383-cube big-block VJ Valiant ute

Tim Haddock's VJ ute may look unassuming, but there's some serious gear lurking beneath its die-straight panels, including a torquey Chrysler big-block

Photographers: Alex Jovanovic

WHEN Tim Haddock arrived at Chryslers On The Murray in 2015, he had $2000 in his pocket and an eye for a fresh project. The 49-year-old builder and Mopar addict had recently sold a tidy VC to help fund a raft of house renovations. But with home duties sorted and some petty cash left over, the Melburnian made for Albury-Wodonga.

First published in Street Machine’s Yearbook 2021

It was there he found a rolling VJ ute shell, fortuitously priced at $2000. “I didn’t really want a ute at the time,” Tim recalls, “but I thought it was a good buy.”

While the Chrysler’s body looked straight and dry from a life in outback NSW, Tim didn’t realise just how good it was until later on.

“Initially we were just going to put a little 318 in and paint it a basic colour,” he says. “Then I had it sandblasted – that’s what reveals the truth behind cars. It came through 100 per cent rust-free; it was unbelievable. So we pretty much re-evaluated what we wanted to do from there, because you don’t find them in this condition very often.”

Shortly after, Tim snapped up another half-finished Valiant ute – this one with a 383-cube Chrysler V8 between the rails. With that purchase, the VJ’s fate was sealed, and Tim got to work on a classy, factory-style ute with engineered big-block grunt.

With his sights on an angry, supercharged 383, the engine was pulled down and crack-tested. But by the time Tim drew up a list of US-sourced parts, the first wave of COVID had tanked the Aussie dollar and thrown shipping arrangements into disarray.

“At that time I had word that a rebuilt 383 was available,” he recounts. “I knew it was a good, hard runner, so it was an easy decision, really.”

A steel crank spins forged pistons in the 383 block, with ported and polished factory heads up top. A custom Comp Cams bumpstick runs the valvetrain, and a Holley Sniper EFI system supplies 98 juice through an Edelbrock manifold. Though it’s not as wild as the originally planned V8, Tim’s happy with the power. “You can accelerate even at 80km and it lifts up at the front – the torque of the big-block is just so different to a small-block.”

While the 383 came with a solid Torqueflite auto, Tim says he was set on running a manual gearbox. “Everyone said it’d be too difficult with the big-block to find adapters and stuff, but Mal Wood will pretty much do anything you want.” Mal recommended a bombproof TKO 600 five-speed, which mates to a Chevy bellhousing via a custom adapter plate. Fitting the chunky Tremec ’box required cutting and fattening the transmission tunnel, though Tim and his mates kept it relatively factory-shaped. Impressively, the shifter came out just 10mm off the stock four-speed’s location.

The TKO feeds into a custom three-inch tailshaft, itself spinning the original BorgWarner LSD with 3.23 gears from an E-series Falcon. The third member is considerably lighter than a nine-inch and more than up to the task thanks to Currie 28-spline billet axles installed by Darren Conroy of Mid Coast Diff Shop. The leaf springs were pushed 30mm inward to comfortably accommodate a set of 275 rear meats.

The ute steers with an Elko Performance rack-and-pinion kit. “It steers better than I ever thought it would with the variable manual rack,” says Tim. One-inch torsion bars and a heavy-duty 32mm sway-bar stiffen up the front end, but the big-block’s weight makes for a ride that’s still comfortable.

Tim liaised with an engineer throughout the build, meaning relatively few changes were necessary to get the Val ticked off. Aside from minor tweaks like adjusting the exhaust placement and changing the red ’68 Coronet side-markers to an Aussie-approved orange, it was smooth sailing.

The bodywork was sorted out by Tim and his old-school panel beater mate Gary Jackson, which included fitting a new tailgate skin, battery tray removal, and subtle smoothing around the engine bay. “Whenever I reach my limits, Gary comes in, which is sometimes early in the piece!” laughs Tim.

It’s a similar story with the duco. Tim called mate Paul Marchbank to lay down the primer in his shed. After six months of curing, the final coats of PPG Chrysler Mercury Silver went on in a booth. “He spent countless hours prepping the car and finally spraying it,” enthuses Tim. “I wouldn’t have been able to do the project without him.”

The factory-updated look carries through to the cabin, which houses leather-clad replicas of Charger bucket seats. The seats originally came from a VJ Regal, and yet another mate of Tim’s did the trimming. “When he was working on the seats he said, ‘No wonder these idiots went broke back in 1980 – the amount of work in these seats is just ludicrous!’” Though it’s unassuming at a glance, the console is actually a custom piece made to fit the widened tunnel. The auto-spec, high-rise centre compartment was also moved 100mm back from the shifter, allowing for uncluttered gear changes. Tim even moved the wall behind the seats back 100mm, boosting legroom and seat reclinability. The crash pad and Charger tiller were wrapped in leather, while the doors were fitted with CM Regal-style cards. Power windows are controlled by a two-gang Dodge Charger switch on the driver’s side, plus a single switch for the passenger.

If it’s not clear already, Tim has a good network of friends who are seriously handy in their respective fields. Their talents proved invaluable throughout the build, helping keep overheads to a minimum. “We sort of help each other out,” Tim explains. “I put an ensuite in my mate’s place and he did the ute’s interior for me!”

Work on the ute wrapped up in late 2020, just ahead of its scheduled debut at the Victorian Hot Rod Show in January ’21. COVID saw both that event and MotorEx postponed, so Tim now hopes to show the ute off during 2022. Until then, it won’t see much daylight.

“I’ve only done 300 kays in it,” he laments. “We’ve been trying to keep it as good as we can for a few shows, but after that it’ll get driven. Commodore utes will probably blow it away at the lights, but it sounds great, looks good, and performs reliably.”

Tim still plans to eventually screw together his ideal blown 383, but for now he’s got enough projects to keep him busy, including a genuine R/T Dodge Charger awaiting paint in his shed.

“People tell me I should’ve put the money into the Charger,” he says, “but there’s rules with that car. With the ute, we could do whatever we wanted!”


Paint: PPG Deltron Mercury Silver
Type: 383ci Chrysler big-block
Intake: Edelbrock
Induction: Holley Sniper EFI
Heads: Factory, polished and ported
Camshaft: Comp
Crank: Steel
Pistons: Forged
Fuel pump: Holley in-tank
Exhaust: Custom extractors, twin 2.5in exhaust
Cooling: Race Radiators twin thermo fans
Gearbox: Tremec TKO 600
Clutch: Mal Wood Automotive ACE 11in
Tailshaft: Custom 3in
Diff: BorgWarner, 3.23:1 gears, billet 28-spline axles
Front: KYB shocks, Chrysler springs
Rear: KYB shocks, reset leaves
Brakes: Girlock discs (f), factory drums (r)
Master cylinder: VJ Valiant, custom offset booster
Rims: Rev Magnum; 15×7 (f), 15×8 (r)
Rubber: BF Goodrich; 215/65/15 (f), 275/60/15 (r) 

Chris Mays; Gary ‘Spoons’ Jackson; Paul ‘Fudge’ Marchbank; Elko Performance; Dean Evans at Straightline Motor Trimming; Scotty at SG Auto Electrics; Rob Star Plating; Francis at Auto Bling; Barry Pitman at Baron Signs; Duncan Schmidt; Jim at Whoosh Towing; my wife Kylie for her