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Paul Newman was a racer, an actor and an all-around great guy. This V-8-powered Volvo 960 wasn't his car, but he did help build it. George Achorn of Volvo enthusiast site Swedespeed took a look under the hood. —Ed.
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 would probably be pretty high on the list. At that point, in the beginning of the SUV craze, Volvo's flagship station wagon 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 chose the 960 for what might be called the ultimate undercover car?
Newman was not new to Volvos. He famously owned a 740 wagon that sported a turbocharged V-6 taken from a Buick Grand National. While the car was no slouch, it was also reportedly not well sorted, and Newman wanted something more refined.
From what we've been told by those involved with the project, Newman had always respected Volvos, and he had a sweet spot for Ford engines. He came across a mention of Ross Converse and Converse Engineering in a copy of Autoweek. Converse built his reputation shoehorning Ford's venerable 5.0-liter V-8 into rear-wheel-drive Volvos for years, and he currently makes a business out of the swap.
For round two of big-inch Volvo ownership, Newman commissioned Converse to build the vehicle. He elected to have one of his contacts, Michael Brockman, handle the orchestration of what would become one of Converse's most ambitious transplants.
Converse initially traveled to Connecticut to meet Newman, and to give him an idea of what he had in mind. He brought with him two customer-built Volvos with 5.0-liter transplants for the actor to sample. Newman was sufficiently impressed, though he emphasized that he wanted to start with a brand-new 960 — unlike older Volvos, the car offered independent rear suspension, and would provide a pristine starting point for the project.
Other details were also fleshed out: The transplant would use a new crate motor, and power 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. Letterman elaborated on the process during an interview with Jon Stewart in 1995:
STEWART: For you, what do you think, other than Drew Barrymore obviously taking off her sweater...
LETTERMAN: Oh, man.
STEWART: ...what has been the coolest thing that's happened to you while you've done your show?
LETTERMAN: Well, you know, you'd think being in show business, or as close to it as I've come, you ought to have a lot of cool things happen to you.
LETTERMAN: And I've thought about this and thought about this, and currently I've distilled it now down to the persona of Paul Newman. I have been lucky enough to meet Paul Newman, and I just want to tell you, this guy is the real deal.
LETTERMAN: He is solid gold, he's a great actor, he's a wonderful guy, and just an interesting fellow. I met him, I don't know, five or six years ago. Some friends introduced me. It was at a race in Phoenix. It was Bobby Rahal, who is a race driver, and his wife Debbie, and now, of course, I sound like Dick Cavett. "Gregory Peck was there as well and Jimmy Stewart," and on and on.
STEWART: And Groucho and all the rest.
LETTERMAN: Yes, sir. And so they introduced me to Paul Newman, and you're carrying on a conversation. "How do you do? I enjoy your popcorn and Cool Hand Luke." That's what you're saying to Paul Newman.
LETTERMAN: In your head all you can hear is this huge voice screaming, "Oh, my God, it's Paul Newman. Oh, my God, it's Paul Newman." So I've been lucky enough to kind of have — I guess it's a friendship. I
won't say we're really good friends, but we have kind of a relationship, and he's called me from time to time. About six months ago — and this is where it starts to get cool...
STEWART: All right.
LETTERMAN: — Paul Newman calls up and he says, "Dave," he says, "I'm thinking about getting me a Volvo station wagon, and I'm gonna stuff a Ford 302 V-8 engine into it."
LETTERMAN: "This engine is about the size of a small piano, so we're going to have to push back the fire wall. Do you want one?" So, you know, I'm thinking a Volvo station wagon looks like something you'd make in metal shop, and if you want something really sporty you get a bakery truck, and every time you see a Volvo station wagon in the back it's 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.
STEWART: Right, the tank.
LETTERMAN: So intellectually I don't want a Volvo station wagon, but, of course, internally it's Paul Newman, I say, "Yes, I'd like one."
STEWART: "Bring it on."
LETTERMAN: "Paul, let me have that Volvo station wagon."
STEWART: Sure. Me too.
LETTERMAN: So I'm aware of the fact in talking to Paul, he's far more excited about this than I am. He calls up from time to time and he says, "Have you picked out the interior yet?" And I said, "No, I haven't." He said, "Well, you better hurry. The dollar's falling." And I don't know what that means.
STEWART: No, he's very concerned about the world economics.
LETTERMAN: And then he calls up after that and he says, "Good news. Pirelli's gonna give us free tires." "Wow, that's great, Paul." It's Paul Newman. We're getting free tires. I don't know. So he calls two
weeks ago, and he says, "Dave, the cars are ready. We got two, one for me, one for you." He says, "Everything is ready to go. I've got to ask you a question. Do you want a puffer on yours?" You know, and I'm
thinking, well, is that like a special inflatable seat? I don't know. Like sails on this Volvo? And I said, "Well, Paul, are you getting a puffer on yours?" And Paul says, "Yeah, yeah, I'm getting a puffer on
mine." And I said, "You know, I have no idea." And he says, "It's a supercharger. I said, "A supercharger?" He says, "Now you have to be very careful, because with this supercharger this thing will turn about 400 horsepower, so if you pop the clutch you're gonna tear up the rear end." By comparison, a stock showroom Corvette, 300 horsepower.
LETTERMAN: I say to Paul, "Now wait a minute. Paul, I have a Volvo station wagon, 400 horsepower?" And he says, "Oh, yeah," he says, "from 20 to a hundred you can chew anybody's ass." And 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?
(Hoots and applause)
STEWART: I don't know. I can see that's very nice though.
LETTERMAN: A 400 horsepower Volvo station wagon.
STEWART: But when Paul Newman offers you a puffer, I mean, you take
it. You don't turn down Paul Newman.
LETTERMAN: You'd be a fool to pass on the puffer.
In the meantime, one of Newman's children was friends with a Manhattan businessman by the name of Ian Warburg. Warburg was tickled with the idea of a puffer-equipped, V-8-powered 960, and he talked the president of his corporation into replacing his company-owned BMW M5 with a Newman-clone Volvo.
With solid requests from Newman, Letterman, and Warburg's boss, Converse placed the order for three wagons. Three 960s were acquired from a local dealer: a dark gray one for Newman, a burgundy car for Letterman, and a blue car, seen here, for Warburg. All three were fully loaded, though the blue car was the only one fitted with a third-row seat.
Next, Converse sourced three new Ford 5.0-liter V-8s. Each was balanced and fitted with Edelbrock aluminum heads and a Kenne Bell supercharger. Kenne Bell's Jim Bell was instrumental in helping develop the setup to Newman's strict quality criteria. The latter also requested that his engine be dynoed, so each V-8 was tested prior to install. Converse experimented with different boost levels, sharing all hardware specs with Bell; Bell burned a new engine-management chip for the cars' unique powetrains. The two men experimented with several software programs until they found one that worked satisfactorily.
With an optimized program, the engines were again dynoed in order to measure output. According to Converse, each weighed in at around 380-horsepower and roughly 400 lb. ft. of torque.
The transmission installed in the car was a manual Ford Mustang T5 sourced from D&D Performance in Michigan. The 'box's tail housing was sourced from a Camaro for its longer length. (The shift-linkage hole in the floor of a 960 sits back somewhat far, and use of a standard T5 transmission had the Mustang's stub shaft sitting at the front of the hole.) Each of the three 960s was fitted with the same configuration. (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.)
Where suspension was concerned, Newman wanted the car lowered and fitted with larger diameter swaybars. At the front of the car, Converse fitted ipd/TME lowering springs designed for a Volvo 740. At the time, these springs were one of the few sets available.
At the rear of the car, the 960's then-new independent rear suspension presented an interesting puzzle. Based around a transverse leaf spring, the system was new enough that no aftermarket upgrade was available. Converse contracted a local shop to fabricate a fiberglass and steel leaf that resulted in a lowered ride height and a higher spring rate. The front sway bar, an ipd/TME piece, was also originally intended for a 740. The rear bar was a custom-built ipd unit.
Each car was fitted with 16-inch Borbet Type F 5-spoke wheels. Inside, a Momo shift knob was chosen in order to match Volvo's stock wood finish on each car's dashboard.
Once built, each car was delivered to its respective owner.
As the blue car saw use in Manhattan, Warburg's boss opted to have the stock springs reinstalled. Newman wanted to improve his car's driveability, so he contacted Kenne Bell, eventually having one of the company's technicians fly to his home to optimize the software. Whether or not the Letterman car or the blue car ever received the updated software remains unclear.
Ross Converse believes that Newman (Note: Newman passed away in 2008; this story was written prior to his death. —Ed.) and Letterman still own their cars. The blue car was eventually sold to the chairman of Mobil Oil. He owned it for some time and then sold it.
This story was originally published on Swedespeed on February 5, 2003. At the time it was written, the car was owned by a Pennsylvania man who bought it at a Volvo dealership, and it was for sale. If you have any information on the car's whereabouts, we'd love to hear it. (We'd also love to drive it. Just sayin'.)