Ultimate Sleeper Car: The Pioneer of Volvo V8 Engine Swaps in America
The 'sleeper' is a time-honored automotive trope, a wolf in sheep's clothing that doesn't advertise its immense performance potential but rather disguises it in milquetoast body work. Of all the sleeper templates out there, perhaps the most cherished is a pedestrian sedan or wagon featuring a souped-up engine swap, the kind of vehicle no one would suspect is about to blow the doors off of whatever is in the lane beside it.
Few cars exemplify under-the-radar sleeper potential like the brick-shaped, safety-first family cars churned out by Volvo in the 1980s and 1990s. Gothenburg had tried its own hand at turbocharging more than a few models to deliver above-average thrills, but the large engine bays featured by these vehicles lent themselves to experimentation from a wide variety of hot rodders seeking stealth speed.
Of these, perhaps the most well-known Volvo-focused operation was Converse Engineering—a company that would inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of Swedish car fans to try their own hand at building a Q-ship of their own.
Located in Maine, a bastion of Volvo ownership (where registrations of the machines were at the time challenged only by Saab's similar popularity), Converse Engineering was run by Ross Converse. In essence, Ross was Converse Engineering, as his simple operation would tag in local fabricators and mechanics as needed while he began to explore the concept of replacing the four and six-cylinder engines offered by the Volvo 200 and 700 series with something with a little more punch.
Eventually, the shop settled on the Ford 5.0 V8, a motor that was cheap, plentiful, and which enjoyed massive aftermarket support. In addition to performing swaps themselves, the team at Converse Engineering would also fabricate kits intended to assist those interested in performing the same transplant on their own.
Converse would receive a major shot in the arm, publicity-wise, when it attracted the attentions of movie star and gentleman racer Paul Newman in the mid-90s. Newman had always been attracted to sleepers, and had previous owned a Volvo wagon powered by a 3.8-liter turbocharged Buick engine. Seeking something even more outrageous, the actor enlisted Converse Engineering to not only install a 5.0 in a trio of Volvo 960 wagons, but also add an aluminum intake and a Kenne Bell supercharger, which would push engine output up to 380 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque.
A big part of the attention that would focus on Converse at this point in its existence was due to the fact that one of the three cars ordered by Newman was intended for TV personality David Letterman. Letterman's love of speed, and involvement in racing, was a frequent topic of conversation on 'Late Night,' and he would reference the Converse car several times on air over the years, including stories about its 170-mph capabilities and, of course, the time the supercharger caught fire on the freeway.
As with many tuning upstarts—particularly those specialized to the point where they had no real competition to be concerned with—experiences with Converse Engineering from customers covered a wide range. Some found Ross and his team to be supportive and helpful at every stage of the build process, while others lamented a lack of communication, occasionally sub-par mechanical and electrical work, and a paucity of instruction sent along with some of the pre-fab kits that were on offer.
Although doing occasional business as recently as 2014, Converse currently has no official online presence or contact information available. In its wake, however, Ross Converse has left a swirling whirlpool of DIY Volvo engine swap fanatics that have moved far beyond the 5.0 Ford world and tapped into installations as exotic as 2JZ turbo Toyota engines and twin-turbo LS swaps.
The groundwork laid by Converse Engineering spawned a cottage industry of Volvo owners willing to experiment with off-the-wall power plant transplants, and provide each other with advice and counsel on subjects as diverse as exhaust routing, engine cooling, transmission choice and mounting bracket fabrication. Although the pool of 200, 700 and 900 series rear-wheel drive Volvos is beginning to thin out due to the vagaries of age and the ubiquity of rust in the northern U.S. where these models were most popular, the subculture of engine-swapped bricks continues to flourish.
Looking for other engine transplant fun? Check out this list of Hellephant swaps we'd love to see.