Glass Half Full

It’s easy to get pessimistic about the rules and regs of modifying old motors – definitely a ‘glass half empty’ situation. But for this guy, it’s definitely a …
‘Glass Half Full
Words and Photography: Jon Hill

Looking at this gorgeous Aquatic Jade Twin Cam Escort you’re probably thinking ‘yep, very nice but why?’ Perhaps more the fodder of that esteemed publication Classic Ford than Street Machine? Keep looking, though, and there’s something not quite right – the way it sits; a touch different to the slammed street racer look we’re all accustomed to. There’s something isn’t there? You know what it is but can’t put your finger on it.

OK, I’ll be kind, here’s a clue: look at the wheels. Hmm, knock-offs. And the fact that it sits kind of wrong for a live axle/MacPherson strut car – that’s because it’s not!
If I told you, you were actually looking at a Lotus Elan, you may just need a bit of convincing. Thing is, it is and it could just be a clever solution to the points system we’re supposed to adhere to when building a car. ‘Cos this isn’t the norm of “use a steel body shell and fill it full of custom-made tubing, whopping engine and updated running gear”. I’ll come clean – there’s no steel in it. The body’s ‘glass and it’s bonded to a complete Lotus Elan Plus-2 floorpan, chassis, suspension, Twin Cam et al. It is an Elan with a body change. Hmm, two points on the BIVA scheme, that’s it…
This, then, is the product of Bob Smith; a Lotus restorer based near Preston, in Lancashire, and is the result of him clocking Old Ford Auto Services (OFAS) fibreglass Escort body shells whilst restoring an Escort Mexico for a friend of his. OFAS are simply hot rodders at heart. Mick Wood and Chris Evans are deeper than deep into their modified cars and mostly English Ford-based at that. They have a ton of solutions to simplify slotting more modern powerplants in to them, along with updates such as conversion from steering box to rack and pinion. They’ve also got a very active GRP department, which is the particular domain of Chris.

OFAS have a massive range of, I have to admit, the best quality fibreglass components I’ve ever seen, and they are renowned for superb Pop body shells, which they’ve been producing for plenty of years – there are many more race cars on the strip using their shells than you’d believe. But they never stand still and they’ve ideas coming out of their ears, one of which was the ‘glass MkI Escort bodyshell, which they now produce in standard arch and bubble (wide) arch formats.

Bob, being an Elan man and extremely familiar with restoring GRP, saw their products and an immediate light came on on his dashboard. Of all the desirable Elans, the Plus-2 at the time was perhaps the least, not to mention the most difficult to restore. “Once you get to a certain point, it’s not cost-effective to restore them. What you really need is a new shell, but there isn’t one…” That light became a beacon when Bob did a bit of measuring and found that the wheelbase is more or less the same as Escort’s, and so is the track. In theory then, one would mount under the other – and of course, it does. All that’s really needed is a touch of lengthening in the front, forward of the front suspension to sort of fill in the gap in the inner arches.

Maybe we’ve got ahead of ourselves a bit here because to say you’re using the whole of an Elan, you’re actually not – you’re using the floorpan. That of course, is GRP, which mates to a Lotus chassis. So, Bob’s created a Twin Cam replica – sort of – but he’s equally built Escorts with Focus ST170 Zetecs as well. Plus there are a few in the works, depending on the demands of the customer, because that’s what it’s turned into, an additional service to his normal Lotus restoration that’s kind of taking over…

Right now, the more preserving enthusiast is probably smashing his head on the ceiling in the jumping-up-and-down-whilst-screaming-sacrilege stakes. And yes, if you were literally throwing away Elans then you’d have a case. But the thing is, it’s GRP, which can be replicated by making a new floor section mould (although the old ones are actually still available) whilst companies such as Spyder Cars in Whittelsey, Cambridgeshire, reproduce chassis, which can also be ordered in beefed Zetec format. You could make one from scratch but equally, you need an identity so it’s best to find a donor and use that. Hmm, bordering on kit car territory? You tell me, but personally, I think the whole thing’s extremely clever…

This particular car started off as an experiment whilst restoring that Mexico and it was literally Bob’s own concept of making a Twin Cam replica. But Bob has a problem, albeit a nice one, and that’s Richard Winter who runs Europa Engineering. By the name, you’ll guess the two are completely linked – Bob’s a Lotus restorer and so’s Richard. Well, sort of. Thing is, he’s probably one of the most open-minded people you’ll ever meet, and if we told you he’s built a Europa with Smart car running gear and has one with a gas turbine in the works, you’ll get the idea that he’s a bit more on our side of the divided line than restorer…

Richard saw the car and said, “I’ll have it,” which is what you want when you’re trying to get a concept off the ground. Bob has since tried to build one for himself, which has a few more Lotus-inspired trimmings inside, whilst Richard’s (this car) is more of a cross between Escort and Lotus.

Is this a sleeper? Perhaps not in the strictest sense but there’s a big advantage this car has over both a standard Escort Twin Cam and an Elan: weight! Believe it or not, this car weighs about 75% of an Elan – you have 760kg here as opposed to around 1000kg of a Plus-2. The result is it’s lively and it handles really, really well too. But there’s more. For starters, the Spyder chassis is far more beefed than an Elan, reinforcing the ideal of using a new one. “An Elan chassis is really on the limit of everything that a 150bhp Lotus Twin Cam puts out.” Which explains the involvement Bob’s had in two ST170-powered cars now – 170-plus horsepower and an MT75 five-speed Ford box means they could be far more of a laugh than anything Lotus intended. “That Spyder chassis just makes the whole lot more or less bullet-proof,” explained Bob…

And the next bit should appease the Lotus purists, because Bob’s moved the concept on a bit and looked at other areas to both use and develop the concept further. There is an abundance of the very much un-loved Excel and Eclat cars out there too, which at the moment are comparative peanuts. These too make sense because the running gear’s a lot more modern – post-1985 cars are virtually all Toyota. True, the engine’s the expensive Lotus 907 engine but equally, Richard is again building a car that’s V8 powered, based on an Excel chassis/floor pan, again using an Escort shell. The only problem with the later car’s platform is it’s actually wider, but that makes it perfect for a bubble-arch body or, indeed, the next phase in OFAS development, the MkII, and a forest-arch one at that. Or of course you could use the Ford X-Pack/Zakspeed body kit too – get thinking and there’s a world of possibilities with this system, isn’t there?

So where have we got to in this tale? Bob’s built an Escort Twin Cam that’s not an Escort but looks like one, it goes, stops, handles and drives like a proper sports car should, it’s not what you think it is and that’s what a good sleeper should be. I do hope your mind’s blown – mine was!

Tech Spec

  • Old Ford Auto Services GRP narrow-body Escort shell
  • Lotus Elan Plus-2 lengthened inner arches bonded in
  • Ford Aquatic Jade paint by Bob
  • 1557cc Ford/Lotus Twin Cam engine to standard Elan Plus-2 spec
  • Lotus four-speed tranmissionv
  • Lotus Elan double wishbone independent front suspension
  • Lotus Elan independent rear suspension
  • Lotus Elan Plus-2 discs and calipers all round
  • Escort/Elan hybrid interior
  • 5.5J Lotus replica knock-off wheels

Richard Winter – Europa Engineering,
Spyder cars,
Chris and Mick at Old Ford Services,