Channelling gravel-carving heritage with one of Toyota’s finest power plants: this is Lewis Hicks’ turbo 4A-GE–powered Ford Escort tarmac terrorizer
They say that you can tell a lot about a person from the way they keep their lawns. Pastures left to grow wild, claiming surrounding infrastructure and allowing pests to cultivate, could indicate an indifference to a person’s property, a lack of care for their possessions, and a downright inability to get a job done. On the flipside of that, discover a freshly-mowed, weeded, and pruned slab of green, and you’d be justified in thinking they had their shit together.
Dunedin’s Lewis Hicks is a man who enjoys a solid lawn — with a trusty Masport on hand and an affection for the smell of freshly cut pasture, his are immaculate. But we quickly learned that if there’s one thing that he cares for more than his greeny, it’s this tarmac-terrorising 1977 Ford Escort (Mk2).
You see, Lewis is like many other Kiwis across the country who have been caught up in a love affair with motorsports since adolescence, subverting the daily six o’clock viewing in order to catch whatever glimpse he could of international championships on the tele, and finding any excuse to have the old man drag him along to local wheel burns. However, the funds to get amongst the racing himself weren’t always there — motorsport ain’t cheap, and even the tightest of campaign budgets can see you sleeping under the stars.
It was for that reason that the thrill of getting behind the wheel eluded Lewis until his late teens, when, after tagging along to watch his late cousin Phil compete in karting and eventually meeting with fellow lawn enthusiast Todd Aikman, he finally scraped together the funds to purchase a Toyota Corolla KE35 track car. It kicked off his racing career at the ripe age of 20, with the hunger to go faster and faster and shave those precious seconds off lap times growing with every outing. The old Toyota would see him through a good few local street sprints and hill climbs, but eventually he reached the crossroad of either chasing more power with a ton of investment and depreciating returns or retiring the old girl in order to usher a new chassis into the stables.
These decisions aren’t to be made lightly, much like when considering how much water your pastures are retaining and what level of mow is required. However, it was the appearance of a near-complete Ford Escort project for sale just around the corner that would set in stone Lewis’s next steps.
An avid Ford fan, who has ‘blue running through his veins’, Lewis instantly recognized that the once 1100cc automatic offering was far from what it used to be. The engine bay was occupied by a dual-overhead cam 1600cc four-banger, while the interior was devoid of its trimmings and had monkey bars added.
Coming from the Corolla, Lewis had developed an affection for Toyota’s engineering and saw the opportunity to combine his love of both badges into one, as the previous owner had, unusually, chosen to repower the old Brit with Toyota’s coveted 4A-GE. Better yet, progress had been made on adding boost into the equation via a snail borrowed from a Nissan RB engine.
When it comes to buying any unfinished project, despite how it may appear, it’s really an unknown. There’s no guarantee that it will be a smooth pass of the green, as Lewis would find out first-hand.
“We bought it as an unknown. The RB turbo slapped on the side ended up being no good, and we weren’t sure how the 4A-GE would fare under pressure,” explains Lewis. Unfortunately that unknown engine simply couldn’t handle the pressure when wound up on the dyno. Running on an old Link G1 and the standard injectors, the result was holes in places they shouldn’t be and a splattering of metal-infused oil on the dyno room floor.
The discovery couldn’t have come at a worse time — just two weeks out from the Waimate 50. It forced things into fifth gear, with Lewie and the crew working around the clock to rebuild the package.
The rebuilt heart packs factory semi-forged pistons attached to a set of MRP H-beam rods, alongside ARP bearings and fasteners, a high-volume oil pump, and a modified baffled sump. Thankfully the head was salvageable and, with the addition of heavy-duty valve springs, reused without issue.
Todd was responsible for helping piece together the new turbo package, crafting a custom TA Fab manifold to feed the Garrett T25, whipping up a custom 2.5-inch downpipe and three-inch mild-steel canon combo, and plumbing the custom intercooler with 2.5-inch piping.
To ensure there would be no repeat feats come dyno time, a set of Evo 530cc injectors were added alongside a Link G4+ Monsoon. Turning the wick up on the Garrett to 10psi, the car cranked out a respectable 170kW at the rears with Casey Irons at CNC Automotive on the laptop.
As for the chassis, it’s a relatively simple affair, following the less is more ethos when it comes to weight. Anything that doesn’t need to be there has been stripped away, and the once-standard suspension is now replaced by an adjustable front end consisting of Ford Capri coilovers that make use of QA1 springs, whereas down back you’ll find Hilux damper-adjustable shocks complemented by two-inch lowering blocks and reset leafs — adjustable arms can also be found at both ends. Stopping power comes by way of Wilwood four-pot calipers at the front, making use of an MRP adapter kit.
The rebuild pulled through in the nick of time, sparing just three days that allowed Lewis the chance to give the car a quick five-minute squirt around the block before it was ushered back into the garage for final bolt checks ahead of the concrete walls of Waimate.
As Lewis elegantly put it: “I was thinking to myself, ‘what the fuck have I got myself into’?”
With the 15×8-inch Performance Superlites wrapped in a fresh set of Nankang AR1 rubber, the Escort survived its debut and proved lethal with sub-900kg onboard. Licked in a fresh layer of white and then wrapped up with 1600 Sport stripes, an unforseen grass excursion saw Lewie have an intimate meeting with a set of tractor tyres at a local bent sprint. Luckily with Lewie being a panel beater by trade, he was able to get it all straightened out in time for the Waimate 60th anniversary, switching out the decals for a Castrol livery tribute to celebrate 100 years of Castrol.
Lewie has since notched up a handful of local hill climbs and Waimate events, telling us that he’d like to transition into the likes of the Sports Saloon Cup or other clubman series. All that’s left to do now is upgrade to a pedal box and convert the rears to discs.
In the meantime, he tells us, he’ll just continue to drive the car the way it is: light as hell, wildly overpowered, and a whole heap of fun to pedal. Exactly how motorsport should be — just stay off the grass.
Lewis ‘Pasture Master’ Hicks
LOCATION: Mosgiel, Dunedin
OCCUPATION: Panel beater
BUILD TIME: Never-ending
LENGTH OF OWNERSHIP: Three years
THANKS: Fellow Team Whale founder and good mate, Todd Aikman, for getting me into buying a race car, and all the fab and pipe work; Jay and Glenn for the help with panel and paint; Liam at Treads Dunedin Ltd; Casey at CNC Automotive for the tune and ECU upgrade; Hayden at ProSigns for the stellar job on the livery; Century Batteries Dunedin; Andrew at Castrol NZ; my mum, Sally, for the ongoing support; my sister, Courtney; and finally my dad, Ray, for all the blood, sweat, tears, and late nights on the spanners to keep the tonka toy going and for helping me do what I love doing
ENGINE: Toyota 4A-GTE, 1600cc, four-cylinder
BLOCK: 4A-GZE block, 4A-GZE semi-forged pistons, MRP H-beam rods, ARP Race Series bearings, ARP fasteners, high-volume oil pump, modified and baffled sump
HEAD: Heavy-duty valve springs
INTAKE: Simota filter
EXHAUST: Custom 2.5-inch downpipe, three-inch mild-steel exhaust, resonator
TURBO: Garrett T25, custom Sinco turbo manifold
WASTEGATE: TiAL 38mm
BOV: GFB Hybrid
FUEL: Evo 530cc injectors, 40-litre fuel cell, two-litre surge tank, 500hp external pump, adjustable fuel-pressure regulator
IGNITION: MRP coil-on-plug conversion
ECU: Link G4+ Monsoon
COOLING: Hyundai radiator, 12-inch electric fan, custom intercooler, 2.5-inch intercooler piping
EXTRA: Custom wiring loom, one-litre baffled catch can, baffled valve covers
GEARBOX: Toyota W57 five-speed manual, SQ-Engineering adapter plate
CLUTCH: Exedy heavy-duty
DIFF: Quaife ATB 4.1 LSD
EXTRA: Custom driveshaft
WHEELS: 15×8-inch Performance Superlite
TYRES: 205/50R15 Nankang AR1
STRUTS: (F) Ford Capri coilovers, QA1 springs, (R) Hilux adjustable dampers, two-inch lowering blocks, reset leafs; adjustable top hats
BRAKES: (F) Wilwood four-pot calipers, Wilwood pads, MRP adaptor kit, Ford Capri 2.8 vented rotors, (R) factory
EXTRA: Adjustable track-control arms, extended rack ends, custom front strut brace, anti-dive kit, quick rack, polyurethane bushes
PAINT: Resprayed by Glenn
ENHANCEMENTS: Panelled by Lewis, fibreglass arch flares, front chin spoiler, rear spoiler, retro Castol livery
SEATS: Racetech 1000
STEERING WHEEL: NZKW
INSTRUMENTATION: Autometer, Apex’I
FUEL TYPE: 98 octane
TUNER: Casey Irons at CNC Automotive