“Astro Van Budget Conversion - 6 Cylinder to 8 Cylinder”

Replace the Vortec 4.3 with a small block Chevy 350 V8

Frank Oglesby is a good friend and mentor. We met in 1984 at his machine shop called Frank’s Performance, and I purchased a set of old double hump chevy heads from him. The years passed, and in the late 2000’s I was researching information about the Yellow River Drag Strip. I found that Frank raced at Yellow River, and had extensive knowledge about the track and its history. I knew Frank had retired, closed his shop in Woodstock, and moved.

I found him in Ellijay, and after a few phone calls, I asked if I could do an interview. He agreed, and we became good friends. I thought I had a lot of knowledge about the automotive world, but Frank quickly humbled me. He built a very nice engine for my son Cale's Camaro for pennies on the dollar. Every step of the way I would drive to visit, as he would complete little at a time.

He told something new every time I was there: Either a racing story, or technical facts just like a mentor should. He mentioned his old Astro van should have come with a V8. Frank had a small block chevy 350 with a roller camshaft that he built, and a Howell throttle body fuel injection kit with harness and computer. We talked about it, and I agreed to make the conversion happen. Frank dropped off his Astro van, and a freshly built engine that he had pre-run to make sure there where no leaks.

The first thing was to get the old Vortec 4.3 out of there. The easiest way I found was to drop the complete subframe, and raise the body. Next, we used the engine hoist to lift the old engine and transmission off the frame.

With careful measurements, we moved the factory engine perches forward, and used the transmission as a reference point to aid in locating the Chevy 350 into its final resting place. The best part of this project was all the driven components bolted right up to the V8. After the engine and transmission were in place, we lowered the body back down onto the frame and reinstalled all the hardware.

Although the engine and transmission where running great, they do have almost 200K on them. The 4L60E transmission may not have been able to hold up to Franks engine with that kind of mileage on it. Plus the older Howell injection system does not have the ability to control the 4L60E. I had a 700R4 that we could use. Frank took it to a friends transmission shop and had it freshened up.

Remember this is a budget project, so I didn't use mandrel bent tubing on my custom Y pipe, but I did use 2.5” over the stock 1.75” tubing and should flow better than those cast iron manifolds anyway. He at least could use this pipe as a reference to build a better flowing exhaust in the future. The factory catalytic converter was 3”, so we reused that to save some money.

For a budget project, this install went pretty well. The right idler arm was worn out, so I took care of that. I had Cale put it on the alignment machine because when you pull a subframe, you need to check it anyway. I had Cale shim the RF to 1 degree negative on camber to customize it for Frank's driving style, and help save the outer edge of his tire.

At my desk I printed the ECM wiring diagram for a 95 Astro and a diagram for a 89 C-10 PU with a 5.0, since that is was the Howell system was based from. With this, I drew a final diagram so I could put together the 2 harnesses into one.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy wiring when I can get to everything. Under the dash of an Astro van dealing with an ECM harness is not as fun as it used to be. At least the little pin connectors where the same, and with the help of a release tool, I pulled each wire from the factory ECM connector and moved it the Howell connectors at the new ECM.

Frank found an air cleaner assembly from a S-10 with a 4.3 TBI which fit the Holley 650 CFM TBI that came with the Howell system. I installed a good 3-row radiator, and built a custom fan shroud out of .040 aluminum sheet metal.

After a few months Frank had the stock muffler replaced with a 3” cat-back exhaust system.

The V-8 has been in for over a year now. Frank said the AC, gauges and everything else works properly. I was going to hook up the cruise control, but Frank told me he doesn’t use cruise and not to bother. The Howell system didn’t control the torque converter lock up the way Frank wanted; therefore, I later rewired the transmission, took control from the Howell ECM, and gave Frank a toggle switch. A few months ago, Frank had the van repainted and it looks great. This past winter, he drove the van to Indy, and said he was happy with everything.