FORD’s Mark 1 Escort is a legend of motorsport for rallies, touring cars and even drag racing thanks to its small size, generous engine compartment and rear-wheel drive. As a fan of four-banger Fords from a tender age, John Dennis knew this all too well, but it took a while to build the righteous turbo pro Esky you see on the pages ahead.
This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of Street Machine. Photos Ben Hosking.
“I’ve been a little Ford since I was a kid,” says the Sydneysider. “Years ago my uncle had a Ford Squire van with a GT Cortina engine and we played in it as kids. I’ve always wanted an Mk1 Escort, but my first car was a two-door Cortina. I was too young and didn’t have the funds to build it so it was sold. I didn’t get an Mk1 until I got older and I had a little more money to play with. “
It was a friend of John’s who discovered this particular escort a few years ago and was sitting in the front window of a truck stop on Parramatta Road. Johnno wasted no time whipping down there and making the deal.
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“This car was clean enough that it probably should have been restored, but it made building so much easier,” he says. “I dragged it home and it sat for six months while I built a house and started talking to Laurie Starling at The Chop Shop about how to build the car.
“The body was great with just a little rust on the sills, and we had to take it off to do some of the modifications to the chassis. It was sandblasted and only had four holes, and they were all in the firewall that we wanted to cut out to replace anyway! “
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After Laurie Starling started the project at The Chop Shop, his sudden death stopped construction in 2014 when Johnno tried to find a shop to take over the partially constructed car with its many very different technical ideas .
The Forgeline wheels run 17 x 7.5 inches at the front and 17 x 10 inches at the rear and are wrapped in sticky Falken Azenis semi-slick tires. “They have a little more grip and meat than the 135-wide tires that the Escort had as standard!” Johnno says
“It went to a couple of stores, but the escort found its home when Aaron Gregory – who had worked with Laurie in the Chop Shop – got up and opened in West Sydney,” explains Johnno, referring to the 2020 Valvoline SMOTY winner and front man at Memphis Hell Custom Vehicle Builders. “That was where the build really started moving. I just had to give Aaron a rough idea, and he was so in tune with the place I wanted to drive the car that it was made exactly how I wanted it. “
With the assignment to build a fast, manageable, and well-stocked street car that Johnno could beat like a tribal drum, Aaron set out to connect the Escort front subframe to the custom four-link arm that he put together to include the to strengthen the entire shell. Adding a watt link to localize the BorgWarner 28 spline diff laterally. GAZ Group 4 coilovers, adjustable forearms, and a 28mm stabilizer keep the pointed end, while Spax coilovers keep the Esky’s butt off the ground. The entire package is stopped by Nissan 200SX four-piston disc brakes at the front and Falcon discs at the rear, which are compressed by a Tilton master cylinder.
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Aaron also added new sheet metal on the back, a specialty diffuser folded from a piece of steel, the chin spoiler, all of the metal parts in the interior, and a smoothed, recessed firewall that fits around the new large inch Kraftwerk.
While Nissan’s SR20DET is one of the most common jammed turbo four-pots in a small car, the old-school FJ20s may be few and far between today. “It takes a bit of a chore to find parts for the FJ20, but there’s a guy named Stewart Wilkins out near Windsor and if he doesn’t have it he can find it for you,” explains Johnno. “It seems that they are still popular engines in the historic rally scene.”
The original 1300 Kent Four-Banger would never froth Johnno’s coffee, so it stuffed a 2.0-liter, two-cam Nissan FJ20T four-pot in its place. While the FJ engine is pretty rare today, it was a precursor to Nissan’s infamous SR20 Turbo 4 and saw a lot of brutally fast-paced Datsuns action in the 1980s, including the Peter Jackson DR30 Skyline that a young Glenn Seton rode around in the wet Mount Panorama drifted. 87.
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“I love how sturdy the FJ20 are, and if you smooth the rocker arm covers, they look like an original Lotus Escort Twin Cam engine,” offers Johnno. “I ran out of places looking for an FJ20 so I called a buddy over to a historic rally and he had one! A Sierra Cosworth engine would have cost $ 6,000 without a distributor, so that was a lot cheaper! “
Johnno left the long engine alone but had a stock Hypertune plenum and throttle added to the stock runners, with a BorgWarner 7163 turbo mounted low on an exhaust manifold of tuned length. The car is controlled by a Haltech ECU suite and currently has 260 HP in running-in mode and sucks in 98 RON fuel.
Early Recaro seats and a Sparco tiller add a luxurious touch to the spartan racing-themed interior. Aaron whipped up the footrests, door panels and the retro motorsport-inspired dashboard, while Oxytech’s Scotty Barter powder coated all of the metal parts Aaron made for a durable finish
“I built the car to drive, so the Turbo is more suitable for a racing car with an internal wastegate,” says Johnno. “On pump fuel it will go about 20 psi, and we hope to get 25 psi with E85, but that will be about its limit. It shouldn’t lag behind much as I wanted it to perform well across the rev range.
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“It drives a lot better than I thought – it’s very noisy with no carpet or door panels, but I love it. Less is more a lot most of the time, and I love the whole atmosphere of a race car. I saw touring cars with my dad in Amaroo, so I love the old racing cars from the 70s to 80s! “
With an eight year build, would Johnno surely treat the property from so much hard work and frustration with kid gloves? Not in your life!
“I wanted a tram, something I could ride on the track or do drag racing, but also Arvo cruises on Saturdays and picking up the kids from school,” he laughs. “I want to use it and hurt it now! It’s a driver so it’s nicks and scratches and I love it that way.
“It turned out to be 100 percent my original vision in steel. Ryan Carter of the United Speed Shop did a rendering for me eight years ago, and it’s almost identical – it’s ridiculous! “
1973 FORD ESCORT
Paint: VW Golf R Limestone Gray
Brand: 2.0L Nissan FJ20T
Induction: Custom, Hypertune 75mm throttle
ECU: Haltech Elite 1000
Turbo: BorgWarner 7163
Connecting rod: bearing
Oil system: Customized oil pan and intake
Fuel system: Bosch injectors, Hypertune fuel rail, Aeroflow fuel pump, radium tank
Cooling: PWR cooler
Exhaust: Low-mounted manifold with matched length, customized system with 4-inch oval pipe and 3.5-inch round pipe
Ignition: LS1 coils
Transmission: Nissan RB20 five-speed manual transmission
Clutch: Custom spring loaded button
Diff: BorgWarner 28-wedge drive axle, HU track center, 3.9: 1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front: coilover kits from GAZ Group 4, adjustable forearms, 28 mm stabilizer
Back: Spax coilovers, four-link with Watt’s handlebar
Brakes: Nissan 200SX four-piston discs (f), Falcon discs (r)
Master cylinder: Tilton
WHEELS & TIRES
Rims: Forgeline; 17 x 7.5 (f), 17 x 10 (r)
Rubber: falcon azenis; 205 / 40R17 (f), 255 / 40R17 (r)
Laurie Starling; Aaron Gregory; Scotty Barter at Oxytech; Gavin; Deegan; Mark and the team at MRC; Dean at Sydney Suspension; everyone else who puts a hand on the car; Many thanks especially to my wife Emma