The '70s were a mixed bag for car enthusiasts. On one hand, traditional performance cars were evaporating quickly: Compression ratios were dropping like suicidal lovers off the Golden Gate Bridge; catalytic converters cleaned the air but smothered performance in its crib; park-bench bumpers grew on the front and rear of just about every car sold in America, adding weight and sapping what power was left. Insurance companies had killed traditional American performance, and whatever was left was mopped up by the first OPEC crisis. For 1970, GM offered a 370-gross-horsepower, high-revving 350-cube small-block; by 1976, the same displacement in a 4500-pound Chevy Impala offered just 145hp from the factory. Bleh.
That left the door wide open for a performance-hungry populace to discover newer, more efficient machines. Smaller and lighter, the new breed of performance car needed less power to deliver better performance. Datsun's Z-car was a natural choice: Its low-slung body, sexy good looks and anvil-like reliability won it thousands of friends, and millions more admirers. A power rating of 150 horses didn't sound awful, considering how much lighter the car was.
But for some, the Z-car wasn't quite enough. The tire-roasting torque of the muscle car era just wasn't available from the inline-six; the Z was in many ways too refined, not guttural enough. It was only a matter of time before someone dropped bigger power into a Z. Enter Brian Morrow, founder/owner/president of Scarab, who engineered the small-block-Chevy-into-a-Datsun-Z swap. Breathe on the engine, bring it up to pre-emissions levels and voila! The SBC weighed about the same as the all-iron straight-six that was removed for the conversion and set back slightly for improved weight distribution. More power, same weight, better handling... who could complain? (See sidebar for more.)
But that was the 1970s; technology, the small-block Chevy and the Datsun Z have all moved on in the decades since. Advances in specifications have allowed five- and six-speed transmissions; advances in technology allow programmable fuel injection for increased performance and tires that are far less likely to be spinning at the end of a quarter-mile run; advances in materials have made components and bodywork alike lighter and stronger. Some of these have come from the aftermarket, and some (in the case of the engine) came from Chevrolet.
Witness the LT1, known also as the "Gen II" small-block. It was a revelation when it came out in the 1992 Corvette: a genuine 300 net flywheel horsepower, numbers that hadn't been seen since the early 1970s. (The LT1 was named to remind people of those heady high-performance days). A year later, it would show up in greater numbers in the fourth-generation Camaro Z28 and Firebird Trans Am and Formula lines, with a rated 275hp. There were improvements over previous small-block iterations: aluminum cylinder heads (though the block remained cast iron), up-to-date fuel-injection software and a so-called "reverse-cooling" system, which starts coolant flow at the heads and down into the block and keeps the aluminum heads cooler while allowing greater spark advance and a higher compression ratio.
There were some constants as well: The rotating assembly was interchangeable with millions of earlier SBCs, meaning there was a ready-made aftermarket full of parts that would fit this new engine. By 1996, an even hotter version, called LT4, was available for select Corvette models: improved breathing for the intake and heads, a more radical cam profile and 1.6 roller rockers in those new aluminum heads.
And it was around this time, the mid-1990s, that 18-year-old Darius Khashabi fell in love with a 240Z that had previously been converted to small-block Chevy power. "This car had been converted to V8 power in the early '80s; I have a stack of receipts from previous owners that shows that money was dumped into this car for years. It had bubble flares when I got it, and eventually a buddy and I hung new quarters on it and made it look stock-bodied again. I let a friend borrow it, he crashed it, then we tore it down, painted it black and upgraded to the LT1."
Now, Darius makes his living as a motorcycle stunt rider. Replicating the two-wheeled thrills of his day job would take some doing, you'd think...but in terms of power and the minimalism, we'd say he's just about as close as he can get to a four-wheeled bike. "I added a supercharger in 2000," he says. "Quickly, I discovered that it was just too much power; I needed wider tires in order to hook up, which meant I needed a widebody, and I started the transformation that you see today."
Currently, Darius has a machine that would blow anyone's mind. There is precious little Datsun left: The body is entirely fiberglass, except the roof (with the fenders blistered out to accommodate 12-inch-wide rubber); the fuel-injected, pump-gas-fed, supercharged 650hp engine, and the attendant driveline that handles it, is all aftermarket-fortified GM, save for the 300ZX rear end; the interior has been gutted, bar seats and belts, an eight-point 'cage, the factory dash shape full of Auto Meter gauges and six-point harnesses; the chassis has been completely transformed beyond the scope of anything Nissan's engineers would have dreamed of for a full-race machine, much less a fun weekend cruiser its owner uses to "take downtown and scare people." And he doesn't even have to be going fast to do it. "The exhaust are twin 3-inch pipes with a stainless muffler that's pretty much straight through, like a cherry bomb," he says. "They pretty much don't do anything. It's stupid loud. You drive it for a while, then you're like, 'Get me out of this thing!'"
As if a display of its power—20 pounds of boost through a stroker 383-cube LT1, informed by an ACCEL Thruster brain, fed by 80-pound injectors, sparked by coil-on-plug technology that has long since surpassed the dodgy Optispark distributor—wouldn't do that on its own. But all of the inconvenience, all of the bespoke adapting of components, all of the effort, all of the money, is in the name of speed. "I took it to a Shift-S3ctor half-mile event, and I got it up to 159mph. A buddy with a Ferrari 458 went through the traps at 158mph, and a McLaren MP4-12C went through at 161mph, so I was right up there with other cars that had similar horsepower to mine. And mine doesn't have any wind-tunnel shaping like those did."
And somehow, that's not enough for Darius, grumbling that he can top out at a theoretical 174mph. "I asked for 8.5:1 compression from the engine builder, but when I measured the pistons in the bore, they were a quarter-inch from even with the deck. With different pistons, I'd be making 850 hp." Events like Shift-S3ctor's have fueled Darius' desire to tweak his combination for maximum results. "The motor's coming out, and I'm going to raise it to 9.5:1 compression and run race gas. I'll have the T56 rebuilt and maybe a 3.13 final drive ratio—it's got a 3.73 now. I'd like to do one of their mile-long events and go 200."
That 200-mile-an-hour mile is a long way from the 1970s.
The Cobra of the '70s
from the February 1976 Motor Trend
Never heard of Scarab? Most, save for hard-core early-Z fans, will not remember. Scarab dropped breathed-on small-block Chevy power between the front fenders of a Datsun Z-car. A few hundred of Brian Morrow's Scarabs were built at the San Jose conversion facility, but more crucially, Scarab sold thousands of kits to budding power-seekers. That kit is, quite likely, the basis for the Z that Darius bought in the mid-1990s. As it happens, our cousins across the hall at Motor Trend tested an early Scarab in 1976. Here's what they had to say:
"Slam the throttle down, and the car leaps forward, accompanied by the shriek of tires grabbing for traction. The tachometer needle climbs swiftly and smoothly to the 6000rpm redline. Almost too soon, it's time to shift again; and the delicious feel of acceleration starts all over again, until the trees and fence posts blur into a solid guard rail beside the road. It is exciting, to say the least. Where the Scarab really comes to life, though is on twisting mountain roads with climbing and diving turns connected by short straights. It is on these roads, with their demands on a vehicle's transitional handling qualities, that the Scarab displays its character."
That was in a 2600-pound car with 350 flywheel horsepower; it tripped the beams in 14 seconds flat at 104mph. Darius' car is hundreds of pounds lighter, and has nearly double the power.
Chevrolet's small-block V8, dating clear back to the fall of 1954, has been America's go-to mill of choice for almost as long as it's been alive. Fuel-injected as early as 1957, the SBC has even been the engine of choice among small, independent foreign-car companies that needed a strong, reliable, cheap engine for their hyper-expensive Grand Touring machines. British Gordon-Keeble used Chevy power in their eponymous Giugiaro-styled coupes; Italian Iso took the SBC on board for their luxurious Rivolta, Grifo, Fidia and Lele (through '72, anyway); and all of Italian upstart Bizzarrini's meager output utilized Chevy power. (You can't really count the 283-cube Opel Diplomats of the mid-'60s or 327/350-fronted Holden Monaros of the late '60s, since both are GM divisions...but they crushed it all the same.)
You'll see two other cars lurking about this story. The first is an '07 Z06 Corvette and is Darius' daily driver. Not one to leave a car stock, he's added a ZR1 wing, side skirts and front splitter, a set of 20-inch iForged wheels, a Synergy Motorsports cam, Cook's headers and an Akropovic exhaust. Compared to his Z, the Z06 is just lightly breathed on and puts out 553hp at the rear wheels.
The GT-R is a 2010 model owned by Darius' buddy Admir Besic, who specified a Switzer P800 kit. It includes a high-flow intake and injectors, ball-bearing turbo upgrades, high-pressure wastegate actuators, high-flow down pipes, larger intercoolers, stainless 102mm exhaust system and more. The combination is good for 600whp on pump gas and 700whp on race fuel.
We show you these two as a basis for comparisons. Darius and Admir have raced these three cars in every possible combination. "I've raced my Z06 against the GT-R on pump gas, and they were dead even," Darius says." That's a bit of a surprise, until you realize that the Nissan weighs about half a ton more and has to overcome the additional frictional losses that all-wheel-drive naturally incurs.
And how does the Z fare in all this, with about 750 pounds less than the Corvette and nearly a ton lighter than the R35? "We've raced the Z against the GT-R a bunch," Darius tells us. "Against my Z, the GT-R with race gas was dead even. But the Z against the Corvette, the Datsun just walks away!"