x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Monstrous modified car is a Triumph for Dr Frankenstein

Car nut Ken Hiebert decided to fit a massive GM engine into the tiny British Triumph sports car – and it works.

The General Motors V8 pumps out 275hp and more than 407Nm of torque, much more than the original Triumph engine. David Booth for The National
The General Motors V8 pumps out 275hp and more than 407Nm of torque, much more than the original Triumph engine. David Booth for The National

It's so deliciously odd that you wonder why someone hadn't thought of it before. After all, Carroll Shelby made an absolute fortune stuffing AC Aces full of Ford V8s and the Jenson Interceptor hid a Chrysler 440 (with available Six Pack carburetion, no less) under its bonnet.

Nevertheless, Toronto-based Ken Hiebert's Triumph TR6 stands out for two reasons. First, it still seems incredibly tiny, even compared with the relatively diminutive Cobra. Other than that gaping front bonnet scoop, which Hiebert labels "gauche" and will be replaced just as soon as he has time to paint his spare one and 17 x 8 Cobra R rims, this classic wolf in sheep's clothing looks as underpowered as the day it left the factory.

Of course, there's nothing underpowered about Hiebert's TR6, crammed as it is full of Pontiac Trans-Am V8, with Corvette additions. Just the thought of that much torque in such a small car is enough to give any street racer the heebie-jeebies but, in the case of Hiebert's TR6, the transformation is that much more dramatic. You see, while British TR6's 2.5L inline six pumped out as much as 150hp, North American models got a much weedier (for emissions reasons) version rated as low as 104hp. Grafting that massive 5.7L General Motors V8 into its engine bay, then, is akin to strapping an aircraft turbine engine to a motorcycle.

The other reason Hiebert's car stands out is that the transformation is so meticulously crafted. When I first spotted the over-engined little runabout, I wasn't nearly as dumfounded by the fact that someone had found a way of fitting a huge American V8 into such a tiny British engine bay, but that some meticulous engineer had found a way to make it look as if it had rolled off a production line, so tidy was the conversion. Of course, one could reason that Hiebert had to fastiduously engineer his Frankenstein because TR6s came with so many truly troublesome English components; Joseph Lucas electrics, suspect rear differentials and clutches seemingly made from Plasticine to name but a few.

But neither the radical motor-ectomy nor the meticulous wrenching are the biggest surprise in Hiebert's repertoire. Nope, it's only after you find out this is the first car he's ever built, does your jaw truly drop. Indeed, it's the first car he ever really worked on. Prior to TR6 ownership, he was your basic change-the-oil-and-spark-plugs backyard mechanic. But, as he describes it, he had a two-bay garage with a Triumph-sized hole and he knew he wanted something different. And, although he actually bought the Triumph with a V8 already installed, precious little remains of that car. He's done far too much to detail on this page but, just as an indication of the metamorphosis, in installing the LT1 Trans-Am motor, he converted the car to electronic fuel injection, meaning that all Joseph Lucas's nightmare wiring had to be replaced. Also, major portions of the body have been hacked to pieces and then re-welded because the original conversion had the Ford eight-inch rear differential banging against the rear bulkhead. Indeed, finding anything other than the paint (which Hiebert admits needs a refresh) that remains of the underlying TR6, or the original conversion ,is rare. For a guy who barely knew how to change his oil filter, it was a monumental project (one that, incidentally, took seven years).

The crazy thing is that the whole thing works. Oh, the ride is pretty rough because the springs have been beefed up to take the extra weight of that big V8 and the extra grip of the Falken 245/45R17 radials (replacing the original's skinny little 185/80R15s). Nonetheless, it handles - on smooth roads, at least - extraordinarily well. Good enough for Hiebert to participate in competitive autocross racing. And, in a small nod to normality, Hiebert has declined to hot-rod the big American V8. It pumps 275hp - and more than 407Nm of torque - to the rear wheels in current guise. Any more would have the poor TR6's frame twisting itself into pretzel every time you dumped the clutch. I can vouch for this as I gave it full welly as soon as I got behind the wheel.

It's also amazing how well the entire plot works as an ordinary car. Other than a complete - and, by my reckoning, lamented - absence of power steering, the steroidal Triumph is as civil as anything off General Motors' production line. In fact, the little British sports car feels more sophisticated than the last Trans-Am I drove. Everything - from the brakes to the windscreen wipers - works just as it should. Hiebert has averaged about 15,000 kilometres a year for the last four years in daily driving, only putting the Triumph on blocks when the first snowfall of Canadian winter hits.

And subversion, just like rust, never sleeps. Hiebert has yet another, far-more-decrepit, junkpile in the driveway awaiting his ministrations. Along with all manner of modernisations - brakes, suspension and modern fuel injection - it too will get a V8 transformation, though this time with a genuine Corvette V8.

It's a Jaguar E-Type coupé. Purists are already up in arms.