Talk to Jim Williams for a few minutes, and you quickly find out that a love affair with a car-and arguably one most people would pass on-is more than skin deep. The '76 Ford Gran Torino (DON'T call it a Torino around Jim like I did) is Jim's first and only hot rod. While many of us pass from tryst to tryst through our automotive lives, Jim's love for his Gran Torino is as solid as the 545ci 385-series big-block under the big Ford's dual-snork hood.
Let's start by saying that Williams is not a nutcase "Starsky & Hutch" TV fan, at least he didn't start out as one. He doesn't have an autographed, framed pair of David Soul's underwear on his wall, nor does he TiVo every episode on TV Land, but he does have an abiding belief in cosmetic accuracy, at least where outward appearance is concerned. "I like the show, and know enough about it, but there are lots of people on starskytorino.com who are more knowledgeable than me," says Williams. "A few guys have it down to the exact same radio and wear the same sweater Starsky wore." Make no mistake, Williams' Gran Torino can run rings around the TV version. Had our TV heroes had one like it, the crooks would've been caught long before their 22 minutes were up.
Williams' Ford affair started in 1989, when he was just 15. Already a musclecar fan, the South Park, Pennsylvania native had his hopes on more conventional fare when the killer red tomato rolled into the picture. "I was big into GTOs and wanted an old musclecar," says Williams. "I had my heart set on something from the late '60s when my dad found this car for $2,000 through a neighbor. He convinced me to look at it and once I got it cleaned up, I warmed up to it."
With help from his dad (Jim senior), brother Chris, and a regular group of family friends including his buddy Jason White, Williams worked on the Gran Torino on nights and weekends, so that it would be ready by the time he got his driver's license. When the day came, Williams fired the tomato, tooled the parking lot of Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, and joined an elite club many can only dream of at his age.
All through high school, Williams and his ken worked to improve the big Ford, tweaking the 351M with ported heads, a bigger cam, an intake and a new carb. ("My dad was smart. He made sure I had a big, heavy car with a small motor.") Finally, Williams got up the nerve to go to the local drag strip for the first time, but on the way there, the number-one exhaust valve dropped, which cracked the cylinder wall and destroyed the head. And things were about to get worse-much worse.
On prom night of his senior year in 1992, Williams' father succumbed to lung cancer. With the car apart in a million pieces, this could've been the end of the story. But the Gran Torino, the biggest tangible link with his father, became a healing salve for Williams. "I really needed that car at the time. It allowed me to get away from it all." By summer's end, the tomato emerged from the garage, all grown up with a 460-inch 385-series big-block.As a college student, Williams was consumed with the pursuit of higher learning-and the realities of a skinny-kid budget. A relatively minor transgression, the replacement of a single, bent air shock on the rear instead of replacing the pair-resulted in cornering instability. The ensuing agricultural encounter left the tomato with serious body damage. "I drove away from the accident, but it got the bumper, nose panel, the fender, and door. Once you leave asphalt, stopping and turning just doesn't happen." Over time, Williams scraped together the parts and cash needed for the repair. ("I found a perfect door and nose for $150 in an attic in a bad neighborhood. I didn't ask why it was there.") In the end, Williams opted to repaint the entire car, circa 1994, in the same TV livery he found it. According to his records, the original dealership had special ordered the Gran Torino in 2R-option red (paint code 5440), to which the dealership had added the famous white stripe. "The repaint, however, ended up being lighter and brighter than before," says Williams.
The current combination, a 545-inch stroker version of the original 460, came together in 2005, but in the intervening years, Williams and friends performed a succession of garage repairs and upgrades, including six ignitions, three intakes, two sets of rocker arms, three fuel pumps, four exhaust systems, three rearend gearsets, three C6 transmissions, three torque converters, three hoods, two radiators, two fans, and five alternators. In 2002, Williams' brother, Chris, located some original Gran Torino interior fabric, and had the interior reupholstered for Christmas, "Overhaulin'" style.
Then the Ford world felt the earth shake when Jon Kaase redesigned Ford's Super Cobra Jet big-block cylinder head. The new castings got Ford guys back into the game with relocated and unshrouded valves, better positioning on the spark plugs, and flow numbers the Chevy guys would soon be envious of. Williams ordered the M-6049-SCJA heads to replace his ported D3 chunks as soon as he could, and began making big plans. Back in high school, Williams had always lusted for the easy power of a fat block, and that strategy would pay off big time over the next few months. And it had to: one out of every seven dollars invested so far would be just in the cylinder heads.
The big-breathing Kaase heads were mated to a long-arm stroker crank and a set of Probe forged pistons from Adney Brown. Scott Johnson supplied the cam and lifters for the pump-gas 545, and George Thomas at GT Auto helped Williams bolt it all together. But the combination wasn't right. "It had a stock stall converter because I was building in stages," says Williams. "It was just terrible to drive with a decent-sized cam and a stock converter. It didn't want to idle." The solution was to swap the 3.70 gears for some 3.56s and a 3,500-stall converter. Williams told PHR: "It completely transformed the car. If anything, I'm under-utilizing the converter. It was built for a lot more than I'm giving it."
The result is a big-cube beast that cranks out copious torque with luxurious ease. While small-block guys get all hunched over with a white-knuckle grip on the wheel as they race mouse-like through the gears, Williams can cop a lean, sip coffee, and crank the tunes as he steers it sideways, both tires ablaze. Right now, Williams' best ET, an 11.52 at over 117 mph, is only held back by a smallish 850 Speed Demon carb and Offenhauser Port-O-Sonic intake.
Building a Chevy is relatively easy compared to a disco-era Torino, and according to Williams, you can't do it without the help of good friends. ("True friends don't care that it's 4:30 a.m. on a work night when the car needs finishing for something important...") You also can't do it without good Internet support. Williams can't say enough about the help and good times he's gotten along the way from his buds at 460Ford.com, grantorinosport.org, torinocobra.com, and smogera.com. ("Thanks for all the advice and help!") But he did leave out the fact that we discovered him and his Gran Torino on the PHR message board, so file that away for future reference.Got a mid- or full-sized gunboat like Jim Williams? Can you blow away Camaros with ease in your Impala, LTD, or Monaco? Drop an e-mail at email@example.com and tell me about it.-Johnny Hunkins