Years ago, I built an all motor drag racer, only to discover I wasn’t really into drag racing. It made for a fun, though often shitty daily driver. No power down low, and precious few opportunities to open it up on public roads. Lesson learned? Build the machine to match the way you use it most. John Rood has done just that. He’s built a multi-purpose vehicle that he can take on road trips… across the desert… to race.
What’s your name, where do you live, what do you do for a living?
Jon Rood / Phoenix AZ / mechanical-electrical engineer for a frequency test equipment company.
I know you’ve got a couple cool projects over there. What are they?
Besides the Expedition Celica (named Carlos), I’ve got my ’94 Escort GT rally car and am currently working on a cage for a track E30 BMW (for a friend).
What’s the big idea behind Carlos?
The idea came to me in stages; a cross between rallying (Group B era), the “Mad Max” movies, off-road racing, and too many video games – specifically the original “MotorStorm”. How could I forget the approaching apocalypse? I need a zombie escape vehicle too!!
Which came first – the idea or the car? How did the two come together?
The idea for sure, then I had to pick which car would already have the general basics; front engine, solid axle rear wheel drive, strong drivetrain parts. The Celica came to mind quickly, along with Nissan 200sx, Ford Mustang, Chevy Vega or Chevette, etc.. For light weight, strength, and my number one criteria, CHEAP, the Celica quickly rose to the top.
The more research I did and the more I looked at the Group B Celica, the more I loved the idea. I wanted to get the coupe, as Toyota used, but in the end, finding a $400 hatchback turned out to be a blessing. Hatchbacks are much easier to install cages in and are much more useful when I need to carry a bunch of camping supplies or luggage.
You’ve been fairly involved in rally for some time. How are you/have you been involved in rally?
I started my rally adventures in 2000, when a friend drug me up to the Prescott Rally to crew for a guy out of Michigan in a Volkswagen Golf. I was hooked after seeing a car come into service on three wheels, rear spindle missing, and leave 20 minutes later with the whole rear corner rebuilt.
Shortly after that, my friend began co-driving and I became the head crew for a team based out of Vegas in a Mazda 323 GTX. That year, we also started rebuilding a Dodge Omni GLH rally car. A year later, I met more local rally guys and started helping one rebuild his Toyota FX-16, which only lasted a few more races before it was too far gone.
In 2003, I worked a deal with him to build a new FX-16 in trade for work space to build MY first rally car, a Ford Festiva (it’s remarkably similar to the Mazda 323 I was still crewing for). I ran the car in 2004, where I got the California Rally Series Rookie of the Year. For 2005 I ran 3 or 4 races, after swapping in a larger engine into the tiny car, the DOHC 1.8L out of a Mazda Protege.
That year, I was elected to the CRS Board of Governors as the P-Stock Chairman as well, which I held for 3 years. I took 2006 off to recoup financially. This is when my next opportunity came about, building a VW Golf for the Mosers (we did an article on them a few years ago).
In 2007, I built my current Ford Escort GT, which has evolved nicely, to being a very competitive Group 2 car in the SouthWest. I ran the car for 2 years, then again took some time off from rallying to rebuild my bank account once again. This is when sitting around watching movies and playing video games planted the seed of the Celica in my mind.
How has rally influenced this project?
Besides the obvious Group B Celica influence, my need for better handling at high speed, due to not racing as much these last few years has definetely influenced the cars development. When I first built the car, the economy was in the tank, so my focus was on cheap, junkyard parts and whatever parts I had lying around the garage, gathered over the years.
The first suspension set-up was built with cheap strut inserts and old race springs for the front end, Ford Aerostar springs and off the shelf Fox shocks I bought off Ebay in the back. Now it’s custom inverted monotube Bilstein struts up front with stronger strut tops meant for Rav4s, revalved the rear shocks and replaced the rear springs with 5″ race springs. It’s gone from feeling like a marshmellow around corner to a proper rally feel, if your rally car had 9″ of travel that is. (Escort has 7″ at best) Early on, it was great at rock crawling but damn scary above 35mph (56kph) off road. Now it’s ok at rock crawling and feels stable the faster you take it down dirt roads, 50, 60, 70mph (80-113kph).
How has this project influenced your rally involvement?
Before building the car, I was always reluctant to volunteer to work at races. Not that I didn’t volunteer occasionally, but I was usually roped into crewing for various teams, which I love to do – anything to get my hands on tools and cars. But I was missing the driving part. The car has become a tool for making volunteering much easier and fun for myself. I’ve used the car once or twice as a recce car for other teams and now three times as Course Closing, Car 999. Even with it’s stock engine, it’s rally car handling and truck like capability for towing has made it a perfect tool for this job. I can more than keep up with the cars when needed or can give a tug off a berm if it’s needed. The only thing it can’t do is carry more passengers.
If I’m not mistaken, you’re a regional safety scrutineer, right? You can approve cars for logbooks, right? Was that NASA or Rally-America? Regardless, what are your thoughts on something like this being a good way to gradually make the transition to stage rally car? Could something like this be considered a viable way to go? Would that change your advice at all?
I’m a NASA scrutineer. I have a half cage in the Celica; main hoop on back, which is built as though I was going to complete it as a rally car some day. The materials and design of what’s in the car are based on the NASA rules, at least of 3 years ago. That’s not to say it doesn’t need more tubing in the back to make it a rally legal cage, but I think that’s just a diagonal on the kicker tubes.
When you drive around in a caged car without a helmet on, you’re actually in more danger of serious head injury than not having any cage.
If you’re planning on building a car for playing, occupant safety is critical, so what I say might seem a little odd at first, to some. The reason I didn’t put a full cage in the car, other than the roof line is crazy low, is that when you drive around in a caged car without a helmet on, you’re actually in more danger of serious head injury than not having any cage. I can’t hit my head on the cage in the Celica, unless maybe the seats broke loose and or the harnesses failed.
The main hoop section of the Celica would protect the occupants in a roll over, the roof line over our heads is much stronger because of it. I can suvive the windshield caving in a bit, but not right over my head. Chuck Wilson had a recce/play car built in this same spirit as the Celica, out of an AWD Mazda Protege, but he went with a full cage. I believe he then spent a bunch to have all the overhead tubing wrapped in padding and vinyl covers. So, I think it’s an excellent path to SLOWLY building up a rally car. You get to play with it, learn the car, slowly add parts that keep making it a better car, etc.. I’m sure there are plenty of ex-rally cars going backwards, now living out thier life as off road toys.
What’s proved to be the hardest part of building this Celica?
I don’t remember there being many hassles, my engineering back ground makes me pre-plan to the point of excess. I was amazed how every new sub-project on the car always seemed to work out just as I saw it in my head or on paper/computer. Even the front subframe came together easier than I ever thought it would, clearly the most involved part of the transformation. The biggest pain was building the front safari bumper, but that’s only because it came loose and landed on my arm while I was welding it together. I got burnt pretty good during that incident.
What’s proved to be the most rewarding part?
Driving it, both for backwoods-type adventures and as Course Closing at rallies. But a close second has to be the look on peoples faces and the comments/questions I get about it. When I first started the build, I was worried how the classic Celica community would take to the project. I took an Arizona car, meaning pretty much zero rust and started hacking it up. They LOVED it.
Where can our readers find and connect with you online if they want to learn more about this beast?
www.ExpeditionPortal.com www.Celica-GTS.com www.SpecialStage.com www.rallyanarchy.com (hint: look for user ‘jrally’)
What one piece of advice would you offer to anyone thinking about building an adventure car like Carlos?
Do a lot of research on parts, suspension geometry, drivetrain options, etc. before you start cutting apart something you might not be able to make work. Take your time. A project like this is never really done. Work in stages. I’m in the middle of doing a rear axle replacement right now, because of my poor choice the first time around (but I had no idea the car would be this much fun or work this well).
In a world where dirt is the domain of trucks and rally cars are not suited for camping trips, Carlos the Adventure Celica stands out as a shining example of having your cake and eating it too. Build the machine to match the way you want to use it most. Jon Rood has learned this lesson. Have you?
- What car would you make into an adventure vehicle?
- How often do you get off-tarmac?