Fast, V8-powered and Kiwi-built — we road-test a rapid Almac Sabre
I met John Bennoch quite a few years ago now, on one of the very early Dunlop Targas, on which he ran a 911-powered McRae Porsche Speedster. From what I remember, on that particular Targa event it poured down with rain for the whole it in the Speedster gave him many a good lesson in how not to do it, unless you fancy yourself as the next Edmund Hilary.
Hardly broke, but not one of those with an endless budget, John had to find something he could build and develop himself at a rate his funds allowed — not exactly on the cheap, but using innovative solutions towards achieving the right mix of power and reliability.
Reliability was of key importance, more than weight saving, as John admits this Almac Sabre is not the lightest car in the paddock at 1175kg. But it is strong event. With no screen and no roof for fi ve days, John was competing in a bath tub. The Speedster went off the road a couple of times, too. Never a man to do things the easy way, I thought at the time.
When John put the Speedster up for sale in NZCC’s cars for sale columns, I chose it for our then monthly Driving the Ads feature. The Speedster was great, a wonderful car to drive — for an hour or so, not a rain sodden week! I really enjoyed the experience, particularly meeting up with John for a good yarn. He’s a true enthusiast, and a person who likes to build things rather than buy them, and he always seems to choose Kiwi-inspired devices too. A patriot.
Before the McRae Speedster, John built a very early locally designed Chevron kit, and after the Porsche replica got involved in a Kiwi-built sports car that looked like a Ferrari 333SP IMSA car.
John thoroughly enjoyed Dunlop Targa, and doing and rigid, and he could always personally discard extra weight more cheaply by simply going on a diet. John has always had a soft spot for throaty V8-powered TVRs, and he has virtually achieved a Kiwi TVR in his own back yard with the help of Almac founder Alex McDonald from the Hutt Valley, and Andy Culpin of RaceFX in West Auckland.
Alex MacDonald is better known for his Cobra replicas, but as well as his MG TF look-alike, Alex had been working on a unique ‘non-replica’ sports car for several years.
Alex began his career in the constructor’s car industry by being a customer himself. Before Jem Marsh started manufacturing his clever and legendary Marcos cars, he made a thing called the Sirocco, one of which he sold to young Alex McDonald for £90. To say that it was a kit is rather understating the case. Alex’s mother complained bitterly of the fi breglass smell that drifted into her kitchen from where Alex was piecing the puzzle together.
Alex learned a lot during that construction, much of which he was to put into practice on his next acquisition, a TVR. A sense of normality came when he replaced the TVR with an MG Midget. However, his penchant for making fibreglass bits didn’t stop as the Midget needed a hardtop, which Alex made, while his new Kiwi wife, Diana, complained about¦ Well, you know what.
Later, Diana and Alex emmigrated to New Zealand, where Alex started working at the Dunlop tyre factory in Upper Hutt as a draughtsman engineer. Not content with working for somebody else, Alex decided to set up a fibreglass business, and went back to the skills he had learned on his mum’s kitchen table — starting Almac Plastics in 1971. Alex built a wedge-shaped concept car using VW running gear, but when he was persuaded to build, with the help of George Ulyate, an AC Cobra replica using a plastic model and photographs as the template,his career path had been set.
Birth of the Sabre
Alex contracted Graham Berry to make the chassis for the Cobra replica, and a number of cast parts. Demand was strong after its fi rst showing at the 1984 National Hot Rod Show, and 17 Almac Cobras were sold in its first year. Alex then built a sports car along the lines of the MG TC, and sold 25 of those and another 16 in more developed form.
Alex was still a mite irritated that his Almac brand never got the recognition it deserved, because his products were always being referred to as Cobras or MGs. He decided to build an Almac. Alex and his son Stuart chose the Ford Cortina, which had not changed mechanically from 1973 until production ended in 1984, as the base for the Almac Sabre which was fi rst featured in NZ Classic Car in May 1994. The idea and execution were great, but the timing was unfortunate. Cheap RX-7s and MX-5s that were then fl ooding into New Zealand killed the Sabre’s potential market.
In 2002, Alex started the Almac Sabre Series 2, with a view to moving away from the four-cylinder sports car market and into V8 territory. Developed in conjunction with long-time Triumph TR8 racer, Ron Robertson, the Sabre Sprint featured Kevlar body panels for light weight (that car weighed in at around 700-800kg), and did away with the standard Sabre’s old-fashioned Cortina suspension parts, replacing them with more modern Commodore components. It was powered by a tuned 3.5-litre Rover V8 Construction of the new Sabre commenced on December 19, 1999, and was completed on February 19 — just in time to make its competition debut at the Castrol Charity Classic.
Whereas Almac once marketed the Sabre as a unique alternative to modern sports cars, such as the Mazda RX-7, Alex MacDonald now sees the Sabre as a real alternative to a high-priced TVR and, with its V8 power and looks, an Almac Sabre could be put on the road for little more than $20,000. Originally, the styling looked to owe a lot to the MX-5, but it is bigger and actually owes more to a Reliant sports car that never made it into production — coincidentally, this car was also called the Sabre.
At this point, John Bennoch enters the equation, with his desire to build a lightweight sports car strong enough and fast enough to make a competitive Dunlop Targa car. However, John wanted to use the now freely available light alloy quad-cam Lexus V8 engine, and Jaguar running gear.
This version was launched at the Hamilton Motor Show in March 2004, in this Lexus-powered configuration Alex quickly received fi ve orders for the car.
The first example is the vehicle you see here, having been race developed and upgraded to compete in the gruelling Dunlop Targa, something that it has done successfully and reliably in John Bennoch’s hands. The key to the Almac’s results is having relatively standard, under stressed components, with a few anclever tweaks courtesy of experienced race car builder Andy Culpin.
The chassis is similar to a TVR’s in concept — it’s a tubular backbone chassis — although, in this case, for competition use it has considerable additional structure around the doors for occupant protection, but it also provides exceptional structural rigidity. John and his co-driver went through a fence in the unscreened, unprotected McRae Speedster during Dunlop Targa, and John knows how lucky he was in that instance.
John Bennoch took delivery of Alex’s Hamilton show car in March 2004; it was fi tted with a JAZ fuel cell and then shipped to Andy Culpin at RaceFX. Andy fabricated a front sub-frame structure to accommodate the Lexus engine (moved back 150mm), and modifi ed the tunnel to accommodate a Toyota Supra five-speed gearbox.
Similarly, the chassis needed to be adapted to the Jaguar running gear, and to allow the Lexus headers to neatly find their way out in front of the doors and alongside the sills to facilitate ground clearance — a key requirement for Targa. The double-skinned alloy under-fl oor is completely fl at until the rear axle, where a diffuser is fitted to get hot air away from the inboard rear brakes, limited slip differential and transmission tunnel.
John says that the hot transmission tunnel is his main concern with the car at the moment, and more work is required to get heat out of the engine bay. Although, I have to say, we sat in typically grid-locked Auckland traffi c during our test in the car, and I have been in a lot worse.
Andy and John have managed to make the car extremely friendly in traffic, something else that is also important for a Targa car, which gets the living daylights thrashed out of it only to sit in a stop-start queue of cars waiting for the next stage. In these situations a car that cannot keep its temperatures under control is a liability and will cause considerable heat stress and anxiety for the crew. So John and Andy have done an excellent job in this case — an clever other box ticked in the ideal Dunlop Targa car list. An alloy radiator is installed under a substantial oil cooler along with one of Andy’s ingenious money-saving fixes — a hand-primed marine pressure accumulator which ensures that there is always 35psi oil pressure in the V8 engine. Effectively, it’s a cheap surrogate for an expensive dry-sump system.
Another of Andy’s marine-inspired devices is an air bilge pump, designed to take gases out of the engine room of inboard power boats. This is the simple fi x for having no heater, and therefore no air to a screen that could mist up in wet weather. The air pump takes air off the hot transmission tunnel and pumps it straight to the screen. Ample ventilation is provided by scoops in the roof, opened by simple vents designed for the local bus industry. The rear lights came from the same source.
An array of Smith’s instruments in the Sabre’s centre console divides the two passengers, who nestle in Racepro RP2 seats which are fi xed in place to their preferred seating position.
One of the essential parts of the car sits in the left hand side — Lance Bell, of Arrow Wheels in West Auckland. As well as supplying a superb set of his made-to-measure wheels, Lance provides workshop space, endless help and extremely professional codriving skills. As a side note, the special five-spoke alloy wheels used on John’s Sabre, designed and manufactured by Arrow Wheels, are now available for anyone to buy. Appropriately, they are marketed by Arrow Wheels as the Sabre.
John runs SPR models (www.spr.co.nz), and has advertised the many different model makers he supplies on the car, as well as his training client, Civic Wholesale, which supplies electrical parts to the motor industry, and the exciting VDO Dayton on-board navigation system for New Zealand. This Sabre has now fi nished two Dunlop Targas, this time around fi tted with an extremely stylish new nose cone and a roof derived from Andy Culpin’s F40 Ferrari replica, courtesy of Steve Fox, the F40’s owner. The car is fast and spectacular, and sounds an absolute treat.
John has had a few exciting moments in the car, usually in front of a camera, but has always brought the Almac home, which is his main aim. Not being a super-budget outfit, he realises that these days an overall top finish is out of the question, but considering his resources he is very happy with the outcome.
We drove the car and it is fast and extremely well behaved, its stiffness being its main virtue, giving excellent turn in to allow you to use the throttle to adjust your line with confi dence. The bellow from the Lexus V8 belies the benign character of the car — it’s fast enough to frighten you, but extremely well behaved and strong. It also looks tremendous with its new nose and bright colour scheme — it’s an extremely professional-looking sports car for a home-built Kiwi car.
2004 Almac Sabre S2 – Specifications
Engine Toyota 1UZFE Lexus, all-alloy,quad-cam V8
Max power 179kW at wheels
Max torque 350Nm at wheels
Gearbox Five-speed, Toyota Supra
Construction Two-seater sports coupe, fibreglass body, tubular space-fame chassis
Suspension Front double wishbones with Jaguar uprights, QA1 shocks and Eibach springs; Rear Jaguar XJS independent rear, QA1 shocks and Eibach springs
Steering Ford Sierra rack and pinion
Brakes Front Jaguar discs and Wilwood callipers, Tilton adjustable actuation; Rear Jaguar discs and callipers, Tilton adjustable actuation
Wheels Arrow Sabre 17 by eight-inch threepiece alloys
Tyres Dunlop D01J 235/40ZR17
Track F/R 1500/1500mm
Words: Tim Nevison Photos: Jared Clark