Project Digger: Blown big-block 1978 Ford LTD

Our army might not be the world’s biggest but it’s got the coolest rides!

Photographers: Peter Bateman, Dean Summers

This article on the Army’s Project Digger LTD was originally published in the May 2010 issue of Street Machine magazine

PROMOTIONAL vehicles are nothing new in our scene because cool cars pull crowds. But usually they just sit around looking pretty.

The door handles have been moved together to work with the suicide rear doors. Since the rear windows are full sized, they’re permanently fixed

The Army does things differently and its latest promo vehicle is a rampaging 938hp blown big block-powered LTD. Sure, it looks pretty but the Army demands a little action too.

Corporal Ben Hewlett was responsible for maintaining the Army’s previous ride, the six-wheeled Land Rover known as Armygeddon, and teaching the apprentices about fuel systems.

“We got a call at the trade school that the Chief of the Army wanted to talk about a replacement for Armygeddon. His idea was that you’d have a project so long, then retire it and move on to something else. So the decision to build the new car came from the top.”

Two years and many skilful helping hands later, Project Digger was unveiled at Summernats 23.

Army staff cars never had cool stuff like blown big-blocks, suicide doors, Dragway rims or got to tear up the Summernats burnout pad

Armygeddon was essentially built externally; Digger was meant to be more hands-on. After all, the Army Logistics Training Centre at Latchford Barracks, Bonegilla, Victoria, trains hundreds of apprentices through the Army School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering every year.

And with the groundbreaking Armygeddon no longer getting the required response at shows, the idea was to build something along the lines of a traditional street machine.

“We had to have either an in-service or ex-service vehicle,” Ben says.

532 cubes, 8psi boost and premium unleaded yielded 938hp without breaking a sweat. Inside, it’s filled with the best performance gear from Australia and the US. Sounds fantastic too!

A trip to the Army Museum led to a short list including a ’43 Buick, an F-truck and a hearse but the team decided that the way to go was a ’78 LTD, which had been used as an Army staff car.

Body-wise the LTD was reasonable but the 351 Clevo and FMX driveline had no place in the big picture and soon the new parts started flowing in. An SVO block here, some Trickflow heads there, a Fisher 8/71 blower and more RRS gear than you could shake a coil-over at.

With the parts piling up, the shell was sent to ReCoat at Bonegilla for stripping to bare metal while the team got the metal mods under way. They cut out the firewall, front floor and strut towers, then welded in a flat firewall and RRS strut clearance plates to make space for custom big-block headers from Bob’s Exhaust in Wodonga.

Early on, the apprentices were heavily involved but as things progressed, the plans changed. It became clear that the body mods couldn’t be handled in-house within the time constraints — it had been announced that the LTD would be unveiled at Summernats 23 — so the pressure was on.

Simon Shaw at The Metalsmith in Moorebank, Sydney, has been doing this stuff for years and was given the nod to sort the roof chop and rear doors. He sliced three inches from the A-pillars and gradually less from the B and C pillars. The firewall was redone in heavier gauge metal, with a massive new trans tunnel to keep the exhaust up high. He also set up the fuel cell in the boot floor and created heavy-duty hinges so the rear doors, which feature full-size glass, open back to front. Today’s safety-conscious Army prefers the term ‘rear-hinged’ but we know they’re suicide doors.

The LTD was then shipped back to base where the troops trial-fitted all the new suspension gear, before the car went to Byron Mock Performance Paints in Wodonga. There, Phil Scarvell worked the sheet metal while Byron gave the massive Ford a liberal coat of primer.

With the Army keen to give more apprentices experience in the build, a deal was done with Goulburn-Ovens TAFE at Wangaratta where the apprentices took over the paint duties while instructors Mark Ward and Brett Ambrosio led them through the process of applying the House Of Kolor Organic Green paint.

After the young blokes had done their thing, Wodonga-based airbrush artist David Rose from Rolling Images was brought in to apply the ‘rising sun’ insignia to the flanks.

Folded from sheet steel, the dash is simple and filled with Auto Meter gauges. They measure everything from oil pressure to exhaust gas temps. A Painless kit was used to rewire the car

With just two months to go until Summernats, it was time to rebuild the car and a team of extras was brought in to help, under the direction of Sergeant Mick O’Sullivan.

Ben Hewlett had already built the 532ci supercharged Ford. On 8psi and 98-octane fuel, the big-block punched out 938hp at 6700rpm on the engine dyno at Dandenong Engine Services. Peak torque is 848ft-lb at 4800rpm, perfect for blasting those Dunlops to bits.

Shifting power to the rear is a Powerglide built by Johnny Marshall from Crow Cams, with a 3000rpm TCE converter. Yeah, Chevy parts in a Ford but it’s about reliability, which is why there’s a specially prepped 35-spline nine-inch on an RRS three-link rear custom-built for the car.

In fact, it’s virtually an RRS catalogue underneath with rack and pinion steering, six-spot brakes both ends, an under-dash booster and master cylinder unit plus that three-link from the same shop.

“It started with the search for brakes,” Ben says. “But the more we looked, the more parts we found for the big girl.”

With the main parts together, they gave the LTD a workout on the 2400hp truck dyno at East Bandiana before heading out to the concrete tank track to see how it would go smoking the tyres. The car still had no windows or door handles but the trim had been prepared by Mirek at Ultimate Upholstery in Wodonga, using padded Kirkey alloy buckets trimmed in BA XR6 green-flecked cloth. A four-point ’cage had been welded in but safety requirements led to a more extensive unit.

From there, it went back to Byron Mock’s for clear coats and fine polishing. And a small drama. In December 2009 a violent storm hit the Albury-Wodonga region. Project Digger was in the booth when the storm hit and the pressure from the high winds pushed dirt from the filters back into the booth and over the fresh clear coat.

“The pressure in the booth was that powerful it made my head spin,” Byron says. “But we got stuck into it the next day and rubbed all the crap out of it and re-cleared it.”

The car had its final fit-out over Christmas, once again back at the Army apprentices’ home base, before some last-minute cutting and polishing. Byron and the guys and girls in green pulled several all-nighters to get it done, with work continuing up to the point the car was put on the truck.

Straight after the bare metal pic the Army crew ripped the engine out for some dyno time — it made 938hp at 6700rpm on pump fuel

Two years of chasing parts, organising contractors and making sure the project hit every milestone culminated with the Meguiar’s Great Uncover at Summernats 23. There, the crowd surged around the dark green monster; everyone wanted to see the new car. Rather than use the lovely Meguiar’s girls, Sergeant Vaughan led the apprentices through an improvised drill ceremony to uncover the massive Ford.

The crowd loved it, praising the proportions of the roof chop and the Army badge emblazoned down the sides and across the back window. Newly promoted Sergeant Hewlett wasn’t the only one with tears in his eyes.

“Seeing the car go from Ryan Carter’s rendering through to the unveiling — it was a feeling you just can’t describe,” he said.

And that 532ci supercharged donk brings out a few emotions as well.

“How do you describe something like that?” Sergeant Vaughan asked after getting behind the wheel. He’s licensed to drive everything from staff Falcons to tanks. “With all that power, it’s like driving a Leopard tank, but without the 45-tonne body. With Armygeddon you had to work it hard to perform but with Digger you don’t drive it; it drives you and you just hang on for dear life.”


Colour: HOK Organic Green

Engine: Ford 532ci big-block
Block: SVO
Carbs: Holley 950 x2
Blower: Fisher 8/71
Intake: Trickflow
Heads: Trickflow A460
Pistons: Ross forged, 24cc dish
Crank: SCAT forged, 4.3in stroke
Rods: SCAT H-beam, 6.8in
Cam: Crow roller
Ignition: ICE billet dizzy, ICE ignition
Exhaust: Custom headers, twin three-inch system, straight-through mufflers and electronic cut-outs
Power: 935hp/848ft-lb

Transmission: Powerglide
Converter: TCE 3000rpm
Diff: Nine-inch, full spool, 3.0-gears, Moser 35-spline axles

Brakes: RRS under-dash master cylinder, RRS 335mm six-spot (f&r)
Springs: RRS coil-overs (f&r)
Shocks: RRS coil-overs (f&r)
Steering: RRS rack & pinion

Rims: Dragway custom, 18×7 (f), 18×9.5 (r)
Rubber: Dunlop Sport Maxx, 225/40/R18 (f), 275/30/R18 (r)