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Putting a spotlight on New Zealand’s craziest V8 conversions

23 August 2015

New Zealand is the home of the DIY can-do attitude and it shows in some of the vehicles that we build in this country. Below, we check out a bunch of engine conversions that fall either into the cool or crazy category. Some of these examples are extreme, but many are not, and some fall into the ‘why didn’t we think about it’ category also. If you think we’ve missed one that should have been mentioned here, we’d love to hear about it.

Dangerous Don: Austin Mini with a 355ci SBC

So, you’re going to build a drag car, but want something different … While ‘Dangerous Don’ may not have started the construction of what has to be one of the shortest drag cars in the world, he saw it through to completion and has since campaigned it for the last few years. The car runs a 355ci small block Chev engine, Powerglide trans and nine-inch diff, which has propelled it to a best quarter-mile time of 10.1 at 147mph.

The overall length has not been modified, so to get the engine into the car it sits a long way through the original firewall, leaving Don only just enough room to squeeze himself in. Weighing just 730kg, including driver, it’s got a power-to-weight ratio most cars can only dream of. Don’s keen to run a nine with it before adding nitrous to the equation!

Luke Trybula: Torana with a 355ci small block Chev

Dropping a small block Chev into a Torana isn’t really anything too out of the ordinary, but when you add a couple of turbos and a TPI-injection set-up, it soon becomes a seriously cool combo that doesn’t break the bank.

The turbo set-up was bought as a kit from America, and was cheaper than building a high-powered naturally aspirated set-up. The car runs a TH350 trans and nine-inch diff with Strange axles. The engine itself is a small block Chev taken out to 355ci and topped off with a TPI manifold so the Link ECU–controlled EFI system could be fitted.

The plan is to have a bit of fun at this stage before replacing the turbos with bigger/better ones and forging the motor to handle more boost. While in most cars the manifolds would have bolted straight on with no modifications, the tight confines of the Torana engine bay, and location of the suspension and steering means a lot of fabrication was required. With the engine and trans fitting in with no major issues, the overall difficulty of the swapover isn’t that bad, nor expensive.

Josh Trybula: Toyota Hilux Surf with a 350ci small block Chev

Young Wellingtonian Josh Trybula grew up in a family with a serious passion for Chevs, and it seems he’s got the addiction badly. While he’s got a serious ’57 on the go, he’s built this 1990 Toyota Hilux Surf on the side to have a bit of fun with. 

The body set Josh back just $200 and he’s dropped it onto a 2WD chassis, which he scored for $50, making it a seriously cheap starting point. The 350ci small block Chev fitted in with no need for firewall or trans-tunnel modifications, although with the recent change from a Powerglide to a TH400, the tunnel has been massaged slightly. The stock Hilux diff is still fitted, although it has been locked.  

When he first got it running, the car ran a Procharger, which Josh picked up cheap in America but never changed the pullies on, so it only produced around 3psi. Currently the car is in the final stages of getting a 6/71 fitted, complete with a Big and Ugly injector hat. “This will still be nothing great but hopefully do a bit better skid,” he says of the combo. With a Link ECU running the EFI set-up and the throttle-position sensor working on the butterflies of the hat, it seems pretty impressive to us! Bargain builds don’t get much more in your face than this.

Jason Coley: 1961 Chev Impala with a Nissan VH41DE

When Jason Coley purchased his Impala in 2005 it ran a six-cylinder Blueflame motor and Powerglide, a combo that remained for just six months. His boss at the time had a Nissan 4.1-litre quad cam V8 at home, minus trans. Similar engine and gearboxes, along with loom and ECUs, are selling for anywhere between $1250 and $1800, which make it a cheaper alternative to a small block Chev.

Being a mechanic, Jason did the conversion himself, with the trickiest part being fitting the exhaust around the wide engine, and changing the sump from front to rear. All up the conversion was done in five weeks, which included upgrading the brakes and switching to power steering. 

The VH41DEs are rated at 268hp at 5600 rpm and 278 lb/ft at 4000 rpm, so have a good amount of power and plenty of torque, making them a great choice for conversion. Obviously the vehicle’s Japanese heartbeat is met with mixed reactions. But it’s pretty cool in our books. 

Matamata Panelworks: 1968 Mustang with a Boss 5.4

Fitting a quad cam Boss 5.4-litre Falcon engine into a Mustang is a very cool conversion, but one that only the brave should tackle.

Hundreds of hours went into the job you see here, which required major fabrication work to get the wide motor to fit into the engine bay. The strut towers needed to be narrowed, which required RRS coilovers to be fitted. The trans tunnel also required work for the trans to fit, and the entire vehicle required strengthening for the sheer weight of the engine. At a minimum these engines produce 295hp and 348ft·lb, so the results are great, if you’re willing to put in the effort required.

Grant Prujean: MkII Ford Cortina with a 350ci small block Chev

Dropping a V8 into a small lightweight Cortina was, and still is, a relatively common occurrence. Although, most purists would generally keep the engine and body from the same manufacturer. Grant wanted to get a car ready for Beach Hop though, which wasn’t far away when he purchased the car, and he already had the engine sitting ready to go.

To fit the small block Chev and TH400 trans into his MkII, Grant had to modify the firewall and trans tunnel. He chose to solid mount the engine too. The build was done in two months, with an estimated 75 hours involved drive in–drive out. This includes changing the diff to a 8¾-inch Mustang item and upgrading the brakes to BMW calipers and Volvo discs. It’s a relatively simple conversion that can be replicated by most home fabricators for minimal cost.  

Ange Hunter: Vauxhall Viva with a 350ci small block Chev

The worn factory paint on Ange Hunter’s Viva may confuse onlookers to think that it was a quick and simple budget build. The reality is this car features some fantastic engineering, all of which was performed by her husband Dave at home. The reason for the build was that Ange had always wanted a Viva and the big-engine/little-car combo is always a recipe for good fun. With a 6/71 blown 350ci small block, TH350 trans and VN Commodore 3.08:1 rear end, we’d say there’s plenty of fun to be had.

The conversion required the firewall to be moved and the trans tunnel enlarged as well as the steering column to be remounted. With no room in the engine bay for brake boosters, twin VH44s now reside in the passenger’s footwell, although they’ll be relocated to the boot when the car gets a tidy up. The build took nine weeks, including mini-tubbing the rear end to fit the 17×10-inch wheels. Behind these are VN discs, while HQ discs and calipers are fitted up front. The only thing outsourced on the build was the narrowing of the rear end, a job which Dave himself has done many times since. 

The car was originally naturally aspirated, then a small B&M blower fitted before the 6/71 made its way into the engine bay. In theory the blower should be on Dave’s ’55 Chev, but there’s no way it’s coming off now. Since it was built the car has travelled nearly 8000 miles, including a trip to the South Island and plenty of time on the burnout pad, all without a problem. It’s best quarter-mile time to date is 11.8 at 122mph, which goes to show the big-engine/small-car recipe is well and truly working.

Barry and Michelle Hunter: Morris Minors with small block Ford/Chevs

Barry and Michelle got their first Morry 16 years ago after swapping a VL Commodore for it. The roof chop and V8 conversion had already been done, and after seeing it advertised in the Trade and Exchange they thought they’d take a look as it sounded interesting. After a few years, Barry thought he’d sell it, but Michelle wouldn’t let him, and it’s now well and truly her car.

Since its purchase it’s been through a number of rebuilds, and even more engines, but has retained the same green colour it was purchased with originally.

The chopped car runs a stroked 351 Windsor with a C4 trans and 8¾-inch Falcon diff. The V8 conversion was done when the car was originally chopped back in 1980 and is reported to have been a 429 Ford engine. Barry’s run a number of different 302s in it and more recently the 351. The front end has been tube framed to allow enough room for the engine, and the firewall has also been moved back. It runs an original leaf-spring rear end, although Barry has widened the guards substantially to fit larger wheels on. 

The ute was bought as a spare-parts car for the chopped car, and was sold before being bought back again four years later. By that stage rust had got the best of it, so it was cut in half and joined with a coupe body. The longer coupe doors were used along with two B-pillar sections, which result in a vehicle 400mm longer than a standard ute.

An L200 front chassis has been grafted to a custom rear section built by Barry and brother Dave. The build was only started four weeks before its debut at Beach Hop a few years back, and the entire build was done by family and friends. It runs a 350 small block Chev with 6/71 supercharger, TH350 trans and 8¾-inch diff.  

The third Morry in the Hunter Garage is the convertible, which runs a tunnel-rammed 350 small block Chev on an L300 van front chassis. The car was built as a skid car to stop the others from getting wrecked … “Not that it has,” mentions Michelle who goes on to tell us how Barry breaks her car every time he drives it.

Despite the fact that it looks like they have a Morry obsession, they have no particular love affair for the cars, it just snowballed. They’ve also got a few other cars on the go too, not to mention a pile of Morry parts as they’re often donated. “If I had a dollar for every photo taken I’d be a millionaire,” Barry says. 

Eastern Automotive: VL Commodore with an LS1

Dropping a late-model injected LS-series motor into an earlier Commodore is a very logical conversion. However, it’s not as easy as many people may think. Thankfully, due to its popularity, there are a number of companies now offering kits with all the required parts included. The starter motor is on the wrong side of the transmission, the power steering must be relocated, the oil filter will also need to be relocated and the sump modified so it doesn’t hit the cross member.

Kits are available to convert the gauge cluster on VB-VC-VH Commodores to electric input to suit the LS1 ECU’s output, and off-the-shelf headers and wiring looms are also available. The cost of the conversion isn’t cheap, but the results are well worth it.

Graeme Bates: Ford Mainline with a Boss 5.4

Graeme Bates’ project is something a bit different, with a rare Ford Mainline receiving modern running gear. Physically fitting the 5.4-litre Boss engine to the Mainline chassis was surprisingly easy, as the chassis had a Falcon power-steering box fitted some years ago. A minor change to the engine mounts was required and custom headers fabricated. The trans, on the other hand, was a bit of a major. Being a six-speed manual box it is fairly large compared to the OEM box from way back in ’56. While a fairly serious tunnel and firewall modification would have worked, Glenn Hodges from The Lab Limited took it one step further. 

The entire floor section and firewall has been removed and replaced with 2005 Falcon parts. This allows them to install the complete dash (with obvious mods) and all electronics, along with the Falcon seats. We’re looking forward to seeing this one completed.

Dean Allen: VL Commodore with a Lexus 1UZFE

Dean Allen first bought his Commodore to drop a six-cylinder Nissan into. However, things soon changed and a 4.0-litre Lexus V8 was decided upon. Of the conversion, Dean says, “It was hard. I couldn’t find anyone who has done this conversion before, so every change had to be thought through and planned out to avoid doing everything twice. It turns out we did a lot of things twice, just to cover the basics.”

Around 1500 hours have gone into the conversion, which includes fitting the three-speed Lexus gearbox, upgraded VN diff, shifting the brake master cylinder and modifying the Lexus headers to fit around the Commodore’s chassis rails. The hardest part was refitting the dash and heater boxes, says Dean, as he’d had it apart for three years. The conversion required a V8 Calais front cross-member, custom engine mounts, custom gearbox mounts and a driveshaft custom made from a 2009 Ford Transit van, chosen as it has the same two-piece setup as the VL driveshaft but is larger and stronger. While the car cost $1400 to begin with, Dean says he stopped counting the cost when it hit $20,000. Obviously the price would dramatically reduce now that the research has been done.