Home » Vulgar Displays Of Power: 1978 Chevy Van vs 1988 Mazda RX7

Vulgar Displays Of Power: 1978 Chevy Van vs 1988 Mazda RX7

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Good morning, and happy Friday! Today is the day when we traditionally up the ante a bit, price-wise, and drain our imaginary wallets a little further than normal. And I’ve got a couple of special treats for you today. But first, let’s see how our Chicagoland barn finds fared:

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Interesting. I actually had no idea which way this was going to go. But it seems you just can’t out-cool a Studebaker.

Now then: Since the invention of the automobile, enterprising and thrill-seeking individuals all over the world have sought ways to make them go faster. Cars are cool, fast cars are even cooler, and cars that weren’t fast to begin with but are now are cooler still. Lots of different ways have been tried over the years, but in the past decade or two, one foolproof method of making a car go faster has risen to prominence, and it’s so simple it can be expressed in just six letters: “LS swap.” Like the traditional small-block Chevy V8 before it, GM’s LS series of V8s have become ubiquitous in hot-rodding circles, for the same reasons as the original: compact size, light weight (for a V8), low price, and astonishing horsepower potential. It’s not a sophisticated way to add power to a car, but boy is it effective.

This little marvel has found its way under all sorts of hoods, including the two we’re going to look at today. I chose these two because it sounds like they’ve both been done well, from a mechanical standpoint. They couldn’t be more different vehicles, but somebody loved both of them enough to carefully give them a heart transplant. Let’s see which one you prefer.

1978 Chevrolet G20 Van – $17,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 6.0 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Encinitas, CA

Odometer reading: 130,000 miles

Runs/drives? Great, according to the seller

You guys like vans, right? They always seem to do well. I don’t know what it is about a big empty box with a V8 in the front, but the appeal is undeniable. Maybe because you can do so many different things to them, like meticulously go through every inch of the mechanicals to make it run perfectly, but leave the outside scruffy and hand-paint murals on the sides.

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The seller has christened this van “The Ark,” and while I hoped that might be a Gerry Rafferty reference, it seems the actual inspiration for this build was Deep Purple’s Machine Head. Hey, that’s cool too; let’s go space truckin’. This 3/4 ton van is powered by a 6.0 liter LS3 engine out of a 2005 Hummer, backed by a 4L60E overdrive automatic. Both engine and transmission have been massaged for better performance and longevity. The fuel system, electrical system, brakes, and suspension have all been gone through as well, and the seller says this van has been stone-reliable since the work was done.

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This van has been partially converted into a camper, but needs to be finished. The captain’s chairs have been re-upholstered, and the floors insulated and finished in oak flooring. It has a sink, a fridge, a power inverter, solar panels, and a queen sized bed (if this van’s a-rockin’…)  with storage drawers underneath. The walls are insulated, but haven’t been finished, so it looks a little janky inside. I suspect the seller ran out of money.

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The patina and murals outside, and spatter-paint inside, aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, it’s true. But that can be changed. Personally, I’d be tempted to leave the outside how it is, and concentrate on finishing the rest of the interior to the same high standard as the running gear and front passenger area.

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Yeah, it’s expensive. But with all the mechanical work that has been done, it seems like a good value, as long as you can do the remainder of the work yourself.

1988 Mazda RX7 Convertible – $17,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 6.2 liter overhead valve V8, six-speed manual, RWD

Location: Southlake, TX

Odometer reading: 140,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

I’m kinda torn on this one, I admit. Mazda’s second-generation RX7 is a great looking car, one of the sports cars that debuted when I was just of the right age to really go nuts over it. But even then, I knew that a Mazda rotary engine was a fragile, ethereal thing. A more durable engine is not a bad thing, but taking the rotary out fundamentally changes the nature of the car, and in a way makes it less special. V8-powered sports cars are a dime a dozen; rotary-powered sports cars only ever came from one manufacturer. (Okay, technically three, but only barely.)

[Editor’s Note: Well, four, if you count the Citroën GS Birotor, which they built 267 of, but never officially sold. So, maybe four? – JT]

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But if you’re gonna do it, you should do it right, and this car has been done right. Instead of a used engine, the builder of this car has gone all-out and opted for a brand-new crate engine, displacing 6.2 liters and putting out 480 horsepower. All that might is funneled to the fat rear tires through a Tremec six-speed manual and a limited-slip rear diff. I imagine liquefying the rear tires and kicking the rear end out is as easy as wiggling your right big toe.

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This RX7 also has reupholstered seats and a new top. Like the van above, it also has had its suspension and brakes rebuilt, so it’s ready to handle all that extra power. It rides on what look like RX8 wheels, and mostly looks really good outside, except for that hideous hood with the makeshift bulge, which even the seller admits needs replacing. But from the rear, it does look mighty nice.

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The seller has to give this car up due to health issues, and it sounds like they’re doing so reluctantly. It’s down to cosmetics and trim, and could be enjoyed as-is if you can live with the silly hood.

Vehicles as heavily modified as these two aren’t for everyone. There’s no service manual that can help you when you open these hoods; you’ll have to reverse-engineer what the builder did. But the good news is that the GM LS engines are solid, reliable, and inexpensive to maintain, and from the looks of it, both have been installed meticulously. There are few things worse than janky modifications on cars. And while both of these are unfinished and a little rough around the edges, the “oily bits” of both are in good order.

So how do you want your LS swap? Big and boxy, or small and sporty?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)




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81 Responses

    1. At least with the van you would have more salvageable parts if everything went kablooey on you. Solar panel, controller, fridge etc. With the Mazda you’d have nice seats?

  1. No, No, No, No, No… I’ve already rebuilt a G-van once, liked it a lot, moved on…

    And I’ve re-worked a motorhome by ripping it out to the walls in most places and rebuilding/renewing the rest… and moved on…

    I don’t need to do it all again. But damn, that van is tempting…

  2. I feel like the 4L60E isn’t really a tough enough transmission for my bone stock 5.3 Suburban altough I reluctantly did a like for like replacement a few years back – is it really stout enough to handle a 6.0 LS without some major massaging?

  3. I chose the Mazda because I know I could reroute the intake, remove the ugly bump in that hood, and everything looks technically well done. The van has cheap-ass corner-cutter written all over it, and in my experience people who do that also like to hide a ton of laziness where it doesn’t show; I absolutely believe it to be “stone reliable” as it will imitate one on the side of the road … if it rolls that far.

  4. They are both overpriced, but the van looks like the vehicle Chris Farley lived in down by the river–both inside and out. I remember when there was what looked like a nice, stock RX7 convertible for sale locally for what seemed like ever for about 3k. If the van had paint and you were a van guy maybe the van, as is burn the van, track the Dorito.

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