FJ20-powered Ford Escort Pro Tourer

A go-fast Escort was always John Dennis’s goal, but the turbo street/track weapon he ended up with is a genre-busting masterpiece


Ford’s Mark 1 Escort is a legend of motorsport across rallying, touring cars and even drag racing, thanks to its tiny size, generous engine bay and rear-drive layout. As a fan of four-banger Fords from a tender age, John Dennis knew this all too well, but it took him a while to get around to building the righteous turbo pro touring Esky you see on the pages before you.

This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of Street Machine. Photos Ben Hosking.

“I’ve been a small-Ford guy since I was a kid,” says the Sydneysider. “Years ago my uncle had a Ford Squire van with a GT Cortina motor in it, and we used to play in that as kids. I had always wanted a Mk1 Escort, but my first car was a two-door Cortina. I was too young and didn’t have the funds to build it, so it got sold off. I didn’t get a Mk1 until I got older and I had some extra money to play with.”

It was a mate of John’s who spotted this particular Escort several years ago, sitting in the front window of a car yard on Parramatta Road. Johnno wasted no time in whipping down there and do the deal.

“This car was clean enough that it probably should have been restored, but it made the build so much easier,” he says. “I dragged it home and it sat for six months while I built a house and started talking to Laurie Starling at The Chop Shop about how to build the car.

“The body was great, with just a little bit of rust in the sills, and we had to take them off to do some of the mods to the chassis. It got sandblasted and it only had four holes, and they were all in the firewall we were cutting out to replace anyway!”

Having got the project up and running at The Chop Shop, Laurie Starling’s sudden passing in 2014 stopped the build in its tracks, as Johnno struggled to find a shop to take on the partially constructed car with its many very different engineering ideas.

Forgeline wheels run 17×7.5in up front and 17×10 in the back, wrapped in sticky Falken Azenis semi-slick tyres. “They have a bit more grip and meat on them than the 135-wide tyres the Escort had standard!” Johnno says

“It went to a couple of shops, but the Escort found its home once Aaron Gregory – who had worked with Laurie at Chop Shop – got on his feet and opened in Western Sydney,” explains Johnno, referring to the 2020 Valvoline SMOTY-winner and frontman at Memphis Hell Custom Vehicle Builders. “That was the point at which the build really got moving. I only had to give Aaron a rough idea, and he was so in tune with where I wanted the car to go, it was done just how I wanted.”

With a brief to build a fast, good-handling and well-sorted street car that Johnno could beat like a tribal drum, Aaron set about joining the Escort front subframe to the custom four-link he made up to strengthen the entire shell, also adding a Watt’s link to locate the BorgWarner 28-spline diff laterally.

GAZ Group 4 coil-overs, adjustable lower arms and a 28mm sway-bar handle the pointing end, while Spax coil-overs keep the Esky’s bum off the ground. The whole package is stopped by Nissan 200SX four-piston front disc brakes and Falcon discs at the rear, squeezed by a Tilton master cylinder.

Aaron also added new sheet metal in the back, a custom diffuser folded out of one piece of steel, the chin spoiler, all the metal pieces on the interior, and fabbed-up a smoothed, recessed firewall to fit around the new big-inch powerplant.

While Nissan’s SR20DET is one of the most common turbo four-pots to jam in a small car, the old-school FJ20s can be thin on the ground today. “It is a bit of a pain finding parts for the FJ20, but there is a guy called Stewart Wilkins up near Windsor, and if he doesn’t have it, he can find it for you,” Johnno explains. “It seems they are still popular engines in the historic rallying scene”

The original 1300cc Kent four-banger was never going to froth Johnno’s coffee, so he crammed a 2.0-litre, twin-cam Nissan FJ20T four-pot in its place. Though fairly rare today, the FJ motor was a precursor to Nissan’s infamous SR20 turbo four, and saw action in many brutally fast Datsuns through the 1980s, including the Peter Jackson DR30 Skyline that a young Glenn Seton drifted around Mount Panorama in the wet in ’87.

“I love how stout the FJ20s are, and once you smooth the rocker covers off they look like an original Lotus Escort Twin Cam motor,” Johnno offers. “I was running low on places to look for an FJ20, so I called a mate into historic rallying and he had one! A Sierra Cosworth motor would have cost $6000 without manifolds, so this was way cheaper!”

Johnno left the long motor alone, but had a Hypertune front-facing plenum and throttlebody added to the stock runners, with a BorgWarner 7163 turbo low-mounted on a tuned-length exhaust manifold. Controlled by a Haltech ECU suite, the car currently makes 260rwhp on the run-in tune and sucking 98RON fuel.

Early Recaro seats and a Sparco tiller add a luxury touch to the spartan race-themed interior. Aaron whipped up the footrests, door trims and retro motorsport-inspired switch panel, while Scotty Barter from Oxytech powdercoated all the metal pieces Aaron fabbed for a hard-wearing finish

“I built the car to drive, so the turbo is more for a track-style car with an internal wastegate,” Johnno says. “It will run around 20psi on pump fuel, and we’re hoping for 25psi on E85, but that will be about its limit. It shouldn’t lag much, as I wanted it making power right through the whole rev range.

“It drives a lot better than I thought – it’s very noisy with no carpet or door trims, but I love it. Less is more a lot of the time, and I love the whole track car vibe. I used to watch touring cars at Amaroo with my dad, so I love the old race cars from the 70s to the 80s!”

With an eight-year build now done, surely Johnno would be treating the object of so much hard work and frustration with kid gloves? Not on your life!

“I wanted a street car, something to run at the track or do some drag racing with, but also Saturday arvo cruises and picking up the kids from school,” he laughs. “I want to use it and hurt it now! It’s a driver, so it’ll have nicks and scratches, and I love it like that.

“It’s turned out to be 100 per cent my original vision in steel. Ryan Carter from United Speed Shop did a rendering eight years ago for me, and it’s nearly identical – it’s ridiculous!”


Paint: VW Golf R Limestone Grey

Brand: 2.0L Nissan FJ20T
Induction: Custom, Hypertune 75mm throttlebody
ECU: Haltech Elite 1000
Turbo: BorgWarner 7163
Head: Stock
Camshafts: Stock
Conrods: Stock
Pistons: Stock
Crank: Stock
Oil system: Custom sump and pick-up
Fuel system: Bosch injectors, Hypertune fuel rail, Aeroflow fuel pump, Radium tank
Cooling: PWR radiator
Exhaust: Low-mount tuned-length manifold, custom system with 4in oval tube, 3.5in round tube
Ignition: LS1 coils

Gearbox: Nissan RB20 five-speed manual
Clutch: Custom sprung-button
Diff: BorgWarner 28-spline live-axle, HU Track centre, 3.9:1 gears

Front: GAZ Group 4 coil-overs, adjustable lower arms, 28mm sway-bar
Rear: Spax coil-overs, four-link with Watt’s link
Brakes: Nissan 200SX four-piston discs (f), Falcon discs (r)
Master cylinder: Tilton

Rims: Forgeline; 17×7.5 (f), 17×10 (r)
Rubber: Falken Azenis; 205/40R17 (f), 255/40R17 (r)

Laurie Starling; Aaron Gregory; Scotty Barter at Oxytech; Gavin; Deegan; Mark and the team at MRC; Dean at Sydney Suspension; everyone else who put a hand on the car; thanks especially to my wife Emma