Nathan Churchel has always looked for ways to make his 1984 Nissan 300ZX Turbo stand out, as merely being the second person he knew of to swap in the massive VH45DE V8 from an Infiniti Q45 wasn’t enough. He gave the car a truly apocalypse-ready metal widebody, and was one of the showstoppers at Radwood Philly.
(We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Seen any good build threads we should know about? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.)
Build of the Week has wrapped its first season as a video series, but don’t worry—it’s sticking around in article form until we start shooting again. And we’re here with a car that, like all my favorite stories, truly begins with the question: “Why don’t you just stick this in it?”
Churchel bought his 300ZX from a friend about 15 years ago, and the build really took off once a coworker offered him some garage space to wrench out of.
His Z31-generation Z car was in need of some TLC, so he started off repairing all of the rust and adding an air dam and sideskirts from Z-car specialists Motorsport Auto.
He opted to paint it all matte black as he’d never done a full paint job before, and kept going with a few modest upgrades. Carpet and a dash cap from Motorsport Auto dressed up the inside, along with period-correct thin-twill cordoroy recovering the door panels. Performance mods were mostly bolt-ons: a turbo-back exhaust, intercooler, lowering springs, and the like. It all rode on Rota D2 wheels.
However, when Nathan started autocrossing and tracking his Z31, he found himself wanting more power. The original turbocharged engine and its corresponding transmission were tired, and weren’t the best starting-off point for the 300-some horsepower he desired. And why do an LS swap, like everyone else? That’s too easy. Too proven. Too unoriginal.
Luckily, his friend Mike from Emage Performance offered up a VH45DE from a 1992 Infiniti Q45 that was just sitting around the shop. The V8 was originally pulled for a stillborn drift car project, so it was practically begging to be used.
Nissan components are delightfully interchangeable at times, and the VH45DE swap was starting to gain popularity in S-chassis cars and Z32-generation Z-cars. Instead of the Mustang Cobra transmission, most of these swaps used a Z32 tranny and a bellhousing adapter made by May.
“At the time, it was like the holy grail of Z31 engine swaps,” Churchel told Jalopnik via email. “Everyone was asking about how to do it on the forums, but only one person had actually done it. This dude Darren (a.k.a. Zmech on the forums) had done it to [a 50th Anniversary Edition Z31] in Cali and did a HUGE amount of custom fab work to make it fit using a Mustang Cobra trans, but photo documented everything.”
Churchel told us at Radwood that the first known VH45DE swapped Z owner worked at Boeing and had a lot of fabrication resources to make the parts needed for the swap. But like most of us—assuming most of us don’t work at Boeing, of course—Churchel didn’t have those resources. So he made do with a lot of hard work.
After doing a ton of research, Churchel bought the V8 along with a Z32 transmission in need of a rebuild and set off on the swap. Because he didn’t have the fabrication resources that Zmech had access to, the goal was to use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible.
Of course, one of the biggest issues in a swap like this is making the engine itself fit in the engine bay. The VH45DE has a front sump oil pan that forced it to sit further forward in the engine bay than Nathan originally desired, however, this worked out for the best. Nudging the engine forward just a tad allowed the shifter to pop up exactly in the right spot inside the car.
Churchel made a crossmember to match the engine’s new location by cutting off the mounting posts from a stock Z31 crossmember and welding on the mounting post sections from an Infiniti Q45 crossmember. This had the added bonus of keeping the stock Q45 engine isolators that keep the car smooth.
Nathan’s now freshly rebuilt Z32 transmission also needed a custom crossmember to work in the car. He also wanted to use a stiffer poly mount for it, but poly Z32 mounts were pretty pricey. After taking some measurements, however, he discovered that a General Motors automatic transmission mount uses the same two-bolt pattern as the Z32 transmission and has vastly cheaper poly mounts available. Churchel’s came from Energy Suspension for $30 at the local parts store—a vast improvement over the $150 he would’ve spent on the Z32 version.
Next up was making it all run. Churchel had a custom driveshaft made by Shaftmasters in Michigan that mates to a clutch-type limited-slip differential he’d gotten from a friend’s 1987 300ZX Turbo.
More power needs more meat to slow it all back down, so Churchel swapped on Z32 Twin Turbo front brakes with StopTech rotors and Hawk HP+ brake pads.
Suspension upgrades came next. Nathan added one-inch sway bars from Motorsport Auto, although he had to make custom mounts for the front bar to make it clear the VH45DE’s oil pan. Prothane poly bushings and Tokico Illumina struts also went on the car, along with a few choice tweaks to make it all work as Nathan desired.
“There weren’t many options out there to tackle the ride height at the time, so I had to create my own sleeve type coilover setup using QA1 coil springs and sleeves, [plus] seats and top hats from A1 Racing products,” Churchel added.
Once Nathan got the car running, he ran into a new dilemma: the engine was too tall for the Z31's hood. He wanted to make a fiberglass cowl induction hood to solve the problem, but actually doing so wasn’t as easy as all the YouTube tutorials made it seem.
“I mean those YouTube videos make it look so easy, right? Just stack some foam, shape it down and lay some tiger hair, right?” Churchel explained, “Wrong. I found out I am terrible at fiberglass. I was sticky and itchy like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation for a week.”
Clearly this wasn’t his strong suit, but metalworking was. This is when the wild shape of the car really started to take form. Nathan made an all-steel hood and vinyl wrapped it to get it out for show-car season, but it still looked crude and he craved a more unique look.
Another import show car sporting the World War II-era Flying Tiger livery gave him an idea: what if he made his Z look like it was made of reclaimed metal from a Japanese Zero fighter plane? Nathan used aluminum sheet metal and a rivet gun to get the right look, and the rest is history.
The riveted hood was just the beginning of a series of race car-inspired mods. Churchel added a three-piece wing that mimicked those found on early 1970s Le Mans prototypes. Vortex generators came next. Churchel discovered that cosplayers dry-brushed their plastic armor with silver paint to make it look like metal, so he did this to his car.
“Every year I would add or modify something to keep people interested in it at the shows that I frequent every year,” he explained.
Back in January, the ultimate carrot for Churchel to take this build up to the next level was dangled in front of him: Nissan was chosen as this year’s featured marque at April’s The Mitty at Road Atlanta, which is a huge race weekend and gathering for classic cars.
“I knew I had to go, and I knew the car had to be more ridiculous than any season before,” Churchel explained. “And it hit me: IMSA style box fenders.”
Nathan cut about four inches off the bottom of the car behind the rear wheels as a nod to the Japanese Grand Touring cars of the early 2000s. The No. 83 Nissan GTP-ZX inspired him to cut out the triangles from behind the front fenders. He also cut and flared holes in the side skirts to make them act as heat shields for the car’s side pipes. New Pro-Comp rock crawler wheels finished off the plane salvage/race car look.
Because Nathan takes his Z31 out as much as possible, this isn’t even its final form.
“I take it to Muscle car cruises, rat rod shows, tuner meets, car races, whatever,” he explained. “It never fits in, but always fits in if you know what I mean.”
He even started an automotive fabrication shop mid-swap called Misfit Autowerks, whose goal isn’t to build cars for people per se, but to make and install the parts they lack the equipment or knowledge to do themselves.
As the shop grows, Nathan wants to go back and redo certain things on the car to be even better. This winter, he plans to install a full roll cage in the Z31, redo its interior and chassis somewhat, and potentially add a supercharger. He’d also like to make a more aggressive front end and touch up the paint and patina on the car.
You can follow along with this build and all of Nathan’s other projects at the shop’s website here, on Instagram or on Facebook, or on his personal instagram here. When civilization ends and you need a gnarly way to get around, you may want to be in touch with him.