Inspired by the wildest of JDM car cultures, Dan Barlow’s Z20LET-swapped Astra drop-top on air has loosened jaws around the globe…
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.
THE PROCESS TOOK EIGHT MONTHS AND REQUIRED EXTENSTIVE CUSTOM WORK TO THE BODY
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!
GOING FOR GOLD
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