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How Not to Build a V-8 Ford Focus

It started out with good intentions, as project cars always do. One of us (no one remembers who) turned to the 2002 Ford Focus and allowed that there was nothing wrong with it that a V-8 engine couldn't solve.

Yes, even we feel the urge to build a project car once in a while. Suddenly, you feel the need to customize an otherwise respectable motorcar. Apparently, even the top executives at Ford Racing can't resist this compulsion, because they're the ones who actually started the whole Focus V-8 thing.

Shortly after the Focus was introduced in 2000, it became the promotional vehicle of the moment for the automotive aftermarket, kind of like the Paris Hilton of tuner cars. Ford Racing even decided that the Focus could become the perfect vehicle to promote its new catalog of V-8 crate engines, and its engineers tore a Focus to pieces with the idea of installing a V-8. And, just like kids everywhere with an excess of enthusiasm and an unfortunate access to hand tools, they made a mess.

So Ford Racing turned to Jerry Kugel at Kugel Komponents in La Habra, California, a longtime hot-rod guy who had developed (among other accomplishments) a Pontiac Firebird that became the first stock-bodied passenger car to exceed 300 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Kugel's intuitive feel for cut-and-try fabrication soon solved the problems of installing a V-8 in the Focus.

Imagine Kugel's surprise when Ford Racing asked him to build another Focus V-8. It was to be a different kind of exercise, a project car that a do-it-yourself mechanic could assemble like a garden shed from the Home Depot. It was actually a far more difficult and demanding engineering task than a one-off show car, and Kugel's effort was justifiably recognized as the best-engineered product at the 2001 SEMA show.

And that's where we came in. After a season of autocrossing a Focus ZX3 that we had procured from Ford (don't ask how), we sort of wondered what to do with it. We even had a brainstorm about creating a mid-engined monster with a turbocharged, 900-hp Ford-Cosworth V-8 from the Champ Car series. Right after the Ford Racing guys finished laughing, they suggested we have a Kugel-modified Focus V-8 built for us.

The Kugel Focus V-8 comes from a recipe that anyone can follow. First, take one Focus. Then open the hardware catalogs from Ford Racing (www.fordracing.com) and marvel that we're living in the golden age of performance parts, with extensive inventories of specialty pieces meant for racing drivers, hot-rodders, or simple troublemakers like us. We picked out the drivetrain pieces recommended by Kugel Komponents (www.kugelkomponents. com), including a 315-hp, OHV, 5.0-liter V-8, a Tremec T-5 manual transmission with a cable-actuated clutch, and a solid rear axle with an 8.8-inch ring gear.

Kugel's $6000 kit of conversion com-ponents does the rest, as long as you can find someone willing to put in 150 hours to do the work. A new front crossmember cradles the V-8 engine, the steering rack, and the control arms. The front suspension struts are unchanged, but the Kugel components switch the steering gear to a location ahead of the wheel center line and re-quire use of a power-assisted rack-and-pinion from a Mustang II. Four trailing links locate the Mustang rear axle, and Kugel also provides the dampers and springs. There are plenty of other parts, of course-from brackets for the new compact air-conditioning compressor to antiroll bars. All that remains is to order up a suitable aftermarket fuel tank and locate it in the trunk well, where the spare tire used to go.

In the end, you have a car assembled from lots of different parts, an automotive Frankenstein. Once JD Motorsports completed the assembly task for us, the Focus V-8 delivered the power and the performance we expected. A run on one of DynoJet's dynamometers indicated 250 hp at the rear wheels, about what you'd expect from a Mustang 5.0. This Focus V-8 weighed only 2919 pounds, and the weight distribution was virtually identical to that of a front-wheel-drive Focus. It turned the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 95 mph, and 60 mph came up in 6.1 seconds.

But, as in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein, the monster didn't exactly emerge from the laboratory in a white tie and tails, ready to go onstage and sing the refrain from Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz." It had some major issues.

To start with, the too-small fill pipe to the fuel tank made the car burp gasoline on its rear fender once it drank a gallon or two, and re-fueling became a messy, torturous process. The newly built exhaust system would frequently clatter against the rear suspension. The cable-actuated clutch required a lot of pedal effort, and the transmission's short-throw shift lever came close to fouling against the driver's seat. The engine leaked oil through a sump plug, an exhaust header worked loose, and an engine pulley machined through the electrical contacts for the radiator fan. One tactical error was converting the base Focus disc-drum brake system to four-wheel discs using unsuitable aftermarket calipers and rotors. The resulting pedal action was very, very long, while the rear brakes always locked first. We solved most of the problems (few of which had anything to do with Kugel-engineered parts), and it's fair to say they were simply the kind of mechanical glitches you see in any handbuilt project car. In the end, though, we wondered about the kind of car we had created.

A project car always begins with the idea of pumping up one aspect of its personality, and we ended up with a terrific piece for bracket racing on the drag strip. The Focus V-8 is a completely outrageous car, and you can have one of your own for about $20,000 (not including the Focus platform) if you contact JD Motorsports (www.ford-v8-focus.com). Just like any project car, the Focus V-8 gave us the thrill of creating something unique with an extreme personality. The looks on staffers' faces as they turned the key and heard the mean V-8 burble-from a Focus of all things!-at California Speedway on their first acquaintance made all the heartache worthwhile. Sort of.

But there's a dark side to a project car, too. When we discarded so many of the bland aspects of the Focus's performance profile, we lost a lot of the car's utility as well. The Focus V-8's 215/45YR-17 tires and total lack of chassis development deliver barely 0. 80 g of grip, which doesn't make this car a good choice for autocrossing or even taking to the grocery store.

Although it can be fun to have Frankenstein as a pal, there are times when you'll wonder what you could possibly have been thinking when you decided to put the monster together. But it sure does sound great.

Thanks to our lab partners: Ford Racing, Genesis Engineering, JD Motorsports, Katzkin Leather, Kugel Komponents, Modern Image Signworks, Pirelli, Technosquare.