‘It’s the most fun I’ve had in a car in years’ Austin A35 Turbo… They’re not words you hear in the same sentence very often, are they? Ideally we’d all build our perfect car at home from scratch, but if you find someone else has already done all that hard work you might as well take advantage… Words Mike Renaut. Photography Matt Richardson.
POCKET ROCKET AUSTIN A35 TURBO
Judging by the amount of people walking past Steve Lee’s Austin A35 whose dad or grandad ‘owned one just like it,’ there must have been one hell of a lot of turbo’d Austin A35s running around Poole in the 1960s. Either that, or the many modifications made to Steve’s 1959 Austin A35 Deluxe are just too subtle to be noticed. Steve is quick to point out he didn’t build this rapid little Austin, but it is just the way he would put one together. Since he’s employed as a vehicle inspector – after you’ve thrown your automotive pride and joy through a hedge Steve’s the chap who comes around to check the rebuild is safe to return to the road – he has all the engineering qualifications required and he also knew a good thing when he saw it. ‘Recently I’ve been working a lot on classic Porsches and I also used to inspect police vehicles,’ explains Steve. ‘I’ve been a trained mechanic since 1971 and I’ve built a few cars over the years, but this Austin was built by a guy called Dave Clarke, although as far as I know he worked in a bank.
‘IT MANAGED A 15.9SEC ¼ MILE ON JUST 10PSI OF BOOST’
‘I saw the Austin at a Goodwood Breakfast Club meet back in August 2017 and the more I looked around and under the car, the more I wanted to buy it. But I couldn’t spot the owner anywhere.’ Going home empty-handed forced Steve to turn detective, ‘I ended up joining the Austin A35 Owners Club then having to wait before I could make posts on their forum. Finally I found Dave through the club and messaged him asking if I could buy his car. He said, ‘You’ve got about ten people ahead of you in the queue mate,’ so I responded asking, ‘will this help me jump the queue?’ and made him a pretty decent cash offer. He accepted and I bought the car in October.’
Steve is certainly a car enthusiast who’s not loyal to one make or brand. In fact I don’t recall hearing a car history that includes as much variety as owning a Mk1 Cortina GT, selling that to buy a Morris Landcrab, then getting a Mk2 Cortina Savage, a Rover P5B, an RS2000 then an Austin 1300. In addition there were several Minis and he built a GTM Libra. At one point Steve sold a Granada 2.8i to buy a Vanden Plas 1300 then bought a Maestro which, fair play to him, he owned for seven years – then drove a KA, which he traded in for a Mercedes SLK 55. More recently he’s had a Rover P6B that he modifi ed, an A3 quattro and even a Renault 16, ‘because everyone ought to have one column change car.’
Judging by that list – which isn’t comprehensive by the way – Steve likes to own an obvious performance car, then sell it to buy something… let’s say somewhat less exciting. Which neatly brings us back to the A35 that combines the best of both those worlds. To the uninitiated man in the street it’s a bog standard, slow-looking, old car. It doesn’t even sound in any way modified when it’s idling – the cover is only blown when you see it under power, then it really flies.
A Q CAR
‘From what I understand,’ continues Steve, ‘Dave Clarke had owned the car since 1980 when he found it completely stock by the side of the road. He restored it back to original condition then dropped in a Metro 1275cc engine. Apparently he then got so annoyed by people at classic car shows complaining that it wasn’t original any more, that it prompted him to stick a turbo on it.’ Let’s start at the front, between those Wipac quadoptic, seven-inch headlights is the one-off mesh grille that Dave apparently made from scratch, ‘it attaches with just one screw for easy removal – very clever.’ Right behind it is the standard A35 radiator, but it’s been re-cored by Serck, beside it is a cold air intake. Speaking of refrigeration, there’s a Fiat Punto intercooler and a Saab 93 oil cooler in the mix too.
The 1275cc MG Midget motor boasts ‘a special turbo head by a bloke called Phil from the Mini Forum,’ and while the engine has the standard bore and crank dimensions, it does contain a Metro camshaft and a Megajolt ignition. ‘There’s no distributor, it runs a Bosch coil pack as used on many Fords, meaning as you raise the boost you can retard the ignition to prevent pre-ignition. The ignition is also mapped.’ Bolted on is the Garrett GT1275 turbo from an MG Metro Turbo, in conjunction with a Metro Turbo SU carburettor with an uprated spring and needle, and a dump valve. Breathing out occurs through an RC40 Mini silencer on a straight pipe.
‘It has a high-pressure recirculating fuel system that starts at 34psi but is reduced to three psi at the carburettor,’ adds Steve, ‘it uses the standard Austin fuel tank with the high-pressure pump feeding into a filter then a regulator, the recirculation prevents vapour lock. It currently runs at about 15psi of boost which works out to around 150bhp.’
All that horsepower gets transmitted rearward via a Ford Sierra Type-9 five-speed, with Sierra gearstick and Burton Power short-shift kit. A Reco-Prop (www.reco-prop.com / 01582 412110) propshaft connects the ‘box to a 3.7:1 MG Midget differential with a pair of Rae Davis two-piece halfshafts, ‘that works out to about 22mph per 1000rpm and from 60mph to 100 it’s certainly very quick in fifth gear,’ says Steve. Both engine and gearbox are now mounted some 35mm lower in the chassis. Speaking of which you might have spotted the Austin is slightly lowered, but did you notice the A35 wheel centres have been welded into Ford Fiesta outer rims to allow wider tyres, but still subtly keep the standard Austin hubcaps? The Uniroyal rubber measures 165/65 13 on every corner and there’s a Spax adjustable shock at each corner.
The front end is largely courtesy of a Frontline Developments set originally intended for a Midget, but with altered shock positions in front of the wheel and 400lb front springs. ‘The back is still the standard rear leaf springs but apparently made from the best bits of the six sets he had.’ There’s also a front anti roll bar. Stopping duties are ably handled by vented Metro discs on four-pot calipers and Yellowstuff pads, while up the back end the rear brakes are hydraulic ones from a Minor 1000 and uprated with Minifin alloy drums with standard Minor shoes.
‘HONESTLY– IT’S THE MOST FUN I’VE HAD IN A CAR IN YEARS’
Slide behind the wheel and a new laminated windscreen greets you, along with a MG Midget dashboard binnacle that looks so at home on the Austin dash you’d swear it was original equipment. Newer additions since 1959 include an air/fuel mix gauge and a Sunpro boost gauge. A Mk2 Austin A40 steering box lurks below a Metro steering column surround with Mini control stalks.
Probe about further and you’ll notice the Metro Turbo pedal box, along with both brake and clutch master cylinders and the servo from that same Metro – there can’t have been much of the original car left since it also donated its front seats. The standard A35 rear one remains though. As does the original A30 handbrake and surprisingly effective heater.
The battery has been relocated to the boot for better weight transfer otherwise it’s virtually as it left Austin, although there’s one more visual clue that all is not stock, ‘I really like the louvered bonnet – and that’s one of the few things Dave didn’t do himself at home,’ adds Steve. ‘The bonnet was resprayed but otherwise most of the Speedwell Blue paint is at least 30 years old.’ Since buying the Austin, Steve hasn’t done much to it – as far as he’s concerned it was virtually perfect to begin with. But he has gone completely through the car mechanically. ‘I modified the front rollbar linkages and took the rear anti-roll-bar off as it didn’t need it.
‘I may repaint the roof and wheels in white and I’m seriously considering swapping those front seats if I can find some that fi t and are as comfy. These are too modern looking and heavy. ‘At 10psi of boost it ran a 15.9sec quarter mile at 92mph and I can even get 40mpg if I’m not on boost all the time. It’s just a great little road car in every respect, it’s even decent in the snow. It’s the best fun I’ve had in a car in years.’
Steve Lee’s turbocharged Austin A35. MG Midget dash grafted into Austin. Boost gauge nestled Air/fuel ratio gauge. between speedo and rev counter. Upgraded from the original single fuse!
Turbocharged MG Midget engine. Custom made front grille. Fiesta rims on A35 centres. Flying Austin very appropriate in this case. Somebody’s been to Plumb Center. Sierra Type 9 Wilton battery box. five speed. Louvered bonnet to aid cooling. Mondeo coil pack. Wider tyres are rare clue to performance. Megajolt ignition ECU. Wood rim wheel will make way for black Motolita. Metro column stalk. Boost gauge. Sprightly performance catches out the unaware. Hope the handbrake’s good.
‘I WANTED THE CAR AS SOON AS I SAW IT BUT I COULDN’T FIND THE OWNER’