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Rise of the Redneck Rat

The manner in which Risky Trip has been conceived and created would have you beleve it is the product of a top race shop, but apart from the chassis, the build is largely down to Matt's ingenuity and dogged determination

22.6.06. Back in the early 1990s, Matt Eley developed a real interest in the nostalgic gassers, altereds and funny cars that made such a strong impact on US drag strips in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Closer to home, he also loved the outlaw Anglia racing scene in the UK, and regularly attended those wild, and frequently spectacular meetings.  He had clearly been bitten by the drag racing “bug”, and promised himself that he’d go racing one day.  For most of us, that desire usually remains nothing more than a pipe dream, but being a rather determined sort of guy, and spurred on by an equally enthusiastic brother, Matt was always confident that, sooner or later, he would strap himself into a race car.

To cut a long story short, Matt chanced to see an outlaw Anglia in the workshops of Chris Isaacs Race Cars, where, as it happened, his brother was employed.  One lingering look, and he was hooked.  Soon afterwards, Matt was able to source a very presentable candidate for racing – a street-driven Ford Popular, complete with Viva front suspension, box-section chassis and Jaguar rear end, and it just happened to be for sale in his neighbourhood. 

“The original idea was to go out and have some fun at the run-what-you-brung meetings,” says Matt.  After six weeks of ownership, though, he came to the realisation that the car, in its existing guise, wasn’t really what he was looking for.  It was then that a plan was hatched to turn the Pop into a full-blown race car with more than a hint of nostalgic presence.

mixing nostalgic values with modern aerodynamics has produced a car which satisfies Matt's desire for stability at speed and his love of 60s gassers 

Matt knew how he wanted the car to look, but steered clear of a traditional, sky-high gasser front end, of the sort that was so in vogue during the ’60 and ‘70s, when weight transfer was deemed the only route to enhanced rear-end grip.  Nowadays, tyre technology and suspension design have moved on apace, and considering the speeds Matt was expecting to achieve in his Pop, optimising stability had to be the overriding concern.  As a result, he opted for a more contemporary, nose-in-the-weeds stance for his car.

Not wishing to do things half-heartedly, Matt decided on a new tube chassis for the project, the construction of which was entrusted to Chris Isaacs.  Based on experience, Chris specified CDS tube of 1⅝ inch diameter to provide the foundation for a chassis which is legal to run 7.5 seconds, giving Matt plenty of scope to use more power should the need arise.  Matt has chosen to run the car in the Pro ET class while he learns the ropes and gets to grips with it. 

“Chris’s work is very good, plus he’s a nice guy and very helpful,” says Matt.  “He’s extremely knowledgeable and provided me with a lot of tech support, which has been really useful.  Sometimes, I’d ask him some dumb questions, but he would always come back with helpful answers.” 

Chris completed the chassis, and Matt then took over. He welded all of the mountings and brackets in place, designed the dash to be removable and fitted the radiator, motor plates, and so forth, all of which were based on Chris Isaacs designs.  “Chris was good enough to allow me to use some of his templates to make up my own solutions, including the back axle mounting, and because I’m a welder, it was a fairly straightforward job to undertake,” explains Matt.

Snug fitting 427 Chevy looks like it was always meant to be there. Plumbing for Nitrous suggests a switch over to gas is imminent  

Turning his attention to motivation, Matt had decided long ago on big-block Chevy power for his Pop, and a trip to Jeff Bull’s engine shop did not disappoint – his van was soon laden down with 427 cubic inches of Rat power for the drive home.  Previously, this particular engine had run a blower, which accounted for its relatively low, 9.5:1 compression ratio.  “I now wish I had gone with the full blower and injection set-up,” says Matt.  “At the time, though, funds wouldn’t allow such extravagance – to find £5k would have really stretched us.”  As soon as the car was running, however, it was clear that more fundamental issues needed to be dealt with before considering changes to the induction system.

“The car is not revving at the moment because of the gearing and the stall speed of the torque converter,” says Matt.  “The car isn’t making power until about 4200rpm, and I’m leaving the line at about 3800rpm.  With the stall speed set at 4000rpm, the engine doesn’t develop any real power until you get the car well off the line, at which point it will scream and pull, but then the power dies again when you change gear.

“I looked at an rpm plot at the top end, and it’s only pulling 4200-4300rpm through the traps, whereas it should go up to 7000rpm.  This is a short-stroke motor, so it should rev lots more and develop considerably more power and torque.  We therefore need to get this problem sorted before we can tap into the power, with a good dose of nitrous to get it really moving.  It’s not a crowd-pleaser at the moment, but it does have the potential to be one once we get the performance up there.

“The engine supposedly makes over 700hp.  We’ve not had it on a dyno to check yet, but we will pull the motor at the end of year to verify those figures.  A friend just had his engine on the dyno and now knows everything about it.  By comparison, we are just guessing, as we have no solid parameters to work with.  We ran 11.22 off the trailer, and it’s since gone 11.21, but we are really hoping to dip into the 10s, as the car should easily be capable of that sort of performance on pump gas and an octane booster.  Once we’ve got it sorted, we’ll also look at weight reduction, as currently there’s a full Flowmaster exhaust system plumbed in, plus outlets for open headers. 

Backing up the Rat motor is a Dedenbear two-speed Powerglide transmission, with drive directed through a Strange Engineering-equipped rear end fitted with 3.88 gears.  “I’ve tried to use only the best components throughout the build, which is probably why it’s taken eight years to complete,” says Matt.  “The car would have been competitive eight years ago in Outlaw Anglia if we’d been able to finish it, but now all I want to do is go out and enjoy it.”

It's all about attention to detail and this shot reveals an equally high level of craftmanship inside the car

One of the most obvious aspects of Risky Trip (Matt came up with the novel name while pondering one evening) is its extremely high standard of presentation.  This is not just skin deep either, as the attention to detail extends through to the beautifully conceived and executed interior.  Acres of aluminium panelling (“The bead-rolling looks a million dollars,” says Matt – and he’s right!), detailed in grey paint and expertly fitted, contrasts with the striking orange paintwork.  Two Jazz bucket seats, retrimmed in a ‘60s-style, diamond stitch by Neil Tadman, provide a further nostalgic touch, while Matt’s custom-built dashboard adds the icing to the cake.

Diamond-stitched bucket seats by hot rod trimmer Neil Tadman add a nostalgic influence to the interior

Complete dash is designed to be removable for easy maintenance - again it's a work of art.  Custom lettering is not only applied to the exterior - mind you, I might have second thoughts reading that message everytime I hit the track, though it doesn't seem to deter Matt 

With regards to the bodywork, so many modifications have been made – many of them very subtle – that it’s difficult to know where to start.  For instance, the rear wings have been moved up the body by two inches and Austin tail lights expertly grafted in.  In addition, the roof has been filled with a custom insert panel, the sills are a one-off design, the bootlid has been reworked and the metal shrunk to remove dents, the rain gutters have been redone, the doors are now single-skinned, the windows operate in new runners, the bulkhead is fabricated from scratch, and every rough edge on the custom-built dashboard has been ground away.  In fact, so involved was the body preparation that it took three years of weekend work to complete.

Get the car in strong sunlight and the Hugger Orange paintwork glows

Once Matt was finally satisfied with the bodywork, it was down to friend, Dave Townsend, to deal with final preparation and apply the Chevy Hugger Orange top coat, which, Matt reports, “was handled with great care and attention to detail”.  Speaking of attention to detail, Matt’s Pop also benefits from some beautifully executed signwriting and pinstriping.

“When it came to the lettering, I had seen Neil Melliard’s work some years previously, and I was impressed,” recalls Matt.  “He seems to have ‘nostalgia’ flowing through his veins, so he was a natural choice for me.  I called in to see him, and he said he’d be happy to letter the car.  On the next visit, we talked about what I wanted and he started playing around with paintbrushes on the side of the car.  I told him I wanted the name “Risky Trip” in a nostalgic typeface.  After picking the copper leaf for the actual letters and telling him I also wanted to incorporate a special tribute to those people who had helped so much with the project, I left it to Neil to interpret.  I’m really pleased with the result – it’s everything I could have hoped for.”

Custom lettering and pinstriping is another outstanding feature of Risky Trip and a further endorsement for Neil Melliard's ProSign outfit

The subtle pinstriping adds the finishing touch, as well as a real hot rod feel, to the car.  No doubt, though, the era-correct, front spindle-mount, magnesium five-spoke American Racing wheels and same-make rears, plus Diest safety equipment and laundry, also add to the overall visual effect.  Interestingly, Matt had the front wheels lightly machined, to remove 30 years of weathering, and they are now better than new.

Rare magnesium ARE 5-spokes feature mirror-smooth machined rims. Matt had the neat centre caps machined up to suit

Initially, Matt had wanted to run the car wingless, in the spirit of the ‘60s, but a chat with Chris Isaacs, who has a thorough understanding of Ford Popular aerodynamics, suggested that a rear wing would be a very good idea, in order to keep the car glued to the track at the top end.  Chris also suggested a splitter for the front, and both agreed this was a good idea.  Chris then used Matt’s car as a basis for the splitter design.  The latter helps to negate any tendency for the front end of the car to become light when travelling at high speed.  Wisely, Matt decided to incorporate both of these important aero items on his Pop.

Front splitter is more obvious from this angle, but has been neatly designed to flow with the front wings by Chris Isaacs

Rear wing provides much needed downforce at speed

Having previously been involved in drag racing only as a “back-seat driver”, Matt is now on a steep learning curve, but that doesn’t deter him in the slightest.  ”A lot of people have told me I must be mad building a Pop as a first car rather than opting for something a little easier to drive, but I want a car that’s a bit more interesting, a bit less predictable, a bit twitchy,” he says.  So far, Risky Trip has run arrow-straight down the quarter mile.  Once Matt begins to dial in a little more horsepower, though, he’s likely to get that real kick he’s looking for.  At that point, this particular Pop may start to live up to its name. 

Finally, Matt wishes to thank all of the people mentioned above who have been involved in the project, but most of all, he would like to thank his team: 

  • Mand – “For putting up with my late nights and weekends in the garage, having no money at times and for her support”
  • Russ – “For his assistance with the build and his help at the track”
  • Tash – “For putting up with never seeing Russ and keeping us well fed at all times”
  • Lee – “For being obsessive about keeping the car spotlessly clean and polished at home and at the track”
  • Sarah – “For putting up with Lee always cleaning my car “

DRCReview would like to pass on a special thanks to Matt and Mandy for their time at the track and also to Santa Pod Raceway for giving us valuable track time for photography on a lovely summer's evening.

Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk

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