plenty for most of us, but, with a simple carb change and a bit of tuning, the power soon rose past 680hp, helping to get the Junior down the strip in 11 seconds flat at 124mph, which, for Mark, was still not enough. 

Turning on the little blue bottle with a modest 75hp NOS plate, Mark dipped ‘CUBES’ well into the 10s last season, with a best of 10.7 seconds at 128mph — that’s flying for an all-steel car, running only a 2500rpm stall converter, and cruising 3.25:1 diff gears! 

The next outing, however, will see Mark pushing CUBES even harder, as, with the assistance of Wellington drag racer Pete Meo, a dual-stage nitrous system capable of adding 500hp has been fitted. They are starting with a modest set-up with 150hp triggered at wide-open throttle, plus a further 180hp via the button on the steering wheel, and they can always add more if needed. With over 1000hp hidden under the hood, Mark is aiming for low 10s in the 130mph range, perfectly defining the essence of the vintage sleeper! 

Peter McNally’s 1962 Holden EK

The Holden brand is an all-Australian affair, about as far removed from Japanese influence as XXXX beer and NRL shorts. It follows, then, that a 1962 Holden EK is probably the last place you’d expect to find anything more Japanese than a Sony head unit. Well, disregard all that and say hello to Peter McNally’s EK. 

Having grown up with old Holdens in his native Victoria, Peter’s original plan was simply to install a hotted-up 186 with Celica five-speed and be done with it. However, Chopper at Chopper’s Auto Body had other ideas — about a fuel-injected 4.0-litre Lexus-sourced 1UZ-FE V8 engine being rammed into the shoebox-sized engine bay, to be exact. He knew it could be done, and what would be involved, so Peter got busy sourcing a suitable engine-and-box combo. 

Just sitting the physically enormous quad-cam engine in the EK was a triumph of fabrication. A Holden HR front cross member was installed, with extensive work undertaken to allow the V8’s sump to fit without modification, supported by strengthening work to compensate for the metal removed. The chassis was also notched to make room for the headers, with gussets welded in for strengthening purposes. All the fabrication work was supervised and given the all-clear by Neil Fraser to avoid any complications when it came time for certification. 

With the engine sitting snugly in its new home, the EK’s steering box was chucked in the bin and replaced with a rear-mounted rack-and-pinion set-up sourced from V6 Conversions out of Moree in New South Wales. This wasn’t done to improve the driving dynamics of the car, but because it was necessary due to the bulky V8’s inability to clear the steering box. After fabricating custom engine mounts, Chopper got busy re-fabricating the transmission tunnel to accommodate the bulky Toyota four-speed auto, which is secured by a custom cross member.

 With the mechanical side of things sorted, Peter called upon Anthony Hart, also known as ‘Boomer’, to sort out the electrics. What this involved was modification of the engine loom, allowing the Lexus ECU to run the engine without the countless sensors and controllers that the EK doesn’t share with the Lexus donor car. While he was at it, Boomer fully rewired the rest of the car, including all the lights and the under-dash wiring, and made up a custom fuse box. 

The car’s roadholding has been improved with the help of two-inch Stubtech drop spindles and heavy-duty springs up front, with two-inch lowering blocks at the rear, while HQ discs and calipers up front pull the car up nicely when required. To clear the calipers, the car wears 14-inch steel rims that help the EK retain its old-school cool. The booster required for the disc brakes’ vacuum assistance is mounted under the mudguard to provide sufficient clearance for that massive engine. At the rear, the car still wears a standard HR banjo diff, although Peter has voiced plans to install a Dana diff from a Volvo 240. The diff should bolt straight in with custom brackets, giving the benefits of more strength, an LSD, and disc brakes at the rear.

When Peter purchased the EK, it seemed a little worse for wear, which was a look he was actually quite happy with and wanted to retain. But since no one could guarantee the surface rust could be kept in check as it was, the decision was made to strip the car back, repair the inevitable rust and pitting, and have it repainted, also by Chopper. It’s no show car, but that was never Peter’s intention, as he drives it every weekend and whenever else he can find an excuse to. 

Although his conversion attracts the usual horde of purists bemoaning the fact that he has ‘ruined’ the car, Peter couldn’t be happier with the way it has turned out. Having every single aspect of the conversion done to the highest standards, and with power on tap from arguably the best V8 engine to come out of Japan, this wild EK is enough to plaster a grin not only on Peter’s face but also on that of whoever’s lucky enough to line up against him at the lights as well.

Simon Peryer’s 1963 Ford Cortina

Looking at Simon Peryer’s classic rally-styled 1963 Cortina, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking it might go a little harder than it did when it left the factory. But, by its exterior appearance alone, it’s unlikely that even the most clued-up of petrolheads would guess exactly what the wee car is packing under the bonnet — a ProCharged 302ci Windsor that has been tuned to about 500hp at the wheels. 

It all started when the crate motor’s 400-odd horses were deemed insufficient, so the ProCharger kit was sourced and, with a bit of difficulty, squeezed into the tiny engine bay along with a front-mount intercooler, custom alloy radiator, and thermo fans. 

As the car’s been built for street use, track days, and potentially even for Targa, a close-ratio Tremec TKO 600 gearbox was sourced and hooked up to a narrowed 8.75-inch diff from a late-model Mustang.

While the car’s performance was important to Simon, so, too, was making it look like a rare Lotus Cortina. As he works nine to five, he delegated the build to RaceFX, which delivered the goods as far as all the hard work was concerned. A custom recessed firewall was mounted, complete with factory-looking swage lines. At the rear, the guards were very slightly tubbed to allow for eight-inch-wide rear Superlight rims, along with reworked suspension geometry in the form of a four-link with Watt’s linkage and QA1 adjustable coilovers at each corner. The upper arms of the four-link actually required the rear seat to be raised slightly in order to clear the bodywork — not that that should bother Simon too much, as the roll cage takes up much of the space behind the driver’s seat. 

Steve McLay’s 1987 Corvette

From the outside, you’d never know that Steve McLay’s C4 Corvette was packing a 670hp, 607lb·ft, supercharged L98 LS2 under the hood.

After he’d run the car at local events around Milton, Otago, where he’s based, he realized the stock 350 just didn’t offer the performance he was after, inviting the change to the L98. This was followed by the installation of a decent cam that upped the power to 525hp and 450lb·ft of torque, which was enough to push the car to a hasty 11.8-second quarter-mile at Teretonga, but Steve wanted to go faster.

The following winter, he fitted a Gladiator diff and an intercooled Vortech supercharger. To back up the blown engine, there’s a 1000-horsepower-capable TCI transmission and 2500rpm stall converter. The aim for now is to drive to the track, run low 11s or a high 10, and drive home again. Local tracks don’t allow any track prep or burnouts, yet the car still runs in the 11s, which Steve says is an exercise in throttle control. 

A trip to Ruapuna earlier this year was sadly met with a surface so cold that no track prep could be applied, but the car still managed a best of 11.0 at 125mph, meaning that, with some heat in the track and some VHT, the car is a dead-set 10-second sleeper. The best thing, though, is just how driveable it is — it easily makes the 150km trip to local tracks and, with a change of tyres, runs low ETs before driving home again. 

Steve has mentioned that another trip to Ruapuna is on the cards and perhaps a journey to Masterton Motorplex this coming season, too. With its potential to dip convincingly into the 10s, this rapid streeter is definitely one to keep a close eye on.

Tony Jeffs’ 1962 Ford Galaxie

Another man who has a lot of fun in the understatement game is Canterbury local Tony Jeffs, who also goes by the moniker ‘Surfy Sam’. Tony debuted his ’62 Galaxie surf-mobile at the Nostalgia Drags back in 2012, raising a fair few eyebrows while he was at it. 

Well known in pre-’65 circuit racing, Tony thought he’d give the Nostalgia Drags a go, and, being the keen petrolhead he is, he pulled the 580hp FE motor and sequentially shifted manual gearbox from his race car and dropped them into what he has affectionately named his ‘old dunga’. The rust, dents, and patina of the Galaxie are complemented by the old-school roof rack, surfboard, and water skis. 

As the high-performance racing FE’s drinking problem is akin to that of a pirate, Tony reckons he visited just about every petrol station between Canterbury and Meremere on the way up, but the trip north was well worth it. Surfy Sam, complete with leopard-skin shirt and woodgrain-finish helmet, shocked everyone by rolling off consistent high 11-second passes, with his best pass of 11.7 easily lifting the front wheels in the process. We tip our hats to Tony for injecting a bit of fun into the sleeper game and for going to such lengths to do it. 

Greg Covell’s Mk2 Escort

It may not be the little old lady from Pasadena’s car, but Tauranga man Greg Covell’s little Mk2 Escort certainly fitted the ‘one elderly lady owner’ tradition when he purchased it. The original owner had bought the car new in the UK in 1978, and shipped it to New Zealand when she emigrated. Acquired by Greg a few years ago, the Escort was soon transformed into the little rocket you see here. Greg is no stranger to stuffing Windsors into small English cars, having started decades ago with a wild 100E van, but this was to be a bit more subtle. 

With the standard 1300cc four-pot and auto box removed, Greg set about re-engineering the Escort to take the extra power, starting with a three-quarter chassis connector/subframe underneath. The standard suspension got the biff and was replaced with a combination of aftermarket Bilstein, K-Mac, and Capri components. The tiny standard brakes also landed in the bin, with vented Falcon discs taking their place all round. The engine is a full-roller 302ci Windsor stroked out to 347 cubes, putting out around 420hp. This is matched to a pro-street C4 trans with a 3200rpm stall converter and a narrowed 3.0:1 LSD nine-inch at the rear. To date, the little rocket has run a best quarter-mile of 12.5 seconds at 115mph, which, given the cruising gears, is very impressive. This speed suggests the Escort should be capable of high 11s with a different final-drive ratio — far higher than the car’s previous elderly lady owner could ever have thought her car capable of reaching. 

Darren Van Nes’ 2000 Holden Commodore VT Wagon

The Holden Commodore is one of the most ubiquitous cars on our roads and, as a result, forms the perfect base for the high-power sleeper owned by Darren Van Nes. The unassuming wagon started life when Darren, the owner of Revolution Dyno Centre, bought it new in 2000 as a runabout for his wife to cart the kids around in, but, as is the case with most builds featured in this magazine, things very rapidly snowballed. 

A 6.0-litre cast-iron block was sourced and filled with a 4340 steel stroker crank, billet rods, and custom low-compression pistons. The obligatory double-row timing chain was bolted onto the Comp Cams solid-roller cam, which moves matching lifters and heavy-duty pushrods. The top end also features a treasure trove of go-fast goodies, like Isky Gold valve springs, titanium retainers, Jesel shaft-mount rockers, and valves that are 0.100 of an inch longer than standard. 

The fun part, however, is definitely the Vortech centrifugal blower, which rams air through a custom front-mount intercooler before it enters the modified Holden throttle body. Twin Aeromotive in-tank fuel pumps are employed to ensure the engine is always well fed. 

After destroying a bunch of standard 4L60E transmissions, Darren turned instead to the tried-and-tested TH400 fitted with a 2800rpm high stall converter. The gearbox uses a Gear Vendors gear splitter, effectively doubling the TH400’s three available cogs. With the car’s propensity to grenade boxes sorted, the enormous power and torque is able to find its way, via a custom heavy-duty two-piece driveshaft, to the 3.75:1-ratio LSD in the standard independent-rear-suspension rear end.

There is no bonnet ornamentation, just a subtle HSV bodykit and ‘V8’ fender badges, big four-pot HSV brakes, and a shotgun exhaust. Nothing hints at the Commodore’s 850rwhp other than its rapidly vanishing tail lights, and Darren wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Gavin Oram ‘s 1970 Jaguar XJ6

Gavin Oram’s 1970 Jaguar XJ is a far cry from the luxurious executive mobile it looks like, because, beneath the vehicle’s stately bonnet lies a 355ci Chevrolet engine with an enormous Garrett GT42 turbo hanging off it. Inside the motor, you’ll find all the names you’d expect in an engine this powerful — an Eagle 4340 steel crank, H-beam rods, and forged low-compression pistons, as well as half of the Comp Cams catalogue, thanks to the Comp Cams blower grind solid-roller camshaft, and matching roller rockers and valve springs bolted to the alloy Dart cylinder heads. Up top, the engine wears an Edelbrock intake manifold with fuel rails to suit the FAST EFI four-barrel throttle body (not fitted when these photos were taken). There was originally a blow-through set-up on a Quick Fuel carburettor, and Gavin has nothing but praise for the newly installed EFI, which, tuned by Carl at C&M Performance, is light years ahead of the old system. 

To help convert the fury into tyre smoke, a manualised TH350 was chosen, which transfers the abuse to the standard Jaguar rear end. The car has a current WOF and reg, and is driven frequently by Gavin, which speaks volumes about his workmanship. As aftermarket alloy wheels are the only real visible clue that this car is not all it seems, ‘understated’ doesn’t even begin to describe its visual effect. 

Despite all the power the Jag is making, Gavin hasn’t yet had it down the strip, but when he does, the car’ll be worth watching — both on track and on the drive home.

Glenn Morman’s 1958 Chevrolet Brookwood

Glenn Morman has owned his fair share of shiny cars over the years but is over the intensive maintenance and ‘no-touching’ rules that go hand-in-hand with them. So, when the opportunity arose to purchase this recently imported 1958 Chevrolet Brookwood wagon, he chose the comfortable option of keeping the car in its well-worn condition. 

It had been imported by a bloke in Wellington who chucked it in the too-hard basket. Glenn flew down to check the car out, and a deal was struck. Originally equipped with a W-series 348ci big block and cast-iron Powerglide, the wagon’s drivetrain was a smoky and unreliable headache as far as Glenn was concerned. Since he could justify the expenditure at the time, he snapped up a GM ZZ427 480hp crate motor, to which he bolted a set of ceramic-coated Sanderson block-hugger headers that feed into a 2.5-inch exhaust with Flowmaster 44 series mufflers to make the most of the racket the 427 is capable of making. Sitting atop the engine is a 770cfm vac/sec Holley carburettor that features a home-made iron-cross air-cleaner assembly — even the flashest off-the-shelf crate motors need a bit of West Auckland–style retouching.

While checking out the under-bonnet area of the wagon, you may notice the shiny bracket to which the alternator is affixed. This is a March Performance Revolver kit, which allows the car to run one serpentine belt for all its pulleys and also contributes some good-looking shiny stuff in stark contrast to the patina surrounding the nice, new engine. 

With all that engine under the bonnet, Glenn also had to step up his gearbox game. In went a reconditioned TH400 transmission equipped with a stage-two shift-kit and a 2500rpm stall converter. This spins a stock 10-bolt diff, though Glenn informs us that a Positraction rear end is next on the list as far as the driveline goes. There’s no point in having all that grunt if you’re just going to spin it all away!

As it’s such a heavy car, and capable of reaching very high speeds, you might be surprised to learn that it still runs the drum-brake system with which it left the Chevrolet factory in 1958. But Glenn has recently installed a new PBR brake booster that he says yields far better results in hauling the big car up than any of its recent brake rebuilds did. The suspension has had the same minimalist treatment, and, for what Glenn needs the car to do, this has been deemed good enough. It has had uprated springs and shocks installed and replacement bushes, but, other than that, it remains as Chevrolet intended. 

Though the wagon is not yet road legal, Glenn hopes to have it on the streets before long, so he can enjoy the awesome-looking and rapidly accelerating cruiser that he has on his hands. Though he isn’t overly concerned about taking it down the strip, he wouldn’t mind giving it a go just to know what the big Brookwood is now capable of. 

Speed and outright power weren’t the driving factors behind this car’s transformation, and it makes a refreshing change to see someone using a big-power V8 simply to enjoy the experience, rather than to shave fractions of seconds off an ET. We’re big fans of this car, and all that Glenn’s done to his cruiser to make it what it is now. 

Clint Field’s 1971 Valiant VG

The little white Valiant vanishes in a cloud of tyre smoke and goes on to run a 12.4-second quarter-mile pass at 110mph. That’s surprising, because, as far as looks go, there is nothing to suggest that this ’70s family hauler is capable of such speed. 

Before Clint Field sits a Chrysler 318ci V8, which is good, but hanging off the side of it is a massive Garrett GT4082 turbo putting out 10psi of boost, which is even better. 

To make the most of the enormously increased airflow, the engine features Scat rods, forged pistons, alloy Edelbrock heads, and a Kelford Cams custom turbo-grind camshaft. A Demon blow-through carburettor set-up, modified by Jake’s Performance in Australia to suit the turbo application, channels airflow into the engine. To keep the air cool, there’s a front-mount intercooler, but, in the true nature of a sleeper build, Clint has kept it out of sight behind the grille. 

Finished in 16-year-old factory-white paint and rolling on widened steel wheels or Tridents, the little Valiant masks its intentions perfectly. There is no shiny blower, no flash wheels or big tyres — there is nothing but Clint’s knowing smile to tell you that you’re about to get carved up on the strip. Given the amount of work Clint’s put into the Valiant to get it to where it is now, keep your eyes peeled for a full feature in the not-too-distant future! 

Steve and Steph Batey’s 1955 Chevrolet 210

Steve and Steph Batey have put together a 1955 Chevy with a righteous patina that probably gets more second glances than a lot of the shiny cars out there. Part tow car, part cruiser, the Chev started out as a relatively straight and rust-free 1955 sedan, with an exterior that Steve left pretty much as he bought it. Underneath, however, it is a very different story. 

Starting with a full Classic Performance Parts (CPP) front-end kit, including two-inch drop spindles, massive disc brakes, and a sway bar, Steve then threw a CPP LS conversion kit into the mix. Underneath the car’s beautifully sculpted bonnet lies a trusty LS1 of 2007 vintage and a GM 4L65E automatic transmission. 

At the rear, the original 10-bolt was tossed and replaced with the drag racer’s favourite — a narrowed Ford nine-inch sitting on two-inch lowering blocks. Inside, there’s a 3.25:1 LSD, which, coupled with the overdrive trans, means the engine only does 1800rpm at 100kph! 

The diff is also fitted with massive discs — not that any of the stopping power is visible through the painted, widened stock rims — this car needs no shiny stuff! 

Looking inside, it is all pretty much stock with the exception of the steering column and dash. The original upholstery is still in place, though it’s not all survived the last 60 years — there is the odd bit of clear packing tape holding parts of the trim together where the stitching has let go. 

As Steve and Steph always planned to do plenty of miles in the ’55, the boot now has a 1969 Galaxie fuel tank fitted, narrowed by 40mm to clear the chassis rails but increased by 70mm in depth, raising its capacity to around 100 litres. Since the Galaxie fuel tank includes a recess in which the spare wheel sits, the added bonus is that there’s now greater luggage space, with the spare sitting flush with the floor, rather than standing upright. With the tank’s added capacity, Steve and Steph topped up at Taupo on the way back from Beach Hop, and made it to Christchurch without refuelling. With its 25-plus-miles-per-gallon cruising ability (that’s 11.3 litres per 100km) and low 13-second quarter-miles, this old ’55 could be the perfect all-rounder.

Laurie Smith’s 1995 Nissan Safari

A Nissan Safari is probably the last vehicle you’d expect anyone to drop a Dodge Viper V10 into, but that’s exactly what Laurie Smith did. Having bought a few V10s for his far-more-serious 1956 F100 project and tiring of the Safari’s 4.2-litre turbo-diesel straight-six, he soon decided that the conversion was going to happen, no matter how hard it was to effect. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that bad, as the Viper motor was shorter than the one it replaced. Sure, width-wise the engine bay is a whole lot fuller that it was, but minimal cutting and fabrication were required.

Originally, the 8.3-litre motor was attached to the stock Safari gearbox, but after just a few months, it cried enough, leading Laurie to replace it with a Viper six-speed manual. As part of this, the Safari’s front diff and axles were removed, as they were now redundant, and besides, with the vehicle predominantly used as a tow car, the 4WD was never required anyway. 

To let the big V10 breathe, a twin exhaust set-up was added, which exits one pipe above the other in the stock location, almost completely out of sight. The only changes to the car exterior-wise are the set of aftermarket wheels it was imported with and a small hood scoop that was added to improve cooling. Even if you saw the scoop, there’s no way you’d ever expect this Safari to pack a 510hp, 535lb·ft punch. Now that’s a sleeper!