Unfortunately, so many of these special breed of race cars share one thing in common - and this story is no different. They often disappear as fast as they lap the tarmac once they are retired. While Gary Wilkinson was in Johor Malaysia, he caught word that there was an Escort in a workshop that he might want to have a look at. As a passionate Ford man, Gary needed to know more.
Enter E23/75. Chassis E23/75 started life as a Group 2 Escort in 1975 adorned in a Castrol livery. Pedaled by Hans Heyer for a part of the 1975 season, the car would go on to be crowned the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft (DRM) Division 2 champion for under 2.0-litre entrants. As the 1976 season approached, this car was rebranded in Europa/Mobil scheme and had a new set of hands at the wheel, Armin Hahne. The young gun Armin Hahne was to come second in the championship standings right after Hans Heyer. Zakspeed had well and truly established themselves as forerunners, and all the other teams were watching over their shoulders.
In 1977 Zakspeed produced 5 MkII Escorts for the Group 5 category of the DRM series. The new rules allowed cars previously run in FIA groups 1-4 to be modified for the new class. The only catch was that the roof, bonnet, and doors had to remain factory, and while the body width had to remain the same, there was a lot of creative license for guards and aero packages. E23/75 underwent a substantial makeover. With the end product looking something like what you’re staring at today, the Zakspeed team took the fight to the Bavarians and their flame-spitting BMW 320s. However it wasn’t all plain sailing as the team had hoped, Zakspeed’s founder; Erich Zakowski did not share the same opinion as officials regarding the interpretation of the rulebook, and it meant the team didn’t compete in the entire DRM series that year.
After three years of competitive racing, E23/75 was retired as the #2 car of the works team, and took on a new role as a customer car. After a few non-championship races were entered, the car was sent to Ford of Malaysia to begin a new chapter in its life. After a few years of very successful campaigning at the hands of local hero Harvey Yap, the car passed through a few owners, and at one stage was even fitted up with a Mazda rotary engine until eventually it was laid to rest in the corner of a workshop in Johor. Gary at this time was working in Singapore and received a call about a ‘Z Speed Escort’ that he might want to come and take a look at it. You can imagine the excitement when he realised he may have just been standing next to a factory-genuine Zakspeed Escort.
Gary arrived at the workshop in Johor, unsure of what he was to be greeted with, E23/75 was by this time sitting in the corner with bits and pieces scattered all over, and throughout it. Truth be told, the Escort resembled more of a storage locker than a racecar. It was without its original BDG engine, but was surprisingly complete considering its vintage. Gary was pleasantly surprised to find it was not just rolling complete, but factory rolling complete. The excitement continued to build while looking over the car, something had caught Gary’s eye that would prove to be a game changer. It was a little metal tag adorned with the code ‘ZAK-E23/75’. Excitement overlod. After a quick call to Zakspeed it was confirmed that it was a genuine item and was indeed the lost Malaysian car that had once bullied the DRM series.
Gary wasted no time and secured his own piece of history. Then, in 2001 the car was sent to Christchurch, New Zealand and a festidiuous process lasting nine years would begin. With a full nut and bolt restoration planned, Gary was not at all concerned with time. There was only ever one goal, and this was to ensure historical accuracy. The Escort would be returned to its former glory, just as when Hans Heyer pounded it around the circuits in Zakspeed works Group 5 specification. There was only one little hitch with this particular car; it was the only remaining genuine Zakspeed Escort around, which meant extensive research, and recreating was required for its transformation.
After rolling out of the Zakspeed workshop in 1975, it was only officially retired from motorsport in 1992; so to say that the car had a good innings would be an understatement. Luckily for Gary it was already extensively original, with the only real exception being the suspension. The car had never been reshelled, and even the eight BBS wheels sitting with the car were genuine items. It was a testament to the era or motorsport, as the wheels themselves are wide even by todays standards, measuring 16x11 inch at the front end, with 16x13 inch rubber at the business end. When it came time to deal with the suspension, it was well known that Zakspeed relied heavily on magnesium components. The originals had come to the end of their life after years of racing, and were replaced with others. The biggest issue was that the original components were Zakspeed produced, and Zakspeed had none meaning they were effectively non-existent. There was only one thing for it; Gary had to cast a new set from scratch himself. This was not an easy task, yet so good was the re-make that Gary did that Zakspeed spotted what he had created, and then proceeded to purchase a set off him for their own Group 5 Capri which they were restoring themselves.
As the restoration continued on, the final kerb weight of the car upon completion was of paramount importance. This Escort couldn’t just look like it used to, and Gary wanted it to be as exact as was humanly possible. As parts came off, they were weighed, and the same happened when they went back on to keep as close as possible to the homologated weight of 750kg. Zakspeed was known for drilling out bolts to save as much weight as possible in their quest for ultimate lightness, and Gary’s Escort shared a similar philosophy as it shed 100kg in its restoration process.
As the restoration went on and the Escort took shape once again looking more as it did in the 70s, the next step was to breath life back into it and make it roar once again. Originally run with a DOHC BDG powerplant, this was the largest evolution of Cosworth’s BDA series of engines. Breathing through a side quartet of slide throttles, the 70’s spec engine pumped out 296hp at 9000rpm. The 39-year old 2 litre four that powers the Escort today, is an incredible aural experience that will have any motorsport fan immediately whisked back to the 70’s. While Gary was on the hunt for a block, a guy by the name of Leif Norberg came and introduced himself at the Malaysian GP while Gary was working for Petronas Motorsport. Leif was a previous owner of the Zakspeed Escort, and he happened to still have an original engine, there was only one small problem. Gary wanted the block, and the owner of the block wanted Gary’s Escort. It was a bit of a standoff. Finally after 2 years, Gary won and purchased the 1975cc block that he proceeded to turn into a complete engine. The original old chassis now had an original engine once again. It couldn’t have been a more fitting reunion.
After a painstaking nine years of restoration, and hours of research, the finished product was complete, and to say it is a work of art is an understatement. Dressed once again in the Mampe livery, the Escort was finally back to its former glory. For such an iconic, and historically significant machine, you would be forgiven for thinking it may well have been destined for a motorsport museum and some private runs here and there, which wouldn’t be out of the question considering this really is a masterpiece of engineering. Although for Gary, there was only ever one option, and this was to once again let the Escort loose on the circuit. New Zealand motorsport fans are lucky to be able to witness the Zakspeed at classic race events throughout the country, and to see the little Escort harassing the big-powered cars is truly a sight to behold.
‘Driving the Zakspeed is totally exhilarating, its gotten to the point that I feel like I am one with the car’ Gary exclaims. Often the feisty little Escort is run against other classic machines fourteen to fifteen years its junior. What must really make it worthwhile is when out of the blue, a highly acclaimed driver comes up to shake your hand, and tells you ‘I have never seen a car so hooked up, pass me on the outside, going 20kmph quicker and then continue on’. The icing on the cake is that the car the Escort passed was a 92’ BMW M3 DTM machine.
‘A car like this probably should be in a museum in all fairness, but that isn’t what it was designed for. It’s not the sort of car that should be pussyfooted either, it was build to be hammered around a racetrack so here we are doing just that’.
There are countless other racecars around the world that have shaped motorsport into what it is today just sitting in workshops and sheds waiting to be re-discovered. Slowly and surely, through the painstaking hard work of individuals such as Gary, these icons have the opportunity to inspire another whole generation of motorsport fans just like they did in their heyday.
Let’s be honest, there aren’t too many cars out there that could out-class a Zakspeed. The highly-strung sound, the boxed arches, wide sticky feet, and aero right out of a schoolboy fantasy makes the Zakspeed a very hard act for anything to follow.