Simon Johnston’s UC hatch copped a retrospective facelift and an LS1 upgrade
This article on Simon’s Torana was first published in the March 2011 issue of Street Machine
A LITTLE bit of lateral thinking goes a long way these days. Simon Johnston had a hankering for a hot LX hatch but soon found out that — courtesy of the surge in popularity of Aussie muscle cars in recent years — even a rusty old junker was worth an arm and a leg.
The often-overlooked UC on the other hand, regarded by many as the ugly duckling of the Torana family was, as Simon explains, a dime a dozen.
“Eventually we came across this UC — it was ugly as hell,” he says. “But it had a 308, five-speed ’box and nine-inch, which was exactly what I wanted. My brother Tim was keen to have a go at the LX conversion, then — as is the norm — things got a bit crazy.”
Luckily, Tim (who works for J’s Customs & Fabrication on the Sunshine Coast) is a whiz with the welding equipment, as the conversion became a complicated process. The guards are far from a bolt-on proposition because the radiator support panels on the two Torana models are completely different, while an extra lip near the firewall is just one item adding to a long list of complications.
If you think that the front spoiler looks smooth, that’s because it was fabricated from scratch. Giving the UC the LX look was no mean feat — even the bumper bars bolt up differently
“I like to do things out of the ordinary, so I decided to keep the UC guards and radiator support, and modify them to accept the LX nosecone,” Tim says. “The UC guards pinch in more at the front, so I had to chop and spread them to line up with the LX front. Then I looked at it and toyed with the idea of keeping the UC stone tray, because I quite liked it.”
So he extended it down 60mm and fabricated the entire front spoiler from steel, even machining neat billet housings for the circular front indicators.
The arse end was no mean feat either, with the rear sheet-metal from an LX sedan cut and shut into the hatch to rid it of both a rust patch and those unsightly UC tail-lights in one fell swoop.
The interior is fairly traditional, with a couple of neat tricks including the LX dash and comfy Procar pews. The shifter for the T56 ’box uses a B&M Ripper Shifter base with a custom-machined shifter rod and an old-school Holden four-speed knob
There’s a stack of other custom bodywork too, from the obvious stuff like the A9X-style flare kit and bonnet scoop, to the not-so-obvious details such as the shaved door locks and the smoothed bumpers, now devoid of mounting bolts. Tim reckons that fitting the LX dash to the car was the trickiest part of the whole conversion; welding in the steel parts and getting the various plastic bits to line back up.
That’s when Simon decided that since the car was to be a driver, more grunt and some air conditioning probably wouldn’t go astray. So the 308 and five-speed ’box originally selected were dropped in favour of an LS1 V8 and a T56 six-speed cog-swapper.
“There were no major hassles with the LS1 conversion,” Tim says. “I bought a CRS kit, which included engine mounts and a transmission crossmember, but I had to make a new transmission tunnel to fit the six-speed ’box in.”
The lads then procured an LS3 sump but because it was too deep, it had to be trimmed to fit. Castle Auto Electrics supplied a harness and MAFless tune-equipped ECU, and Tim knocked up a set of custom extractors that cleared the original starter motor.
“Then Simon decided that he wanted power-steering,” Tim says, “so unfortunately I had to re-modify the sump. We got it sorted out eventually.” Lucky blood’s thicker than water, eh?
Rounding out the under-car mods, HQ front discs were used with VP brakes on the rear, with mounting points for the Koni rear shocks relocated to clear the Commodore calipers.
Interestingly, IRS Commodore coil springs were fitted out back, which are tapered just like the standard-issue Torrie springs.
Heavy-duty lowered coils and Koni shocks were used up front, while the wheels are 15-inch Billet Specialties Street Lites, with 10-inch wide rears wearing meaty 285/40 Yokohamas to fill out those big flared guards perfectly.
Lastly, the multi-talented Tim cracked out the sewing machine and turned his attention to the cabin, decking out a pair of Procar by Scat front seats and a set of stock doorcards in black vinyl while Chris Bakker trimmed the rear seat, making sure to include child-seat restraints so the kids can come cruising too. Simon has been asked many times why the car doesn’t have an SS ashtray; he prefers the SL as that’s his wife’s initials. An LX instrument-cluster fitted with a VDO speedo and tacho keeps him in the loop, and an Autotechnica wheel does the steering.
“I wanted a car that looks like it could travel back to 1980 and pretty much fit in,” Simon says, “and after 18 months in the build, I’m pretty excited about how it’s turned out. It’s amazing how few things Tim and I disagreed on during the build. He did such a great job, because he was essentially building the car the way he wanted to build it.”
Simon insists that while the scope of the build increased greatly over time, it’s still a street car, just as he originally intended.
“With air, steer and nice seats, it’s a pleasure to drive around. We did Toranafest with the car, and that’s the end of its show career. I enjoy the ‘Wow!’ factor when you pop the bonnet but that’s where it ends for me. There’s no detailed undercarriage or polished gearboxes, or anything like that. If you have to clean it all the time, it takes the fun out of driving it.”
Entered at Toranafest as a UC, the car didn’t get judged because the judges thought it was in the wrong category. As far as they could tell it was an LX and coming from such experts Simon and Tim should take that as a compliment.
The Chevrolet LS1 ain’t the prettiest of donks, but Tim has done a damn fine job of putting together a dead sexy and smooth as silk engine bay that belies the car’s traditional facade. “There was about one week’s worth of welding in smoothing out the engine bay, and it sort of makes the car,” Tim says.
“I’m glad that the engine bay is a bit weird because the rest of the car looks so stock. All holes under the bonnet were welded up and smoothed, and the backs of the headlights were boxed.
“The chassis lips were removed and the chassis reskinned, all seams and the inner guards were smoothed, and the radiator support panel top section bolts in for easy engine installation.
Despite the ancillaries bolted to the late-model LS1 engine, the engine bay looks sensational. You’d do well to spot the air conditioning unit or the power steering pump, which feeds a Subaru power-steer set-up
“I knocked up the induction set-up and I call it the moustache. It’s made out of bends, and it’s basically two lengths of three-inch pipe leading into a four-inch pipe, where it meets the throttlebody. Where it goes through the tinwork in the engine bay, I machined up some collars so that the pipework doesn’t bang around.
“I don’t like the pod filters in the engine bay look, so it was a good way to get them tucked away. The engine covers are off-the-shelf but I spent a fair bit of time modifying them, and I had to modify the heater box for clearance. The brake booster is from a VY Commodore.”
IN THE BUILD
The UC came to Simon in average condition and needed a mountain of work for the transformation into a shiny LX.
While the usual practice is to cut out the UC radiator support and guards and replace them with LX items, Simon’s brother Tim kept them in place and modified them to accept the LX nosecone, matching it to a custom front spoiler.
At the rear, Tim cut out the entire panel between the hatch lid and the bumper bar and welded in the tail-light section from an LH sedan. Rather than risk scratching the freshly painted engine bay by lowering the engine in from the top, Tim made a cradle that bolts to the bumper bar brackets and used it to lift the body up and lower it down over the engine and front end.
1978 HOLDEN UC TORANA HATCH
Colour: Lamborghini Orange and Jet Black
Induction: Custom cold air induction
Sump: Modified LS3
Fuel system: Bosch 044 fuel pump, Billet fuel rails, adjustable reg
Cooling: Alloy radiator, AU thermos
Exhaust: Custom HPC-coated headers, 3in twin system with Bullet cats and straight-through mufflers
Ignition: Standard coils, custom leads
Gearbox: T56 six-speed manual, Clutch: Centreforce clutch, Yella Terra ultra-light flywheel
Diff: Nine-inch, 3.5:1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Springs: Heavy duty, lowered (f) Commodore IRS (r)
Shocks: Koni (f&r)
Brakes: HQ discs & calipers (f) VP Commodore discs and calipers (r)
Master cylinder: VY V8
Steering: Subaru power steering, custom lines, stock LS1 pump
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Billet Specialties Street Lite 15×8 (f), 15×10 (r)
Rubber: Yokohama 225/50/15 (f) 285/40/15 (r)