They say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, so it looks as if Kathryn McDonald was pretty much buggered at birth!

For Kathryn McDonald, coming from a family of petrolheads was bad enough — her mum, dad, aunt, and sister all drag raced — but then she decided to marry into a drag racing family; her husband, Brett McDonald, and father-in-law, Ross, are also known to hit the strip!  

It was on one of her many visits to the drags with her mum and dad, Chris and Larraine Biggs, that the drag racing bug bit Kathryn, and it bit bad! One class in particular really appealed to her — the street-legal sleepers. She loved the way they could tear up the strip yet still be called upon for daily driver duties, like doing the school run if someone was running a little late.

Coming from a Mopar family — or, more correctly, a combination of two Mopar families — there was never any option about the type of car Kathryn would eventually race. Luckily for her, her father Chris had just the thing already: a 1969 Chrysler Valiant VF that had been sold new to a chap in Feilding by the Chrysler dealership in Marton. Originally a slant-six, it had been through four owners over the years, all of whom resided in the Wellington and Manawatu regions. Chris picked it up in 2001 with the plan of building it into a tough street and strip car, much to the delight of his daughter!

Over the next 10 years, Chris slowly started making the necessary changes to transform the Valiant into a very tough street-legal, quarter-mile missile. With the body stripped of everything, the shell was sent off to be sandblasted. The sandblaster was stunned to find not a single bubble of rust anywhere on the body — guess they really do build Mopars tough! Once back from the blasters, the shell was handed over to Allan Williams, who covered the perfect panels with a smart coat of white paint. Jamie Logie from Parsons Signs applied the finishing visual touch: a purple boot stripe to break up the starkness of it all. 

The original slant-six motor was now a distant memory and the hole up front was begging for a couple of extra cylinders. Chris got his hands on an ex Paton & Black 440ci big block and set about refreshing it to suit his needs. In doing so, he stretched the capacity out to 493 cubes, and before long it was ready to be slotted in place. With plans for the Valiant to perform on the strip, the chassis and driveline had to be able to handle all the abuse that the new engine set-up would throw at it.

This meant stripping and rebuilding a Torqueflite 727 transmission to handle the power. A bolt-in overrunning clutch with low first and second gears to help the big Valiant get out of the hole quickly was slid into place, along with a billet steel front drum, manual Turbo Action valve body, 9¼-inch torque converter, and five-disc front clutch with modified servos — all done by Chris in the family garage.

A Strange Engineering Dana 60 slippery diff was fitted out the back, along with a set of 3:73:1 gears and some “twist proof” 35-spline axles. When it came to sorting the suspension side of things, the CalTracs catalogue was given a hiding. Included in the purchases were a pair of 90/10 shocks that have been squeezed in up front while a marriage of CalTracs shocks, mono leaf springs, and adjustable traction bars have been installed in the rear. To keep things stiff, custom subframe connectors have been used, as well as a Terry Paterson–built six-point roll cage to tie the whole lot together.

To enable a set of more suitably sized feet to be stuffed under the bum of the boxy Mopar, the rear springs have been moved inboard and a set of mini-tubs stitched in to house a set of 15x10-inch Weld Rodlites. These are wrapped in super sticky 15x12½-inch Mickey Thompson ET Streets, with matching 15x5-inch Rodlites and Mickeys up front. When the big Mopar is called upon to do the school run, the ET Streets are removed and a set of identically sized Sportsmans are bolted into place.

A mix of VH and VJ rotors and calipers up front were fitted to help slow things down at the end of a rather rapid 1320-foot journey, while the stock 10x2½-inch rear drums were deemed up to scratch. However, the master cylinder was moved to underneath the dash and paired with an electric vacuum pump, which is also nestled nicely beneath the dash.

As the build progressed, Chris’s kid got more into the car scene than ever. By the beginning of 2010, Chris finally agreed to sell the car to Kathryn. Truth be told, Kathryn thinks that she wore him down and he was left with no other choice! Deal done, the Valiant and all the necessary bits and pieces were shipped north, where they would reside in Kathryn and Brett’s garage.

With most of the hard work already done, Kathryn says it was really just a matter of “putting things together and finishing off the work Dad had already started” — with Brett’s help, of course. Eager to get the car on the strip as quickly as possible, the pair had many a late night over the next six months — yes, six! A pair of Racetech seats was fitted for both captain and co-pilot, and a Mopar Tuff steering wheel clone purchased courtesy of the Grant catalogue. The factory 770 Valiant instrument cluster was retained, working alongside a big Auto Meter tacho and a trio of Stewart Warner gauges to monitor the vitals.

To complement the purple stripe on the bum and Smash Palace Panel and Paint fibreglass hood, a set of purple five-point harnesses and roll cage padding were added. These days, also strapped to the cage is a cute lemur soft toy, one of Kathryn’s personal touches. There’s also a distinct lack of any stereo equipment inside the Valiant’s cabin, about which Kathryn explains, “My car is far too loud to allow for an audio system. Besides, is there any sweeter sound than the rumble of a big-block Mopar?”

With huge thanks to Andy Smith from Smith Automotive in Levin, the Valiant was certified in lightning quick time, and soon found itself reeling off passes on the drag strip. Kathryn raced for a couple of seasons with the engine “just the way Dad built it”, cutting a best time of 10.95 seconds. She took the 2012–2013 season off, but got straight back into things for the 2013–2014 season. It was then that disaster struck deep inside the 493ci heart, resulting in bits of metal being in places they really shouldn’t be!

Once the engine had been stripped down, it was found that a ceramic lifter had shattered, proceeding through the engine and damaging pistons, cylinder bores, and the camshaft — a complete rebuild would be necessary. The decision was made to make a few prudent changes in the quest for lower ETs, so, with the help of Eric Livingstone, from West Auckland Engine Reconditioners, and engine builder Shaun Wild — who spent many, many long nights building the engine that now resides under the hood — the engine received an extensive makeover.
The cube count has been upped to 499, thanks to an Eagle crank and Eagle rods along with eight shiny new Diamond pistons. A pair of Indy 440-1 heads now sit either side of the 820cfm Demon carb, which is bolted to an Indy 4150 intake manifold, while a Comp Cams roller camshaft replaces the knackered one. 

Since the installation of the new powerplant, Kathryn has seen the ET steadily drop to a best time so far of 10.56 at 127mph. With the increase in power, the LSD finally cried enough, necessitating a rather rapid rebuild between meetings for husband Brett. With more seat time, there’s now no reason for the times not to get quicker and quicker as Kathryn and Brett manage to extract the full potential of the car in its current guise. Maybe when that’s reached, a bigger engine might be on the cards — we did hear the magic numbers 572 quietly mentioned, and can’t wait to see that if it’s true! 

1969 Chrysler Valiant VF

  • Engine: 499ci big-block Mopar, 440ci block, Eagle crank, Eagle rods, Diamond pistons, Indy 440-1 heads, Comp Cams roller cam, Indy 4150 intake manifold, 820cfm Demon carb, Holley fuel pump and regulator, MSD Pro-Billet distributor, MSD Digital 6 Plus ignition, custom headers, 3-inch exhaust system, custom aluminium radiator, twin electric fans
  • Driveline: Chrysler 727 Torqueflite, bolt-in overrunning clutch, low first and second gears, billet steel front drum, manual Turbo Action valve body, 9¼-inch torque convertor, five-disc front clutch, modified servos, Strange Engineering Dana 60, 3:73:1 LSD, 35-spline axles, custom driveshaft, Strange slip yokes and universals
  • Suspension: Torsion bar front, CalTracs 90/10 shocks, CalTracs mono leaf springs, CalTracs adjustable traction bars, CalTracs adjustable shocks (rear)
  • Brakes: VJ Valiant front calipers, VH Valiant front rotors, stock 10 x 2½-inch drums, VH40 under-dash booster, under-dash master cylinder, electric vacuum pump
  • Wheels/Tyres: Weld Racing Rodlites, 15x5-inch and 15x10-inch; Mickey Thompson Sportsman (front), 15x12½ Mickey Thompson ET Street (strip), 15x12½ Mickey Thompson Sportsman (street)
  • Exterior: Fibreglass bonnet, fibreglass hood scoop
  • Chassis: Custom subframe connectors, driveshaft loop, relocated rear springs, mini tubs 
  • Interior: Racetech seats, Auto Meter tacho, Stewart Warner gauges, Grant steering wheel, B&M Pro Ratchet shifter, six-point roll cage, purple roll cage padding, five-point harnesses
  • Performance: 10.56 at 127mph

Driver profile

  • Owner: Kathryn McDonald
  • Age: 32
  • Occupation: Business owner/finance administrator
  • Previously owned cars: 1967 VC Valiant
  • Dream car: 1970 Dodge Superbee (currently owned)
  • Why the Valiant? Because I love the look of this model of vehicle, and always envisioned the exact way I wanted to build it
  • Build time: Six months — though I only had to finish the job my father had started
  • Length of ownership: Four years
  • Kathryn thanks: Mum and Dad, Larraine and Chris Biggs; my husband, Brett McDonald; Shaun Wild, for his long nights rebuilding my engine; Eric Livingstone at West Auckland Engine Reconditioners, for all his advice and awesome work; Andy Smith at Smith Automotive in Levin, for certifying my car fast, and all his other advice and help; my sister, Tessa Biggs, for all the babysitting while I went racing!; my in-laws, Ross and Sandra McDonald, for all their support

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of NZV8. Missed this issue? Grab a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below:

Shane Wishnowsky

My first experience of the V8 engine was not a good one. Picture a white-haired young boy bawling his eyes out when an un-muffled sprintcar was fired up. My Dad, who had been car mad all his life, thought I was broken and he’d produced a dud! He persevered though and a few years later took me to Thunder Park; it was here that I fell in love with the V8 engine and I was hooked! Since then I have been a regular on both sides of the fence at drag strips in the North Island, both as a spectator and a crew member. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 40 years down the track I would end up photographing and writing about them, not that I’m complaining!