Australia really is one of the lucky countries when it comes to Japanese import engines. Those second-hand land-of-the-rising-sun engines have been flooding into Australia for many years now; but it appears we're now taking it for granted and becoming complacent.
Where have all those ingenious backyard conversions gone?
Not so long ago, it was the 'done thing' to grab a cruddy old Nissan/Datsun Bluebird (usually of the TRX variety) and sling in an import FJ or SR20DET engine and 5-speed 'box. These DOHC 2-litre engines - even in standard form - gave around 200 horsepower straight off the bat. With just basic exhaust, air intake, intercooling and boost mods, you could realistically transform your TRX yawn-mobile into a smokin' 13-second strip performer. It was fantastic.
This type of conversion usually involved things like fiddling engine and gearbox mounts, cooling system, installing an EFI-spec high-pressure fuel system plus new throttle and gearbox linkages. The exhaust was usually changed as a matter of course. It was by no means a quick job, because a lot of time had to be spent on the wiring side of things and - more often than not - you had to throw a fair bit of cash at an aftermarket programmable injection system and its tuning.
The wiring and engine management was - and remains - the toughest part of any engine conversion.
But, again, Australia is blessed with incredibly cheap programmable EFI technology. We've got MoTeC, Autronic, Wolf, MicroTech, EMS and other brands all produced locally and available for a fraction of the cost of systems in many other countries. And, of course, the current selection of systems - even the el-cheapos - is m-i-l-e-s better than the old screwdriver adjustable systems we used to play around with in the earlier days. Nobody in the industry likes to talk about those crude things anymore!
So - getting back to it - we once used to grab a cheap car, a cheap-but-potent import engine, install cheap management and reap the benefits on the street. What's happened to that idea?
Perhaps there are less DIY conversions happening because cars like S4 RX-7 turbos, 180SXs, VR4s and WRXs can now be had for such affordable prices. When you can buy a stockie 15.0-second VR4 with all the trimmings for around 12 grand, why would you bother toiling away day after day performing some obscure engine conversion in your ill-equipped and too-small home garage?
I can see the logic, but surely there are people out there that get the buzz out of the total DIY approach.
More likely, I reckon it's because those Bluebird-esque type vehicles have got too old and there are no rear-wheel-drive vehicles to take their place. Most Japanese cars delivered in Australia after about 1986 have been front tyre burners.
But that shouldn't stop you.
Many people have the opinion front-wheel-drive engine/trans conversions are next to impossible - and that simply is not the case. When it comes time to dropping in that engine/transmission assembly into the engine bay, the only additional hassle is getting drive from the transaxle to the wheels. The solution (if other off-the-shelf driveshafts won't do the trick) are custom chrome-moly shafts; they don't cost the Earth like everyone seems to think. See "Front Wheel Drive Shafting" for our archive story on manufactured driveshafts. Note that, in some cases, you'll find you can bolt the donor engine straight on to the car's original transaxle - its ratios might not suit the new engine perfectly, but it makes things considerably easier and cheaper if it'll 'hold out'.
What so kind of FWD conversions are possible?
Well, off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few. Beginning with Nissan stuff, why not drop a CA18DET straight into the snout of a N13 Pulsar/EXA - or how 'bout an SR20DET into the nose of an N14? I've even heard of both the CA and SR engines going into early-to-mid '80s N12 bodies!
Oh, and here's another Nissan oddball. Grab a 1991 Pintara TRX - complete with its factory front viscous LSD - and slot in the later model 112kW KE24DE engine (out of the dumpy style Bluebird). The standard Pintara FWD engine is a 96kW KE24E, so the family resemblance should mean a conversion is easily achievable. What's more, you have access to local parts and wiring diagrams.
Toyotas. Why, oh why aren't more people slotting 4A-GZEs into late model Toyota Corollas? Keep the boost mild and you'll have a reliable street-quick hatch with excellent economy, practicality and handling. They make a great little package - far better than the locally delivered 100kW 4A-GE high-rpm screamer.
But the one I'd really love to see someone do locally is drop the 4-door Echo's 1.5-litre four into the lightweight 3-door (as it's offered in some other parts of the world). The next move would be to grab the HKS turbo kit designed for the Toyota Bb van, design your own turbo and intercooler system and set the thing up to run - say - 14/15s.
Drop it, cram some crazy wheel in each guard and you'd have an absolute ball of fun.
Many readers may recall the once cult status of the Suzuki Swift GTi. For a budget thrill, you could grab a hacked-out early model GTi and then pick up a G16A SOHC 1.6-litre engine (or just the bottom-end, if available). Drop the GTi's DOHC head atop the 1.6-litre block and you're talking somewhere around the 95kW mark - and with plenty of torque. Aftermarket management would almost certainly be essential in this conversion, however.
So you want something even more surprising? Try a Suzuki Mighty Boy ute with a F6A or F6B 660cc turbo engine up front! These li'l rippers make around 47kW and 87Nm in standard form - but big percentage gains are easily achieved with normal intake, exhaust, intercooler and boost mods.
Daihatsu have made a few lethal pocket rocket engines too. The 78kW 1-litre twin-cam CB70 turbo is an ideal drop-in into a lightweight G11 Charade. It'll also go into the G100 (the body that the CB70 came released in over in Japan). Tinier still are the 45kW EF-JL 660cc turbo engines. Drop one of these beasties into your Mira and give it the grunt to surprise a few traffic light punters - a similar scale package to the Mighty Boy.
Any what about Mitsubishis? You can buy 1.6-litre DOHC turbo that'll slide into the front of a pre-'93 Lancer, and - getting tricky - a 2-litre DOHC turbo (a la VR4) will go into the front of a Hyundai Sonata. And don't forget the awesome MIVEC 1.6-litre driveline - these would make an ideal transplant into various cheap'n'cheery Mitsus.
No doubt you get the idea - the possibilities for conversions are vast.
I'll wrap it up with a prime example of the sort of conversions I'm thinking of - the KC Ford Laser owned by Adelaide resident Mark Smith. Mark has introduced the 1.8-litre Eunos 30X-type engine to the underbonnet scenery of his FWD Laser and - more recently - he's upgraded to the big 2.5-litre V6 out of a local 626. All 121kW of it (plus a bit more with exhaust and intake mods).
So next time you pull up next to something like a VR4, image how gratifying I'd be to blow it off behind the wheel of your personally modified Laser!