Home » How NASCAR Legend Bobby Allison’s Buick Engine Wound Up In Paul Newman’s Volvo Wagon

How NASCAR Legend Bobby Allison’s Buick Engine Wound Up In Paul Newman’s Volvo Wagon

Newman Nascar Volvo Ts2
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Paul Newman is a hero to many people and his abilities as an actor, great as they were, are rarely the reason why. Newman was a dedicated philanthropist whose big passion was “shameless exploitation in the pursuit of the common good.” Basically, Newman tried to use his fame to help as many people as possible. As an enthusiast and a race fan, I’m also drawn to the late Newman as a great driver and a builder of truly weird cars.

This whole adventure started a few weeks ago when I came across Paul Newman’s personal V8-powered Volvo 960 wagon. While the car was known to exist, it had been squirreled away by restorer and collector Wayne Carini for more than a decade. Most people, if they know anything about Newman wagons, know the Letterman-owned car which, according to Carini, has been claimed by Letterman’s son Harry. The third car, built for family friend Ian Warbug, is currently in the wind and I’m actively searching for it.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Those are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Volvo Newman Volvo wagons. The first was Newman’s hot-rodded Volvo 740 wagon, complete with what’s often referred to as a Buick V6 out of a Buick Grand National. While many details of the car are known thanks to it being sold a few times, in my research I discovered a lot more about how and why this car came together.

Specifically, I found out the engine didn’t actually come from a Buick Grand National, as everyone thinks, but rather was a regular V6 that arrived via a NASCAR Legend.

Bobby Allison Was Way More Than A ‘Poor Dummy From Alabama’

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To just look at stats is to miss the point of Bobby Allison. To see him as a champion or the fourth-winningest driver in NASCAR history is to oversimplify. He wasn’t just a naturally fast driver, he was a passionate force who never backed down no matter the odds.

His first start in the Winston Cup series was in 1966 with a car he built himself in Alabama. Though NASCAR was still young, by this point massive amounts of money were coming into the business and a home-built car was at a huge disadvantage.

“Somebody told me my chances of winning a race were about the same as Twiggy winning the heavyweight boxing championship. That made me mad” Allison told the Motorsport Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1992.

A better measure of Allison’s time in NASCAR might be the list of the sport’s greatest rivalries, where Allison shows up both because of his longtime feud with Richard Petty and as an intervener in his brother Donnie’s confrontation with Cale Yarborough. Of his many showdowns with Petty, Alison said:

“A poor dummy from Alabama was not allowed to compete with the multimillion-dollar, factory-type operation of Petty Enterprises. And I did.”

Despite the obstacles in his way, Allison won the 1983 Winston Cup Championship and 39 races total. In 1988, driving a Buick, Allison won the Daytona 500 for the third time and was on the way to contend again for a championship when a devastating crash at Pocono Raceway ended his NASCAR career.

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One of the advantages that Allison had as a driver was his friend Lee Hurley, a hall-of-fame racecar engine builder with a shop in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Buick-To-Volvo Connection

Lee Hall Of Fame
Photo: Hurley (left) being inducted into the Alabama Auto Racing Pioneers Hall of Fame.

“I’m 82 years old and I hope I can be straightforward with you,” Hurley told me by phone from a rehabilitation facility, where he was recovering from a hip he’d recently broken.

Hurley is not one to sit still and he was anxious to get back to his shop, Hurley Engine Service Company (HESCO), where he continues to work. But given his temporary predicament, he was more than happy to discuss the many “great memories” he had with Paul Newman during the building of the car.

In the 1980s, Hurley managed a few AMC cars in the IMSA series and met Newman’s good friend, former Motor Trend road test editor/stuntman/racer Michael Brockman. At the time, Brockman was racing a mid-engined, Mazda-powered Tiga in IMSA.

“He was rode hard and put up wet, but a good guy, a really good guy,” Hurley said of Brockman. “And the relationship that he and Paul had was unbelievable.”

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Newman Volvo V8
Photo: BAT

The first question I had was: Why a Buick V6?

The answer is quite simple. Because Hurley was working for Allison and Allison had won so many races for Buick, the automaker kept shipping the driver engines, which wound up at Hurley’s shop.

“We had a whole pile of those [engines],” said Hurley.

Newman 740 Volvo
Photo: BAT

In addition to racing cars, Brockman had a relationship with Volvo and when Newman hatched the plan to make another fast sleeper it was his friend Mike who put the pieces together.

“I’m telling you what, they rolled a truck in and I can’t believe how much stuff was in it, it was stacked full, swaybars, swings, every piece you could imagine…” remembers Hurley. “Evidently Volvo had some kind of series they were running. We are talking about good stuff, I’m not talking about junk.”

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I’ve been talking to Volvo Cars to try and determine where those Volvo parts came from, especially as the company scrapped its 740 race program and instead continued on with the Volvo 240 until the 850 replaced it in 1994. So far, no one, including Hurley, is quite sure the original source of the parts, just that Volvo sent a bunch of stuff on behalf of Newman.

Contrary to what’s been reported, Hurley says the motor wasn’t actually the turbocharged motor in the wild Buick GNX. Instead, it was just a regular 3.8-liter V6 that was modified with a turbo and intercooler by HESCO to give it GNX-like power.

Newman 740 Volvo Turbo
Photo: BAT

Most importantly, it has the turbo sitting on top of the motor, which is the classic Buick-style. If you look at photos of the car from the recent BringATrailer listing where it sold for $80,740, you’ll see “VOLVO V6 TURBO” spelled out on the turbo housing.

“I had a CNC with a good machinist who could draw anything, so I did a lot of crazy things.”

Why Newman Built This Car

Auto News Beetle
Photo: Automotive News

Paul Newman loved making big power with unlikely cars. Our friend Michael Banovsky even christened him the “King of Sleeper Cars” and a “Q-Car deity” of sorts. This started with a Beetle Converted built by Jerry Eisert and outfitted with a Holman-Moody Ford Racing V8 similar to what was used in the Ford GT40.

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While it looks like a Beetle, basically everything underneath is custom and was likely capable of blowing away just about anything on the road in 1970.

At some point, Newman also owned a Callaway-tuned Volkswagen Rabbit that may or may not have had a Porsche motor.

Why do this?

Hurley shared an important theory:

“The whole reason it got built was that Joanne would not ride in the airplane, no matter where they went, even if they had to go from NY to California she would not go in the airplane, she hated airplanes.”

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Joanne is Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife and an incredible performer in her own right. As both were actors, the cross-country trip from New York to LA is something they’d have to do quite often.

I asked family friend and original V8 Volvo owner Ian Warburg if that sounded correct and he confirmed it, sort of.

“The part about Joanne not liking flying is true…she much preferred traveling by car or train, so the story about having something to drive across country sort of holds up… mostly” Warburg texted me. “[W]hile that may have been part of the “rationale”, the truth is that the man loved his “sleepers”, and loved driving the wheels off them. ”

The truth does, indeed, probably lie somewhere in between.

Getting The Car Just Right

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In making the car, both Newman and Brockman had a lot of big requests. For one, the car had to look like a normal Volvo inside, which meant that all the Volvo electronics and the speedometer/tachometer had to work (a boost gauge was added to the a-pillar, though that, too, almost looks like it could have been a Volvo part).

“Paul would fly down and we had an airfield where I had my airplane and we had a large asphalt pad and he’d get out there and wreck the car, figure-eight it, and so we got it finished to his level and it was done.”

Well, not quite done. Initially, the Volvo 740 was built with an automatic transmission, but that ultimately didn’t fly with Newman.

“He kept it about 4-5 mom and he called and he said ‘I gotta be able to shift gears.'”

There was a big problem with that. The Buick Grand National/GNX didn’t come with a manual transmission because by the time they debuted Buick had discontinued the manual in that car. Plus, the three-speed manual Buick was using would have been poorly matched with the car’s character.

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“I took and built some stuff of GM’s other pieces and built some bell-housing and put a five-speed in it and he was just ticked to death with it,” recalls Hurley.

Bat Volvo740
Photo: BAT

In spite of some chatter on the web about the car being a little rough, Hurley insists it was “a really drivable car” and something that did a great job of highway transport or hauling ass, depending on the need.

The fact that the vehicle is still running on the original motor with 76,000 miles on the odometer speaks to how well-built the car was. It still looks great and was sold recently, in running condition, to someone on BringATrailer for more than $80,000.

After doing work on the Volvo, Hurley did the same basic engine swap to a number of other cars including a hot rod and a BMW for a lawyer.

Hurley would like to get back to his shop on 24th Street South and he thinks his rehab is going quite well. And like Paul Newman, he’s not averse to going fast.

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“I gotta carbon fiber tower chair. It’s just unbelievable. I weigh 280 pounds and I can go faster than you can walk… my wife’s already told me to leave it alone.”

Newman Was A Delight To Work With And A Very Particular BBQ Eater

While not exactly a car story, Hurley shared a few more moments with Newman that indicate what kind of person he was. For one, Hurley never spoke on the phone with Newman because Newman would rather talk to his wife.

“Whenever he’d call he’d call to talk to my wife, not me, she’s one of those southern ladies that have those southern drawls, he just really loved talking to her, and he’d tell her what he wanted me to know.”

My favorite story, though, was about taking Newman to get BBQ in Birmingham.

“[H]e would order the exact same thing: he would order two inside barbecues, no sauce, and when they’d deliver them he’d take them apart, and make one sandwich and take two or three bites, then he’d order 20 of them for the rest of the crew. We probably hit every BBQ joint in Birmingham.”

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Newman, of course, was noticeable, but Hurley never let on to anyone who asked who the actor was, understanding that he was a private person. That might have been a mistake as one BBQ shop owner explicitly asked “Is that Paul Newman?”

“I just said ‘It’s just some guy that pretends to be him.'”

That worked until the owner found out it really was Paul Newman.

“She got mad and wouldn’t let me eat there anymore when she found out.”

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Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
25 days ago

Mmm, Birmingham has that awesome mayo-based barbecue sauce, too.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
25 days ago

Is 4-5 mom a typo? I’m guessing it should be 4-5 months.

Chronometric
Chronometric
25 days ago

I almost didn’t read this article. That would have been a shame because it was a gem. Thanks.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
25 days ago

Keep ‘em coming, Matt!
While Newman attained a level of fame most actors only dream of, he seemed to use that only to help others. Even when Newman’s Own products seemingly took over whole grocery isles, he didn’t posture for the spotlight. He was true to his vision—and his wife, apparently, and a decent human.
Newman was a mensch

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
25 days ago

Thanks Matt! Appreciate the article. Newman was one of a kind for sure.

Bobby Allison has been a hero since I started following him in 1965. Met him several times. Just a real humble guy, and one of the nicest people I ever met. It’s a real shame that he had to quit driving when he did, but we are thankful that he is still around. He has, and can tell some great stories about the old days of NASCAR.

Mick Molte
Mick Molte
25 days ago

I grew up around Lime Rock and can speak a bit to that internet chatter about the 740 being a little “rough.” It’s just something that got misconstrued playing the telephone game over the years.

It wasn’t that the Allison build itself was rough, it was that the Volvo it was built on was relatively rough compared to the later ones. Despite being about 95% the same underneath, there’s a pretty big NVH difference between a mid to late 80s 740 and a mid to late 90s 960. The inside of the 960 is just a more civilized place to be—better materials, more sound deadening etc. And it had an independent rear suspension (funnily enough, a design quite similar to the concurrent C4 Vettes) which not only made it more tractable when putting down power but also made it a little more comfy putting around town.

Anyway, speaking of Paul Newman loving his wife, that was where the comment came from. He’d say the 740 was just a little “rough” for her to go out and get groceries in, compared to the 960. But again, in the original context, it wasn’t at all a knock on the Allison build, just a comment on the difference between the 740 and 960 starting points.

Mike F.
Mike F.
25 days ago

Great story. I’ve always wanted something like that Volvo. $80k doesn’t seem like too much to pay at all, given what cars cost these days.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
25 days ago

So, I use to work with the guy who was Converse Engineering wife. And Converse Engineering was literally a dude in his garage in Standish, Maine or somewhere in York County. Anyways, we worked together for about a year, and one day we’re shooting the shit. And we get to talking about Newman’s Own. And she’s like “He was a real chatty Cathy”. And me and a co-worker were like “wait what?”. Mind you, she had never mentioned anything about this. She would just tell us the guy worked on cars. And this was not like a high end job or anything, we’re just some working smocks, not really the place you get my friend Paul Newman stories. And she is like “yeah, my husband built him some cars. And he would call over and we would get to talking.” She said her husband would get annoyed because she would ask him about random famous people and if they were cool or not. And just talk about her life and what she had going on. And he would give her the run down of his life. She also did mention his dislike of flavor. As she was running a Cafe in Biddeford at the time, and was ready to show off. And he wasn’t really having it.

She also mentioned Dave, but I guess he wasn’t as friendly with Ross as Paul Newman was.

Tinibone
Tinibone
25 days ago

A great read once again Matt!

Now to find that V70R!

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
25 days ago

I’m as much of a lover of 200- and 700-series Volvo as there ever was. I’m also a huge fan of the “redblock” engines that were originally installed in those cars. However, I’m not some purist who finds it sacrilegious to swap in a different powertrain. Given the myriad of combinations that can easily be stuffed under the hood, I think I prefer a turbocharged V-6 over a V-8.

Albert Ferrer
Albert Ferrer
25 days ago

I didn’t know about the aborted 760 Group A programme. Very interesting!

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