In­spired by the wildest of JDM car cul­tures, Dan Bar­low’s Z20LET-swapped As­tra drop-top on air has loos­ened jaws around the globe…

Performance Vauxhall - - NEWS - WORDS Emma Woodock PHO­TOS Ade Bran­nan

Dan Bar­low’s Z20LET-swapped As­tra drop-top on air has loos­ened jaws around the globe.

Shako­tam, one of the wildest Ja­panese tun­ing scenes, boasts all kind of visual rules. A jut­ting front lip is a must, ideally coun­ter­pointed by a sharp jag of rear spoiler. Rolling wide wheel arches are an­other scene sta­ple, push­ing hard away from the body, yet per­fectly in­te­grated with seam­lessly smooth bumpers. Wild, com­plex al­loys with deep dishes cer­tainly help, as does an im­pos­si­bly low ride height. A unique in­te­rior and spark­ing cus­tom paint go with­out say­ing.

You rarely see a Shako­tam build out­side East Asia. Thanks to five­hun­dred hours of ex­pert graft, how­ever, Dan Bar­low is rock­ing our world with his daz­zling As­tra Ber­tone drop-top. “I’ve al­ways loved Ja­panese cars,” he ex­plains. “Z20LET-pro­pelled Vauxhall builds are usu­ally about try­ing to achieve big power. I wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent by in­cor­po­rat­ing JDM style.”

The story starts sev­eral years ago, when a meet­ing of the Mod­i­fied Vauxhall Own­ers Club ( mvoc.co.uk) took an ex­pen­sive turn. “I was chat­ting with mates about a Verde Green As­tra Ber­tone Cabri­o­let that’d just been ad­ver­tised,” says the petrol­head from Portsmouth. “It was a lovely ex­am­ple of a Z22SE-pow­ered Mk4 be­ing of­fered at a rea­son­able price. My pals were won­der­ing why I hadn’t al­ready bought the car!” It was a good ques­tion. Dan pulled out his phone and called the ven­dor there and then. A few days later, the 2.2-litre, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated Grif­fin was parked on his drive­way.

A Europa Blue As­tra Coupe, the ex­plo­sion of its snail-shaped bhp booster and a sub­se­quent re­build with a Re­gal Au­tosport K04 hy­brid tur­bocharger oc­cu­pied Dan’s time dur­ing the course of the fol­low­ing few months. When he re­turned to the Cabri­o­let, it was with an en­gine swap in mind. In fact, within two days, the green As­tra was be­ing pow­ered by the Z20LET from its tin-topped sib­ling. A Piper­cross air fil­ter, a Samco Sport crossover delete, a Wal­bro high-flow fuel pump, a Longlife back box and a col­lec­tion of As­tra H VXR parts fol­lowed. Power was brought up to the 260bhp mark. It was enough to score the Ber­toneb­uilt beauty (af­fec­tion­ately known as ‘Orville’) its first Per­for­mance

Vauxhall mag­a­zine fea­ture.

That was way back in 2014. Big changes ar­rived two years later. “I’d al­ways fan­cied the idea of drop­ping the car on air ride,” Dan tells us. “I saw an ad for Dampfham­mer wheels in Fast Car mag­a­zine. Back then, Dampfham­mer was an up-and-com­ing Cana­dian firm new to the Bri­tish show car scene. I liked the idea of try­ing new rims peo­ple were yet to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with.” He promptly com­mis­sioned a set of Fleis­chwolf eigh­teen-inch­ers with satin black faces, gloss black lips and candy green hard­ware. Com­plete with stag­gered widths and off­sets, these were rims with at­ti­tude. An Air Lift Per­for­mance air ride sys­tem – a cus­tom kit util­is­ing mod­i­fied Volk­swa­gen Golf front struts and a 3P dig­i­tal air ride man­age­ment sys­tem – com­pleted the new look.


As 2016 rolled into 2017, how­ever, Dan felt the need to up the ante. “It was time to fit a tai­lored in­te­rior,” he re­calls. “I’d al­ready added As­tra H VXR half-leathers in the front, but that was pretty much as far as I’d taken things in­side the car.” Not want­ing an off-the-peg so­lu­tion, cross-stitch­ing was dis­missed, as was the sug­ges­tion of di­a­mond-stitched hide. In­stead, an asym­met­ric pat­tern was adopted. In­spired by the de­sign ap­plied to seats found in the Audi RS6, Pink’s Retrim­mers trans­lated the pat­tern to the VXR seats, the nearby door cards and rear ton­neau.

The fresh fab­rics bring the As­tra’s age­ing ar­chi­tec­ture into the present, though they’re not the only cabin cou­ture to grab the eye. The door han­dles, dash­board and A pil­lars have been flocked by The Flock Shop, an As­tra H VXR steer­ing wheel sits in front of the driver and a set of cus­tom green Mid Eng­land Retrims seat­belts tie the in­te­rior to the paint­work around it. Squint closer still and you’ll see heater con­trol sur­rounds have been colour­coded, LED lights give the cabin a green glow and a JDM-style Jor­dan Yea­man pil­lar pod houses a selec­tion Prosport gauges.

Shim­mer­ing around the UK and cen­tral Europe, the As­tra and its hulk­like hue drew stares through­out 2017. Lit­tle did in­ter­ested par­ties know Dan and the KC Cus­toms crew in Portsmouth were just get­ting started. Wind­ing the clock back, the Grif­fin nut had fallen hard for the ‘Swe­den Spec’ tour­ing car body kit man­u­fac­tured by ABS Mo­tors­port from the orig­i­nal Triple Eight Race En­gi­neer­ing moulds. It was while pon­der­ing a pur­chase at the ABS on­line store he learned of a com­plete kit avail­able at a knock­down price from Time At­tack racer, Do­minic Gre­gory. “I’d never seen the parts on a road car,” says Dan. “Big af­ter­mar­ket body kits for street ma­chines tend to fol­low the style of Rocket Bunny body pan­els. The tour­ing car pack­age seemed like an ex­cit­ing al­ter­na­tive to the norm.”


The parts were soon shipped to the KC work­shop. It was time to fit the kit. Easy, right? Wrong! The process took eight months and re­quired ex­ten­sive cus­tom work. For ex­am­ple, the fuel filler flap was ob­scured by the wide rear pan­els. An­gle grind­ing, fresh fi­bre­glass and much love with a

painter’s bucket soon solved the is­sue, only for the in­tro­duc­tion of new wheel lips – tak­ing the Dampfham­mers up two inches front and rear – to ne­ces­si­tate the re­moval of huge chunks of body­work.

The team’s tri­als and tribu­la­tions had only just be­gun. “I dis­cov­ered the car wouldn’t drop low enough,” com­plains Dan. The prob­lem was traced to a solid stop in the orig­i­nal rear beam bushes, which were re­placed by Polyflex polyurethane bushes and then by uni­ver­sal air bags. In turn, these were re­placed with dou­ble bel­lows in­tended for a BMW E46 M3, but now the wheels were hit­ting the arches! The As­tra fi­nally sat low enough to sat­isfy its pa­tient owner af­ter an­other two inches of grind­ing.


Fo­cus soon switched to the rear bumper. The tour­ing car part is de­signed to at­tach to the orig­i­nal As­tra com­po­nent. This is all well and good for a track weapon, but Dan wouldn’t al­low any­thing less than a per­fect fin­ish for his show car. Con­se­quently, the KC team cut the orig­i­nal bumper into three sec­tions, in­stalled var­i­ous ex­ten­sions and care­fully blended the tour­ing car ad­don, re­sult­ing in a pro­file that’s beefy with­out be­ing blocky. Mer­ci­fully, the front end was a lot eas­ier to work with; an in­ter­cooler vent and brake cool­ing ducts were sim­ply grafted into place be­fore the num­ber plate re­cess was filled and smoothed.

With the kit fit flush, Dan took care of one last body­work en­hance­ment. “I’ve al­ways wanted a duck­tail rear spoiler as a nod of recog­ni­tion to the JDM show scene,” he re­veals. “The Newage Subaru Im­preza is more or less the same width as my As­tra. This dis­cov­ery gave me the con­fi­dence to or­der a large duck­tail from Subaru spe­cial­ist, ABW Mo­tors­port.” When the chunky aero flick ar­rived, how­ever, fit­ting was less straight­for­ward than his ear­lier anal­y­sis of the sit­u­a­tion had sug­gested. More sub­stan­tial cut­ting and grind­ing was re­quired to make the part fit the Vauxhall’s boot lid!


The body­work was fi­nally com­plete, leav­ing the car a re­spray away from be­com­ing a show­stop­per. The main colour would once again be Verde Green, al­though stick­ing with an OEM shade doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean you can’t try some­thing dif­fer­ent. Speak­ing with Sh­effield-based cus­tom coat­ings firm, Spe­cial­ist Paints, Dan or­dered a pair of eye­pop­ping top­coats. One was a sub­tle pearl, the other a shiny glit­ter. A quick test spray high­lighted the cor­rect choice. “The glit­ter was too much!” laughs Dan, not ususally one for shy­ing away from bold au­to­mo­tive aes­thet­ics. “In con­trast, I loved the ef­fect of the sub­tle pearl. I im­me­di­ately or­dered a litre of Crysal Gold to com­ple­ment the green.”

Com­plete and com­pletely unique, this green wide mon­ster shook the re­cent sum­mer show scene as soon as it was re­vealed. In per­son and on­line, mo­tor­heads from around the world couldn’t be­lieve what they were see­ing. “The car’s first out­ing of 2018 was Dropped at the Bor­der, an event in Bel­gium for low­ered, slammed and bagged cars of all makes and mod­els. Af­ter the As­tra was un­veiled at the show, peo­ple were mes­sag­ing me from all over Europe, Brazil, Rus­sia, Aus­tralia and, of course, Ja­pan. My In­sta­gram fol­low­ing jumped from a few hun­dred to a thou­sand in the space of twen­ty­four hours! Ad­di­tion­ally, the boys at KC found them­selves be­ing swamped with re­quests for sim­i­lar builds.”

Pos­i­tive feed­back greets the car wher­ever Dan takes it at home or abroad. Be it as one of the star at­trac­tions at the VBOA Na­tional Rally or as a key fea­ture of the Wheel Whores stand at Ul­ti­mate Stance, it’s a dif­fi­cult Vauxhall to miss, es­pe­cially when so many peo­ple can be seen ac­tively seek­ing, star­ing, point­ing and smil­ing at the Ber­tone beauty, a gor­geous green Grif­fin reimag­ined with strong in­flu­ence from the Land of the Ris­ing Sun.

Rear end was a lot of work, not least of all to al­low con­tin­ued ac­cess to the fuel filler flap Dan en­joys Cud­dles in the back seat of his As­tra

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