It’s hard to miss Jim McIlvaine and his Grabber Blue 1969 Mercury Cyclone GT. At 7 foot 1 inch, the 46-year-old former NBA Center towers over most, and his Merc, dubbed “Confucius,” makes an equally powerful appearance. McIlvane played pro ball from 1994-2001, in fact his first field goal was a dunk against Shaq. Following his career, McIlvaine moved into the automotive field, signing on as a part-time freelance writer, penning stories for a host of automotive titles and then as a social media specialist for Optima Batteries.
“When I was in the NBA, I had a lot of down time on the road, and that gave me the chance to think about what car I’d like to own. I wanted to get a modern performance car, one I could modify and take to the next level. I couldn’t fit in a Corvette, so I looked Mustangs including the Roush’s Stage 3, but ultimately I ordered a 1999 Z/28 with a six-speed. It was a convertible because I couldn’t fit in the T-top or hardtop. It was bright green metallic and got dropped shipped to Buds Chevrolet in St. Mary, Ohio.
“It was the first LS-1 F-body that Lingenfelter built with 383 stroker. It got Kenny Brown subframe connectors, produced 440 hp at the crank, and had Fiske FM5 17-inch wheels. I signed up on Camaroz28.com in April 1999 and became friends with Chris Frezza and Jason Debler who started the forum. Not long after that, John Hunkins (then editor of the now-defunct GM High Tech Performance and now editor of Car Craft) showed up on-line. He was provocative and controversial and happened to be based in New Jersey. At the time I was playing for the Nets in New Jersey, so they asked if I would connect with Hunkins, and we hit it off. He started reading my posts and asked if I wanted to write for the magazine.
“After basketball, I ended up getting at 2002 Anniversary Camaro that was built by Lou Gigliotti. LG Motorsports did a roll bar, Kirky seats, G-stop rotors, Earl’s lines, black SS five spoke wheels, transmission cooler, and carbon driveshaft. It had an auto transmission and that’s the car I was running at Road America in the early 2000s.
“Optima moved to Milwaukee and Cam Douglass, Director of Product Development and Marketing, was at Road America running a Corvette. He needed help getting the car home, so I offered to haul it back. He worked a deal for me to haul SEMA show vehicles, and later on, I came on to help with social media. We really clicked, and it morphed into a full-time job,” said McIlvaine, who has been with Optima for ten years.
While the F-Body was fun, McIlvaine had his heart set on a full-blown Pro Touring machine. “Pro Touring was really picking up steam, and I wanted to build something, but not another Camaro. I gave a lot of thought to what the perfect car would be. I always liked old Mopars, especially the General Lee, but the prices were so high. It was too much money just to get the car. So I started thinking, what’s the opposite of a General Lee?
“And that would be General Grant and a Mercury Cyclone,” said McIlvaine. “These cars all raced in NASCAR, so I decided on a 1969 Mercury because that’s what ran against the Chargers. In the early 2000’s I started looking for a Cyclone and about 10 years later Jeff Schwartz of Schwartz Performance found a 390, auto-equipped Cyclone. I just didn’t want a Cobra Jet or a number-matching car. I knew I was going to modify it so this car was perfect.
“As for the build, I knew it was going to be set up for the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational that started in 2008. I wanted to run the car hard on the street and track and to qualify for the OUSCI. Even though I work there, I wanted to really qualify like any other participant.”
After securing the car, McIlvaine turned to Randy Johnson of D&Z Customs of Kewaskum, Wisconsin. “He’s built a succession of cars that were nicely done and built to run,” said McIlvaine. “So if you’re going to spend serious money to have a car built, you want it to do anything and everything. That’s what I wanted.”
Johnson accomplished the goal, giving the Mercury legit Pro Touring performance, a stylish NASCAR look, and a surprise under the hood: one that sends Ford purists into a tizzy. While he stuck with Ford Grabber Blue, the engine is not exactly Blue Oval, can you see why?
“The engine is easy to explain,” said McIlvaine, “I looked at the Ford engines and honestly, if you’re looking at the Ford Coyote you need forced induction or nitrous to keep up with what you can do with a naturally aspirated LS engine. There was really nothing comparable that wasn’t really expensive, either, so we went with a Lingenfelter Performance aluminum 427 LS.
“It was [Randy’s] idea to disguise the LS to look like Ford engine, and it’s fooled a lot of people. To create the look, D&Z Customs fabricated his own valve covers and added a distributor up front. Under the dual-snorkel air cleaner lurks a Holley 1,000 cfm throttle body and GM aluminum single-plane intake that’s mated to the LS7. A Holley LS Terminator EFI controls the 50 lb/hr injectors and ignition is fired by an Accel coil and Taylor wires. Ultimate Headers custom-fabricated a set of 1 7/8-inch tubes that flow to a 3-inch Magnaflow system. Other components include a Wagner accessory drive, Power Master alternator, All Star Performance oil cooler and of course there’s an Optima Yellow Top in there.
The engine produces 558 horsepower and 497 lb-ft of torque at the wheels. It sounds fantastic at idle and when the throttle is kicked open, look out. Love it or hate it, the engine is interesting and a unique design feature of the build. “In the [Optima] series there’s a Lingenfelter design and engineering competition. Points are awarded based on build quality, fit, and execution. At the end of the year, all the cars that do well get put on display at SEMA. It’s progressed to when you walk through Optima Alley you see some of the nicest cars at the show and they run as good as they look. The whole series was done to promote the aftermarket.”
Backing the LS is a Centerforce 10.5-inch DYAD twin-disc clutch that sends power to the Tremec T-56 Magnum gearbox. McIlvaine chose a 4-inch aluminum driveshaft from Dynotech that connects to the Ford 9-inch from Detroit Speed.
Randy wanted a name for the car, so we went with “Confucius” because the look of the engine fooled a lot of people. He liked the look of the Torino more than a Cyclone, even though the wheel wells are Cyclone. Randy, again, went with the Mustang taillights. “When you hire someone like Randy, you hire them and then you have to turn them loose. The Grabber Blue is the opposite color on the color wheel from the General Lee. I wanted a Ford color and something that popped. The original goal was to put a roll bar in, but fitment was an issue. We had to extend the steering wheel, drop the floor two inches, and allow the seat to go back almost to touching the rear seat,” McIlvaine stated.
Supreme handling was a major goal so they removed the front factory rails and grafted in a Detroit Speed 1965-70 Mustang front suspension. The front also uses 600-lb springs, JRI double-adjustable shocks and a Detroit Speed rack and pinion. Out back is a Detroit Speed Quadra Link designed for a Mustang, but modified to fit the big Merc. It uses floater axles with C7 hubs, 175-lb springs, and JRI double-adjustable shocks.
Confucius has lots of go, so naturally it needed major “woah.” Wilwood got the call with Spec 37 14-inch rotors and six-piston Aero Lite calipers up front and the same out back with four-piston calipers. Rolling stock consists of Forgeline 18×12-inch wheels with 335/30/18-inch BFGoodrich Rival S tires at each corner.
Along with an amazing list of parts, this Cyclone GT has a bevy of body mods that give it a look of it’s own. “We started in the front with modified front fenders and hood (with heat extractors) and we fit a ’69 Torino grille in there. We installed mini tubs and pulled out the wheel wells for tire clearance. To clean up the lines, we removed the drip rails. There are custom bumpers, the quarter-extensions are hand-made, and we used 1970 Mustang taillights. You’ll note the gas filler door is removed, and there’s extensive work to ensure the door gaps are perfect.”
The interior includes Auto Meter gauges, an NRG suede steering wheel and Cobra seats with custom stitching. As we stated earlier, the original plan called for a roll bar, but it wasn’t feasible considering the location of the driver’s seat, which accommodates McIlvaines, seven-foot plus frame.
“It drove a lot easier then I thought it would, says McIlvanie. “It has 335 series tires all the way around, but Randy did such a good job making it fast and drivable. This car just turns easy It takes getting use to a lopy cam, and it makes me feel good when I drive it. Even from the first time we took it out, it was competitive. So, for 2019, I want to get to some autocrosses and [track events] at Road America, NCM Motorsports Park, and NOLA, which are all Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car Series events.”
Like any project, it takes great people and dedication to see it through. Jim would like to offer special thanks to his wife Gwendolyn McIlvaine and friends, Tobie Johnson, Cam Douglass, Ken Lingenfelter, Jeff Schwartz, Johnny Hunkins, and Pedro Gonzalez.