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Howard Bell interview

By Andrew Broadley | Photos: Nathan Jacobs, 14 Jun 2019 Features

Howard Bell interview

Howard Bell's tough-as-nails LITRE8 SL/R 5000 Torana has always been packed with innovative thinking. Four decades on, it's still one of Australia's favourite modified cars

HOWARD Bell’s relationship with his iconic big block-powered LX SL/R 5000 Torana, known as LITRE8, has spanned four decades and counting. He bought it brand new in April 1976 for $6800 – his annual salary at the time – and managed to leave it stock for a grand total of three months.

This article on Howard Bell was first published in the May 2019 issue of Street Machine

Howard Bell ToranaA set of Globes, extractors, a cam and an Edelbrock manifold formed the first step in a never-ending search for grunt that has cemented LITRE8 as one of the most popular and enduring Aussie street machines of all time.

With Howard currently piecing the car back together after an engine meltdown at Winton Raceway, we thought we’d pull up a pew and chat about the evolution of LITRE8, and hopefully give a new generation of gearheads an appreciation for one of the all-time greats.

Full feature: Howard Bell's big-block LX Torana LITRE8

Howard BellHoward is a software engineer by trade, but he’s pretty handy on the spanners and has always tackled a good amount of the mechanical work on LITRE8 himself. Nankervis Performance Boats performed the engine rebuild, but Howard has immensely enjoyed the process of tinkering in the shed fitting the car back up

What’s going on here, then?

After a track day in January 2017, I noticed some coolant on the floor of the trailer. I thought it was just a leak at first, but when I investigated further it escalated to a cracked cylinder head and some damaged pistons. That prompted a major rebuild of the KB big-block, with some upgrades [see Mill Of The Month feature]. We retained the KB alloy block and Kinsler intake manifold, but added new pistons, conrods, camshaft, crankshaft, cylinder heads and harmonic balancer. All this adds up to 564 cubic inches and likely mid-low 900s in terms of horsepower. It will no longer be LITRE8 in its capacity [now 9.243 litres], but the LITRE8 number plates and ‘SLR 8000’ body stencils will remain, true to the car’s 28-year origins as a KB 479ci BBC.

Give us a brief history of the car, for the young ones reading.

I bought it new in April ’76 for $6800, which was my annual salary back then. It just evolved over the years; once you get the sniff, you always need more. The car stayed as it was for three months, then I played around with the 308 for a couple of years. Then I thought about selling it, getting an LJ and putting what was then the top-of-the-range Chev 350 LT1 in it; I thought that’d be pretty lethal. As fate would have it, people weren’t paying good money for SL/R 5000s at the time, and the only call I got was from another guy who was selling one to ask if I was getting any calls! One of the guys who worked on the car was in with Normalair Garrett and their Strata kits were the hot new thing. He suggested selling the 308 and going to a turbo six, naturally the top-of-the-range Strata 6 kit.

Howard Bell ToranaControversial!

It was leading-edge technology at the time. I sold the 308 to a guy with an HQ coupe; he was happy and I was happy; it went to a good home. From there the Torana spent the next 10 years with various guises of turbo sixes. There were a few… incidents… shall we say! It ran out of water/meth and it did a piston. That’s when we did Carrillo rods and forged pistons and an 800 Holley; it was making 380rwhp at the lowest boost level. I suspect it was good for around 500hp at the flywheel and 8000rpm. But it was always on that fine line; a winner or a grenade.

Then it was big-block time!

Well, the cycle turned again when a mate wanted to buy the engine. I saw ads for Superplus Speed Shop at Dandy and thought: ‘Yeah, big-block.’ I went down there one Saturday, chequebook in hand, and bought an LS7 BBC. I proceeded down that path, then looked at the weight of it, then the guy who was going to do the work had a career change, and we ended up at Nankervis Performance Boats instead. He said an alloy block would be a good idea for weight, so he bought the LS7 off me and we went down that path. That’s what I refer to as Mk1 – the first major rebuild. Mk2 saw me go to Edelbrock heads in 2000. That lasted until the track day in January 2017 – it went like a scalded cat, but that was its swansong. That’s what prompted this latest rebuild.

Howard Bell ToranaLITRE8 was a pro tourer before pro touring was a thing.

Pro street was king back then. There were cars like Rick Dobbertin’s Pontiac J2000 with twin blowers, twin turbos and a polished stainless-steel frame. There were other great cars like Rob Beachamp’s Torana. I think Geoff Paton’s King Rat Torana was one of the first with a big-block. I never really coined a term for what my car was, but I think of it as a pro circuit car. The original intention was for it to have street rego, and I saw a couple of engineers about it. One was looking fairly positive, but he was 70 not-out and said that he would have to personally performance-test the car to certify it. Not a snowball’s chance in hell! Eventually I decided to forget about it. I kept the rego up just because shows wanted the car to have rego, but after 2000 I’d kind of been there and done that.

You’ve done pretty well with it over the years.

It’s won a lot of trophies including Top Engineered at Summernats 5 and 8, and has been in a lot of magazines and featured in a couple of readers’ polls. I like the fact that people have fond memories of the car, except when you see grown men say: ‘I had a poster of that car on my wall when I was in primary school’ – it makes me think: ‘I’m getting old!’ But kudos from your peers is great. I even feel a bit overwhelmed by this Legends article – you did Ash Marshall and Greg Carlson recently and I feel like there are light years between our respective achievements.

Howard Bell ToranaLITRE8 was engineered from the ground up to be driven in anger at the track. 343mm front rotors and four-pot AP Racing calipers were enormous in their day, while Bilstein shocks, optimised supension geometry, a braced and stitch-welded chassis and 17x10in Compomotive wheels wearing 265-wide Dunlop slicks mean there’s so much more to this amazing car than just its awesome driveline

Will we see you back out enjoying the car again soon?

Definitely. Hopefully after this build it’ll just need minor stuff. The car is all about the mechanicals. It has what I call an 8M paintjob – looks good from eight metres! It still polishes up okay. Back in the day it was a big-dollar car.

It had pretty cutting-edge hardware, that’s for sure.

It did. Originally before I went to the Kinsler set-up I had the Crower stack injector unit, but there was no way it’d fit under the bonnet. Richard Bendall from MoTeC used to work out of his home, and when I picked up the old ECU he mentioned the Kinsler set-up, which had been designed to fit under the bonnet of a Corvette. That was 1990 and it cost me $5000! I later organised the polished ram tubes myself.

Street Machine magazinesHoward is a software engineer by trade, but he’s pretty handy on the spanners and has always tackled a good amount of the mechanical work on LITRE8 himself. Nankervis Performance Boats performed the engine rebuild, but Howard has immensely enjoyed the process of tinkering in the shed fitting the car back up

What’s the plan for the car going forward?

I’d like to do three or four shows a year – even just local shows – and three or four track days. Winton is convenient and friendly to the car noise-wise. I like to just take it out and just enjoy it, and have a fang around. It’s always a great day, even if it’s a bit like running a marathon in your backyard, because you rarely get out of second and third gear!

What do you make of people who wrap cars like yours in cotton wool?

I guess it’s a question of supply. In my day no one batted an eyelid about cutting up an SL/R 5000. These days the purists hunt you and set you on fire. The car would no doubt be worth more now if it was original. These days forced induction and electronics are the thing, but there’s something pure about getting the grunt normally aspirated.

Howard Bell engineFor times when 564ci of unadulterated, naturally aspirated grunt is simply not enough, just arm the nitrous system!

Where are you at with the rebuild?

On the weekend I got the K-frame and engine mounted to the body, which was a significant milestone. Now it’s just plumbing and wiring and I’ll turn the key after a quick check-over by Brian Nankervis. It’s just me doing the installation if not the very clever engine work, and I’m making the most of the rebuild. I want to make it last because once it’s done you get itchy feet again. I’ll spend four or five hours on a Saturday, but I have a life outside of the car, too.

Will you ever build another one?

No, I don’t think so. My daily is an HSV VF R8. That’s my tow car and interstate cruise car. It’s a manual with cruise control; it’s a good way to travel. I would love to have a C2 Corvette Stingray to park next to the Torana; they look fantastic. I’ll put a ticket in for the TattsLotto and see how I go!