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How to make a '56 Austin into a muscle monster

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Bernie Van Kemenade's 1956 Austin A35

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Throughout the 1950s, the number of cars imported to Canada continued to increase. Vehicles from European countries were smaller, more fuel-efficient and cost substantially less than the chrome-laden behemoths churned out by North American manufacturers.

The British Austin goes back to the early days of the automobile -- its first vehicle was produced in 1906. By the 1940s, Austin was gaining a following in North America and, by 1948, there were many showing up on the road in Canada.

The A40 compact sedans were considered practical, economical to operate and had a reputation for being durable and offering passable performance. Coupled with a low price, growing numbers of small-car fans found it irresistible.

By 1956, Austin added park and signal lights on the 34-horsepower A35 model but retained the 50-miles-per-gallon fuel consumption that buyers wanted.

It wasn't only frugal customers who noticed the Austin. Drag racers were also starting to eye the lightweight unibody compact as a candidate for a big engine swap. The rule of thumb was that to go the fastest, you had to stuff the largest engine into the lightest car. The Austin was a true diamond in the rough, just ready for a drag-strip conversion.

Today, however, the Austin is a rarity on the street or on the track, as many simply rusted away or were junked in favour of new cars.

Bernie Van Kemenade of Grosse Isle and his friend, Bruno Bevacqua, of Winnipeg, were looking for a project car that would occupy them one or two nights a week out of the winter months. So when their friend, Frank Seidel, offered them a mid-'60s Oldsmobile engine and transmission, they had a starting point.

The first winter was spent rebuilding the 425-cubic-inch Super Rocket V-8 and transmission. With 10.5:1 compression pistons, Edelbrock four-barrel carburetor and MSD ignition, it easily produces 375 horsepower at the flywheel.

The next task was to find a new home for this torque-monster V-8. Van Kemenade and Bevacqua are solid car enthusiasts, owning a '69 Dodge Charger and '64 Pontiac Custom Sport respectively, so this was a hunt for something really different.

"We wanted something that was unique and new, yet still had that old-school hotrod look," Van Kemenade said.

After checking out several candidates and even making an offer on an early0-'70s Gremlin X, they heard about a 1956 Austin 1956 A35.

"My brother-in-law, Luc Desaulniers in Morris, had an old Austin two-door that he was willing to part with, so we drove out to have a look," Bevacqua. said.

The Austin was complete and in very good condition, with only a few spots of rust on the front fenders and just a few minor dents, so the duo acquired it and went to work.

After a few months, the A35's body was massaged back into shape and a fresh coat of Dark Grey metallic base/clear paint applied, along with a custom "Olds School Hot Rod" mural on the trunk lid. New weather-stripping for the windows and doors was a tough find until it was sourced from a supplier in Australia. The Flying A hood ornament was also a challenge to locate and a much-needed piece, as it also triggers the latch for the hood.

To accept the large V-8 and automatic transmission, the unibody Austin was mounted on a frame constructed of two-by-four-inch steel tubing and a full roll cage constructed of two-inch heavy wall tubing. In front, a Chevy S10 frame clip was narrowed six inches and installed, giving the Austin power front disc brakes and power steering as well as a solid mounting point for the engine and Turbo 400 transmission.

In back, a '79 Trans Am 12-bolt Positraction rear axle with 3.55:1 final drive ratio was narrowed and fitted with resplined axles from a Ford nine-inch by Pro Gear.

"The hardest part was to get the engine and transmission down low enough in the chassis to mate up with the rear axle and the 14-inch driveshaft," Van Kemenade said.

Keeping the engine cool is a custom-built aluminum radiator with 16-inch electric fan. For the exhaust, there are no known headers to accommodate the engine swap, so Bevacqua and Van Kemenade fabricated their own, using two-inch tubing for the primary tubes, leading to a three-inch collector and a full four-inch custom dual exhaust system that exits just before the rear wheels.

To ensure the Austin stays in a straight line, there's a set of custom traction bars and full wheelie bars in back. The Austin rolls on steel wheels with new Austin hubcaps. There are 14-inch radials up front and the rear wheels are 10 inches wide, wrapped in 295-by-15-inch B.F.Goodrich T/A radials. To accommodate the thirsty V-8, there's also a new fuel cell.

The black vinyl interior features seatbelts, a black carpet, bucket seats from a 1994 Mustang GT and a custom-built stainless-steel dash insert with full gauge package. A full centre console from a '75 Dodge Charger was installed and houses all the switches for the ignition and lights.

Five years in the making, the Austin took in a few local shows last summer, including one trip to the 2012 Car Craft Summer Nationals in St. Paul, Minn.

"Over the weekend, there were thousands of people who looked over the Austin and asked questions," Van Kemenade said. "A show official even confirmed we were one of the Top 10 attractions."

A unique build of a hard-to-find car that pays homage to the drag cars and gassers of the past, this is one winter project that could warm anyone's heart.

 

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