Feature Cars
Feature Car: Newman's Own Recipe
By by: George Achorn
Feb 5, 2003, 19:48

If you turned back time to 1997 and tried to think of the most conservative "mom-mobile" on the road, the Volvo 960 station wagon was probably high on the list for just about anyone you might poll. In those days, as the SUV craze was still just burgeoning, Volvo's flagship stationwagon represented the safest and most unimposing method of transportation for soccer moms and dads alike. Is it any surprise then that self-proclaimed car buff and actor Paul Newman decided to choose the 960 as the basis of an idea he had been hatching to build what might be called ultimate undercover car.

Newman was not new to Volvos. He had in his possession a 740 wagon with a V6 engine that had been transplanted from a Buick Grand National. While the car was no slouch, it also wasn't very sorted out. The actor known for wily acting roles like Butch Cassidy, wanted something more refined.

From what we've been told by those involved on the project, Newman had always respected Volvos and had a sweet spot for Ford engines. He'd come across a mention of Ross Converse at Converse Engineering in a copy of Autoweek magazine. Converse had built his reputation shoehorning Ford's venerable 5.0-liter V8 into rear-wheel-drive Volvos for years, and makes his business of doing just that in the grand old state of Maine.

For round two of big displacement Volvo ownership, Converse was commissioned to build the vehicle. Newman elected to have one of his contacts, Michael Brockman, handle the orchestration of what was to be one of Converse's most ambitious transplants.

Initially, Ross Converse traveled to Connecticut to meet Newman and to give him an idea of what would be created. He had two customer-built Volvos with 5.0-liter transplants on hand for Newman to sample. Newman was sufficiently impressed, though he added that he wanted to start with a brand new 960. Not only would that assure a pristine starting point, but it also meant that the car Converse was to build would make use of the newer independent rear suspension found on newly updated 960s rolling out of dealerships..

Other details were also hatched out. The transplants would use new crate motors. Also, power levels of the car, it had been decided, would be increased through the use of a Kenne Bell supercharger.

One week later, Converse received a call from Brockman. As it happened, Newman had been in conversation with late night television host, David Letterman, and had talked him into an identical vehicle.

During an interview on a competing talk show, the late night talk show mogul described his communications with Newman as such.

Paul Newman calls me up and he says, "Dave, I'm thinking of getting me a Volvo station wagon, and I'm gonna stuff a Ford 302 V8 engine into it. Do you want one?"

So you know, I'm thinking a Volvo station wagon looks like something you'd make in metal shop, and every time you see a Volvo it's got three kids getting car sick on a golden retriever, and I'm thinking these cars are so safe because in traffic other motorists slow down to check out how ugly they are. So intellectually I don't want a Volvo, but of course, internally it's Paul Newman. I say, "Yes, I'd like one."

So I'm aware of the fact Paul is more excited about this than I am. He calls me up from time to time and he says, "Have you picked out the interior yet?" And I said, "No, I haven't." Then he calls two weeks ago, and he says, "Dave, the cars are ready. WE got two, on for me, one for you. I've got to ask you a question. Do you want a puffer?"

I'm thinking, well, is that like a special inflatable seat? And I said, "Well Paul, are you getting a puffer on yours?" And Paul says, "Yeah, yeah, I'm getting a puffer on mine. It's a supercharger. This thing will turn about 400 horsepower, so if you pop the clutch you're gonna tear up the rear end. I tell ya, from 20 to a hundred you can chew anybody's ass."

And, you know, I'm thinking to myself, what circumstance would Paul find himself in driving around in a Volvo station wagon where he feels like he's gotta chew somebody's ass? But when Paul Newman offers you a puffer, I mean, you take it. You don't turn down Paul Newman.

In the meantime, one of Newman's children was friends with a gentleman by the name of Ian Warburg who worked for a large company in Manhattan. Mr. Warburg was tickled with the idea and talked the president of his corporation into replacing a BMW M5 owned by the company with yet another of these 960 V8s.

Now combined with orders from Letterman and Warburg, Converse placed the order for three wagons. Three brand new 960s were acquired from a local dealer; a dark gray one for Newman, a burgundy car for Letterman and the third a navy blue car for Warburg. All three cars were fully loaded, though the blue car was the only one fitted with the third row seat.

Converse sourced three new Ford 5.0-liter V8 motors for the cars. Each was balanced and fitted with Edelbrock aluminum heads and a Kenne Bell supercharger.

Jim Bell from Kenne Bell, Inc. was instrumental in helping develop the setup to Newman's stringent quality criteria. Newman requested that the engine be dynoed, so each motor was prior to install. Converse experimented with different boost levels, and shared all hardware componentry specs with Bell, and Bell would burn a new chip for the custom configuration. They experimented with several software programs until they had one that worked satisfactorily.

With an optimized program, each motor was again dynoed to measure output. Converse tells us that they weighed in at around 380-horsepower and roughly 400 lb. ft. of torque.

The transmission installed in the car was a manual Mustang T5 sourced from D&D Performance in Michigan. The tail housing was sourced from the Camaro for its longer length. The hole for the transmission in the floor of the 960 (both 700 and 900 series cars to be exact ) sets back further and use of a standard Mustang T5 transmission and made it so the stub shaft of the Mustang's T5 would measure in at the front of the hole. By mating the back end of the Camaro's T5 to the front end of the Mustang T5, Converse was able to solve the problem.

Each of the three 960s was fitted with the same configuration. Since building these three cars, Converse has developed an extension piece that allows the standard Mustang T5 to fit, moving the stub shaft backwards so that it lines up with the hole.

To upgrade the suspension, Newman wanted the car lowered and fitted with larger diameter swaybars in an effort to help manage the power and hint to the car's much more sporting nature.

At the front of the car, Converse fitted ipd / TME lowering springs from the 740 series. At the time, these springs were the only ones offered as ipd hadn't yet introduced their 960 setup.

At the rear of the car, the all-new independent rear suspension presented an interesting puzzle. The setup, a transverse leaf spring system was so new to the market that no aftermarket upgrade was yet available. Converse contracted a local shop fabricate a fiberglass and steel leaf setup that resulted in lowering the car and firming up the ride.

As with the springs, the ipd / TME 740 front swaybar bolted on. However, at the rear, it was necessary for ipd to make three custom rear bars for the wagons.

Each car was fitted with 16-inch Borbet Type F 5-spoke wheels that, while not overly aggressive, helped to maintain the subtle exterior of the car without giving too much away regarding what lies beneath.

Inside, the cars were fitted with a Momo shift knob that was chosen in order to match Volvo's stock wood finish on each car's dashboard.

Finally built, each car was delivered to its respective owner.

As the blue car saw use in Manhattan, the president of the company that owned it opted to have the stock springs reinstalled into that 960. It was his opinion that the ride was too harsh for the less than perfect Manhattan streets.

In the meantime, while pleased with the car, Paul Newman wanted to improve the driveability even more. Kenne Bell, Inc. was again contacted and Bell eventually flew a technician to Newman's home in Connecticut. The tech was able to spend some seat time in the grey car and, with that experience, was able to optimize the software even more.

Whether or not the Letterman car or the blue car ever received the newest software remains unclear.

In a phone interview with Ross Converse, he believes that Newman and Letterman still own their cars. We were told that the blue car was eventually sold to the chairman of Mobil Oil. He owned it for some time and eventually sold it off.

The current owner, Brad Purfeerst if Pennsylvania, bought the car at a Volvo dealership. A car guy and a biking enthusiast, he used it as a chase vehicle for his bike team.

It was under Brad's ownership where we found the car. Up for sale on and not far from our offices, we chose to contact Brad in order to shoot the car and find out some more details.

According to Brad, the car ran a hotter than he would have liked. He sourced a 3-row radiator from Volvo for the car. Combining that with an adjustable fan switch seems to have cured the high-temperature problems.

Brad shared with us that one of the previous owners had also done a few other detail changes. The car's original undercoat was removed and the underbody was detailed in Chassis Black paint. The engine was pulled from car so that it could be refinished in Ford Grey paint. Finally, Aluminum fuel lines were installed and routed through the frame for more exhaust clearance.

Currently the car has roughly 40,000 miles on it and is easy to live with for day to day driving according to Brad. It never sold on Ebay, but the car is still for sale. It would seem Brad is in the middle of building his own 240 with a V8 transplant and, when combined with other projects, he's decided that perhaps it's time to part with the car.

For more discussion on this story, click on the link to our discussion forums to the left.
For more photos of the car in this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.

All information Copyright © 1999-2003 Swedespeed. All rights reserved.

No photos, news stories, graphics, or Swedespeed logos may be used or reproduced without written permission.
Volvo is a registered trademark of Volvo Car Corporation and Ford Motor Company. Swedespeed is an independent media publication and is not affiliated with or endorsed by Volvo Car Corporation