No Smoke No Poke

The ZCars Diesel Grass Track Racer

15th October 2013 | BY Adam

“You wouldn’t have kept up with me 20 years ago boy…I was a maniac. Worked 40 hours a day, I was a bit crackers. Well I’m still a bit crackers now”.

I believed him too.

It was my first time meeting Chris Allanson,  the owner of ZCars and from the brief few minutes we’d spent chatting prior to our interview, I could tell this was a man that liked to get shit done. Chris has that Northern mannerism which is both endearing and brash at the same time and the more we spoke the more I warmed to his attitude. He’s a firm believer in doing things differently and pushing the boundaries of what is both expected and possible.

ZCars are known by many as the mentalists that fit classic Minis with a Hayabusa engine or two, but as I explored the workshop I soon realised that’s not even the half of it…

Chris built his first car when he was twenty, inspired after watching a grass track race near his home. Back in those days it was possible to build a grass tracker out of old bits from a scrap yard. So he bought a Lancia Beta Coupe for £40 and after selling the tyres off it for £40 and siphoning the fuel out of the tank, he was in profit before the build even began. A bit of box section steel and welding practice later and he’d built himself a race car with the engine and gearbox salvaged from the Beta. He won his first race and was hooked, things have never been the same since.

Over the next ten years Chris built more grass track cars for himself and others and in 1993 he bought a motorbike.

“It was that quick that I thought, bloody hell one of these would go well in a grass track car”.

With this ‘Can-Do’ attitude he built the first motorbike powered single seater grass track car and went on to win every race that year. At the end of the season Chris was approached to build one for another racer in the series and by the time it was finished he’d got four more orders to boot.

“That was the start of ZCars really. I was a full time Policeman at the time so I was working my shifts and building cars in my spare time - that’s where the name ZCars came from.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that somebody capable of building a motorbike engined grass track car from scratch would have some form of mechanical training, but Chris has no qualifications in fabrication or mechanics. He relies on his innate ability to work things out for himself, which so far hasn’t been a bad thing. Couple that with years of experience and he’s become an expert in custom fabrication, engine swaps and prototype builds.

After 20 years of building grass track cars, ZCars began offering minis and kit cars which is where their reputation really began to grow. The bike engined Minis offered super car performance at a price point which was affordable for the masses and as business grew the grass track racing took a back seat for Chris. The quality of the craftsmanship of their cars meant ZCars began attracting the attention of enthusiasts and manufacturers across the world, leading to a diversification of the cars they were producing.

“We’ve built all sorts of cars over the years, old classic Jags with new supercharged underpinnings, Caterhams, Westfields, Lotus Elises you name it and we’ve stuck a daft engine in it”

Fast forward to 2007 and Chris bought himself a MK4 Golf TDI as a daily and after driving it for a few weeks he had a familiar thought…

“This engine would go well in a grass track car”.

Having not been in the grass track game for a few years, what better way to make an re-entry than with the first diesel powered race car.

“I decided to put the 1.9 TDI in to a mini and had Jabbasport build me a turbo and fitted  bigger injectors, but that was about it. It was pretty much stock other than that.”

Chris won some races with the diesel, but admits he wasn’t as dedicated to it as he could have been because of time constraints. The car was quick, but when competing against 1,000cc bike engined cars you’ve got to be REALLY quick. Towards the end of the season the team tore the car down, took off the panels and got rid of as much weight as they could for the last few races.

“With all the weight off it drove great and was starting to get up to a consistent race pace, so I decided to build something lighter with a better motor for the next season.”

Using an existing Z-Cars round tube chassis design from a previous grass track car, Chris began prepping his new grassy coal roller and decided to go for a 2.0l TDI instead of the 1.9. The engine went to Darkside Developments to be fully rebuilt and given a ‘little tickle’. That included balancing, Rosten H-Beam Conrods, a ported head, GTB2260VK turbo and tubular stainless manifold, Darkside Race 16v PD Injectors, 4 BAR MAP sensor and a custom live re-map. All of which results in a respectable 310bhp and 415lbft which we figure equates to approximately ‘f*cking fast’ in something that weighs just over 500kg.

“The thing I love about racing a diesel is the low down grunt it has, when you have a light and powerful petrol car if you snap the throttle it’ll spin the wheels and lose traction. With the diesel it’s like stretching an elastic band so the power feels more progressive at the bottom end and when it comes in it just stays there nice and flat. It’s all about the torque, it makes a huge difference when racing.”

I asked about the weight distribution, wondering how a heavy diesel lump would affect the cars balance. But with a 72/28 rear/front split, Chris assures me the car handles very nicely indeed and when it does get too sideways, the huge steering lock and 1 turn lock-to-lock quick rack means you can catch it pretty quick.

“My new tactic since driving the diesel when I’m chasing somebody is to sit on their rear quarter as we enter a corner, once we’re coming out the other side I can squeeze on the power and because of that low down power I can nudge my way up the inside on the exit and by the time we’re at the next corner I’ve got the racing line and I’m through. It’s changed the way I race thanks to the improved corner exit speed.”

The ECU was proving a little tricky to begin with as trying to get a modern engine to run outside of a car is quite a challenge without retaining every guage, sensor, bell and whistle. But by using the ‘simpler’ ECU from a 1.9 TDI Chris has managed to get the thing running without the need for anything else. As the only fundamental difference between the two engines is the bore size, the 2.0l can be mapped and run on the earlier ECU with only a few fault codes being thrown up in VAG-COM, none of which affect performance or reliability.

Grass track cars have two gears, a start gear and a race gear. Chris wanted a high start gear and an even higher race gear due to the the torque output from the 2.0l TDI. The problem was that the ratios he needed couldn’t be found in a single box, so to solve the problem he’s had to take 3rd gear from one box, 4th from another and married them to the crown wheel and pinion from another. This combo gives him a start gear capable of 96mph at 6,000rpm and a race gear which will top out at 115mph. To put that in to perspective, most of the competition run a 95mph race gear and a 70mph start gear, so thanks to all that extra torque Chris’s car benefits from a higher top speed without sacrificing acceleration. A paddle clutch, lightened single mass flywheel and uprated pressure plate gives him just about enough clamping force to get that power down, although he’s still not fully satisfied that they’ve got the best set up yet.

Gear changes are straight forward enough, with a custom fabricated lever which is thrown forwards for start gear and pulled back for race gear. The word that came to mind repeatedly as I looked over the car was “Necessary” - as in, they’ve only done what was necessary to allow the car and driver to fulfill their duties of hooning around a grassy oval as fast as possible.

Look at the steering boss for example, why bother fitting a fancy pre-made locking system when one of the guys can weld up something that’ll do just good out of metal hanging around the workshop.

The simplicity of the car almost makes it beautiful…in an ugly way. It’s full of little nuances that don’t scream for your attention but that make all the difference. Take Chris’s hand brake for example - a small cable with a toggle crimped on the end which runs through the bulkhead and to the brake master cylinder. It’s positioned so that when he’s ready to launch at the start of the race he can squeeze it between his first two fingers to nip up the brakes and keep his hand on the steering wheel. That way he knows that he can ride the clutch so that it’s just starting to bite and ready to launch, but he won’t creep forward and incur a penalty. When the lights go out he releases the cable and all hell breaks loose - it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

A beadlock wheel is used on the outside rear to stop the tyre popping off the rim (all corners are right handers in grass track racing) and the rest are Peugeot 15′s with  Winter Tact MaxSport 60 tyres set to 8psi for maximum traction.

 

Chris uses magnesium motorbike brake calipers at 1kg each for weight saving purposes and his own self made front discs. The rear discs are actually from the front of a MK4 Ford Escort, because they’re abundant and have the biggest offset.

The rest of the car is all pretty straight forward, with 3 way adjustable shocks doing their best to stop the thing rattling your teeth out and a rather sparsely padded Kirkey seat with head restraint to stop you from falling out.

I can honestly say I’ve never driven anything like the grass tracker. It is so raw and unforgiving and needs to be driven flat out to get it anywhere. I was moving it around during the photo shoot and unless you’re spinning up the rears the turning circle makes the QE2 look as agile as a jet ski thanks to the fixed diff. But when you get on it, boy does it shift. Chris has recently built a practice track behind the workshop and was kind enough to show me how the car goes at race pace. Rather than explaining, it’s probably better that you just see it for yourself:

Considering there’s only a six inch long exhaust between you and the enormous 2260 turbo, it’s actually remarkably quiet and I’m fairly confident it has nothing to do with that ‘silencer’ either. Don’t get me wrong, you’d get noticed if you popped down the shops in it, but as far as screamer pipes go it’s not too lairy.

This year Chris won the “Fastest Man on Grass” in the diesel, making it his fourth win over three decades and two centuries…not that I’m trying to make him feel old or anything. However all good things come to an end and now the season is over, the car is up for sale.  If you offer him £13,000 it’s yours with a bow wrapped around it.

But fear not, as that’s not the end of Chris’s diesel adventures. He’s swapped the pencils and hacksaws for keyboards and CNCs and is currently designing a brand new chassis for next season. He promised me it’ll be faster, stronger and even more bad ass than this years model. When I asked if I could see the designs, Chris jokingly replied “I could show you, but I’d have to kill you”…or at least I think he was joking. He did say however that as soon as they start building it we can return to deepest, darkest Hull to keep you up to date with process.

Until then, enjoy some more shots of the insane ZCars grass track racer and let us know what you think of it in the comments below.

  


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