American DREAM


Story & Photos LUKE NIEUWHOF


I STEPPED out of McCarran International Airport into a furnace. It was Sunday in Las Vegas, where the dry Nevada heat prevents sweating – it simply evaporates on contact with the air. Yep, the desert basin that contains Vegas is no place for humans, and it’s not much more suitable for automobiles. But here, somewhere close by, was a VG Valiant Regal with POR440 plates, along with its driver, Mark Arblaster, both cooked by an overnight run from Los Angeles – the first leg of Arby’s epic journey to Hot Rod Drag Week 2017 in Illinois.

I don’t know how he made it. With no insulation or carpet, POR440 had few concessions to comfort. The overheating began as Arby scurried out of LA and into the desert, and the recently installed air conditioning only threatened to make the problems worse. Mark resorted to removing the bonnet and travelling at a fraction of the highway speed limit, so what should have been a four-hour hop had turned into more than 20 – and the cross-country journey had barely begun.

Mark’s good mate Steve Reimann picked me up in a rental Kia and we were off through the heatwave to find him. I was informed that he was in North Las Vegas with a dude they had met at Home Depot, where they’d been picking up some improvements for the Val.

Under the flight path of fighter jets from the nearby Nellis Air Force Base, we found POR440 half poking out from an estate garage. The home belonged to Chris, who makes a living as a mechanic for Dodge. So he’s a car guy, not to mention an LS conversion guy. Perfect.

His garage was now scattered with reflective insulation and POR440’s interior parts. Mark had conceived a plan to install insulation to bounce the heat away, with carpet providing a luxurious seal. The air conditioning condenser would be moved to the back of the car, freeing up the air flow for the radiator.

The gracious hosts provided beer and pizza, essential to any extensive automotive work.

As the sun set, Mark offered to take Chris for a ride around the block. Unfortunately, they only got as far as the end of the street, as POR440 ground to a halt, headlights dimmed. She was ungracefully pushed back to the garage, with Mark frazzled from the heat and the frustration.

What had been a perfect car before leaving Australia looked like it was becoming a lemon.

With no charge going to the battery, the diagnosis was a new alternator, but after a latenight journey to AutoZone yielded nothing, the decision was made to search for a replacement the next morning.



MONDAY morning found us at Pic A Part, a massive wrecking yard where I surveyed a wasteland of old American cars. It wasn’t the automotive graveyard of your imagination, filled with Mustangs and Camaros; rather it was a veritable tribute to some of the most boring cars every made: mini-vans, grocery-getters, trucks and sedans from the 90s and 00s. Here you pay a dollar to enter, remove whatever part it is you need, and they charge you as you leave.

An LS motor was not hard to find, but an alternator to suit the particular LS used in a VX Commodore was. Apparently it was different to those used on any variety of the motor in the US. Mark came away emptyhanded, but Chris had an idea. He had a buddy who worked on LS conversions for Jeeps nearby, so the team soon found themselves at MoTech, where they met electrical wiz Mitch and business owner Robbie.

They were as intrigued by the idea of an LS-swapped Valiant as we were by the idea of LS-swapped Jeeps.

These terrors are capable of spinning massive 40-inch tyres on bitumen; god knows what they do on the dirt.

After a quick search, an alternator from the Cadillac LS variation proved to be the closest match. Fabrication would be required on the mounts to make it an exact fit, MONDA ima c an t t App handed, o soo elec we a te variat c was possible. In the meantime, Arby entertained but it wa was possible. In the meantime, Arby entertained with several joyrides in the MoTech fleet.

The team returned to Chris’s garage for fitment, but were left heartbroken when it was found there was still no charge going to the battery. A day had been spent sourcing the alternator and customising the fit – all of which appeared to have been for nought. but it wa himself w tea charg ap could diagnose the problem. The appropriate 12 volts was found coming from the battery, but mysteriously there were no volts from the alternator; even a busted alternator should still complete the circuit and deliver voltage. Mitch’s suspicions turned to the cabling and eventually focussed on the battery on/off switch mounted on the rear bumper. There a wiring issue was found; once the switch was bypassed, the alternator was charging once more.

An ecstatic Arby took POR440 on the joyride it deserved, but was immediately reminded of the original problem he was in Las Vegas to fix – the overheating.

The Valiant would not make it more than 10 minutes without boiling, and removing the air conditioning condenser had not improved the airflow enough to make a discernible difference. But that day in MoTech, he had seen a solution. The LS-powered Jeeps there used massive single fans from late-model Corvettes for their cooling, and if there was anyone’s opinion to trust on LS cooling it was these guys from Las Vegas, who deal with mid-40°C temperatures and higher for much of the year.

Mitch was recruited to take a look and see if he


ON TUESDAY we were back at MoTech to get the new fan installed, as well as a larger radiator. Not long after lunchtime the job was complete, and Mark was finally able to drive the Valiant with temperatures staying level. Escape from Las Vegas was in sight.

The car was packed up with all the luggage, the Mickey Thompson drag radials strapped to the roof, and Steve was sent to the airport to return the hire car. Mark started up POR440 with a rumble and with some waves to the folks at MoTech we were on our way.

But not more than two kilometres down the street, the motor went silent. It was the school rush hour and horns blared as Mark tried to find his way to the side of the road. Refired – okay, let’s go. Then silence again. Refired. Silence. I don’t know that I have ever seen a man look as defeated as Mark did right then. After two days solving problem after problem, another issue had seemingly materialised out of thin air.

Parked on the dust near a Breaking Bad-style RV, Mark lifted the bonnet one more time. He got in touch with Haltech in Australia, who were able to do a live session on the ECU and sort out the issue.

It turned out there was too much pressure being built up in the cooling system, and the engine management system was automatically shutting off the LS when the pressure reached a cut-off point.

Happily, the boys from MoTech arrived on the scene and quickly diagnosed the problem. An O-ring from a filter used earlier to fill the cooling system had become lodged just under the radiator cap, preventing it from venting properly. Once the pesky piece of rubber was removed, the system functioned properly and finally, mercifully, POR440 could begin its journey.

The LS1 sung sweetly along the interstate, attracting curious looks from other road users. Subtlety is not POR440’s strong point. We picked up Steve from the airport and three miles were added to the tally before the motor began to surge.

Sitting on the roadside sweating in the heat, we opened another live session with Haltech, who switched the fuel pumps and brought life to the motor once more. It really was like having a virtual mechanic along for the ride.

Movement brought air flow and cooled us down as we left Las Vegas behind, heading for a brief stop at Hoover Dam. With the sun already having set, we wouldn’t see much, but it was Hoover Dam or bust and Mark was going to damn well see it. And he did.

Tourist stop complete, POR440 barrelled along the highway as lightning flickered on the horizon from a distant thunderstorm.

Only the need for fuel would stop us, along with the need for sleep.

A word on passenger comfort. The Valiant was made into a three-seater by Mark before the trip, with a race seat sitting atop the rear tinwork between the rollcage.

As the youngest and most flexible of the team, it was my job to fold my way into the back seat several times a day, requiring a graceful fall over the rollcage bar and into the bucket. Getting out required a limbo underneath the rollbar, hanging onto the top of the ’cage like some kind of strange jungle gym. I guess she’s built for speed, not for comfort.


WEDNESDAY dawned beautifully in Kingman, Arizona, with the fabled Route 66 awaiting POR440 and her occupants. A mix of pure Americana and modern ruin, the Mother Road is a must-do for anyone with a vague interest in the automotive.

The ruins of hundreds of motels and gas stations litter the side of what was once a key route taking people from the Depression-era Midwest to the new paradise of Los Angeles.

Hackberry General Store made a great first stop.

It was part relic, part tourist trap, but great fun as a working museum of sorts. POR440 fit in just fine with the old-style gas pumps and made for a popular photo subject.

Gradually, the Valiant ticked more and more old Route 66 towns off the list, and as the sun neared the horizon, we found a small hill to pose her on looking over the desert. dawne Moth w Depres Angeles St to so pu W


IT’S an age-old technique that has been employed since the very beginning of the automobile industry: Get a lightweight car and get the most powerful motor you can find – or more likely, can afford – and put the two together. Back in the early days of the 20th century, at the extreme end of this equation, people were pulling engines out of aeroplanes and tanks in a quest to set speed records.

Fast-forward to the present day and that technique is still a valid one, although we’re doing things a lot smarter now and engines have definitely become far more efficient. You don’t need 27 litres fire-breathing fury to go fast; three will do just fine.

Rob Velkovski’s SS hatch started out as a six-cylinder, but when got hold of it, a 355 Holden stroker had been slotted in already.

Rob’s brother, Kris, found the car on eBay, and even though it was 10pm Rob got on the phone to strike the deal. “[The seller] said car was in storage for 17 years,” Rob says. “He put the engine it and then his kids ran into it with their bikes and dented the que F one hav of f R he Ro 10 the in i door and quarter, so he just repainted the whole car. He didn’t even drive it!

It had Pro Stars and a flat bonnet when I bought it and it felt like went all right. I got the boys at JPC to tune it, took it to Heathcote and it went 11.70@117mph. One my brother’s mates bought that engine and put it in a VH SL/E.”

So, what drives a guy to pull a perfectly good car apart and then put a smaller engine in it? There aren’t too many pub stories that start with: “So I pulled out the V8 to put a six-cylinder back in”. But there’s always an exception to the rule. “I bought the car in 2009 and it stayed a V8 for just over two years. I’ve got a VL Turbo that I’ve had since 1998, and this is where it all started. My brother’s Torana was supposed to have a Walkinshaw five-litre in it, but my VL was going fast real easy. My brother goes: ‘Why don’t we just put an RB in my Torana?’ and it just snowballed after that.” doo eve “I it w Back then, Rob was well into restoring an LC GTR, original to the last nut and bolt, and it was while he was on a hunting trip to the wreckers for a boot floor that he came across a Torana hatch.

He promptly got sidetracked and went home with the hatch, forgetting all about the boot floor. It needed a lot of work, but he got busy setting up the driveline that would eventually find its way into ERAZOR. Having the spare car to work out all the fabrication made the transition into the already painted and running car a much easier task.

While the two previous RBs in Rob’s life were your standard VL-spec RB30s, the ante was upped for this motor with the addition of an RB26 head. These are usually found bolted into gunmetal-grey R32 Skylines, and we all know how fast they go!

It’s far from a bolt-on conversion though and Rob had Kanaris Engines screw together the basis for this killer combo, which is capable of punching out around 1000hp at the crank.

The benefit of using the RB30 block is that the bottom ends are practically bomb-proof and can withstand 1200-1300hp, provided the rest of the bits are updated. Rob hasn’t skimped there, with Carrillo rods one of the first things on the shopping list, followed by a set of CP pistons. The cams were upgraded to Tomei 260 units and the valves were upsized by 1mm.

Rob has been using JPC to tune his engines for close to 20 years and they were the team that put the magic into this donk. They customised the GT42 turbo and built the rest of the bits that get the boosted charge into the engine. Take a look at that intake manifold – it’s a work of art, and a much better looking piece than the factory intake. Well actually, it is the stock intake – it’s just been milled, ground, filled, smoothed and then painted in a metallic silver two-pack so that it looks a million bucks. It was also modified to accept a Holley 90mm throttlebody, which replaces the six standard units that


OKLAHOMA beckoned and we were on the road early on Friday to meet with Farmtruck and AZN from Street Outlaws. Well, at least that was the plan, but POR440 had other AHOMA beckon ad Stree b OKLAH a to start after breakfast. ideas and refused t to start after breakfast.

The solution proved to be disabling the fan until the car started; curiously, the issue never appeared again. Regardless, it chewed up enough time for the appointment with the busy Street Outlaws guys to be missed, so we headed straight on for Henson Racing Engines in Yukon, where we were treated to ideas and refused t starte again th wh awesome LS engines. a tour of some aweso awesome LS engines.

From there, the Valiant carried on until it reached a pit stop at Independence, Kansas. a tour of some aweso Va


Days Seven & Eight STRIP SHOW

FIRST stop Saturday morning was The Car Shop, owned by Dale Wilkens. It’s been a long-time home away from home for Mark and Steve, with their cars stored there and given the preparation required to take on an event like Drag Week.

POR440 was due for some new Castrol Edge oil, as well as a fix to the steering box and a replacement for the Racepak dash that had been fried in the savage heat of the first leg.

But first Mark needed a hit of dragstrip action, and he found that in spades at Mo-Kan Dragway in Missouri, playing host to the Labor Day Classic Weekend.

Headlined by fuel altereds and a heads-up small-tyre class, the drag strip looked as retro as they come – Armco railing, wooden-board grandstands and a relaxed attitude. Unfortunately for Dale’s team, the event was not productive, with some damage to the motor on the second qualifying run meaning Dale and driver Howard Knowles were out of the eliminations, despite having one of the baddest cars on the property.

Sunday began with some more action at the Labor Day Classic. While Dale Wilkens’s team was out of the running, at least that left plenty of time for spectating and a close look at the cool cars around the venue. The Hot Streak II jet truck, using twin jet motors, put on a hell of a show of fire and sound, while all manner of odd sportsman creations filled out the bracket ranks. The Wicked Wedge fuel altered was a favourite thanks to its wedge-head design, but the car met an untimely end with a massive crash after it kicked the rods out and oiled the tyres.

made the intake sit too far out and caused it to foul on the brake booster.

While the engine might be all high-tech Japanese fury, it’s good ol’ boy technology for the rest of the driveline. A custom bellhousing connects the motor to a Powerglide trans, Strange 3.5-inch chrome-moly tailshaft and sheet metal nine-inch.

Something you don’t see too often in a street car is a 7200rpm stall. “When the boys told me it needed a 7200 stall, I sort of looked at them and went: ‘Okay [long pause]. Why?’ ‘Trust us, trust us,’ they said. It works good, even on the street, but I also turn it to 9000.”

On its first pass down the track the car went 9.90 and it went as quick as 9.3@150mph on pump fuel. Rob then went to E85 because it wouldn’t make any more power. “We put in one more pound of boost and 10 degrees of timing and it went 8.90@158mph,” Rob says. Back on the JPC dyno they kept mucking around with the tune, and with the hose pulled off the wastegate – so it got the full 41lb of boost – it made 760hp at the wheels. The quickest the car has gone is 8.71@161mph!

What we find most amazing about this car – and there’s a lot to be amazed about – is how well it hooks up on 255 drag radials. We thought there must be some kind of trickery going on, with boost control off the line and some kind of fancy rear suspension. Not even close. “It leaves the line on about 17-18lb of boost on the transbrake. I just hold on and pray!”

Rob laughs. “The night I ran 8.71, all these blokes came down to look at it. They couldn’t believe it didn’t have a sway-bar in it, and asked why. I said: ‘I dunno, does it need it?’

“Everything is standard; the control arms aren’t even boxed.

I haven’t had an issue with them yet, so I’m sticking with it.”

It’s great to see such an understated and simple-looking car that packs such a killer punch. Nothing is out of place and everything is there for a reason. It’s gone from a six, to a V8, and back to a six again and it’s going as fast as those behemoths from a century ago – except Rob gets it done in 400 metres.

That’s progress. s



THIS isn’t the first turbo six in Rob’s life. In fact, you could say it’s a bit of a family affair. He’s had a VL Turbo since 1998 and his brother Kris’s LC (CGMFLY) is a well-known car in the Melbourne scene, powered by a SOHC RB30. It has run well into the nines on street rubber and as low as 9.2 on slicks. These guys know 9.2 on slicks. These guys know how to get the power out of the engines, and more importantly, how to get it down to the pavement. There are plenty of videos online of both Toranas on the track and it’s pretty amazing to see them hook up so well on ET Streets. Well sorted, that’s for sure.