IF THE CAPRI Perana of the early 1970s was the start of the simple ‘Boer maak a Plan’ approach of shoehorning a V8 into a compact Ford body never designed with that many cubes in mind, then the Sierra XR8 represents the culmination of that philosophy, reaping maximum benefits in terms of a high power-to-weight ratio without making a car unduly complicated or expensive.
We owe the XR8 (along with such local classics as the BMW 745i and Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0) to Group One racing which ran as a ‘showroom’ style production car series in the early 1980s. In the final years of the series things started to get out of hand with allegations of cheating rife, including nocturnal skulduggery. In one alleged instance, a car impounded post-race pending a full strip the next day miraculously revealed brand-new mechanicals under the bonnet when the scrutineering garage was unlocked in the morning.
Ford fielded a pair of XR8s, one for stage and circuit ace Serge Damseaux, the other for John Gibb, whose company, Presto Parcels, provided additional funding. As it turned out, 1985 was the last year of Group One, and at the end of the year Ford gave both cars to Willie Hepburn, on condition that he campaign them in the Wesbank Modified series, then running multiple classes based on engine capacity (with adjustments for the rotary engine and ‘newfangled’ technology like multiple valves per cylinder).
Willie grafted large spats on the flanks and a spoiler to the nose though it seems the arrangement evolved to what’s shown here. The nose has all the elegance of a snowplough but, remarkably, it is all a single fibreglass unit – right to the back of the car.
Attached to the rear hatch is the tall, single plane wing fitted to the Sierra RS500 – the final incarnation of the 2.0-litre turbocharged three-door Sierras, which only Europeans enjoyed. Surprisingly, the aluminium bolt-in roll cage remained, but the bodyshell has been reinforced in other areas to improve rigidity, including welding gussets between the rear struts and the inner bodywork and a subframe across the transmission tunnel. An underbonnet brace joins the strut towers to the firewall.
Willie was ready to take to the track by the start of 1986, squaring off against the likes of Tony Viana in a 24-valve 5 Series Beemer and Ben Morgenrood in a Mazda RX-7. Check out You Tube, and you’ll understand why many greybeards consider the years which followed as the pinnacle of saloon racing in this country.
This car then, is The Animal, circa 1987, first appearing in Sabat colours midway through the season, after a memorable win at Kyalami in blue and white on an Autumny Highveld afternoon.
But hang on, what of the other car? Oh well, it became the guest car for 1987 it seems, driven once by the likes of George Fouche (with Arwa pantyhose backing) and by Brian Cook. It was also used on occasion by Willie himself. Seems that with two cars in the stable, he had the option of using one while continuing to develop the other.
So which one is The Animal, or are they both?
This chassis started life as the John Gibb car, and was sold to the late Ivor Raasch after Hepburn was finished with it. It then ended up in the hands of East Londoner Mike Forsyth. He recalls when he got it from Raasch sans engine and gearbox it was in blue and white Ford Motorsport livery, and he left it that way, suggesting that this car was probably the ‘hire’ car and not the Sabat car. It changed hands once more before Lindenberg acquired it about a dozen years back, most of those spent in the corner of a workshop at the now-defunct Wesbank Raceway.
The second ‘Animal’ was sold to Jurgen Zu Bentheim. It subsequently had the floor cut out and the nose chopped off and was then rebuilt as a full spaceframe car, complete with wide-body panels from the ill-fated turbocharged Wesbank Sapphires raced by Graham Duxbury and Ian Scheckter.
This, says Lindenberg, means his car is the sole survivor, while Hepburn says the ‘real’ Animal is in his workshop undergoing restoration and will be taking to the track one fine day. But based on the evidence, it is hard to dispute Lindenberg’s claim that this car is ‘an Animal’.
Whatever transpires between them and those who run historic racing in this country, the Sabat Sierra XR8 has huge presence, yet in the metal the car is surprisingly compact, despite all the fibreglass which surrounds the Sierra’s once-controversial sheetmetal. The red and white beast is parked in a garage at Zwartkops when I arrive toting my race bag, and Peter and his crew are fettling and checking its vitals, having driven up from Cape Town – where Lindenberg is now based – the day before.
There’s a lot of nice detail in the car I notice as they go through their checks; like the faded scrutineering stickers on the rollcage, the old-school steering wheel atop a surprisingly spindly column, and the period 16-inch wheels with magnesium centres and single wheel nut. They were bought from Zu Bentheim’s mechanic, says Lindenberg, and would have come off the other car.
The paintwork is fresh and shiny, and new polycarbonate has been used all round – it’s a newish product called Lexan Margard, and provides excellent optical qualities along with exceptional scratch resistance … there’s nothing sadder than an old racer with faded paint and opaque lightweight windows.
Under the bonnet resides a 302 (5.0-litre) V8 as per the mid-80s rules, but it gets imported AFR heads, an Edelbrock manifold with a 750 CFM Holley, and MSD ignition. Some rather bling tappet covers, and a simple pancake filter from K&N (rather than an enclosed airbox with air feeders from the grille area) make for an underbonnet layout which is eye-catching, if not totally faithful to the race car.
The gearbox was originally a Borg-Warner T5, a weakness back in the day, and a GForce ’box is in its place, while the BMW brake callipers have been replaced by Wilwood units. The differential, springs and dampers are the ones which came from the previous owner, and all in all, it does have an air of authenticity about it.
Few things sound more authentic than a V8 on-song and at full chat, and this one revs to 7000. Sadly, I’ve been asked to keep the revs down to about 5000 rpm: following a recent rebuild and with a race less than 48 hours away, my stint at the wheel is essentially part of the running-in process.
Curtailing the session still further is a puncture, and I stop on the main straight. As it turns out, while there is spare rubber, none of it is mounted, due to the shortage of wheels. But all is not lost and with the sun on the way towards the horizon, Inga Hendriks stops us near the pit entrance as we gingerly make our way back to the garages, seeing an opportunity to snap some beautiful low-light pictures …
Trying to put a positive spin on things, we all agree that there’s nothing like a good sunset, and we also agree it is better to have bad luck before a race, rather than on raceday. Come Saturday morning Lindenberg puts the car on pole position, though in the races he has to give best to a Chevrolet – ironically a very wide one being driven by a certain Willie Hepburn.