My best friend Marina is 5'1 (and 3/4s) often tells me that the best things in life come in small packages. This serious Smart Car bodied, mid-engined, space-frame 4x4 from Portugal might just be one of them!
Life is all about perspective. I started off-roading in lifted Land Cruisers so everything from a Land Rover down seems a little small to me. But Jorge Branco started out on bikes so for him his Smart creation is actually quite big. But why go to such lengths to build something so strikingly unusual? The reason is actually quite simple. There is a time in many bikers lives when the number of broken bones and ever more drawn out recovery periods encourages them to contemplate other, slightly less life-threatening past-times where after an accident it's their cars they have to fix, not their bodies. Jorge lay in hospital in a selection of plaster casts thinking about this at the same time that the Polaris-led UTV scene began taking off in Europe. Having a cage around him that came into contact with solid objects before he did was both a novel and welcome experience… and one as an engineer by trade he took to extremes making bespoke safety cages, suspension components and shoe-horning much more powerful Hayabusa engines in the back. This is where JB Racing was born. At one point a couple of years ago 28 out of the 30 buggies in the UTV class in the Portuguese Cross-Country Championship sported Jorge's products.
There's one thing about racing a Polaris in Europe though; a sieve is less porous and in another step towards comfort and to stop spending hours racing a car covered in mud and soaking wet overalls he looked at how to make an enclosed body… and this little beast is what he came up with. It might look like he just dropped a Smart body onto a Polaris but the Smart Pick Up is actually quite a marvel of design and engineering, and most of it is made in-house. Of course it helps that Jorge is one of Portugal's most pre-eminent engineers and as the day job runs a machine shop that would make any fabricator dribble with envy.
It's a real Smart Car shell and although it's completely stripped out it still has the tempered glass windscreen, lights and the doors. They could have chosen any body that fits but the Smart dealer a couple of blocks away had a spare body and when he found out what it was going to be used for sold it at a discount. But the body was the simplest part of the build. It's what's under the skin that all the work went into as never mind designing a tube frame chassis for components no one had ever put together before, mating a high performance motorbike engine to a 4x4 system in such a confined space is a feat beyond all but the best engineers. The rear-mid configuration with a centre differential is actually the same as the Group B Peugeot 205 T16 from the mid-80s. Incidentally it has some Peugeot parts… the differential casings come from a 504! Light, strong it doesn't matter that they are 40 years old!
The biggest single issue in the build was the transfer box for transmitting drive to both axles. Lots of head scratching and scrapped designs ensued until they came across a clever design in the Czech Republic used for autocross cars. But sliding a 500kg buggy around a field is a lot different to powering a 1000kg one over gruelling Cross Country stages, so while the design was sound it needed to be a lot tougher. Someone who has a factory full of CNC, wire accretion and electro erosion machines on hand making a super-strength variant wasn't too much trouble. The same applies for all suspension arms and spindles, everything was machined in the factory that is literally across the street. There are very fine tolerances in the set-up though and as the car is so unlike anything else the best way to find out what would work best was to make it, for it and see what was best. With 400mm of travel they engineered a seriously capable machine.
And despite having a chassis, four wheels, differentials and a car body it's built around the Hayabusa engine so thanks to a quirk of Portuguese paperwork its actually registered as a motorbike, the same as all other RZRs and UTVs.
From the last time with soggy overalls to when it won the best of motorsport class in the annual Smartimes gathering when it was help in Portugal was three years and it certainly is worth the effort. It might be small but has the presence of something many times its size. Just like my friend Marina. But I'd looked at it and talked about it long enough. Now it was time to take it out for a test drive.
Surprisingly I can get my 6'4 frame through the roll cage pretty easily and my legs fit under the dashboard as well, which is more than some cars I've been in recently, but my head is in between the roof bars so with a helmet on there would be no chance of me being the co-driver. But when Jorge gets in it's not leg room we're lacking, its elbow space. The seats are so close together that I get a nudge as he changes gear and another when he turns the wheel. We're literally sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Often I sit next to people who really want to show off the acceleration and cornering capabilities of their creations. I'm not really a fan of drifting around housing estates in a Corvette powered Mk1 Granada or a Group B Ferrari 308 with no seatbelts as I had a few weeks ago but fortunately it seems Jorge knows that public roads are no place for wheel-spinning shenanigans… he waits for the dusty track that leads to the city dump to put his foot flat to the floor. Suddenly the cute looking little buggy turns into a real little monster and the steep downhill path helps the acceleration increase mush more rapidly than I would have imagined. It seems far too small to be going so fast and we drift by concrete blocks that would rip us apart like tinfoil. The track is also really rough and my head bangs against the roll cage like a clapper in a bell. Instinctively I duck down for protection... and perhaps should have stayed in that position as when I look up again we are drifting towards a JCB. No need to hit the brakes though, we can just powerslid around it, Ken Block style. Smartkhana. It has a ring to it… just like my head.
Up on top of a pile of waste stones and rocks is a great place for a shoot in the fading Iberian light but it also exposes one of the car's weaknesses. Its tiny 28-10-15 tyres on 15 inch rims don't give it a particularly wonderful ride height and it gets beached on a lump of gravel a normal 4x4 wouldn't even have noticed. Momentum is the key! In it's defence though it's not designed for hardcore off-roading like rock-crawling. The Cross-Country Championship is basically events like mini Dakar rallies. There is a world FIA championship that has rounds in Europe and the Middle East but Portugal is so motorsport mad that they even have their own national Cross-Country championship.
In its first year of competition 2nd in class is Jorge's best result but there are already plans for the next generation of the car. The next step is to make the body out of glassfibre which will save them enough weight that they'll be able to redesign the chassis to also be much lighter. About 200kg will come off. The GXSR Hayabusa engine puts out 200bhp and already pushes the car from 0 to 100 in 4.5 seconds, up to a speed of 135km/h, so 20% lighter it will be an absolutely insane buggy!