This LS-Swapped Buick Century Wagon Is a Land-Yachting, Off-Road Champ
Reliability and capability are overrated.
It didn’t take long for Gordan Bettles to find himself in a position that very few other racers do. His 1978 GMC Jimmy he built for off-roading was “far too capable and reliable,” he said. In other words, it was too good. Too good for the Gambler and all he wanted to do was make his life harder.
So, he did. Bettles and his friend were looking for the opposite of good when it comes to off-roading and landed on an inevitable pick: a Malaise-era land yacht that was neither reliable nor especially capable off-road. They result was a Buick Century wagon they saved from the crusher. The junkyard owners gave it to Bettles for free, which was a surprise: the massive wagon started and drove just fine.
Back at home, the wagon was parked in Bettles’ yard for about a year before they decided to wrench on it for real. Out came the factory 403 V-8 three-speed automatic and in went an LQ4 V-8 with a four-speed automatic from a heavy-duty pickup from his dad. It wasn’t a perfect fit, Bettles says he had to fabricate a few motor and transmission mounts, which is probably putting things lightly. The big rig still ran a stock ECU but needed a new fuel pump—more on that later.
Not content with a hot-rod wagon, Bettles turned to the suspension for his newfound off-road land yacht. The wagon’s front springs and shocks were taken from a 1995 Chevy 1500, which gave it nearly five inches of lift already. In the back, coil springs from a 1988 Ford F-150 paired well with shocks from the Chevy to complete the lift. There was enough room to slide in BFGoodrich 32-inch tires at all four corners, and the build was complete. Bettles dubbed it the “Evergreen Cargo Ship,” fitting since he lives in British Columbia.
Back to the fuel pump: it was a cheap online buy and performed as expected. Bettles said it ran rough if it wasn’t warmed up. What also ran warm? The rear end predictably was confused with a heavy-duty four-speed upstream and massive BFG 32s at the rear. That’ll probably need replacing, too. Nonetheless, Bettles said once he welded the differential, it performed well in the Gambler’s mud pits—even rescuing other vehicles.
What’s next? Bettles said he’d like to fit a Ford 9-inch rear axle for better gearing although he might want to consider something different if some of his other plans work out. He said he’s looking to boost the LQ4 with a turbocharger that would bump the power output to “500 to 600 hp,” or enough to give the new Ford 9-inch rear axle a lot to think about.
None of that is surprising from the person who said capable and reliable were boring.
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