Featured: Paul Newman Was The King Of Sleeper Cars

Paul Newman Was The King Of Sleeper Cars

By Michael Banovsky
October 7, 2015

An enthusiast’s true character is revealed when he can find, build, and afford just about anything he’s interested in. For actor and racer Paul Newman, this meant an impressively dedicated interest in building the ultimate sleeper cars.

In fact, I’m pretty convinced that Newman was some sort of “Q-Car” deity, especially once you stake stock of how he modified his 1967 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible.

Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

I’ll cut to the chase on this one: it was faster than it had any business being. This most devilish car was made in a straightforward way, by dropping a Beetle Convertible body onto a mid-engined chassis built by Jerry Eisert.

In the middle say a Holman-Moody Ford Racing V8 that sent its power to the rear wheels via a ZF transaxle originally intended for cars like the Ford GT40. Said to have been finished in 1970, the only drawback I can think of is the high-speed manners of a Beetle Convertible…

That said, the chassis wore reinforcements and the car was completed as a no-expense-spared canyon carver that just so happens to look like a pedestrian Beetle.

Volvo Wagons With Attitude

Newman’s first dabble in making a frighteningly fast Volvo was when he reportedly had a 740 Wagon fitted with the turbocharged V6 engine from a Buick Grand National, a conversion that pops up for sale from time to time but is said to have been the actor’s daily driver for quite some time.

If you’ve seen the episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee featuring David Letterman, you’re well aware of this next sleeper car idea that was brought to life by Newman: instead of a turbocharged V6 engine, why not a big V8?

When Newman decided to have a 380 horsepower Ford Racing V8 engine—topped with a Kenne Bell supercharger—fitted to his Volvo 960 Wagon, he famously called Letterman and asked if the Late Night host would like one of his own built. Paul Newman: Best Friend Ever?

The result was an extreme sleeper car, one that made it possible to lay waste Chevrolet Corvette drivers and slip under the gaze of law enforcement at the same time. Jerry Seinfeld and Letterman agreed that it fit Newman’s “sense of humor”.

Now, there are dozens of similar conversions, which means that thanks to Newman, we now have many V8-fitted Volvos to choose from.

With a small stable of racing cars and a notable amount of on-track success, Newman proved he was a fantastic driver. But when it comes to the cars he built to drive around in when he wasn’t racing, Newman’s no-expense-spared sleeper cars make us wonder what other Q-Ships prowl the roads…

Image Sources: theselvedgeyard.wordpress.comoldbug.comcomediansincarsgettingcoffee.com

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Chris Henniker
Chris Henniker(@chris-henniker)
4 years ago

Didn’t he start off as a hot rodder ? There are quite a few sleepers around here, with this cute little Morris Minor being one of the most notable. I could easily see Newman having one of these for a daily driver.

Rubens Florentino
Rubens Florentino(@rubens_florentino)
4 years ago

I have seen some V8 Bugs using that same recipe but I’ve never thought Newman had one.

4 years ago

Well, I admired him as an actor/racer, I thought he was a good guy too. Personally, while I love and appreciate workmanship, especially involved in making these cars (or other conversions), I am not a fan of engine swaps. Had he turbocharged the built-up Volvo engine, I’d have liked that a lot more. The beetle is not a beetle, it is a custom car with a beetle body and of course does not drive like a beetle, let a lone a convertible one.

Darren McLellan
Darren McLellan(@cemaine2000)
5 years ago

Seems like I read about Newman putting a Nissan Trans-Am drive train in an 810 body.

Jon Ulrich
Jon Ulrich(@jolrechhotmail)
6 years ago

One can only admire Paul Newman for his acting ability, his philanthropy, and of course his talent for driving cars fast. His financial situation allowed him the freedom to create sleeper cars that we could only imagine. He used his celebrity status to promote auto racing and draw more fans into the exiting sport. He did indeed have the talent and expertise. For those of us who raced dirt bikes in the sixties we also admired the talent of Steve McQueen. Before he was ever considered “King of Cool” he was a desert racer, motocross racer, ISDT US team rider, and enduro racer. He certainly had the “chops”. Just ask Bruce Brown, Maclom Smith, Mert Lawwilland many others who knew and raced with Steve McQueen. I consider the contributions of both McQueen and Newman to motorsports something to be admired and cherised.

6 years ago

I wonder what that bug is like to drive…I once drove a Type II that the owner half fitted Porshce’s flat 6 in. That was ridiculous, insane, I-would-wet-my-pants scary, and fun all at the same time. That bug must be totally wicket.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago
Reply to  JB21

I had the opportunity to drive the V8 bug I mention in my previous post . Suffice it to say it was absolutely insane and an absolute hoot and a holler … Utter madness … in the best of ways summing it up nicely

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago

PS ; Errrrr .. Mr Banovsky ? Y’all needs to rewrite the header for this one as well !

Newman wasn’t the ‘ king ‘ of sleeper cars . Far from it . What he was was the Hollywood ‘ Celebrity ‘ of Sleeper cars .. and even thats a stretch considering some of the madness previous Hollywood stars had built for their personal use as far back as the 20’s

For the ‘ King ‘ of sleeper cars y’alls gonna have to do a bit of research in and thru out the CA Hot Rod & Custom community as well as the underground community in and around New England to determine who might be the ‘ king ‘ . But err … good luck with that if you should decide to give it a go … cause brother … there’s a ton of them . Heck .. did y’all know the first VW Beetle V8 conversion was built right here in Colorado ? A mid engined tube framed street legal terror that made mince meat out of many a EuroSnob and Muscle Car … in a straight line as well as the mountains and twisties !

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago

I know in everyone’s celebrity addled minds McQueen was the King of Cool when it came to Hollywood GearHeads … but the simple fact is …

Paul Newman was the real deal .. in every way shape and form . The only real question when it comes to Newman’s automotive antics is … Was he a great actor who also raced cars well ? Or a great race car driver/gearhead who also happened to be a great actor ?

Personally ? [ based on first hand experience ] I’d vote for the later ……. hands down

Suffice it to say McQueen had the image but it was Newman who had the chops and dedication to back it up ! 😉

Jonathan Sulo
Jonathan Sulo(@sulo)
6 years ago

I’d hate to take anything away from Paul Newman, but the Volvo V8 conversion is VERY common here in Sweden. We’ve got loads of V8 powered 145’s, 245’s, 745’s etc. This is related to the american car culture here (aka. “raggare”) and it’s been that way for at least 40-50 years now. Newman might have popularized the sleeper Volvo in the USA, but it’s been common in Sweden way longer than that.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Sulo

Well Mr Sulo as much as I hate to taken anything away from you Scandinavians seeing as how y’all are just about to the point of out Americaning us Americans when it comes to hot rods and customs …. but … when it comes to Volvo V8 conversions …. WE .. did it first .. wrote the book .. set the standards .. created the kits .. with y’all copying us [ US ] and taking our lead …not to mention we did it a whole lot better until that wizard of a Koenigsegg engineer created that monster of his a couple of years ago .

Hmmn … copying us [ US ] That pretty much sums it up other than the ScanRods [ Volvo and SAAB conversions ] when it comes to y’alls custom and hot rodding scene . Or as I like to say it ..

The more we try and be like you [ efficient cars etc ] .. the more y’all are trying like ____ to be exactly like us . Oh well … if imitation is the highest form of flattery .. I guess we should take it as a compliment rather than a threat .

And errr .. just for the record .. Newman was far from the first American hot rodder to build a Yank V8 Volvo conversion . They were being built in and thru out New England almost since the first Volvo hit our shores .. whereas it took y’all well over a decade to catch up . Heck Newman didn’t even popularize the trend . What he did was to add some celebrity cred [ for what thats worth ] to it !

6 years ago

The best part of that story you failed to mention-when Newman called Letterman and asked if he wanted a “puffer” on his (supercharger).

André Borges
André Borges(@fb_1792513473)
6 years ago

Absolutely gorgeous Volvo. Looks that kill.

Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson(@pdxbryan)
6 years ago

Is that indeed the same bug with the Keystone mags and the two-tone paint? No way is that Newman driving with the headband and geek glasses, right?