Competition Conversion

Jim Busby builds the 400i race car Ferrari never did.

Photo: Competition Conversion 1
April 21, 2016

When I decided to do this,” Jim Busby tells me of his inspiration two years ago, “I thought to myself, what if somebody had walked into Enzo Ferrari’s office and said, ‘Mr. Ferrari, we need to make a GTC version of the 400i because the FIA will change the rules and that car could be perfect in a new category.’ What would Enzo build? How would he do it? I tried to imagine what that would be.”

The answer? According to Busby—former drag racer, perennial hot rodder, two-time class winner at Le Mans, IMSA icon, F1 Clienti aficionado, and race-car constructor—Ferrari would have created something like the machine you see here: a one-off track-ready muscle marvel Busby calls the 400i GTC.

In order to build a competition version of a road car, of course, you need to start with that road car. Busby found this once dingy grey non-running 1982 example (s/n 39227), then housing dead leaves and old bird nests, in Los Angeles. It had no traceable past—its last owner’s name redacted on the title, the last valid registration in Maine 14 years ago—which is uncommon for a classic Ferrari. But then the 400i, of which 1,308 were produced between 1979 and ’84, was a relatively unpopular model, being expensive, heavy at 4,100 pounds, and only brought to the U.S. through the grey market.

Photo: Competition Conversion 2

“I was told the car had been in a flood,” Busby recalls, “and it smelled like it, even though there wasn’t a speck of rust or corrosion anywhere.”

It was the perfect starting point for a track car, so Busby bought it for, as he puts it, “virtually nothing.” Good enough. On April 24, 2015, he had the Ferrari hauled to his shop, Jim Busby Racing, in Laguna Beach, California.

TO COMMENCE THE TRANSFORMATION, Busby and crew stripped out 400 pounds of factory insulation and heaps of rotten leather. “We threw everything away right down to a bare tub and went to work,” he says. The weight loss didn’t stop there, however. All in all, the 4,034-lb. Ferrari was relieved of 1,000 pounds of not-necessaries.

Photo: Competition Conversion 3

Busby goes on. “We took out the original 4.8-liter motor, put in a 75-pound lighter, more powerful 5.7-liter 575M [motor], and moved it back 8 inches,” he says. Rather than using Ferrari’s original intake and engine-management setups, Busby converted to individual intake stacks and a MoTeC 400 racing system. The 575M powerplant currently makes 510 horsepower, the same as stock, but later this year Busby  plans to pump up the engine to 700 hp. This will be achieved by porting the heads, installing new cams, and other refinements he learned while building a 575M to race on the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah.

“The car came with the stock four-speed Borg Warner Hydro, an awful gearbox,” continues Busby. “We got rid of that, obviously, and put in a Tremec T-56 Magnum six-speed with two overdrives that we had modified for racing. We went with a 5.12:1 final-drive differential that will work at almost every racetrack. It’s got drop gears just like in a sprint car, so we can change the ratio in about ten minutes.

“The limited slip is made by Speedway Engineering right here in southern California,” he adds. “And, by the way, this car uses Lobro ‘930-type’ CV joints, so we have rifle-drilled IndyCar-like axles for the rear that slide right in.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 4

The Ferrari’s full frame was preserved, despite the new engine and driveline, although slight modifications were needed to adapt the quick-change rear end, and a roll cage was added. Then it was time to sort the suspension.

“We put an honest-to-god front anti-roll bar in it, but the rear anti-roll bar is the stock one,” says Busby. “And rather than run the enormous coil-over hydraulic shocks that were used—these cars had self-levelers—we got rid of those and installed JRi racing shocks. We then lowered the car almost a full six inches in front and about four in back. We moved the suspension pick-up points up at the same time, so the factory geometry remains the same. We used all the Ferrari A-arms, reinforcing them where necessary, and fitted aftermarket Ferrari-style bushings.”

Busby did toss the stock brakes, replacing them with Brembo 14-inch rotors and six-piston calipers fore, and 12-inch rotors and four-piston calipers aft. Tilton master cylinders reside at each corner.

Photo: Competition Conversion 5

Ferrari didn’t design the 400i with racing slicks in mind, but that’s exactly what Busby wanted to fit. More modifications were needed.

“Because the 400i had a strange wheel offset, we couldn’t put on wheels that went inside, so we modified the bottom arms so we could mount a wide wheel,” he explains. “It’s now got 18×13s in the rear and 18×11s in the front.”

Busby has always loved Ferrari’s classic 15-inch five-spoke hex-nut center-lock racing wheels. He wanted them in a modern sizes, however, so he turned to Forgeline Motorsports in Ohio to make a forged-alloy replica using Ferrari’s gold color code. Forgeline owner Steve Schardt tells me that, once he got specifications, the three-inch larger wheels were developed by his engineering staff, then finished with in-house powder coating. Now, says Busby, “You can lay Ferrari wheels next to these and, except for diameter, you cannot tell the difference.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 6

DELVING INTO THIS CAR’S RESTORATION and rebirth reveals seemingly endless cosmetic and mechanical details. Every time the picture begins to resolve, I discover another layer to unravel. This is what happens when someone who worked nights and weekends in a hot rod and custom shop as a teenager grows up to race professionally for a few decades—all of those varied experiences leave their mark. For only one instance, fitting those beefy racing wheels and wide Michelin S8H Compound slicks required a lot of thought and body finesse.

“I didn’t want to put gigantic flares on this car like almost everybody in GT racing has always done,” Busby says. “It would have looked silly. So we tubbed it in steel at all four corners, much like a Pro Stock NHRA car would be. We cut out the original fender wells and put these wider tubs in to take our wheels and make wheel clearance.”

That wasn’t all that was needed in the pursuit of good looks, and nothing came easily. “We cut the steel fenders off and bent them out three and a half inches, so they bow out from the turn signals and come back into the stock doors,” explains Busby, who was determined to keep the body in steel since that’s what he believes Ferrari would have done in period. “Then the rear quarter-panel behind the door was cut completely off the car, and moved three and a half inches. That too bows out and goes right back into where the taillights are mounted on the aft section. It’s so subtle you have to look closely to see it, which is what I wanted.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 7

Busby didn’t like the partially flattened shape of the factory wheel arches, so they were moved up three inches in front, six inches in back, and rounded into a proper half-circle. “Then we put eyebrows over the rears, which weren’t there in the beginning,” he says. “This look and shape was meant to be very Ferrari-esque, and I think we pulled it off.”

Needless to say, the heavy stock bumpers had to go. The rear one was simply deleted, while a 45-lb. lighter fiberglass replica was installed in front. Busby then fitted a splitter underneath for an aerodynamic boost—as well as an aesthetic one. “If you follow that line back,” he notes,” the splitter rake is exactly the same as the rake of the car—à la, a racing car.”

The 400i’s original hood was reworked with a riveted-on scoop, new louvers, and some unusual vintage touches. “The aluminum hood is a lift-off, in the style of Ferrari’s racing cars,” says Busby. “It has pins in the front, and at the back we did leather straps. The GTO-type hold-downs, which are handmade by a guy in Holland for GTO restorations, I found on eBay.” Since the 400i is no GTO, the hold-downs’ tolerances had be modified in order not damage the hood or fenders.

Photo: Competition Conversion 8

Busby’s next target was the Ferrari’s ugly, oh-so-’80s pop-up headlights: “We dropped correct-period Cibies, that we still had in our shop, down inside buckets we made in the fenders.” Aircraft Windshield Company in Los Alamitos, California, made the lights’ clear covers, which look similar to those found on Daytonas that raced at Le Mans. AFC also replicated the side, rear, and quarter windows from Lexan polycarbonate, and made the side-window sliders. For safety reasons, the windshield is standard Ferrari glass.

Last but not least was the rear deck’s spoiler, which looks so at home you might think it’s inspired by a Ferrari part. It’s not. “I always liked the look of the ’69 Camaro Z/28 rear spoiler,” Busby admits. “So I found one and we cut it up and copied it.”

It’s difficult to fathom, but the process that turned a wiped-out 400i road car into Busby’s vision of a race-ready GTC took only sixty days (albeit after it sat idle for a half year during planning). Of course, no one person builds a race car. It takes a shop-full, and Busby’s crew works as a team. Metal whiz Tiki Alvarez joins ranks with primary fabricator Keith Hickson and first mechanic-fabricator Steve Bounds, whose son Nathaniel built the front spoiler and splitter. Paint, details, and minor bodywork are handled by Chris Hukill, while Van Butler’s gig is cabin interior. Dave Strader wired the entire car, then Shane Tecklenberg, who Busby called “the final baton runner in a relay race,” installed the self-contained MoTeC management system and its harnesses. Once that was done, and the car dropped off its stands on January 13, 2016, all that was left was to push the start button.

Photo: Competition Conversion 9

THE 400i GTC’S FIRST RACETRACK shakedown came four days later at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park near Rosamond, California. Busby and his son David both drove the car, and the Willow laps began beautifully. “The car was quick, comfortable, and free of significant problems,” reported Busby at the time. That was great—until rain cut short the session.

Shakedown number 2 was set again for Willow, but this time the Ferrari stayed in the shop because of a glitchy clutch. “We took it all apart the night before and thought we found the problem,” Busby recalls. “Then we put it back together, fired it up—and it still didn’t work.”

At their next Willow test, the transmission started complaining. Busby sent the ailing Tremec to Anaheim Gear for repairs that were completed just in time for the GTC’s next hoped-for date on track. In the meantime, though, Willow had been booked solid.

Photo: Competition Conversion 10

Shakedown 4’s alternate site was The Thermal Club, located just east of Palm Springs, California. Busby gained entrance to this stunning private membership circuit through pal Ken Roath (who now owns the aforementioned 575M Bonneville car). Roath’s friend Doug Weitman is a member and arranged for a session on March 4th. And this time, everything worked.

“Without a whole lot of sorting, this is perhaps the most balanced GT car I’ve ever driven,” Busby tells me the day after testing at Thermal, “and I’ve driven a lot. Remember that we moved the engine back eight inches, and we placed the transmission dead in the middle of the car. The fuel cells are where the back seats used to be, centering the weight, and by moving all of the suspension up, which essentially moves the car down, we retained the roll centers.

“I like a car that you turn with the steering wheel and steer with the throttle—that’s a balanced car,” he continues. “If the car has a bit of understeer, then you’ve got to chase it with the throttle sooner; if you get the car sideways, you’re wasting time. So if you can get the car to turn in without understeer and then get on the throttle and steer it with that, more power brings the tail around and less power keeps it in the middle. I have always liked that, and this car, without any sorting except 100-pound-stiffer rear springs, is perfectly balanced. You can drive it anywhere you want on the race track. It was truly a prize to have the car this way virtually right off the jig. I’m pleased and really proud to have played a part in creating it.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 11

Rick Knoop, who has been working and racing with Busby for years, also drove the Ferrari at Thermal. “The car is a thoroughbred that wants to be driven,” reports Knoop. “It’s about as accurate as anything I’ve driven, and I have been driving these massive-horsepower M8F [Can-Am] McLarens. The 400i goes where it’s supposed to go. And, boy, does it have the music. It’s got quite a bit of torque and has the symphony all the way up to about 7,500. This was maybe Enzo’s dream, if he was still around.”

“Our impressions were exactly the same,” notes Busby. “Rick told me, ‘The faster I go through the corner, the car keeps saying, ‘Come on, a little bit more, come on!’ And he’s right. I never got the car sideways or out of shape, but I could have.”

So how fast is this incongruously-based car, really? “Top speed would depend on the race course, but given the longest straight 200 mph would be achievable,” says Busby. “In testing we saw 172. And you know what’s remarkable about this car? It has such good manners you don’t have to be brave.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 12

Busby built the 400i GTC for the racetrack, but its next few events are anything but. Gordon McCall has invited it to be a centerpiece at his 25th Anniversary McCall’s Motorworks Revival Monterey Airport party this coming August, during Monterey Car Week. Two days later, the Ferrari will go to The Quail: A Motorsports Gathering. Don’t miss it if you’ll be in Monterey.

At the end of the day, after absorbing the vision and many build details that went into the creation of the 400i GTC, I ask Busby a question I always like to ask racing drivers: If your car was an animal, which animal would it be?

“Is it an animal?” Busby asks, his voice blending a teenager’s fascination with cars and seasoned pro’s experienced assessments. “Yeah! It’s low to the ground. It’s long, longer than most, and it’s slinky—so it’s almost an alligator. I really do feel as though I’m slinking around the racetrack in this thing.”

Photo: Competition Conversion 13

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