Twenty-five years ago I was driving a rented Mk 2 Golf GTi up England's M23, speedo pointed far north, and my friend Paul's dad asked, "Why can't we build cars like this?" He was moderately impressed with the GTi, considering Paul and I had sliced a minute off his best time in his tuned Escort panel van on a 90-mile route. And we had done it in the rain, using a lot less gas. Under the hood, that Escort van packed a dyno-tuned twin-Weber-equipped 1.6 and an electric fan, and the chassis featured adjustable brake bias, quick steering rack, and revised springs and geometry, even while the body maintained its genuine sleeper appearance.
Whether you're a fan of old Rovers and Patrols or panel vans, there's someone who will mod
Last month, I caught up with Paul to see his latest Escort, a Mk2 two-door coupe in the midst of another deeper-than-average tuning. It's powered by a Vulcan Engineering 1.7-liter -- a four-cylinder built from the Ford 1.6-liter -- with two Weber 40DCOE carbs. It barely achieves 20 mpg, but makes about 135 hp at 6500 rpm, has decent midrange power, and weighs less than 2000 pounds. It also has a world rally HD crossmember; fast steering; anti-dive geometry; lower, stiffer springs; Bilsteins; and vented, drilled discs in front. It needs a five-speed because of 4.44:1 gears and fuel injection tuned for economy and an additional 10 hp. He already has 215 front and 235 rear tires on Compmotive three-piece alloys on the shelf, and the geometry's drawn for a coil/link with Watts linkage rear axle. Along with rust-repaired zones, it also has the RS2000 X-pack with grille, Cibie H4/H1 lights, and prerunner-style fat fenders from a rally car. It changes direction quite well for a 30-year-old solid-axle car. It's also clear that neither of us is ever going to grow up.
This is not his daily driver, of course -- that's an E-Class diesel wagon -- and to see the Escort, I had to venture far off the beaten path to a Datsun specialist shop where Paul's friend, Will, makes cars and trucks better. (Paul has also been known to do some tinkering there, too.) The shop's website (datman.co.uk) says you'll need a map to find it. It's two lanes removed from a secondary B road down a muddy track beyond where even the horses turn off. But getting there was worth the effort. Will, the Datman, covers parts and occasional advice for everything except the enthusiast Z, including rarer cars like the E10, B210, 120Y, and occasional Patrol. Most of these are, like the gen-one Pathfinder I built years ago, mechanically bulletproof.
However, after I rang the doorbell (an air-horn tune), the hefty gate swung open and the first thing I saw on this trip was a Range Rover body and an early 1970s Plymouth Fury wagon with back side windows that are so huge they would shame a Suburban.
During the nickel tour, I concluded that Datman has a soft spot for big Furys, with a pair of convertibles also on the property, all V-8s. However, it was the Rovers that got my attention, especially the Range-Trol (part 1992 Patrol, part 1972 Rover), resplendent in dull green. After trying everything else for towing, Will developed a liking for Y60 4.2-liter diesel Patrols -- except for their tendency to rust. Range Rover's driveline didn't suit him, but the aluminum and bolt-in panels did, so he put the best of both vehicles together.
The Patrol's front radius rods line up with the Rover's mounts, so the Patrol's Dana 60-size axles were an easy swap. They ride on a Rover suspension with aftermarket springs, dampers, and 2-inch body lift. The iron 4.2-liter inline-six, now aided by a hybrid turbo and intercooler, is offset slightly for starter and potential pan/diff clearance, and is backed by the Patrol's five-speed transmission, part-time 4WD transfer case, rear locker, and four vented discs. Every control is a Patrol part, as is the instrumentation, and the Rover wiper motor direction has been reversed to match Patrol switching and intermittent functions. At the time of my visit the vehicle still needed some work, but once adjustments are made, this Range-Trol will be an excellent tow vehicle, get good economy, and run forever.
Motorheads like these confirm my suspicion there are mechanical problem-solvers and innovators all over, and with the right circumstances, any of them might join names like Edelbrock, Banks, Callaway, or Hennessey in the automotive history books. Whether or not they have such aspirations, guys like Will and Paul may have an advantage over the performance powerhouses. Since they don't need to dedicate as much time to running a business, they might have more time to build vehicles and drive them.