ASTRANOMICAL

Paul Col­bran achieved his long-term am­bi­tion of build­ing a roof-chopped Club­man, and the fi­nal cre­ation fea­tures a 2.0-litre turbo en­gine from a Vaux­hall As­tra VXR!

Mini Magazine - - Contents -

Paul Col­bran’s roof-chopped and Vaux­hall-pow­ered Club­man has to be seen to be be­lieved.

Adren­a­line rushes are eas­ily achieved in a Mini; sim­ply at­tempt a dar­ing sin­gle­car­riage way over­take with a truck com­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and wheezy 850 un­der your bonnet. Al­ter­na­tively, find a ridicu­lous en­gine to shoe-horn up front and see how that pans out. Paul Col­bran has a his­tory of bolt­ing large en­gines into small cars, some more suc­cess­fully than oth­ers. And with its 5.5-inch roof chop, his lat­est cre­ation has to be

the small­est and most eye-catch­ing yet. Once the ini­tial con­fu­sion sub­sides, passersby soon no­tice that the orig­i­nal A-Se­ries has been re­placed with some­thing a whole lot more sin­is­ter.

The project started around 15 years ago af­ter Paul sold his home-built Vaux­hall As­tra with a 6.0-litre Chevy small block driv­ing the rear wheels. Ac­tu­ally, there were two projects in the pipeline at that stage - this Club­man and a V8-pow­ered Mini­van. Even­tu­ally though, he re­alised one cus­tom Mini project would give more than enough scope to build some­thing rad­i­cal. He’d al­ways fan­cied try­ing to roof-chop a Club­man, while a Vaux­hall XE con­ver­sion looked fun. So it be­gan...

THREE’S COM­PANY

To avoid ex­cess body­work, it was still im­por­tant to find a solid car to be­gin the trans­for­ma­tion, re­gard­less of the cus­tom plans. “The whole rea­son I went for this one was the floors,” says Paul. “It was full of wa­ter in­side, so that was a pretty good sign, as it wouldn’t have filled up if the floor had been rot­ten.” Ah, good point.

Sure, there was still some rust in the shell, but noth­ing deemed too dif­fi­cult to re­pair at home. The front end was in need of re­pair, the outer sills a bit crusty, while a crease in the boot floor hinted at a pre­vi­ous ac­ci­dent. Oth­er­wise, for an old Mini Club­man, it was in sur­pris­ingly good shape.

“I had three cars to sal­vage parts from ini­tially - the Mini, a Vaux­hall Cal­i­bra and a Metro GTi,” Paul con­tin­ues. “The Cal­i­bra had a 2.0-litre 16-valve XE mo­tor, while I’d read that the Metro front sub­frame and sus­pen­sion could be needed.” A sec­ond, early-gen­er­a­tion XE en­gine also joined the party, as it in­cluded a distrib­u­tor for the ig­ni­tion to keep things sim­pler. The Vaux­hall in­jec­tion/in­let setup is far too bulky to fit in­side the Mini en­gine bay, so most opt for a pair of twin We­ber carbs.

But be­fore any en­gine con­ver­sion work could get un­der way, Paul braced-up the shell and pre­pared to trim down the roof. We’d pre­tend that it was all in aid of an aero­dy­namic im­prove­ment, but it was purely aes­thetic. “I re­mem­ber see­ing a roof-chopped Club­man when I was young, and al­ways fan­cied do­ing the same,” Paul ex­plains. “It was a lot more dif­fi­cult than I’d imag­ined though; it wasn’t as sim­ple as cut­ting down the pil­lars and weld­ing it back to­gether again. In the end I had to weld to­gether six sep­a­rate sec­tions from two dif­fer­ent roof skins, as the roof gets wider and longer the more you lower the pil­lars down.” Try­ing to avoid warp­ing the roof

“It wasn’t as sim­ple as cut­ting down the pil­lars and weld­ing it back to­gether”

was par­tic­u­larly time con­sum­ing, as the metal is so thin it heats up very quickly.

Even with much time and pa­tience the roof was still look­ing un­even on top, and Paul wanted to avoid big sloppy plas­ter­ing with body filler, as it would only have cracked on the first speed bump. In­stead he chanced upon a 1970s full-length sun­roof, which would lit­er­ally re­move the is­sue. Hole cut, the outer frame went in a treat, prob­lem solved, ex­cept the ma­te­rial in­side was torn up and needed re­plac­ing. “Then I found an elec­tric We­basto on eBay from an MPi,” says Paul. “It came with a sec­tion of the roof and was in bet­ter shape, so I went with that in­stead.”

TRANS­PLANT TIME

There’s no easy way to in­stall a Vaux­hall XE en­gine in the front of a Mini, even a Club­man with its longer rec­tan­gu­lar snout. For starters, the in­ner wings must go, with a re­mov­able front end in­evitable. The bulk­head may need re-work­ing in places for clear­ance, then there’s the sub­frame to con­sider.

“The Mini front sub­frame is too nar­row for the Vaux­hall en­gine as the gear­box sits on the side, not un­der­neath,” Paul ex­plains. “At the time there were pre-made sub­frames around that used Metro front arms, but the whole project was put to­gether on a bud­get, so I de­cided to have a go my­self. I took the tow­ers from the Mini sub­frame and welded them to the lower rails of the Metro sub­frame to get more width.” The as­sem­bly was strength­ened up sig­nif­i­cantly to take the power, then re­in­forced to the shell to make up for any rigid­ity lost with the in­ner wings.

The Franken­stein front sub­frame now con­sists of Metro GTi lower arms, mod­i­fied Mini top arms to ac­cept

Gaz coilovers and Metro GTi front hubs. The front wheel stud holes were also re-lo­cated and re-drilled to suit the Mini’s im­pe­rial pat­tern. It’s far from a sim­ple DIY task, but proves that with enough time and ef­fort, any­thing is pos­si­ble at home. “I had a go at sleev­ing the drive­shafts,” Paul con­tin­ues, “to con­nect Vaux­hall in­ner joints to Metro CVs, but I wasn’t con­vinced they’d han­dle the power. So I went to see Alan Stone at SLS Fab­ri­ca­tions to have them pro­fes­sion­ally welded up.”

An­other is­sue is the wide front track width as a re­sult of the sub­frame and en­gine swap. It means that the front hubs are con­sid­er­ably wider than the stan­dard Mini rears. So what to do? Some have used mon­ster rear wheel spac­ers, or the other op­tion is wider rear wheels with more neg­a­tive off­set than the fronts. An un­usual set of Com­po­mo­tive five-spokes was even­tu­ally sourced on­line, with 6x13s up front and 8x13s on the rear. Who knows what Bri­tish car they were once fit­ted to, but they look rather good on a Mini Club­man. They were also far cheaper than a set of cus­tom off­set splitrims - the third op­tion on the list.

NEW AM­BI­TIONS

Re­tire­ment, a house move, and restora­tion project saw Paul’s Club­man hastily bolted to­gether then parked in stor­age for few years. The dan­ger was hav­ing plenty of time to mull over the build. “The XE con­ver­sion had been done be­fore,” he says, “and I thought, if that en­gine went in okay, why not try some­thing more mod­ern and re­fined.” En­ter stage two of the project and much search­ing of on­line sal­vage auc­tions.

While the 150bhp Vaux­hall en­gine was mighty fast in 1980s As­tra GTEs, 30 years on and Vaux­hall As­tras are a whole lot heav­ier. More pow­er­ful too, with tur­bos and fuel in­jec­tion now com­mon­place. In 2005 the BTCC-style As­tra VXR was launched, with a new 2.0-litre turbo en­gine boast­ing al­most 250bhp as stan­dard. Wagon wheel al­loys, a wider body kit and fast and fu­ri­ous cen­tre ex­haust made the new per­for­mance model a hit with boy rac­ers and track day he­roes alike. As a re­sult, there’s a lot of crash-dam­age sal­vage ones around.

“The en­gine looked quite sim­i­lar to the XE and I thought it would make a good con­ver­sion,” says Paul, who went in search of a donor car. “At the time I hadn’t quite re­alised how in­volved the wiring and setup would be, but I found a scrap car for about £1,200. The other en­gines I had needed to be re­built any­way, so I thought this would be com­par­a­tively cheap power.” The As­tra had been tuned-up by its pre­vi­ous owner

“The en­gine looked sim­i­lar to the XE and I thought it’d make a good con­ver­sion”

and came with a rolling road re­port show­ing over 300bhp. The main ad­van­tage in buy­ing a com­plete car was that it came with a six-speed gear­box and all the an­cil­lar­ies. The main dis­ad­van­tage was that all four wheels were miss­ing, and the seats, which made load­ing it up a chal­lenge!

Back home and the con­ver­sion could be­gin. “Fit­ting the en­gine and ’ box was easy enough,” says Paul, “al­though be­ing tur­bocharged made space even tighter in the en­gine bay. I wanted the whole lot to fit in­side the bonnet, in­clud­ing the in­ter­cooler.” Even­tu­ally he con­ceded to the fact that it wouldn’t all fit.

The As­tra’s ra­di­a­tor now lives in the boot, plumbed in through the cabin and back un­der the floor with an elec­tric wa­ter pump mounted re­motely. The oil fil­ter hous­ing and al­ter­na­tor also needed to be re-lo­cated to squeeze it all in. It’s a lit­tle bit un­ortho­dox, but does main­tain a smidgeon of stan­dard Mini Club­man styling.

COM­PLI­CA­TIONS

“Look­ing back, it would have been a lot eas­ier to have stuck with the XE en­gine,” Paul ad­mits. “I had the idea of trans­plant­ing over ev­ery­thing from the VXR, so the clocks and ECU, even the re­mote start key and wiring, but be­ing a later CANBUS sys­tem it’s not that sim­ple.” When there’s a drive-by-wire throt­tle pedal and wiring ‘ junc­tions’ for every con­ceiv­able bulb and gad­get on the car, DIY swap­ping the elec­tron­ics over to a Mini is like at­tempt­ing a brain trans­plant on the din­ing room ta­ble. Re­tain­ing the Mini’s loom, then ad­ding an af­ter­mar­ket ECU to run the en­gine alone was the only way for­ward.

Paul took ad­vice from Colin Thorndyke at At­speed in Es­sex, a font of knowl­edge on ECU re-map­ping, who ad­vised to change the throt­tle setup for a Peu­geot 106 GTi type, con­vert­ing to a me­chan­i­cal ca­ble. At­speed then sup­plied an Omex ECU and loom, which could be mapped from scratch to suit the VXR

en­gine once com­plete. “Colin said he’d be able to map that no prob­lem - with all the stan­dard elec­tron­ics re­moved it would be like any other four-cylin­der turbo en­gine,” says Paul. “It still meant I needed a fuel re­turn line, a swirl tank in the boot, high pres­sure pump and I had to mod­ify the stan­dard fuel tank too.”

Luck­ily, the VXR fea­tured a hy­draulic clutch sys­tem, just like the Mini, to make things slightly sim­pler there. Also, un­like the XE en­gine, the new re­place­ment has a ca­ble-op­er­ated gear shifter, so that part was eas­ier to graft into the build. But that’s more-or-less the easy bits summed up! “The hard­est thing of all was sort­ing out the win­dows,” adds Paul. “Tony at ACW helped with the poly­car­bon­ate side and rear win­dows once I’d sorted out hard­board tem­plates, but the front, well that was a pain. I’d lost a few wind­screens at glass spe­cial­ists who’d ap­par­ently be able to cut it down no prob­lem, then even­tu­ally gave up and thought I’d try it my­self.” The first didn’t go to plan, but in the end Paul man­aged to suc­cess­fully trim a stan­dard screen down in the garage with a fine cut­ting disc on an an­gle grinder. It then took about a day of strug­gling to squeeze it into the trimmed-down rub­ber.

GO­ING FOR BRONZE

Paul had sprayed cars be­fore at home, and fol­low­ing that DIY ethos, had no plans to splash out on a fancy paint job. “It only cost me around £300 to paint the car,” he says. “I de­cided to go with cel­lu­lose paint, as it’s eas­ier to spray at home and gives a more ’70s fin­ish. I mean, it’s not per­fect but it pol­ishes up well.” On the roof sur­round­ing the We­basto, Paul opted for an equally retro vinyl cover, bonded in place. Con­trasted with the black bumpers and wheels, it’s a strik­ing look.

The first ap­pear­ance was planned for the Ir­ish In­ter­na­tional Mini Meet­ing in 2017, but life and a few tech­ni­cal glitches with the map­ping saw the dead­line de­layed un­til the fol­low­ing IMM in Por­tu­gal. And no, be­fore you ask, it wasn’t driven all the way to Por­tu­gal for the first run, but did see some driv­ing around the lo­cal roads whilst there. “It had so much at­ten­tion from the for­eign Mini own­ers es­pe­cially, as I don’t think you can mod­ify a Mini like this in many Euro­pean coun­tries,” says Paul. “Peo­ple were ask­ing all sorts of ques­tions, even lay­ing in the road to take pho­tos of it as we drove around!”

Now back in the UK for the fore­see­able fu­ture, it seemed only right for me to pop home and take this mad cre­ation for a spin, for the ben­e­fit of all

Mini Mag­a­zine read­ers, of course. At the time of the pho­tos, the boost was wound

right down, as it needed a fi­nal few hours on the rolling road to per­fect the map­ping. But with well over 200bhp, this thing is al­ready mon­strous.

Gen­tly off the clutch, which takes some get­ting used to as you’re vir­tu­ally sit­ting on the floor, and we’re off. First or sec­ond work fine to get gin­gerly off the line and grad­u­ally the con­fi­dence builds. As does a false sense of se­cu­rity that this can be driven like a sen­si­ble car for sen­si­ble peo­ple. That’s quickly dis­pelled by the rock-hard ride, bright yel­low paint and the fact you can see the traf­fic lights more eas­ily through the sun­roof than the wind­screen. Build­ing

“I don’t think you can mod­ify a Mini like this in many Euro­pean coun­tries”

con­fi­dence now with every blip of the throt­tle and sub­se­quent dump valve woosh-tsshh when it ar­rives a round­about and clear stretch of A-road. Keep­ing the thing firmly in a straight line, un­leash hell as the front tyres light up through third, fourth, fifth...that’s quite enough thanks! Drive back home, ab­so­lutely buzzing with adren­a­line, but with an urge to re­spect­fully hand it back to the zoo keeper be­fore it bites.

Paul, how­ever, is un­der­stand­ably happy to have dodged the test drive, check­ing the tem­per­a­tures and hav­ing a quick once-over be­fore pop­ping it back in the garage. Ac­tu­ally, he doesn’t re­ally drive the Mini that of­ten him­self now it’s ac­tu­ally com­plete. “The thing is, now I’ve done what I wanted to do with the car,” he con­cludes, “that’s it - I’ve done it. I’ve been work­ing on it for so long, I fancy a change of scene and a new project.”

Whether Paul sells up for an early Mini restora­tion or harks back to his cus­tom car days is yet to be seen, but we share a fam­ily eBay ac­count and I’m keep­ing a beady eye on him!

Words and Pho­tog­ra­phy Stephen Col­bran

Clas­sic bucket seats with Luke four-point har­nesses looks the part.

Paul’s Club­man is cer­tainly strik­ing af­ter los­ing that 5.5-inches.

Un­usual Com­po­mo­tive five-spokes.

Stripped out in­te­rior works on this Club­man.

Steer­ing wheel is re­mov­able.

RaceTech dig­i­tal speedo in stan­dard lo­ca­tion.

Ex­tra boost and tem­per­a­tures gauges.

Paul skil­fully trimmed the wind­screen down him­self!

Af­ter much fet­tling, the MkV Vaux­hall As­tra VXR en­gine fits and pro­duces a very...

As­tra ra­di­a­tor and swirl tank live in the boot.

...healthy 240+bhp.

Boot lid and bonnet are fi­bre­glass items.

1970s full-length elec­tric We­basto sun­roof.

Short­ened wipers go with cut wind­screen.

Sil­i­cone boost hoses pok­ing out the bonnet.

Vents are for the ben­e­fit of the en­closed rad.

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