Rear-mounted turbo 20B-powered Datsun 1200 ute

Frank Cannistra missed his old white Datsun ute, 'MRHELI', so he built an even better one

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Photographers: Matt Everingham


THERE are two schools of thought when it comes to crafting a car that can travel at speeds somewhere in the vicinity of ‘the clappers’. The first posits giving it a powerplant that generates the kind of output required to move a container ship, while the second argues for making it so light that adding two occupants would double the kerb weight. Of course, there are some who recognise the benefits of both schools and concoct crazy creations like Frank Cannistra’s mean little Datsun ute.

First published in the September 2021 issue of Street Machine

Dubbed HEL113, this Datto is not Frank’s first foray into the wild world of brutally quick cars. “My brother is a Ford guy and has an XY GT, and my uncle has an original Phase III,” says Frank. “My first car was an XW Falcon and it felt like a really big tank of a car to me. I watched a few guys race RX-3s and I just loved them; I got caught up in the idea of a high power-to-weight ratio.”

With his perspective irrevocably skewed away from large cars, Frank built himself an RX-3 sedan, and followed that with a Datsun ute called MRHELI, with which he cemented his place in Sydney street car folklore.

While Frank describes the exterior of MRHELI as a “white piece of shit on Pro Stars”, the little ute more than made up for its appearance with a killer driveline. With a force-fed 13B under the bonnet, a Top Loader cog-swapper and a nine-inch diff, it was good for a cracking 9.40@145mph – and that was way back in 2000!

Fast-forward to 2015, and with MRHELI long gone, Frank had an itch that could only be scratched with another quick street car. He scoured the internet and found a dead-stock Datsun 1200 ute on Gumtree. “It was such a clean car; the tub looked like it had never carried a load,” Frank says. “I drove it for a couple of weeks, then took it to my mate Charlie Boutoubia.”

Charlie got stuck into the body, fabricating a bigger trans tunnel, moving the chassis rails inwards and replacing the tubs with new ones large enough to clear 305-wide Mickey Ts. While Charlie covered the panels in a thick coat of a Mazda colour that Frank simply describes as “red and glossy”, James Hehir of Groove Ryder Fabrications whipped up an ANDRA-spec rollcage. Frank was initially going to throw a 13B in the front of the ute just like MRHELI, but the allure of a triple-rotor was too strong to ignore.

Chris Fakinos, the man responsible for looking after Frank’s race car engine, was tasked with knocking up a healthy 20B based around a billet crank and Billet Boss centre plate. The rotors themselves and the other main components are all factory Mazda Cosmo items, although the ports were given a mild touch-up.

Outside the spinning Doritos, a MoTeC M84 controls a sextet of Bosch injectors and LS coils, and copious amounts of E85 is supplied by an Aeromotive mechanical pump.

If you’re curious about the lack of a turbo under the bonnet, then cast your eyes over the contents of the Datto’s tub: Frank moved the BorgWarner war whistle rearward to help with weight balance, engine bay temps and steering rack clearance. Keeping the pressurised air frosty is a PWR air-to-water barrel cooler tucked under the passenger side of the tub, and the distinctive rotary buzz is damped by two mufflers hidden at the rear.

An auto transmission backs up the 20B, which is something very different for Frank. “I’m a manual guy, so the auto is a big deal for me,” he says. “I’m used to dumping the clutch and going through gears as fast as I can think.” Keeping Frank’s penchant for speed in mind, you already know this isn’t a sloppy slushbox that takes two minutes to change gears. A TCE converter transfers power to a goodie-filled TH400 from Al’s Race Glides, and the three-inch aluminium tailshaft from Frank’s old race car twists the diff. The nine-inch is basic and bulletproof, with 4.11:1 gears and Strange 35-spline axles.

The job of keeping the rear end planted firmly on the ground is handled by Gazzard Brothers mono-leaf springs, CalTracs and adjustable shocks, while the front is controlled by a set of Eibach springs and Monroe shocks.

With the Datto finally on the road, Frank has something quick to enjoy without having to drag his mental low-seven-second RX-3 race car out. And the ute’s already bringing home the brass. “It won Best Rotary Conversion at Rotary Revival and Top Engineered at Sydney Jamboree,” Frank says.

As for the Datsun’s street manners, it drives just the way Frank intended. “If I’d had the money back in the day, this is how I would have built MRHELI. It drives awesome: it’s quiet as a mouse, comes on boost no problem, and should run an eight with its eyes closed!”

TRACKSIDE

FRANK has been ripping up the street and the quarter-mile since he was a young lad, and his roster of past and present machinery includes a lot of single-digit timeslips pinned to various cars, almost all of them rotary-powered.

After his first RX-3 and the infamous MRHELI, Frank built a red Mazda sedan in conjunction with Zoom magazine to compete in the Sport Compact 28×9 class. After a few years of racing, including an altercation with the WSID wall that Frank describes bitterly as “not ideal” and a PB of 7.61@180mph, the sedan moved over the ditch to New Zealand, where it holds the 13B small-tyre record.

Frank also piloted a black Nissan 350Z Pro Mod for Scott Porter Racing for a time, during which he won the Brisbane and Melbourne Jamborees and ran a PB of 6.40.

Recently, Frank took home the win in the Pro Compact class at the 2021 Sydney Jamboree in his yellow RX-3 competition car, which is powered by – you guessed it – a 13B.

FRANK CANNISTRA
1985 DATSUN 1200 UTE

Paint: Mazda Red 
ENGINE
Type: Mazda 20B 
Rotors: Mazda Series 4
Exhaust: Custom by Geo’s Garage
Turbo: BorgWarner 
Fuel system: Bosch 044 prime pump, Aeromotive mechanical pressure pump, Bosch 1650cc
injectors 
Ignition: LS2 coils 
ECU: MoTeC M84 
Cooling: PWR radiator, oil cooler, air-to-water intercooler 
TRANSMISSION 
Gearbox: TH400 
Converter: TCE 
Tailshaft: 3in aluminium 
Diff: 9in, Strange 35-spline axles, 4.11:1 gears 
SUSPENSION
& BRAKES
Front: Eibach springs, Monroe shocks 
Rear: Gazzard Bros mono-leaf springs and shocks, CalTracs 
Brakes: R32 discs (f), Wilwood discs (r) 
WHEELS
& TYRES
Rims: Simmons FR; 17×6 (f), 17×12 (r) 
Rubber: 205/45/17 (f), 305/45/17 (r) 

THANKS
Geo’s Garage for all the work they’ve done on the car (fabrication, brakes, wiring); Charlie Boutoubia for all the fab and panelwork; Fred at Turbologic; Chubby and Jason at Lowe Fabrications; Paul Torony at Make Me Go Fast; Luke at PWR; Chris Fakinos for looking after the engines in my street car and race car; Billet Boss for the centreplate; Al’s Race Glides for the killer trans

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