There's a scientifically proven formula for making cars better: Add power until something breaks. If nothing breaks, you haven't added enough power. This notion is what can turn ordinary rental fleet cars into the Charger Hellcat, and it's exactly the reason why I decided to give my cheapo Lexus the turbocharged kick it deserved.
Choosing The Powerplant
When I bought my pseudo-junkyard Lexus SC300 and saved it from the cold grip of the crusher (at least for a little while), I knew that I wanted power, but had more ambition than money. I had a few options:
Turbocharge the stock 2JZ-GE engine
In factory form, the 3.0-liter 2JZ-GE is quite stout. It shared the same cast iron block as the 2JZ-GTE twin-turbocharged engine that can push upwards of 800 wheel horsepower on stock internals, and it can be made quite reliable with some mods. However, finding a reputable turbo kit to slap on to my engine would require considerable modification to the driveline, fuel system, and I'd have to address the oily, belching elephant in the room - the actual engine.
The car had a touch more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, and the jury's out on how many times it had been rolled back. The engine produced more in the way of thick plumes of smoke than it did forward momentum, so coupled with the fact that a good turbo kit and mods would cost upwards of $3,000 and I'd still be left with an automatic with nearly a quarter-million miles on it, I moved on.
Install the 1UZ-FE from the SC400
The 1UZ-FE is the 4.0-liter V8 that is one of the most underrated and well-built engines ever made. It's one of the only automotive engines that you can actually use in aircraft, because it's so extraordinarily smooth and balanced. In stock form, it can produce 250 horsepower, a little more with some well-needed breathing and engine management mods, and the entire swap, with all harnesses could be had for under $1,500.
My main concern was that no 1UZ came with a manual option - something that was readily becoming apparent as an absolute necessity in this project. Although some custom kits could adapt a five-speed from the manual naturally aspirated Toyota Supra, the cost of those kits alone would wipe out any budget I could get my greasy fingers on. Next.
Install a 2JZ-GTE from a Toyota Supra
This would be almost perfect - I'd have stratospheric power potential, and all mechanical components would fit, as all chassis mounting points between the Supra and Lexus SC are identical. However, the Supra's wiring harness would have to be adapted to work with the Lexus, and the engine was more expensive than any other option thus far. This made it the most expensive option, but one that had the most out-of-the-box potential. Even though I wanted to move forward, my bank account had other plans.
Install a 1JZ-GTE from a Toyota Soarer
The Toyota Soarer was the Japanese equivalent of the Lexus SC300. Instead of a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six, it made do with a 2.5-liter inline-six with twin ceramic turbochargers. Although the wiring did need to be lengthened to compensate for the difference between right hand drive and left hand drive, it was something that I could do with wire and a soldering gun. It was also within my budget, at $1,200 including shipping, which gave me a budget to find a five-speed manual transmission. Bingo.
Importing An Engine Is A Goddamn Pain In The Ass
When I ordered my engine, the only thing that dictated which importer to go with was my budget, since it was a little too narrow to allow for a wide selection of suitable options. I went with a Canadian shipper that has (surprise, surprise) gone out of business since then. Here's the abridged series of events that unfolded as I ordered the engine:
- I went online, saw the engine, ordered over the phone and paid immediately.
- I asked for more detailed pictures of the engine, was assured that I would get them shortly.
- I was told that I would get the engine in two weeks time, to allow for customs clearance.
- Two weeks later, I had received no pictures and no engine.
- When I called back, I was told that I'd receive the pictures in a day or two. The engine was still there.
- I asked when the engine would be delivered, they replied with "two weeks to allow for customs."
- Another two weeks goes by, and I had no pictures, and no engine. I was growing impatient.
- I called angrily and demanded pictures. They said that they could't get pictures, the engine was already shipped.
- I got the engine two days later. Two ECU plugs were broken from shipping and the ECU was wrong and didn't fit the plugs.
- I called the company, livid, and asked where the hell the original ECU was. They did't know. This wasn't an engine that was made in this country, so finding an ECU would have been close to impossible. I asked them for a partial refund so I can source an ECU.
- By a stroke of luck, I found an ECU from a Toyota Chaser (higher rev limiter than Toyota Soarer, more aggressive fuel maps) locally and managed to superglue the broken connectors back together.
- I'm refunded $150 for the ECU after two additional weeks of calling nearly every day to complain.
- During this time, the $1100 W58 five-speed manual swap kit that I ordered from RGW had gone missing, as it was apparently possible for DHL to misplace a 600-lb pallet. They offered to refund the money I paid after a week of "looking" for it to no avail. I reluctantly agreed. However, no payment was sent.
- A week later, DHL said they found it, and asked if I still wanted it.
- DHL delivered the package, in the back of an Econoline van, driven by a short, frail woman in her 60s. There was no lift gate and she didn't have a hand truck. It was a 600 lb. pallet. I asked my father for help and we muscled the thing from the van and almost blew out both our backs. The woman stood around waiting for a tip. She left after realizing that she was wasting her time.
- After two months of waiting and hair pulling, I finally had my JDM engine with ECU and manual conversion parts. It was time to get to work.
Going From NA/Auto To Turbo/Manual
For those of you who have never worked on a car extensively before, I urge you to attempt a engine swap or manual transmission conversion on a cheap beater. It will test your skills, and will give you the confidence for much more ambitious projects down the line. I started by removing the entire drivetrain as one unit. On a rear-wheel-drive car, it's amazingly simple. The wheels can stay on the ground, provided you have enough clearance and no drive axles need to be removed. On this Lexus, the driveshaft is a slip-yoke, so it literally slips out of the transmission when removing the drivetrain. The whole thing is held on by six bolts.
I got the oily lump out of the way and drilled holes to mount the clutch master cylinder and clutch pedal. I also noticed that the motor mounts were ridiculously perished, and I was out of money and running out of time. As a solution, I went to the local Sports Authority and picked up six hockey pucks, grabbed a few long, thick Grade 8 bolts, nuts, and washers from Home Depot, drilled through the pucks, put the bolts through, and had that act as motor mounts. To this day they have been the best and most stable motor mounts I've ever had.
I fastened the drivetrain together and installed it in its new home.
I also had to notch the space for the shifter a bit, as this was a factory automatic car and the shifter sat a bit higher and more forward than the original shifting mechanism did.
After lengthening about 40 wires and plugging the ECU into the rest of the body harness, I was close to starting the car. I ordered a universal three-inch aluminum piping kit with T-bolt clamps to run to my 24x12x3 inch front mount intercooler - a part that hung lower than the stock bumper by a fair margin.
I mocked up the piping as best I could, drilling holes haphazardly and trimming with a dremel rotary tool. I then felt the need to add a very Fast & Furious-esque HKS SSQV Blow-off valve because I was 20 years old. That's my excuse.
I installed a Walbro 255 LPH fuel pump for the larger fuel demands of the turbocharged engine, then bought a one-piece 3.5-inch exhaust from a local SC owner, and strapped it on just to see what the car sounded like, and as far as my ears were concerned, it was glorious.
The only thing left to do was to button everything up, go for a few shakedown runs, and work on the seriously deteriorated cosmetics of the car. I'll leave you with a teaser for next time:
If you want to find your own rough-ass project that will be sure to test your patience, try and find something cool (and cheap) here and make it freaking amazing.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.