Budget build Barra-powered Holden VS Commodore ute

Building a XR6 turbo-powered Holden VS ute for under $10k

Photographers: Brentyn Wakefield

Adelaide’s Muscle Garage aims to build a 10-second Barra-powered Holden Commodoore ute for $10k

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Street Machine

IF YOU want easy power at a bargain price, it’s hard to ignore Ford’s twin-cam turbo Barra six. Jason Waye, the man behind Muscle Garage and Tuff Mounts, certainly sees the appeal. He set out to build a Barra-powered VS ute for $10,000 that would run 10s at Street Machine Drag Challenge, and found the engine swap comically easy.

“The interest in the Barra-into-Commodore swap has been huge,” Jason says. “Along with the motor, transmission mounts and crossmember, we’ve also had the sway-bars made for our kit because of the interest in Barra motors. We have options for Barras into VB-VS Commodores and I’ve got a VT in the car park that we’ll get started on a Barra swap kit once we’re done here”

“The VS had been sitting in front of a mate’s shop for about a year and was being used as a dump,” Jason says. “I geed him up by saying I’ll put a Barra in it, and one day he rang me and told me to come get it.

“The ute was a roller with no motor or ’box, but at some stage it’d had an RB30 in it so the original loom and dash had been hacked into. It was a real mess. There weren’t even globes or fuses in it!”

With the Panther Black ’96 VS ute in the workshop, Jason went out and bought a complete engine and transmission package from Falcon Spares in Lonsdale, including wiring and ancillaries. The 103,000km-old wrecking-yard donk copped 1500cc injectors and Plazmaman valve springs (a known Barra weak point), and Jason had Bill at Adelaide Turbo Services modify the wastegate on the stock Garrett turbo – a unit known to be good for way more than the 240kW the big six initially put out in the BA XR6T.

“Literally all we did is the flapper valve mod where we enlarged the internal wastegate and ran a bigger actuator on it so we can control the boost and run up to 16-18psi safely,” Jason says. “Everything we’ve done we could do more of, but we’ve made it to be safe and reliable.”

The front-mount intercooler was pieced together using bits of pipe and silicone offcuts lying around the CK Racing Developments shop, while the four-inch dump pipe was a freebie from Graham West Workshops as it was no good for their use, so Jason modified it to suit his ute.

“We can get a three-inch dump past the steering, but any bigger and you have to route it elsewhere,” Jason explains.

The Muscle Garage boys knew the VS would need more fuel, so they picked up a used swirl pot off Facebook and plumbed it to a Bosch 044 pump.

“We want to make 350-360rwkW, which is more than achievable, and we’ll be running drag radials,” Jason says. “The second stage of this car will step it up with more boost. We’ll throw an aftermarket plenum on it and go for over 400kW for Drag Challenge and aim for low 10s, and then get it engineered and drive it daily.”

Being the creative brain behind Tuff Mounts, Jason had no problems coming up with engine and transmission mounts. The Barra swap has proved so popular, however, that he is now selling kits that include the engine and ’box mounts, along with the gearbox crossmember and sway-bar. The Tuff Mounts allow the four-litre to fit into the Holden K-frame using the BA-BF front-hump sump, which differs to the FG-on sumps that have a rear-hump pan.

While LS swaps often require messing around with crossmember spacers and moving steering and starter motors, Jason was surprised at how easy fitting the Ford motor to the Holden chassis was.

“We used the factory Holden temp sensor and oil switch. We’ve plumbed up the original Holden heaters. I’ve got the standard radiator overflow and we’ve removed the forward expansion tank,” he says. “We’ll go through the Supercheap parts bins for the radiator hoses to suit the six-cylinder VK radiator, which lined up beautifully.

“We clearanced the firewall with a hammer just to clear the starter motor, and I cut the tunnel and welded the Ford shifter mounting plate into the tunnel so I could use the factory console,” he continues. “We used an AU extension housing and AU rear output shaft so that the speedo drive plugged into the BA Falcon loom, plus we have had to run an Auto Meter conversion box to switch from digital to analogue output for the tacho.”

Grant from Dynotronics wired the ute with a BA Falcon ECU, and Graham West Workshops will flash-tune it using HP Tuners software, like a regular XR6T.

As the aim was for 10-second quarters, the wrecker-spec converter and transmission were never going to cut the mustard, so Jamie from JRM Transmissions modified the stock torque converter for 3000rpm stall, and the four-speed BorgWarner auto ’box was rebuilt to handle the extra power. The Commodore tailshaft has been lengthened 10mm and fitted with a Ford yoke to connect the BTR auto to the Commodore’s BorgWarner live-axle diff, which has also copped 3.45 gears and 28-spline axles. In the rear end, adjustable upper arms and Panhard bar are combined with strengthened lower arms to prevent everything twisting on take-off.

Inside, Jason modified the Commodore console to go around the Ford BTR shifter, as it has a sports-shifting gate that the stock Commodore auto never did.

With a $10K budget, Jason opted for 15×4 and 15×7-inch steel ‘chaser’ wheels, wearing 165mm-wide front and 235mm-wide rear rubber, while the brakes and suspension have also been left alone.

“I need to do fuel lines, trans cooler lines, fluids, radiator hoses, and a basic tune in the computer; then we’ll take it to Drag Challenge and aim for the first 10,” Jason says. “I expected nightmare after nightmare, and there just wasn’t. The wiring wasn’t easy but it wasn’t difficult for a qualified person; the part that made it harder was the fact we were going to a late-model car with body control modules and security issues.

“If we don’t hit the $10,000 mark, we’ll just barely sneak over. It’s just the tune that will kill it for us, because once I finish these next few jobs, it’s only the tune left.”


1. Jason is no stranger to Street Machine, having turned out a string of killer cars, though this one is not as finely finished as some of his previous rides. “I like spending a little bit extra and doing it right, but we haven’t done that here,” he says. “Still, no corners have been cut on this car. The whole idea is that Joe Average can build this in their backyard for the same money. The car will go on to be a daily driver after Drag Challenge is done.”

2. The electronic throttle pedal was included as part of the engine package, and Jason rigged up a throttle system and pedal mount in the workshop. Many people swapping late-model engines into cars find a stumbling block when it comes to mounting and operating the fly-by-wire throttle, though aftermarket companies are now starting to provide more support with kits, including General Motors itself.

3. A cheap air-to-air intercooler 600x300mm core was rustled up and mounted behind the stock front bar, a task made easier by ditching air conditioning. The piping was knocked up by CK Racing Developments, while the silicon joiners were leftovers from around the shop. You’ll also notice the boys welded an elbow on the turbo inlet, which is a popular mod for large turbos like the Barra’s GT3540 Garrett unit.

4. Muscle Garage sells these upgraded rear control arms for Commodores, which are a well-known weak point when you start pushing power levels up. “The lower rear arms are something we do here, and we had these ones lying around, so we threw them in,” Jason explains. “With the adjustable top arms they will get the right pinion angle to aid traction.”

5. Jason found that a radiator from a six-pot VK Commodore fitted perfectly in the front of the ’96 VS nose, with the stock thermo fans in place, too. At the time of writing he hadn’t hooked it up, but was confident he’d find the right hoses in the parts bin at his local Supercheap Auto.

6. The BorgWarner four-speed auto is a modern electronic ’box, so Jason fitted an extension housing from an AU Falcon for the speedo drive and output flange. This allowed them a place to plug the speedo drive into the BA Falcon loom, and they used an Auto Meter converter to switch from a digital to analogue signal so it integrated with the stock VS Commodore dash.

7. While other Barra swaps into late-model Commodores require plenty of bashing of the transmission tunnel, Jason found his engine and ’box went straight in with only very minor clearancing required for the starter motor. He did also cut the top of the trans tunnel to weld in the Falcon’s shifter mount.

8. Unlike later FG and FG X models, BA-BF Barra sumps feature the main oil well in the front, which suits the VR/VS Commodore K-frame. The later sumps feature the well at the rear, which could suit other fitments, but doesn’t work in this generation of Commodore.

9. The stock Commodore two-piece tailshaft was extended 10mm to suit the different transmission, and also had the yoke from an earlier Falcon fitted to the nose so it would slip straight into the back of the BorgWarner.

10. Jason bought this surge tank off Facebook for $30, which is where he found a few of the bargains used to put the car together. While it is a bit of overkill for the current set-up, the Muscle Garage guys are looking to eventually push the car’s power to over 400rwkW and run flat-10s, while also being a daily driver.

THE COST (so far)

Rolling shell (Facebook)$500
Engine & trans (wrecking yard)$2500
Wiring (Dynotronics)$1500
Transmission build & converter$1200
Turbo mods (Adelaide Turbo Services)$900
Tuff Mounts engine/trans mounts & crossmember (Muscle Garage)$720
Tailshaft (modified standard)$480
Diff gears & mini-spool (second-hand)$370
Intercooler piping (CK Racing)$350
Bosch 044 pump, fuel lines & fittings$224
Intercooler (Facebook)$100
Radiator (wrecking yard)$30
Used swirl pot (Facebook)$30
Dump pipe$0
Tuning (@ Graham West Workshops)$TBA