Imagine starting with a bog-standard vehicle, and finishing with three times the power, half the weight and prize winning body as well. If you can achieve that you’re not just a vehicle restorer, you’re a vehicle Transformer.
If it were possible to attach folding wings to a Land Cruiser, Paul Johnson would probably do it. And if he did it, there’s little doubt he’d get the vehicle off the ground. Man, even without wings his ‘Cruiser flies.
But don’t for one minute get the idea that Paul is some kind of horsepower nut. He is actually an engine reconditioner who just happens to be a 4WD devotee. While he enjoys having a unique form of personal transport, he also demands a practical car, capable of regular beach travel to indulge his other passions of surfing and fishing. Hence his decision to avoid rust by replacing all the steel body panels with fibreglass.
In 1986 Paul bought a 1980 short- wheelbase Land Cruiser and made a deal with Keith Donaldson, a fibreglass panel manufacturer who had wanted to start making parts for them. It was a perfect arrangement: Paul provided all the steel panels and got a magnificent fibreglass body in return. Meanwhile, he submitted plans to the transport department for approval and had the chassis fully galvanised to further counter the possibility of rust developing. Then with the help of his son Christopher, he commenced the long job of putting it all together.
Paul already had an engine to suit the new vehicle. “Because of my trade, I see a lot of engines, and one day this L34 308 came in on a semi with a load of engines for reconditioning”, said Paul. “The L34’s are a top motor, Chevy built, four bolt mains and all that, and they used them in the Bathurst Toranas. These days they are very hard to find”.
There was just one small hitch. As good as they were, these engines were designed to run from 4000 to 7000 rpm, whereas in a 4WD situation Paul wanted it to cut off at about four grand.
“So I set out to build the engine that revved from about 900 rpm upwards completely rebuilding the motor using the best possible parts from America . Dome top pistons, chrome timing gear, bigger valves and so on. I then put it all together myself at night, including machining the heads”.
Paul had Ivan Tighe Engineering design a new camshaft to lower the rev ratio and also to put on a brand new 600 Holley (with vacuum secondaries), an Edelbrock Performer manifold and a tuned chrome extractor system. The distributor is a Mallory unit.
Inside the sump he built two trapdoors to prevent oil pump starvation during steep hill-climbing and rapid acceleration. These trapdoors are similar to the ones used in drag racing while to ensure good lubrication, a high pressure oil pump has also been fitted.
Paul didn’t really have any great problems during the rebuild, although at one stage there a lot of trouble with starter motors breaking the aluminium housing. Fitting a correctly geared starter motor solved this.
It is not unknown for engine transplant cars to end up with an overheating problem but Paul says he avoided this by fitting a diesel radiator from a HJ47 and by paying attention to how the engine sits in the engine bay!
“Engines are placed by manufacturers for efficient flow of fuel through the manifolds as well as for the necessary cooling side of things. A lot of blokes have cooling problems with engine conversions but believe it or not, most of the time the only problem is where they have located it”.
Paul says getting the suspension right has been more of a minor headache than a problem.
“Because it is now a lot lighter than when standard, it became very bouncy. However, when I went to the Ultimate/ Old Man Emu suspension kit, it was way too hard. Even on-road handling suffered, so we had to get springs custom made. They have been lengthened and they are three-leaf instead of seven. I also went back to standard lighter-duty Monroe gas shockers”.
Since developing the special spring kits, through his shop Paul has supplied many sets to people with fibreglass-bodied cars. Around Noosa alone there is no shortage of ‘Tupperware’ 4WD’s because of the number of fishing and surfing enthusiasts in the area.
The car has been built 37:1 limited slip crown-wheel and pinions imported from Italy . It’s gearbox is a late model diesel five-speed with a transfer case brought in brand new from Japan for this car, mainly because its ratios suited what he was trying to achieve.
Paul says that compared with a standard SWB, his car weighs in a tonne lighter. The Bathurst V8 alone is half the weight of a Toyota 2F motor, while also having oodles more oomph. Obviously this makes for reasonable fuel efficiency as well as good performance.
Gazing at the rich black paintwork is like looking into a deep, dark well while contrasting it is some snazzy upholstery work and a set of the prettiest 15 X 8 inch wheels you’re likely to find on a LandCruiser.
Seats were custom-built by Peter Farkas of Noosa on a Commodore base with extra body wrap and support being built-in before being covered in rich black and burgundy tones. What looks like a rear seat is really two separate buckets out of a late model Suzuki Sierra.
The two halves fold forward separately to allow more room for fishing gear or an esky where there is only three people in the car. Farkas also upholstered the roll bar and provided a tight fitting bikini style canopy which is also burgundy while the bumpers and roll bar are aluminium.
Along with the dash, lots of other accessories were sourced from late model LandCruisers. “I tried to include as many modern and different-looking things as I could, like intermediate wipers, a four-speed fan motor on the defroster and whatever else I could find to make this shortie different to all others.”
In parts alone, Paul Johnson says the black beauty is worth around $30,000. For just the stainless steel bolts that have been used, the bill came to $1500 and as a complete package it is obviously even more valuable still, so it comes as no surprise that Paul has attended to theft prevention with almost as much devotion as the car’s looks and performance.
Paul won’t detail all the anti-theft precautions painstakingly built into the machine, but his smile makes it clear that he thinks it is best for thieves to keep walking. It has cost him too much money, effort and time to risk losing it.
But in the end, it is all worthwhile. Paul tells of one car show where he was given second place in the dragster class. “I said to the guy ‘But it is not a dragster, it’s a four-wheel-drive’. He looked at me as if I was mad. So I didn’t argue with him, I just took the trophy”.
Paul Johnson runs the Noosa 4WD Centre in Noosa Heads in Queensland . He sells and ships new and used parts and accessories to 4WD owners all over Australia and internationally.