The story of AJ Norton’s 1980 Mitsubishi Lancer EX began like any other; a Trade Me purchase, a trailer rental, and a trip down the line. What eventuated over the following decade was a father-and-son project gone badly out of control.

Despite having been ordered off the road, upon inspection the car was incredibly straight. Assembled at the infamous Todd Motors just north of Wellington, the 36-year-old sedan remained rust-free, still dressed in its original Cinnamon Bronze attire. AJ was thrilled to find the owner’s manual tucked in the glovebox, although slightly less ecstatic to find that the engine’s power output rated at a somewhat disheartening 40kW. Luckily, the standard 1.2-litre engine was destined for the scrapyard.

A minor electrical failure forced the car off the road once again, triggering the start of the build. The plan was simple: engine, paint, wheels, and a single-cam 4G63 from an early Starion seemed like the obvious choice — a bolt-in-and-go proposition. However, the stars failed to align. In the end, a mint 4G93T was acquired from a GSR, complete with gleaming chrome rocker cover (remember, it was the mid 2000s). It was shortly after this that Scott from Belair Mitsi stepped into the picture. A search for parts led to a chance encounter, which would transform AJ’s humble ride from a glorified shopping cart to a stealthy street weapon. Upon learning of AJ’s plans, Scott ushered him to a workshop out the back of his uncle’s wrecking yard. From what he saw, it became immediately apparent that this was the evil genius required to bring his dreams to fruition.

From a further conversation, AJ learned his shiny 4G93 would require a custom flywheel to fit the gearbox that he had in mind. Rather than bite the bullet, back on Trade Me it went, only to be replaced by its big brother — a 4G63T sourced from a 1995 Evo III. With the new power plant on hand, Scott sunk his teeth into the project, pairing the motor with a Sapporo five-speed gearbox using a custom bellhousing. Next, he built a three-inch exhaust, air intake, and intercooler piping to accommodate the north-south configuration, while a Bosch fuel pump was installed to maximize the standard 510cc injectors. Out the back, Scott showcased his expertise once again, fitting a shortened Hilux rear end, complete with LSD, within a custom housing. The icing on the cake was a customized strut brace from a Legnum. Belair’s inventory was raided once more for VR4 discs and Diamante calipers, as well as a set of Sigma struts fitted to raised mounting points to address handling.

With solid foundations in place, AJ ventured even further down the southern motorway to the now extinct Gary Capper Motorsport, with hopes of seeing his creation brought to life. Gary and his team fitted the Lancer with a Vi-PEC ECU and rewired the vehicle from scratch. He also had one of his affiliates fit a cert plate to the front cross member, declaring the project to be on the up and up. Upon hearing the engine fire up for the first time, AJ’s ears were greeted with the sweetest symphony imaginable. After a slightly terrifying test drive through Pukekohe’s bumpy back roads, it was off to ST Hi-Tec for a much-needed tune. An undeniable master of his trade, Soichi Tate was more than happy to help the geriatric Mitsi come to terms with its recent heart transplant. Despite almost blowing the gearbox to pieces on the dyno, the engine produced a healthy 203kW at the rears. More importantly, it runs like a dream. Next, the severed suspension was ditched in favour of custom coilovers up front and shortened shocks and springs in the rear.

Cosmetically, the car benefits from a professional cut and polish, Recaro fishnet seats, a small-diameter Momo steering wheel, and 17-inch Lenso RS5s complementing the black bumpers and trim. However, despite the array of modifications, the car remains devoid of any stereo equipment — just as the factory intended.

Having all but ruined himself financially, you might think AJ would have had enough. But, alas, this is only the end of stage one. Next on the agenda, he plans to ramp things up to around 280kW on the standard internals and restyle the car with a nostalgic Japanese motif. Of course, like any true project car, it will forever remain unfinished.

Todd Wylie

Todd Wylie has been involved with NZV8 magazine since before the first issue was printed, and has been the editor for the last eight years. Growing up in the heyday of the Jap-import scene, he's not adverse to Japanese vehicles, having worked for NZ Performance Car previously, as well as owning a few well-known examples. These days he cruises at a slower pace in a 1956 Cadillac Coupe and dreams of building a Model A tudor.