For Ryan Johnson and his close group of mates, thrashing rotary-powered vehicles to within an inch of their lives, and sometimes beyond, is more than a passion; it’s what they do and what they have always done. In fact, you’re bound to see at least one (if not 10) of their cars at any given event in the upper North Island, and flicking through NZ Performance Car back issues will also show quite a few. 

In 2010, when Ryan decided to get out of the car game and sold his Cosmo with the intention of heading to Oz, or simply getting a nice daily driver, it came as no surprise to anyone who knew him that only a week later he was back in the game, and picking up a new project, as he explains to NZ Performance Car.

“I sold the Cosmo to a mate, and then a few days later the 808 was offered to me. It was a fully panelled and painted shell that had been sitting in the paint shop for two years. The owner had dropped it off and never picked it up. Eventually he told the guys to sell it for whatever they could get.”

So seven days after starting his life without cars, Ryan was unloading his new long-term project from the trailer. The only problem was dealing with the old owner to get all the interior and other trim pieces that had been stripped off the wagon. Eventually they tracked him down and got everything, including the plates and papers — only a week out from them lapsing.

With the circle of mates Ryan has, all thoughts of a long-term project soon went out the window, and the boys got together all the necessary parts to complete the build. An S4 13B block was sourced and built up as a high comp NA PP, with yet another mate taking care of all the manifolds. The rear end already had the four-link and Hilux diff fitted; the only problem was that the new rear floor didn’t allow for a back seat. Brent Crookes [SKDKNG] filled the rear space with a half cage, as Ryan intended to use the wagon primarily at skid comps and track days.

The so-called long-term project was completed within a year, with Ryan taking every opportunity to thrash the PP. “I took every chance I could to skid the 808, be it at a skid comp, track day, driftkhana, you name it. But after a while I grew immune to the power and wanted to take the step up to a turbo engine.” As luck would have it, around the same time a friend of Ryan’s was looking for a new motor to stick into his hatch, so the PP was relocated, and a Series 5 RX-7 13B was sourced, this time for a turbo engine. You guessed it, another mate of Ryan’s — Jason Treloar [MR12A] — was tasked with screwing the new engine together. 

The plates were bridge-ported and machined to take a full stud kit, while the rotors were put on a diet, and a set of 2mm unbreakable apex seals were added. With the switch to boosted power, the fuel system would also need an upgrade, so Ryan and his mates built a custom system all housed behind a Perspex screen in the rear quarter panel. The goal was to have the wagon ready for Powercruise in 2012, and a few weeks out a soft tune of 298kW (400hp) was dialled in, and it was all looking good for Taupo. That was until a small incident occurred which would change the 808 forever. 

A light frontal while testing out the grip levels of the new set-up left the 808 out of action and in need of some love. As devastating as something like that is, Ryan took it as a chance to get the car right. “I learned my lesson and now had the opportunity to build the wagon exactly how I had always wanted it. We decided to carry on the fabrication into the front, and Steve Ellicott [LOROTA] tube framed the front end, after we had replaced the inner guard and radiator support panel.”

With all the new panels on the car, it was going to need a new paint job. Ryan had never been a fan of the colour in the first place, so this was his chance. The blue that he went for is actually the colour he dreamed of painting his first Mazda: “When I was young I had a 323 hatch that I always dreamed of converting to a rotor, but never did and I eventually sold it on. I had always dreamed of painting it this blue. I’m glad I chose it, as I get a lot of positive comments about it.” 

With the second rebuild complete just in time for Powercruise 2013, Ryan booked the 808 in for a retune, this time with a well run-in motor. Boomer at 1320 Race Engineering dialled in a bit more timing and boost to make 343kW at the rear wheels. This time around Ryan made it to Powercruise, and the 808 handled every last minute of abuse he threw at it without missing a beat. Next up Ryan will take part in the Skid Kings at Mt Smart, an event he helps organize as part of the 4&Rotary crew. “You can’t just spend all your time working at the events; you have to take a few minutes out to have a skid.” 

So what next for the 808? It’s all but finished. Ryan intends to get as much use from it as possible, and it’s not likely a great deal will change until he breaks it. But idle hands he has not, as the day he was back from Powercruise it was straight into the next project. 

We won’t give away too many details, but it involves a 13B turbo Cosmo engine, another ’70s Mazda, and very little ground clearance. All going to plan the ‘street car’ will be ready and sitting alongside the wagon at the 2014 4&Rotary Nationals. If the 808 is anything to go by, the new Mazda will be an impressive machine, and, knowing Ryan, it’ll be thrashed just as hard as the 808 is. But when it’s built to thrash, you know there is nothing to worry about — except maybe the cost of replacing tyres. 

Photos: Adam Croy / Jordan Moss

1978 Mazda 808 wagon


  • Model: S5 RX-7 13B turbo 
  • Block: Bridge-ported plates, stud kit, lightened and balanced rotors, 2mm unbreakable apex seals 
  • Intake: Factory S5 intake manifold, custom intercooler piping, custom intercooler, mesh turbo cover
  • Exhaust: Steam pipe manifold, three-inch straight through, truck rear muffler
  • Turbo: Master Power R596, turbo beanie
  • Wastegate: GFB 50mm
  • BOV: Twin Redline
  • Fuel: 850cc primary injectors, 1600cc secondary injectors, Carter lift pump, Bosch 044 main pump, Tomei fuel pressure reg
  • Ignition: Bosch HEC715 coils, MSD 9mm leads, NGK B8 and B9EGV spark plugs
  • ECU: MicroTech LT10-C
  • Cooling: Real Deal radiator, Real Deal oil cooler, 356mm (14-inch) electric fan, Davies Craig electric water-pump
  • Extra: GFB boost tap, custom-made oil catch can, Gilmer drives, stainless steel scatter shield


  • Gearbox: Series 5 RX-7 five-speed
  • Clutch: Quarter Master five puck
  • Flywheel: Lightened chromoly
  • Diff: Shortened Hilux, locked head


  • Struts: (F) Custom coilovers, Toyshop Engineering camber plates, Toyshop Engineering RCAs; (R) custom coilovers
  • Brakes: (F) FC RX-7 slotted rotors, FC calipers; (R) Mitsubishi VR4 calipers, Mitsubishi VR4 rotors
  • Extra: Custom four-link, C-notched chassis, mini tub rear, tube-frame front end


  • Wheels: (F) Rays TE37-V 15x8, 0 offset; (R) Rays TE37-V 15x9-inch, 0 offset, 25mm spacer 
  • Tyres: 195/45R15 Durun Sport One


  • Paint: Ford Falcon pastel blue painted by Nick Sauderson
  • Enhancements: Graphics by Destructive Design, Toyshop Engineering stripes


  • Seats: (F) Racepro
  • Steering wheel: OMP
  • Instrumentation: Auto Meter Sport Comp speedo, tacho, boost oil pressure, water temp
  • Extra: MicroTech hand controller, Wilwood brake bias valve, Silvester harnesses


  • Power: 344kW (461hp) at the wheels on 19psi

This article was originally featured in a previous issue of NZ Performance Car. Pick up a copy of the edition here:

Marcus Gibson

Marcus Gibson has spent his life getting a little grease under his fingernails growing up with a fascination for all things loud, fast, and low. Growing up during the boom of the import scene, the last ten years have seen him work for a few publications, as well as running his own website before taking up a role at NZ Performance Car in 2011. Marcus is as at home with a keyboard or camera in-hand as he is getting dirty in his workshop or at the track, championing that Kiwi DIY attitude.