Aaron Thomas has a real powerhouse on his hands with this twin turbo 1954 Ford Popular

Photographers: Alastair Ritchie

This little Ford Popular is no joke – it’s one of the quickest street cars in NZ!

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Street Machine.

You have to wonder about the sanity of a bloke who stuffs a 408-cube small-block Chev into a little Ford Popular – and then goes and straps a couple of giant turbos to it. Then you find out the guy’s a Kiwi, and it all makes sense. Aaron Thomas is the pilot of this little Pommy dragstrip terror, and he’s managed to take his ’54 Ford Popular from a four-cylinder 30hp slug to something capable of running the quarter-mile in 8.84@152mph, making it one of the quickest street cars in NZ.

TURBO-POP-mainYep, this crazy machine is registered and does get driven on the street, and it’s not as frightening as you might think: “It drives nicely on the road, just like a docile car – when it’s not on boost,” Aaron says. “Once it comes on boost it’s a bit of a different story though!”

Aaron bought the car 19 years ago with a 350 Chev and a boxed standard chassis. He drove it around for about a year before the motor got a bit sad and he decided to pull it off the road and strip it down. “It sat around for about five years before I did anything, and originally I was going to build it to be a hot rod that I could drive on the road. Then I started hanging around people that were right into their drag racing, and that’s why it ended up how it is now.”

TURBO-POP-rearIt was first built with a 350 sprint car engine that had about 500hp, and with a 150-shot of nitrous it went 10.1@130mph – not too shabby at all, but not quite quick enough for Aaron. “I decided I was going to turbo it, but when we checked the motor we realised it wouldn’t handle what we wanted to do with it, so I on-sold it and built the 408 from scratch. It’s a Dart block and all the ritzy bits and pieces are in there now.”

Those ritzy parts include AFR heads, forged internals, turbo-specific camshaft and 3.75in stroker crank – all the things you need to make a turbo engine work and stay together. It obviously did the trick, because initially, this car only had one hairdryer hanging off it. “When I first did the turbo it only had one on the driver’s side,” Aaron says. “I raced it like that for a season but it was too small and strangling the motor, so I got another one and in the off-season I changed it over to the twin-turbo set-up. That really makes it hum now.”

TURBO-POP-engineThe frightening thing for the other competitors is that there’s still more to go! “We’re only running about 15lb of boost so far, but the motor can probably take 25 comfortably,” Aaron says. “The 8.84 was with a slipping converter, but hopefully we’ve rectified that now.” Parry Hunt is the man who built the motor, and provides the tune-ups both for the motor and suspension, so you can bet we’ll see more out of the car when they start bumping up the boost.

But don’t worry, Aaron’s not trying to put all that grunt through a couple of toothpick chassis rails held together with a hope and a prayer. “It’s got a full custom chassis that we built from the ground up, with a four-bar and nine-inch out back and an L300 front end,” he explains. “The roof was filled, the guards have been widened and just about everything on the car that could be modified has been modified.”

TURBO-POP-engine -2The interior would be barely recognisable to a Ford Pop enthusiast, with every piece of it custom-built, with drag racing and the required safety measures the main priorities. Neither driver nor passenger comfort really entered into the equation. The fact that Aaron is an aluminium fabricator by trade was a big help when it came time to do the custom wraparound dash and aluminium firewall, trans tunnel and floor. A couple of padded Racetech bucket seats are the only concessions to creature comfort, while a veritable jungle gym in the shape of a 10-point rollcage makes sure everyone stays safe if things go tits-up.

Hopefully that won’t ever happen, because she’s a pretty flash bit of gear on the outside, resplendent in Shockwave Blue, with ghost flames by Todd Moffat adorning the flanks. If you’re familiar with the Ford Pop – or Anglia as we called it in Oz – the rear guards barely stick out past the body, but that becomes a bit of a problem when you’re trying to fit 14in-wide wheels and 16.5in-wide rubber in the back. Aaron’s solution was to widen the guards as much as he needed and then do a similar treatment up front to fit in the Mitsubishi L300 independent front end.

TURBO-POP-interiorWhile the track is a lot wider, and no doubt a lot safer, the wheelbase is still pretty much as it left the factory, and you know what happens with short wheelbases and excess power? You guessed it, wheelies! You’ll notice the Pop wears wheelie bars – and they’re not just there for show and to trip people over. “The first time I got it going I went to the street drags and my missus and mates all said: ‘You should put the wheelie bars on.’ I said: ‘It won’t need them, there won’t be any traction here.’ I went out on my first run and did about a metre-high wheelstand! It came down pretty hard and smashed up the nosecone a little bit. Ever since then it’s always had the wheelie bars,” Aaron says.

Like I said, those Kiwis are just a little bit crazy – but that’s why we love them and their cars so much.