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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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]
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.
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.
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)
1). The LS is an engineering marvel
2). I wouldn’t want either of these for half the price. For that much money I’m finding a hooptie Miata and putting an LS in it myself.
Perfect headline for a perfect hesher van.
No need to read on…
My demons be driven!
Are you talking’ to me?
Walk on home, punk.
Insert sign of the horns emoji here.
That RX-7 is blasphemy, and probably way too much worry for someone without a mechanic degree.
Give me the beater van project; it’s much much cooler, even if it’s rough around the edges.
Jason, I think calling a Citroên GS Birotor a SPORT car is bit of a stretch.
I’d like to have a van to haul stuff, so I’d be tempted to buy the Chevy and gut the back of it while leaving the insulation in place – but not for $17K.
Also I like how the van has the ladder on the rear door so you can reach the roof but the roof rack is at the other end of the vehicle. Excellent design there.
Those are solar panels, not a roof rack. I wondered the same thing until I figured that out.
Thanks – that might teach me to read the full description before commenting. 🙂
The setup is much more involved than it appeared, especially with the interior electrical, fridge, etc.
I think my Chevy van was a ’72: ex-New York Telephone unit, short wheelbase. I bought it with black primer for a paint job and chrome reverse wheels. One of the tires was whitewall, but man was I proud!
It was to be the transporter for my motorcycle road-racing effort, but a smashup at an intersection put me into purchase of a Ford Ranger.
The Chevy didn’t last on my watch, but protected me in a broadside with only cold steel and a dark moon as safety features.
So, yeah I’ll live some van life today
Hmmm… a vastly overpriced skeezy sex van, or a pocket rocket with a nose wart?
Guess I’ll go with the Mazda, maybe give it a Wicked Witch theme.
I pity the fool who buys that van!
Van on this one. I’m a big fan of cargo vans, to the point my wife is worried I’ll randomly buy one and start parking it in our driveway. While I’m also a fan of RX-7s my baldness wrecks the joy of open air motoring. If it were a coupe I’d probably be going with the Mazda.
Baldness provides the joy of open air motoring. Getting your cheeks whipped by long hair isn’t much fun.
I concur. Convertibles aren’t great for us long haired humans. Neither are seatbelt retractors.
I’m torn, because neither of these are appealing for very different reasons:
I am an unabashed rotary fanboy. Removing the 13B from an RX-7 is… not right.
Some cars are templates for engine swaps – like E30s, fox bodies, fieros, or Nissan Silvias.
Some cars are not defined by their engines in such a way as to make them integral to the experience and feeling of the car – like corvettes, wranglers, or even (dare I say) something like the Ferrari F40.
But some cars are DEFINED by their power trains: A 3rd gen Supra with 2JZ. The E60 M5 with the S85. The WRX STI boxer. The Audi Ur-Quattro. And, the RX-7. Without it’s 13B, all you have is a foxbody mustang with a Mazda badge. The magic is gone. Also convertibles that were not ground-up designed as convertibles suck.
The van I don’t like because it’s an overpriced camper conversion. I have zero use for a camper, conversion or not.
I’d probably walk from both of these.
You really don’t think the Corvette is defined by a small block V8? What other engine could you possibly picture it with?
I’m a reasonably well-informed enthusiast and I don’t even know what powertrain is in an Audi Ur-Quattro without looking it up. Is it a 5 cylinder of some kind?
But my mother would be able to tell you what engine is in a Corvette.
Corvettes are defined by having some sort of v8, that I wouldn’t debate. But as to having a SPECIFIC v8? I don’t think that matters. Here’s the list of engines that were available in the C3, according to wikipedia:
305 cu in (5.0 L) LG4 V8
327 cu in (5.4 L) L75 V8
327 cu in (5.4 L) L79 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) Small-Block V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) L46 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) L48 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) L81 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) L82 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) L83 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) LT-1 V8
350 cu in (5.7 L) ZQ3 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L36 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L68 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L71 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L72 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L88 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) L89 V8
427 cu in (7.0 L) ZL1 V8
454 cu in (7.4 L) LS4 V8
454 cu in (7.4 L) LS5 V8
454 cu in (7.4 L) LS6 V8
Which one is the ‘definitive’ V8 for the C3? Wouldn’t a modern, EFI LS swapped C3 or C4 be a great option?
The C3 went on sale when Lyndon Johnson was president. Astronauts had not yet landed on the moon. It is not the first thing I think of when it comes to a Corvette.
For more than my entire lifetime, “regular” Corvettes have had only one engine option. Even the “advanced” Z06s and such have usually been powered by derivatives of the basic small block.
Yes, I think an LS-swapped C3 would be great, but I also think the LS is the perfect engine for an RX-7 so…. *shrugs*
What other – okay. A 327 fuelie. A 396 big block. An L88 427. An LS6 454. A dual-cam ZR1. The OG LS.
In fact, I can’t think of another American performance car less wedded to one single legendary engine than the Corvette. For shame.
…but you just listed 6 different engines?
Also, would a Corvette with, say, a Ford small block be a problem?
The RX-7 convertible was substantially re-worked as a convertible. There are numerous places where chassis stiffening was added into the body, a quite strong (and heavy) steel roll hoop is integrated into the rear part of the top that pivots as the top is put down to lay flat, the front part of the convertible top is a solid piece that contributes to the torsional stiffness (and can be removed separate from putting down the top to make the car a targa-top), and the windshield is raked back at a slightly shallower angle than the coupe to allow all these things to work. With the top up and targa in place, the convertible is allegedly 99% as stiff as the coupe.
Speaking from personal experience, with the top up it feels just as nice as the coupe (although with less headroom and a few hundred extra lbs). With the top down there is a tiny bit of cowl shake but really not very much at all. The substantial re-engineering that went into the FC convertible seems to really do the job.
> “a few hundred extra lbs.” “numerous places where chassis stiffening was added” “substantial re-engineering”
That’s my point. The chassis was not ground-up a convertible, like a Miata or a Z4, and was made to work, rather than a clean-sheet design. They compromised a chassis not originally designed for that configuration and then worked around the compromise.
Can that work as well as chassis designed to be a convertible from the conception? Maybe. But I’d contend that it would not in the sports car realm. Adapted convertible chassis are great for something like an Eldorado – a giant US 101 cruiser without performance in mind.
Reluctantly, the Mazda, but honestly? Fuck both of these. If I had 17 large to drop on a stupid vehicle, I could do waaaaayyy better, as could all of us here.
Like what? People ten to think the cheap LS swap is worth a ton when they sell them. it is quite the conundrum.
The Mazda for sure. I’d do donuts with it at intersections on the very first drive, and have a blast.
These cars are interesting because of how they’ll be received in different environments.
At a Cars & Coffee event packed with car people, the van would get lots of positive attention. “Ooh! LS swap van! Cool!” and “Look at that PATINA!” while the Mazda would probably receive scorn. “You yanked out the rotary engine! For shame!”
But the general public will look at the van and worry about the very real risk of tetanus or having their kidneys stolen, and they’ll just see the RX7 as a cool convertible.
Out of these two vehicles, I’d definitely take the Mazda… but I already have one (admittedly in a bit scruffier shape, but with a turbo 13B). Still, the newer engine & manual transmission are definitely a draw even with their poor choices for routing the intake tube off the TB forcing that unfortunate hood bulge.
Also, it looks like the rear wheels are S1 RX-8, but the fronts (at least the driver’s front) looks like a 1st gen Mazda 6 wheel – still 5-spoke but more rounded and sleek looking. I have a set of those for the summer wheels for my Mazda5. The bolt patterns are the same for all of these, and the offset between the RX-8 and Mazda6 are close, and the hub center dia of the FC is smaller so either can be made to work with hub-centric rings.
I feel like you need to move up to the other questionable choice performance machine and get ya a 2000 WRX
Why do you say that? I’ve always kind-of liked them, but never really desired to own one. I’ve had numerous friends with fast Subarus from that era (a track-prepped 2003 WRX with a bored-out STI motor, and a mostly stock 2006 outback XT manual), and my wife has a 2006 outback, and I can see the appeal especially as an only vehicle. I’d just rather have a vehicle that works well as a DD/road-trip/family car (a string of NG Saab 9-3 sedan and wagons, now a Mazda5, all with manual trans), then a separate project/nice weather DD car (the RX-7 turbo convertible) and more recently a semi-DD, semi-track day car (RX-8 S2).
Just paint some nostrils on the bulge and good to go. Maybe some glass etching on the windshield to simulate eyes. I’d do a mock up and post it but we can’t post pictures. (I actually wouldn’t but I like to complain as much as the next Autopian).
This would be a tougher call if the RX-7 wasn’t a convertible, and also that hood … WOOF!
I’ll take the van!
Amazing how small and compact the LS is, even in an engine bay designed for a much smaller motor. Seems it could fit into just about anything.
It really blows my mind that there are enthusiasts out there who are like “LS swaps are lame and cliched”. My brothers in Christ…we now have the ability to V8 whatever we want. If that doesn’t make you giddy like a kid in a candy store seek medical attention.
An MG Midget would be an excellent choice for this.
That’d be a tight squeeze. Ooh, but maybe the earlier Sprites with the flip-open front end? No inner fenders in the way on those. Probably do wheelies with enough traction, though.
Never been a fan of v-8 or vans. And $17k? That’s seriously a lot of juice and sneakers.
And Candy.you buy the van you got to buy the candy and puppies.
…never been a fan of V8s? Sir…..you do realize what site you’re on, right?
Uh, the site where one founding member said 50 HP is all that a car needs and another founding member received death threats for calling a particular American V8 a worthless piece of shit.
I’ve always considered it a copout to say this, but this is one of those scenarios where neither is even remotely a good choice. I’d rather drop $88 on a pair of Merrell Moab 3s and walk.
If you’re walking instead of driving, or your Jeep isn’t as reliable as you claim spend an extra $22 and get the waterproof Moab 3.
Hey, that’s a good idea. If my Jeep’s out of commission, at least I’ll have trail-rated shoes to walk in.
There seems to be a trend in the Shitbox Showdown lately: “Wow, both choices are really interesting, and I could have a pile of fun with either one, but Jesus, not at these prices.”
Would an LS RX8 be great dumb fun, turning the rear tires into smoke and dollar bills? You bet it would. Would an LS-swapped 1970s G van with rock-solid mechanicals be great to finish as a camper, giving you the perfect rig to see the USA in a Chevrolet? You bet it would.
Would I give either a second thought if the seller didn’t drop the 1 from in front of the price? Absolutely not.
The van, if only for the front bumper salvaged from a ’79 with the Sport Van appearance package. Finish the inside and keep on truckin’, man.
Gotta paint that van black and call the A-Team.
I fully understand why people do it but personally I hate LS swapped RX-7s. Rotary or nothing. It’s gotta be the van for me.
Ripping out a rotary to swap in an LS should be a crime.
If there was an automotive 10 commandments, thou shalt not replace rotors with pistons would surely be one of them.
Meh, not when the alternative is ripping out the rotary every year to replace the apex seals again. If you’re making any kind of power (and they need forced induction to be efficient) it’s basically non-negotiable.
Source: 5 or 6 friends who I’ve helped swap apex seals, then swap an LS in.
This statement is flagged as not accurate. My 12a na engine made plenty of power to be a blast to drive in my 84. Well over 200k hard miles on it when I passed it on to it next abuser.
To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, hold on. This isn’t some species that was obliterated by hostile takeover or planned obsolescence. Rotaries had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.
How can this be so close? The Mazda is a V8 convertible with a stick!
I don’t get it either.
Chevy sold vans with the 6.0 for decades, why would I want to buy someone else’s 45 year old half-finished project?
Maybe they are protest votes from rotary fanboys?
As with so many automobiles, the older ones look better, that’s why.
I think it is because the Mazda is incomplete. and what has been done so far looks a little sketchy, from some of the welds to to the ill fitting TR8 type hood. I think if maybe the car was a few years newer body style, say a 93 and up I might have gone for it. but I can actually use the van as is right now.
BTW it is named the Ark also because it says the guys name at the end “Noah”. I would want to put some white corrugaed plastic wall liner in that old beast an yeah it might nee something to get the funky skunk smell out, but it should tow all day with little trouble.
As of now MAZDA for the lead. And I concur. I can smell that van’s interior thru my laptop screen…new seat covers don’t eliminate the stench of too much fun.
[Author’s note to the editor’s note: I didn’t count the GS, because it’s not a sports car. Same with the Ro-80. And I didn’t count the Aerovette because I’m not sure it ever actually ran and drove.]
I believe the aerovette (XP-895 & XP-897, they didn’t call it the aerovette until later when the rotaries were replaced with a V8) did run and drive, but there was also the very pretty XP-987 from GM that was operational too:
You didn’t count the Ro-80, but you still counted NSU as one of the three manufacturers because of the Spider, right?
Ah, you did, I see the link for the NSU spider now- at first all I saw was the Mercedes C111 link.
Yeah, if the GS is a sports car, so’s the Lada 21079.
CP for both of them, but if I had to choose… the Mazda all the way.