Gary Carstairs has spent the last eight years transforming his humble Mk3 Astra into a turbocharged, four-wheel drive masterpiece.
WORDS Dave Reid
PHOTO Ade Brannan
* Rebuilt C20LET
* Calibra 4WD conversion
* Fully stripped and caged
* Mille Miglia T12 wheels
* Tar•ox/Wilwood brakes
If like me, you’re the wrong side of 25 and have a healthy interest in cars and females, then you’ll probably understand what I’m about to say. At school there were the rich, popular guys whose parents bought them a lovely new car for their 17th and as a result they bagged the ‘properly hot-but-I-know-it’ girls and so immediately you hated them. On the other hand, there were the normal guys, the grafters – the guys who you’d actually want to have a pint with, the ones whose ego didn’t require its own airspace. We made do with whatever we could afford/borrow, or if you were lucky, were given. Granted it was probably rusty, a bit crap and it was probably Big Dave rather than Big Danni in the passenger seat, but that was irrelevant. They maybe had a brand new Corsa and the prom queen. Us on the other hand, we had imagination, determination, a 99-piece socket set from Halfords and a well thumbed copy of Max Power.
29-year-old Ford master-tech Gary Carstairs was one of those guys. At 17, his birthday present was a very normal, very boring, very red Astra Merit. Yup, you can hear the knicker elastic snapping as we speak eh? Being a grounded, modest and rather handy chap, Gary didn’t give a crap that it didn’t have the entire Irmscher catalogue glued to it, nor did it have a three-year warranty. What did matter is that he had been presented with the keys to a blank canvas with massive potential to be turned into something fantastic.
Almost immediately a set of TSW Stealths found their way under the remarkably rot-free arches but, no sooner had he stood back feeling pleased with himself, a valve decided it had seen enough and exited via the exhaust. After fixing it, for the next year, the unassuming little red Astra went anywhere and everywhere, usually at speed and sometimes even on the road. Keen to fit into the 17-year-old bloke stereotype, Gary saw fit to rear end some innocent motorist but it was okay because that gave him a perfect excuse to fit the GSi kit. Every cloud eh? The obligatory Spax lowered suspension followed as did another car-based assault on another fine upstanding member of the public. Excellent, time to paint it blue then.
MATURED WITH AGE
Now, as usual you’re probably thinking “very good, but where were you going with Big Danni and the Corsa story?” Well, much like the distinctly average girls you opted to ignore at school, a few years down the line distinctly average had started developing into something that you’d give a second look. Some 18in Mille Miglia T12 rims, and a fresh Alfa Romeo blue respray, along with a GSi interior brought the car bang up to date in the year 2005. Thing is, it’s all very well looking good, but if it’s got all the get up and go of a sack of spuds, then that’s not exactly what you’d call the full package.
Eager to sort that slight imbalance, the go arrived in the form of the obligatory C20LET and F28 combo, which promised lots and yet delivered very little. “The engine was basically crap,” smiles Gary “It just wasn’t a good one, so I stripped it down and completely rebuilt it with a few mods along the way.” A reconditioned KKK turbo, Wallace downpipe along with a custom exhaust joined the rebuilt LET and gave the car the much needed power to match its looks.
The final piece of the jigsaw was a set of custom coilovers and for a few years, Gary was happy. But as with many relationships, that happiness wasn’t destined to last.
“The back wheel bearing went so I stuck it in the garage with the intention of fitting a disc rear beam, but it kinda escalated! I decided it was probably time to do it right.” Doing it right consisted of taking up residence in his Mum and Dad’s single garage for the next few years and saw the car being stripped to a bare shell in readiness for some major TLC. A pair of GM rear quarter panels were sourced, along with a pair of GM wings, a GSi bonnet and countless other parts. Working after work and over the weekends, the restoration began.
By the time 2011 arrived Gary was well on his way and with a goal in sight, decided the best thing to do was a complete U-turn with his plans and take things one step further. “I always fancied 4x4. There was one featured in the magazine before and I figured I could do that.” Miss ‘distinctly average’ was about to go in for some major cosmetic surgery.
In the wrong hands this could have been a complete disaster, but given Gary has a meticulous attention to detail and his fabrication skills are none-too-shabby either, it wasn’t long before a slightly mental vision became reality. “Being offered a complete Calibra Turbo forced my hand,” he laughs. “It was too cheap not to!”
Relieved of its floor pan, running gear and anything else deemed useful, it was all painstakingly mated to the Astra shell. As you do. A roll cage was sourced, chopped, modified and welded into place, which along with a pair of Cobra seats, Race Tech dash and basically sod all else – aside from several litres of Ford Squeeze Green paint and the interior was deemed finished. In fact, compared to this thing, BTCC cars seem rather luxurious.
“It’s not exactly practical,” he laughs having climbed over the cage and spent a good 5mins trying to get buckled in to the TRS harness. Impractical and sparse it may well be but, as we all know, there’s nothing wrong with losing a few pounds, especially when it comes to cars. Power to weight is everything and while the C20LET may have a relatively modest state of tune, the fact that the power goes to the earth through all four wheels makes the car almost comically quick point to point.
Poly bushed suspension arms, a mix of the finest coilovers H&R and Gaz can muster and a locked transfer box results in a car that is devastatingly quick off the mark. “First time I had it out was an eye opener. With FWD and the LET it always felt a bit on the edge of getting round the corner or hitting a tree, but with the 4x4 it just grips and goes,” comments Gary having demonstrated how quick the Astra can get off the mark, much to the surprise of some middle-aged city type in an Audi A6. It stops pretty well too – but then again it would given the brakes; Tar•ox 6-pots on the front and Wilwood 4-pots on the rear complete with adjustable pedal box and front-to-rear bias in a car that weighs very little. The only way to reduce speed faster would be to just hit the car in front. Again.
As we stand in Glasgow’s Southside on a quiet Monday evening, in an area where Wee Mental Davie wouldn’t look out of place, a lurid green Astra howling into view somehow looks so wrong – but yet somehow so right. It’s one of those cars that, for some unexplainable reason, just seems to make sense and that only ever comes with cars that have been built, tweaked and perfected over several years.
You can’t build a car like this in a month. You can’t buy a car like this. It’s impossible. Gary’s Astra has little touches that can be used to chart its years right back to 1999. The Rieger kit is pure 1990s without a doubt, the wheels are early 2000, the stripped out interior harks back to the F2 rally car influenced tuning scene of mid 2000s, while the colour and the technology brings us bang up to date.
Remember the plain Jane from school with the braces and the cardigan who played the violin? She’ll be the one who’ll be on the cover of a lads’ mag next week. Which, rather conveniently, is where this once plain, rather nondescript Astra has found itself, except this isn’t your favourite brand of lads’ mag. Okay, that was a crap analogy but you get the point.
Although this Astra has taken 14 years, and required enough welding wire to build the Forth Bridge, I think you’ll agree, the final result has been more than worth the time and effort. It’s a stunning car and we love the mix of retro mods and new tech.
As for what became of Big Danni, well she’s probably as heavy and boring as the diesel Picasso the once cool kids now drive.
Girlfriend Clare, my Mum & Dad for the use of their garage, Micky, Robert, Ross, Colin & Steven at Summerlea Garage for bodywork and paint, Barry & Robert at Jones Engineering, Central Powder Coating.