When Tony Middlemiss lost enthusiasm for his project car, he moved it on, but, rather than give up and take a break from cars altogether, he decided to take on an even better one
Words and photos: Shane Wishnowsky
Wind the clock back eight years to 2012. Someone called Gotye, with a little bit of help from a girl from Hamilton called Kimbra, was a music sensation and released a chart-topping song called Somebody That I Used to Know. Sanitarium announced to the country that it was unable to make any more Marmite for the foreseeable future due to damage to the Christchurch factory caused by the previous year’s monster earthquake. New Zealanders collectively chewed their way through 640 tons of the bitter ‘axle-grease-like’ spread every year with their morning coffee, thus coining the term ‘Marmageddon’.
That year also saw the biggest change in the nation’s road rules in 35 years. The boffins in Wellington scrapped the ‘give way to the right’ rule. New Zealanders were dragged kicking and screaming into the real world and adopted the ‘left turn has right of way rule’ just like everybody else who drives on the left side of the road. People lost their minds over it.
More important, 2012 was the year that Tony Middlemiss and the LH Torana you see on these pages met for the very first time — a meeting that, according to Tony, would end up becoming a bit of a love–hate relationship years later.
At the time, Tony was working on a Mk1 Escort. Sadly for the old Esky, a lack of enthusiasm and drive had set in, and Tony no longer had the heart to get the build over the line, so he decided to move the project on. Rather than give up completely, though, lurking at the back of his mind was the thought of building another Torana. Over the years, Tony’d had a few cars of the ‘older generation’ in his shed, both Ford and non Ford, including a few Toranas, so the idea of having another one to play with was just what he needed to relight the fire in him.
Once the Escort had been sold and out the door, the search was on for an LH Torana. Scanning the pages of Trade Me one night, Tony found one in Christchurch. Good friend Johnny Rowe had recently relocated to the area, so Tony got in contact with him to have a look at it and see if it would suit his needs. John quickly popped around for a bit of a look and found that the white-with-a-wide-blue-stripe-down-the-side Aussie sedan was a good solid car. It was a ‘what you see is what you get’ example of a car that had been pretty well looked after over the years. It had been in the same family for most of its life and was currently owned by the father, who was a mechanic during his working life — hence the vehicle’s overall good condition. Tony was relieved to learn that the Holden had no hidden secrets. The pictures really showed its true colours — a good, honest, no bullshit car — and Tony couldn’t have been happier.
Once the sale had gone through and money had been exchanged, Tony arranged for local Palmy company PTS Transport to collect the car and bring it north. A week later, he went to collect it. Even though it had been parked up for a few years, it started up at the first turn of the key and the drive home was without drama.
When Tony got the Torana home, he was pleasantly surprised with the condition it was in. Aside from the driver’s side plastic monsoon, a questionable bonnet ornament, and a horrendous tow ball–mounted continental spare-wheel arrangement, the mid-’70s sedan was a bloody solid car.
Over the next fortnight, with renewed enthusiasm, Tony replaced all the brakes and fluids and tidied up a few things here and there for the car’s date with the WOF inspector. Torana 1.0 passed its inspection with no dramas, and Tony was more than happy to drive it around while the search was on for a 350/350 combo and a set of headers to make her a bit more manly.
Six months after the initial purchase, Tony and mate Jimmy Ross ripped out the wheezy asthmatic 1900cc four-banger and box, sprayed the engine bay with a liberal amount of engine degreaser, and slid in the recently acquired 350/350 pairing; Torana 2.0 was ready to rumble.
Tony was happy for another year, but, just like every other car guy on the planet who cannot leave shit alone, he decided to give the old girl a bit of a birthday. This one would be more serious than the last, one of those remove-every-single-nut-and-bolt kind of scenarios.
Tony’s mate Paul Goodman grabbed a large stick and clubbed out all the dents that had accumulated over the years. Once the shell was devoid of all blemishes, it was shipped off to James and Kingsbeer to be coated in Spies Hecker Holden Green, an eye-watering hue usually sprayed on late-model Commodores; it suits the lines of the boxy sedan perfectly.
Once the exterior aesthetics were well and truly sorted, it was time to fill in the rest of the blanks, including Wilwood 320mm discs and four-piston calipers on all four corners. A nine-inch diff with adjustable top and bottom arms, sourced from The Krysler Shop, was jammed under the bum to help make things a bit less lively on the street, and a Detroit Truetrac centre along with a pair of Currie Enterprises 31-spline axles help transfer all the twist to the ground.
Up front, the standard suspension was given a freshen-up. A large bag of bushes containing Nolathane everything was ordered and hammered in place, along with KYB shocks and Dobi springs to keep the Torana on the straight and narrow. TSW Menaces, measuring 18×8½ inches front and rear, finish off the suspension/wheel package and are shod in a mix of Federal and Achilles rubber.
Moving inside, Racetech 4000W seats found their way up front; Brendon Retter covered the rear bench seat to match the new buckets; and, while he was at it, gave the door cards the same black-on-black treatment, making for a tidy, uniform appearance inside. The Auto Meter catalogue was opened on the page containing gauges and a set found itself fitted where the factory ones used to be to help keep an eye on all vital signs.
Two-and-a-half years into the rebuild, Tony decided the engine needed addressing. Friend Ray Poole put his hand up for the 350/350, and Tony replaced it with a 350/400 combo. With Torana 3.0 looking sharp inside and out, Tony was happy to leave it alone for a few years — until the inevitable happened; he needed more power!
Again, Ray Poole’s hand went up for the engine and Tony found himself with an empty engine bay. More cubes and forced induction were all that would satisfy Tony this time, so he started making a list — and this one was going to be a long one.
Under the guidance of Palmerston North Engine Rebuilders’ Phil Blumont, Tony slowly and methodically gathered the parts required for a stout combo based around a brand-new Dart Special High Performance (SHP) 383-cube block. The parts sheet read like an engine builder’s wet dream: Diamond blower pistons, Eagle crankshaft and rods, Comp Cams blower cam, ARP fasteners. A pair of AFR 75cc cylinder heads was bolted onto each side of the tough-as-nails block and nestled in between these was the icing on the cake: a Weiand 6-71 supercharger mated to an Als Blower Drives enclosed scoop, all of which was screwed together by Phil in his Palmerston North workshop.
The engines this car has had over its life read like one of those late-night dodgy phone services you ring when you are bored and lonely — you know, the ones you have to hide from your significant other: 1900 350 350 383!
With such a drastic change in propulsion, the fuel and ignition system was never going to cope with the extra strain that a blown engine would create, so a Pro Comp mechanical fuel pump was ordered along with MSD engine management to help light the fire. Tony dropped the Turbo 400 off to Palmerston North trans guru Ian Dunn to be prepped for the added power that the Torana was about to receive. The box now sports a reverse shift pattern and a manual valve body, along with all the other usual ‘please don’t break me’ bits.
You’d think that with already having had two small block Chevs under the bonnet, it would be all smooth sailing stabbing the blown 383 back in, but that wasn’t the case — far from it, in fact. Over the next eight months or so the engine was in and out about eight times, with many of the bolt-on parts proving to be somewhat less than that, putting a strain on the relationship between Tony and the car.
Not giving up, though, in early 2020, Tony finally filled her up with fuel and fluids in preparation for start-up. Corey from AMA wired in the MSD and engine builder Phil made a house call to help with start-up.
Tony says, “Seeing her being fired up was like being a little kid again on Christmas Day,” and once the beautiful sound of blower whine had left the neighbourhood, the celebratory beers flowed well into the night.
Now that the car was finally running, it was driven onto a trailer and handed over to Darryl Turk for a run-in and a tune. This wasn’t without drama, though, as the heat from the headers melted the ignition leads, cutting the session short. Thankfully, it was a quick fix and Torana 4.0 was ready for the street.
Seven-and-a-half years of panel beating, paint, four different engines, and countless hours in the shed has not put Tony off cars. He’s happy with the end result, and the Torana is doing everything she should. He’s especially thankful for everyone who has helped out along the way — he does have a few things that he’d like to adjust over winter, though, so, who knows, maybe Torana 5.0 is on the cards.
This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue No. 184