One of the star unveil cars of Summernats 31 was Craig Morrow's innovative and insanely tough VH SL/E
This article on Craig's VH Commodore was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Street Machine magazine
EVEN if you’re not into first-generation Commodores, you probably know they never came with a bench-seat option. But Craig Morrow’s has one, to go along with the swag of awards he took home at Summernats 31, including outright including outright Tuff Street Champion.
Craig’s mini-tubbed 1050hp VH, known as ST1NKY, wowed punters in Canberra thanks to the way he integrated original SL/E styling elements (like the cool single-spoke tiller), along with mods from different eras, all sitting on a drag-ready engineering platform. And he’ll get the neckbeards crying with rage when they hear he started with a genuine 308 VH SL/E!
Watch the video: Craig's VH Commodore at Summernats 31
“I’ve always been a one-eyed Holden man,” Craig says. “I love the SL/E Commodores and anything from the 80s. I purchased this car from eBay in 2014 for $2300. While it needed a full rebuild, it is a genuine five-litre SL/E.”
Behind the 17x4.5in Weld Magnum front wheels are Wilwood four-pot disc brakes. They’re hung off a Castlemaine Rod Shop mounting kit, connecting to the custom Pro9 MacPherson struts that use a double-adjustable AFCO shock and AFCO spring, topped with Tuff Mounts covers. At the bottom they tie to the VL Commodore manual steering rack via a McDonald Bros tube K-frame using factory bottom ball-joints and rose-joints
What became a finely detailed Top 60 Elite-level showpiece actually started with the goal of eight-second timeslips, and was never meant to end up taking home trophies at Australia’s top car show.
“Originally we didn’t want to go too custom; we just wanted to go fast. I also wanted to drive it to my wedding, but we only missed that deadline by about two years,” Craig laughs.
“After my daughter and I got it home we stripped the car and cut the rear out, then sent it off to Nathan Lloyd at Fabrication Techniques to build a four-link rear to fit the 15x10 Weld Magnum wheels and 325/50 M&H Racemaster tyres.”
A rear end that beefy was needed to handle the near-1100hp blown LS that was destined for the VH, built by John Pilla at Powerhouse Engines. The block is an RHS 4.125-inch-bore alloy LS3-style unit, taken to 427ci thanks to forged JE pistons and a Callies DragonSlayer four-inch crank, joined by 6.125-inch Callies Ultra I-beam rods.
Now the car is done, Craig is itching to stretch its legs. “I will definitely take it to Calder after MotorEx,” he says. “I’ve been driving it and I have to pull myself back a bit, as just getting used to the power has taken a bit of time. It drives really straight and nicely, but it turns the tyres in any gear. If it wasn’t scary it wouldn’t have been worth all the money!”
Based off the LS3 rectangle-port format, the heads are Mast Motorsport’s 12° Black Label 280cc castings, jammed full of good gear like 2.2-inch titanium intake valves and 1.6-inch Inconel exhaust valves, T&D 1.8-ratio shaft-mounted rockers, and dual PAC valve springs, pushed around by Morel tie-bar lifters and a 234°/254° Mast cam. Mast also supplied a full ARE dry-sump oil system, including four-stage oil pump and alloy pan, with a Peterson tank holding the black gold.
That A-grade hardware is needed to hold 11psi worth of hurt from the huge four-litre Whipple PD blower. The charge-air is ingested through a 102mm billet electronic throttle from Yella Terra, compressed, and then cooled by a water-to-air system that uses a custom PWR-made heat exchanger living out the front of the car, next to the custom PWR alloy radiator.
Lilow Auto Tech made a custom CNC alloy bracket to hold the MSD Dynaforce 160A alternator, which hangs out on the front of the tough 7.0L donk with a Meziere electric water pump and ATI Super Damper balancer. The VH is kept at operating temperature thanks to a custom 68mm PWR alloy radiator and 16in Spal thermo fans, while PWR also designed the custom heat exchanger for the big Whipple pump
So far the combo has made 1045hp and 870lb-ft on the Powerhouse engine dyno, running 11.8psi of boost. Craig had Fabrication Techniques build a road-legal exhaust system using two-inch four-into-one headers, running into a twin three-inch system that uses four Hooker mufflers to get the big LS under 90dB.
There were many hours of work in the engine bay. “I modified the right-hand engine bay skirt to accept the dry-sump tank; then we fabricated the crossmember mount for the radiator and intercooler,” Craig explains. “The firewall was cut to accept the intake for the blower, and the whole engine bay was welded for a smooth finish”
Jason at Burko Transmissions put together a three-speed TH400 using a Reid case and bellhousing, Vasco input shaft, B&M pan, Hughes Pro Brake, and stuffed with TCI hardware, while the converter is a TCE 4600rpm unit.
Race Products in Sydney supplied the 3.5-inch sheet-metal housing, with 35-spline full-floating hubs and custom axles. The nine-inch Strange HD alloy centre uses a Strange S-Trac carrier, Motive 3.50 gearset and Strange moly yoke centre, built by Shawn Carroll in Shepparton. It has been mounted using Pro9 four-link brackets that Nathan from Fabrication Techniques installed.
“The diff uses Wilwood disc brakes and internal handbrake, with Pro9 double-adjustable AFCO shocks and both upper and lower suspension arms and bracketry,” says Craig. “Pro9 also supplied some sexy blue billet anti-roll bars, which Nathan fitted between the boot and tubs. He then added moly tube to hold the Deist parachute and steeled out the boot and wheel tubs.”
“The airbox is made from fibreglass and we modified the Alfa Fibreglass reverse-cowl bonnet to bring air in from the rear of the scoop,” Craig says. “After many hours this was achieved, but the bonnet gaps were too wide, so Peter Clarke and I widened the bonnet 8mm and lengthened it 7mm to help Maskell’s achieve the 5mm gaps they wanted”
Fabrication Techniques also fitted chassis connectors to keep the twist down, before the trans tunnel was lifted up and the floor modified to allow a quartet of mufflers to keep the LS’s bark within EPA rules. Nathan also got the job of designing and making the six-point moly ’cage, which includes taxi and intrusion bars, before he made the whole exhaust system from headers to tailpipes.
The VH shell then had a date with local soda-blasters, who did the external body panels in soda and then sand-blasted the undercarriage, engine bay and boot to ensure no rust could remain hidden. Craig then set about fitting the drivetrain using Tuff Mounts engine and ’box mounts, and finishing the engine bay to perfection.
E85 juice is held in an Aftermarket Industries 75L tank fitted with three Walbro 460 pumps. They push the ethanol down Aeroflow hardlines to Bosch 1650cc injectors sitting in the Whipple fuel rails. The fuel load is controlled by a Haltech Elite 2500, and ignited by GM coils using MSD 8mm leads
The VH was then trial-assembled to ensure no cutting or fab work had to occur after the shell was painted. Craig took this time to rewire the car with mate Ross Bell, before it was loaded on the trailer to have the Haltech ECU tuned by Jason at Tunnel Vision in Melbourne.
Craig reckons he got the tune bang-on. “Even though the car can blow the tyres off most of the time, Jason got a good tune in it and it starts mint every time.”
From there ST1NKY went home to be stripped, before it was taken to Greg Maskell at Maskell’s Customs & Classics to be coated in paint many would consider far too nice for a race car!
“Greg and the boys painted the undercarriage in KBS black, so I can drive her and not worry about too much damage,” Craig says. “PPG came to the party with its straight black and white tinter, and a custom red mix for the interior.”
Interestingly, while the two-tone black roof looks like it was always meant to be there, Craig had originally wanted something different again. “I wanted the shell a really clean white, but the painted black roof was my second option. Originally I wanted an authentic vinyl roof, but the trim moulds were impossible to find.
“Greg then delivered her home in the second week of November. With the Summernats debut only six weeks away, we worked every day on her, and with some help from Peter Clarke to finish the enclosed trailer and my son Corey, we got the car finished the day we were leaving for Summernats.”
ST1NKY caused a huge stir at ’Nats 31, starting with its turn as one of the cars featured in the Megiuar’s Great Unveil on the Friday night. Along with placing in the Top 60 Elite, Craig’s VH went on to take out Best Pro Tuff and Tuff Street Champion.
One of the biggest talking points at the VH’s unveiling was the amazing work on the interior, which pays tribute to the iconic SL/E but includes wild touches like the bench seat and B&M shifter mounted in the custom dash.
Craig explains how it all came to be. “I have to thank Paul at Customized Auto Trimmers in Shepparton for the job he did on ST1NKY,” he begins. “I wanted a six-seater car for my wedding, so I decided to put in a bench seat from an HR Holden. I spent 50 hours modifying just the frame to fit the VH and changed to ribbed carmine velour from an SL/X to match the straight lines of the Commodore I had in mind, instead of the SL/E’s flat velour.
“I then modified the gearbox tunnel so it was smooth, and I repositioned the handbrake to inside the right-hand sill using a Lokar cable set-up. With no console, the dash was reconfigured to accommodate the B&M Quicksilver shifter with reverse pattern, so I built a custom dash, and the top of the passenger side was covered with vinyl padding for engineering certification.
“I purchased a Haltech IQ3 dash to run my gauges. Starting with the IQ3’s shape, I designed the binnacle to complement the instruments, and I included the transbrake toggle switches. While fabricating the dash I incorporated the parachute pull lever close to the steering wheel for easy access, and made cut-outs for the rollcage.
“I added the black trim to mimic the original SL/E dash panel, and retained the original steering wheel, though we designed an insert to carry the transbrake button. I also used the original VH brake pedal arm with a fluted rubber pedal that mimics the VE electronic accelerator pedal.
“I handmade the two-person rear seat from plywood to leave the tubs exposed. Then, with the parcel shelf looking out of place, I cut it all out to start fresh, putting in forward-facing speakers, repositioning the seatbelts, and adding a large SL/E symbol CNC-machined out of MDF, with CNC-machined Perspex lettering that Lilow Auto Tech had to cut twice, as I scratched the first set fitting them. This panel was needed to incorporate access to the anti-roll bar for adjustments.
“The roof panel, floors and sill panels were designed to smooth out the bumpy factory Commodore design. The SL/E symbols in the scuff plates were CNC-machined by Lilow Auto Tech, while Geoff Sutton from Yarroweyah Panels painted them black and cleared them nicely, including the inner door handle sets.”
1983 HOLDEN VH COMMODORE SL/E
Paint: PPG white with black roof
Brand: RHS alloy LS3
Induction: Whipple 4.0L blower, Yella Terra 102mm electronic throttle
Conrods: Callies Ultra I-beam
Pistons: JE 2618 forged
Crank: Callies DragonSlayer
Camshaft: Mast 234/254 three-core hydraulic-roller
Oil system: Four-stage ARE oil pump, dry-sump pan, Peterson tank
Heads: Mast Black Label 12°
Lifters: Morel tie-bar
Rockers: T&D shaft-mount 1.8
ECU: Haltech Elite 2500
Fuel system: Bosch 1650cc injectors, three Walbro 460 pumps
Cooling: Custom PWR radiator, Spal 16in fans
Exhaust: Custom 2in primaries, twin 3in system
Ignition: GM coils, MSD leads
Gearbox: GM three-speed TH400, Reid case, Vasco input shaft, TCI internals
Converter: TCE 4600
Diff: Sheet-metal 9in, 35-spline axles, Strange S-Trac centre, 3.5:1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front: McDonald Bros tube K-frame, adjustable Pro9 AFCO strut, VL manual steering rack
Rear: Pro9 AFCO adjustable coil-over struts, billet mounts, custom four-link
Brakes: Wilwood four-pot discs (f & r)
Master cylinder: Holden V8 booster & master, CVR 12-volt vacuum pump
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Weld Magnum; 17x4.5 (f), 15x10 (r)
Rubber: M&H Racemaster; 185/55 (f), 325/50 (r)