World Rallycross racer Steve Harris reveals a bizarre collection of allterrain warriors, including a wild Ford RS200 Evolution
Rallyist Steve Harris has amassed his cars by chance and accident – all are well-acquainted with the rough stuff, from World Rallycross arenas to remote mountainsides
‘It turned out after a few drinks I’d bought three EXWRC Minis, driven by Kris Meeke and Guy Wilkes’
Steve Harris has both cars and collecting in his genes, although oddly enough they’ve converged later in life. ‘Dad started it, he was a bit of a hoarder,’ he says as he wanders around the outbuildings surrounding his Essex farmhouse. ‘But for him it was motorbikes. He built up a private museum of motorcycling in a poolhouse-type building in the back garden.’ And yet it was cars that made Steve’s father Ken’s fortune and paid for those bikes.
‘He invented those horizontally-slatted rearwindow louvres people fitted to cars in the Seventies and Eighties, and founded Auto-plas to make and sell them.’
Window louvres were soon joined by a range of stylish wheel trims, bolt-on boot spoilers, foglight-inset radiator grilles and any other Eighties boy-racer add-on you could care to mention. Steve saw the mobile-billboard potential in rallying to promote the business, and a new career began.
Nowadays, Steve’s businesses include rallycross preparation business SH Racing, and you can see him in action behind the wheel of a Citroën DS3 in the British and World Rallycross Championships. But as garage doors start creaking open, it’s soon clear that he has a taste for all manner of machinery.
Saab 96 V4
‘This was my first-ever car,’ says Steve of the dust-covered Saab 96, tucked away in the side of a garage next to a chicken coop, currently being used as a shelf for Steve’s son’s karting trophies. ‘My dad saw it for sale, thought it was good value, bought it and gave it to me. I think my response was along the lines of, “Really, dad?” It was the Seventies, and all my mates had Escort Mkis. Saabs like this were not very cool. But his attitude was, “You’ll have it and you’ll like it.” In retrospect, I’m grateful to him for that.
‘It was actually a great car. It took me everywhere – all the way to Scotland once. Crucially, it was the first car I took rallying. My first-ever rally was the Kettering Stages near Southend – I thought I’d need a specially-prepared car with a roll cage, but my Escort-owning mates said, “No, come along, you can enter in anything.”
‘As you might expect, it didn’t do very well. It was completely standard, up against modified Rs-spec Escorts and the like. I only rallied it twice, but it started something. I was hooked.
After that rally, I replaced it with a Group 4 Escort MKII, then a Group B MG Metro 6R4, then a Group A Skoda Favorit, before going into rallycross. But I kept the Saab and it’s been sat here ever since. One day I’d like to restore it and prepare it for historic rallying – it’d finally be competitive!’
‘We did a lot of business with Skoda in the Eighties,’ says Steve, as he moves house-clearance detritus out of the corner behind the Saab to reveal the rear of a Sixties Trabant. ‘You may remember things like Estelles and Rapids available with all the kit – foglight grilles, window louvres, spoilers, often colour-coded – well, it was all Auto-plas, available from dealers as optional extras.
‘I was 29 when dad and I went to the Skoda factory in thenczechoslovakia to do the deal. The Skoda guy asked if we’d accept a couple of cars as part of the deal; he’d bought some classics and his wife didn’t like them – a Russian military jeep and this Trabant. We agreed, and brought them over. We sold the Russian jeep to EON Productions to feature in Bond films, and the Trabant came here. I’ve only ever driven it once – to the local classic car show and back. I just can’t get along with its two-stroke engine.’
Steve has three Mini Countrymans, in various states of conversion from original World Rally Championship to rallycross spec. ‘I went to South Africa for a round of the World Rallycross Championship last year, and ended up having a few drinks with WRX racer Liam Doran,’ says Steve. ‘At some point in the evening he said, “Why don’t you buy these cars from JR Motorsports?” When I woke up the next morning, I got a call from Liam saying, “Now what about these Minis? Don’t you remember? You shook the guy’s hand!” It turned out I’d bought all three ex-world Rally Championship Minis, as driven by Kris Meeke and Guy Wilkes.
‘Prodrive built them for JRM around the 1.6-litre rules, and JRM had tried to re-engineer them to take 2.0-litre engines but couldn’t get them to fit and gave up on them. Liam had entered them in rallycross and, despite being underendowed with the 1.6-litre engine, even won a round in Germany because it was raining. I’m finishing the project JRM started, machining them to take a 2.0-litre engine and a gearbox that’ll handle it. Then I’ll probably sell two and keep one for myself, perhaps the ex-meeke car.’
‘Believe it or not, I bought this from Vintage & Prestige,’ says Steve of his Chevrolet SSR, the car he drives most often. The Grays-based dealership is best known for exquisite vintage Rolls-royces.
‘I was surprised when I saw the advert, so I went down to have a look. I spoke to one of the salesmen, who said he’d bought two of the things but, “The boss hates them and I’ve got to sell them quick – I’m in trouble otherwise!” He wanted £28k. I said I had £20k in my pocket and would drive it away, no warranty, inspection or valeting, I just wanted the car. So he shook on it.
‘Chevrolet only made 25,000 of them. It’s got an LS2 V8 from a Corvette, and this one had a supercharger fitted by its supplying dealership in America. I kept it at my place in Spain for a while. It’s great – a convertible muscle car that’s faster than a Corvette, and perfect for summer cruising.’
Ford RS200 Evolution
Steve presses a button on a handheld remote control, and a rollershutter door whirrs upwards, revealing an ordinary-looking workshop garage with an extraordinary occupant – a rallycross Ford RS200 with a rear wing higher than its roof.
‘I’d always wanted a Ford RS200, and Pat Doran – RS200 specialist, Lydden Hill owner and Liam’s father – said, “Well, I’ve got an Evo chassis, if you can find an engine, we can build one.” My search for an engine led me to a collector called Richard Lee.
‘This was in Richard’s car collection in London,’ Steve says of the pride of his fleet. ‘It was just sat there, unfinished, unused since new, finished in a dodgy Porsche-tribute metal flake silver with Martini-style stripes. I was only interested in the engine, but Richard said, “I’ll only sell the whole thing.” I’d been looking for that engine for ages, so I said, “OK, I’ll have it.”
‘Richard had wanted to make it an extreme road car, but gave up. Most parts were still in their original boxes, or with build sheets still taped to them. Pat and I had to source suspension uprights, hubs and wheels and a roll cage, but otherwise it was like building a kit car. It’s taken two years, but I’ve run it at Lydden Hill, Silverstone and Goodwood now and I absolutely love it.
‘The rear wing is unusual. It’s inspired by the one on Mark Rennison’s RS200 Evo, which went to a Prince’s son in the UAE, then to the USA and disappeared. No one’s seen it since. When I displayed it at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Guy Martin took a photo of it and texted it to WRX driver Mark Rennison – now he wants to drive it! We keep trying to get Guy into a rallycross car actually, so it’s a promising sign.’
Carmichael Range Rover
We enter the largest of Steve’s buildings, a vast warehouse which functions both as the headquarters and workshop of SH Racing and a huge filing cabinet for storing all manner of automobilia, from unused Auto-plas products to unusual motorcycles including a superbike-inspired quadbike and a folding motorbike built for the SAS in the Seventies. Dominating an anteroom is an enormous six-wheeled Range Rover, finished in a very Seventies custom-car shade of metallic blue.
‘Dad bought this, straight off Carmichael’s stand at the 1978 Earls Court Motor Show,’ said Steve. ‘It was built for an Arabian prince, who never collected it. Dad paid £21,000 for it – a lot of money in those days – but got a lot of use out of it over the years.
‘It worked as a promotional vehicle, attracting a lot of attention for the business, but it was also practical. Dad and I would sit up front, we could seat two car company bosses in comfort in the rear, and still have enough room in the back to carry moulds and samples so we could measure a car up for accessories there and then. We took it on some long trips, to Germany especially. It needed another oil-cooler because it only had a standard 3.5-litre Rover V8, which could get quite stressed pulling the fire-tender-derived chassis. I want to restore it as soon as possible. It really deserves it.’
Automobilia – reflecting on rallying
Before turning his attention to rallycross, Steve contested the British Rally Championship, enjoying success towards the end of the Group B era in his MG Metro 6R4. He keeps an extensive scrapbook charting his time in the limelight.
‘I was rallying the Escort MKII when the 6R4 came out. They were £44,000, but I said to my dad, “Come on, it’d be good for advertising!” Amazingly, he gave me a cheque. I went up to the MG stand at the NEC with the cheque, and the man said, “We’ve altered the price...” – my heart sank – “to £17,000 plus VAT, because we’re not offering sponsorship packages any more.’ I thought in that case I’ll have two! But dad said no.
‘We went to collect the car from Cowley, where all the cars were lined up. Dad said, “Don’t get one from the middle – they’ll be unsorted, just making up the numbers.” He was right – on some of those cars nothing had been machined properly.
‘The Metro sported Auto-plas sponsorship and rear screen louvres. We got loads of publicity when we got involved in the 6R4 race supporting the 1988 Birmingham Superprix, when the cameraman got confused and focused on me all the way through the race, thinking I’d pulled out a massive lead. In reality I’d spun off early on in the race and was a backmarker by that point. Even Tony Jardine, in his commentary, seemed to think I was leading!
‘I had an apprentice mechanic back then who asked me for a drive in the 6R4. He took it for a spin round the woods and was rather good at handling it. After that, he borrowed a MKII Escort from a friend of mine and won his first-ever race. The mechanic’s name was Richard Burns – you might have heard of him… ‘My last rally car was a Group A Skoda Favorit. We fitted it with our Skoda accessories – window louvres, spotlight grille, bonnet power bulge, bodykit – only to find ourselves often disqualified because they weren’t standard equipment, even though they made no difference to power output or handling.’
Steve thinks for a moment, looking in the Carmichael Range Rover’s direction before changing his mind. ‘I know I’ve only bought it recently, but it’s got to be the RS200,’ he says. ‘It’s not a car I ever thought I’d own, but it’s turned out to be so nice to drive, contrary to what all the Ford people have told me over the years. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure.’
Saab 96 was his first car. It did a couple of rallies and has been laid up ever since
RS200 was found in boxes
Steve went to buy the engine but ended up with a whole RS200