Everyone loves an origin story. In early 2016, an aspiring journalist (Maurice Malone), and an aspiring photographer (me), crossed paths. What would transpire, over the next few months, would be two complete novices, without a tap of experience, blagging their way into a series of performance icons. We made all the rookie mistakes – looking back, some of the photo gaffes were criminal – but it sent us both down a path we always seemed destined for. I’ll let Maurice tell the story of that crazy time – Cian.
Naivety can make you do silly things. When naivety is involved, you don’t even question the wisdom of what you’re doing. You just do it. ‘Why the hell not?’ you say. Looking back on what Cian and I did a few years ago, naivety was what made it happen. This is the story of how two unknowns found themselves driving and shooting some of the finest performance cars in Ireland.
Cian’s been taking photos for a few years now, and is rather good at it. Looking at the images in this feature, it was clear even then that he had a serious talent for photography. I ran a moderately popular Facebook page that mostly featured motorsport from days gone by, mainly because I was sick of the rubbish appearing on my newsfeed and wanted to create something that my friends and I could enjoy. Of course, this was back in the day when the algorithms hadn’t yet managed to ruin Facebook as a platform, though the signs were there that Zuckerberg and co. were about to spoil the fun. No matter. It was time to try the next step. I decided I wanted to write about cars.
Motoring journalism is a field that’s always fascinated me, and I grew up on a diet of Evo magazines and countless motorsport publications. To me, it was (and still is) a dream job. I used to spend hours on sites, including this one, always keeping a keen eye on how the Irish scene was being portrayed.
It pains me to say it, but for such a car-mad country the standard of automotive coverage in Ireland’s own media (with a few notable exceptions) left an awful lot to be desired. Rehashed press releases, poorly-written and sloppy reviews, and a general lack of passion and interest were major sources of frustration for me and many others. It didn’t have to be so.
As soon as I came home from my day job as an engineer, I was spending hours each evening writing for an Irish automotive website. I’d got in touch with them on a whim, and before I knew it I was doing a lot of work. It was arguably the best automotive site in the country and one comparable to the best in the UK, although it was geared towards new cars. Therefore, I wanted to create something on the site that would appeal to dyed-in-the-wool petrol-heads, but also engage the casual reader and hopefully give them an understanding of why we love what we love.
I think it was at a local Cars & Coffee event that I first floated the idea to Cian of shooting performance cars from days gone by that held icon status in Ireland. I’d been following his work and knew that his skills were key to the project. From there, a plan was hatched to shoot as many cars as we could. We laid out some ground rules, things like the cars in question had to have cult or hero status in Ireland and be as close to factory specification as possible. We then of course broke the second rule into a million pieces by featuring a full-blown rally car in the very first piece.
The series was called Irish Icons. Slightly cheesy, I know, but it had a nice ring to it and clearly indicated what the features were about. We could have called it Awesome & Amazing Automobiles & Astound & Astonish, but the alliteration and pretentiousness would have given some readers a coronary. Simple was best.We Have Lift Off
So, the first feature. Knowing that it had to make an impact in order to draw readers in and keep my editor happy, we settled on the Ford Escort Mk2. You’ll struggle to find a more iconic car among Irish petrol-heads, especially those of rallying persuasion, so I organised for a friend’s rally-prepped version to be paraded in front of Cian’s lens for a few hours. I’d been on a couple of shoots before so knew the routine of constant toing and froing required for the various shots, something that is not all that easy with a sequential gearbox and racing clutch.
Looking at the feature now, it’s clear that we overlooked a few details and that my writing was not quite where I wanted it to be. Still, we’d laid out a good template to follow where I tried to explain the car’s status as an icon, followed by some facts and technical bits and finished off by describing how it felt to drive.
The latter is what I found the trickiest, trying to strike a balance between “This is the car. It is fast. I had fun,” and Troy Queef levels of tripe.
We felt almost duty-bound to include smoky oversteer glory shots and vivid descriptions of hair-raising antics on public roads similar to what some magazines were and still are doing, but ultimately we reined that in quite a bit. In all honesty, I didn’t feel comfortable pushing someone else’s pride and joy to those levels, especially with the fairly basic insurance cover we had. What we wanted to achieve was to give a sensation of what driving these cars might be like by writing in the second person, allowing the reader to paint their own picture and conjure up their own little fantasy stretch of road. A sort of escapism, I guess.
Here’s an excerpt from the Escort piece where I try to describe getting in and starting it up: “Painted in a matt black finish inside with carbon fibre dotted everywhere, it feels almost claustrophobic, especially when you squeeze into the driver’s bucket seat (custom made, naturally) and strap yourself in with the all-encompassing harness. Your feet fall readily to the pedals (friction coated to prevent Nomex boots from slipping off in the heat of battle), hands grip the small Sparco wheel and the view through the windscreen onto the flat bonnet and the road ahead is clear.”
“Then you spot the two levers sprouting from the enlarged transmission tunnel, one white-topped, the other yellow. The white one dictates which gear is selected in the Quaife sequential dog gearbox, with a neat little digital display informing you of the current ratio. The yellow one is the hydraulic handbrake, or ‘wand’ in rally parlance, and is used exclusively to encourage the rear wheels to break traction with the road. This looks fun. Switches litter the dash and a custom-made panel on the transmission tunnel, with fuses also at easy reach. Flicking the fuel pump switch awakes the high-flow Bosch unit housed in the tank, filling the cabin with a loud whirring. Hit the starter button, and the engine cranks and settles to a buzzy idle.”Shifting Through The Gears
Happily, the reception for the piece was good. Very good, in fact. Buoyed by this, we set about chasing speed for the rest of the year.
This is where naivety played its part; “we should totally drive two hours after work to shoot a DC2 at sunset”, “I’m just gonna go up to this guy with the E30 M3 and ask him to let me drive it”, “can we borrow your Cosworth for a couple of days?”.
We were asking owners to relinquish their pride and joy to us, though the majority were present for the shoots and seemed to enjoy the whole experience. We didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be doing this. There was literally no budget (we couldn’t even reimburse owners for the fuel they used), and we got a pretty thorough exposure to disgusting service station food up and down the country. We didn’t care though. It was so much fun.
The first few features went really well, bringing lots of traffic to the site and allowing us to refine our craft. In quick succession, we shot a Tommi Mäkinen Edition Evo, a genuine Phoenix Yellow DC2 (with the yellow Recaros), an E30 BMW 325i Sport and a Toyota AE86 that was so standard it even had the factory exhaust, something unheard of in Ireland.
The DC2 was fitted with ITBs (another example of mission creep on our part), and I can still remember the sound of the trumpets gulping air a couple of inches ahead of the bulkhead: “The first time I take the engine north of 5,500rpm and those spiky cam lobes engage is nothing short of a revelation. The sound is just other-worldly; the only thing I can compare it to is a Super Touring car. The speed piles on, and the short-ratio gearbox means that you can keep it revving to bursting point all day long if you so choose. There has rarely been such a perfectly matched engine and chassis combination, and Paul’s modifications have gently improved upon the factory formula without taking anything away from the experience.
“The chassis rewards commitment quite like nothing else on the road today. Be on your toes though, as the inherent adjustability can be a handful, especially in the wet. Once mastered, however, it contributes to astounding cross-country pace. You can really lean on the brakes thanks to the lack of weight, trailing the pedal on turn-in and feeling the nose nail itself to the apex as the rear rotates around the bottom of your spine. You can provoke the tail even more if you wish, but you know you’ve really aced it when you have to wind off just the tiniest bit of lock before jumping on the throttle once again. The diff works its magic in the background, never obtrusive or clunky, just supremely natural and supremely effective. Understeer just isn’t an issue, so you can guide the little Honda across ground at huge speeds, with the world’s biggest grin on your face. You forgive the car’s low-speed idiosyncrasies, because the rewards for driving hard are so high.”Is This Really Happening?
We were really getting into our stride now, and something that took a fair bit of planning, preparation and downright praying saw us get an E30 M3 Sport Evo and a three-door Sierra Cosworth together at dawn on one of my favourite roads. I’d driven the route the previous weekend in my own car and was a little concerned at the amount of loose chippings, but the owner of the Sport Evo (worth over €120k then and probably even more now) saw the gravel as an opportunity to have some fun. That really was the day of days.
We collected the Cossie the previous evening from an owner whose only advice was to “watch her if it’s wet, it’s got about 350hp and no traction,” as he cheerily threw us the keys. It stayed in a friend’s lock-up for the night for security, and filling up with petrol the night before the shoot, a boy of no more than five was so mesmerised by the sight of this white beast that he didn’t know whether to point, tug at his mother’s dress or both.
Also memorable was the reaction of the lady in the toll booth at 5:00am as we headed for the location, asking if it was a Cossie and asking us to give it some welly as soon as the barrier lifted. We obliged, of course, and I remember shifting into fifth gear, planting the throttle again and feeling the nose lift even at that speed as the turbo began to spool. You could feel the boost build through your feet. What a mad little car.
The M3 almost looked subtle compared to the Cossie, though it clearly impressed an elderly gentleman out for a dawn walk as he nearly twisted his head 180 degrees to get a better look while we passed. A shape born out of pure necessity, a car that existed only to win. Looking back on that shoot, it couldn’t have gone much better. I remember being impressed by the Cosworth despite the lag and general aggression needed, but the M3 was something else and to this day is one of the best cars I’ve ever driven.
“These cars mark two completely different approaches to the same end goal. The BMW is a scalpel with which you dissect the road ahead, feeling every nuance of the surface and using that information to choose your line with precision, wringing the maximum out of the engine and totally immersing you in the experience. The Sierra is a sledgehammer that pounds the tarmac into submission, dragging you along on a wave of turbocharged torque and keeping you hanging on for dear life. I have no doubt that you could probably extract the same time out of both cars on a twisty section of closed road given enough practice in each, but the sensations felt afterwards would demonstrate exactly how diverse these cars are. You’d get out of the Sierra weak-kneed and sweaty with your hands possibly locked in a counter-steering pose, but I guarantee that you’d turn the M3 around and keep going again until the fuel tank ran dry.”
That piece did massively well, and by the end of the year and another couple of shoots (including a Lancia Delta Integrale Evo 2) we had something like half of the top 10 most viewed features on the site for 2016. Not bad for a couple of young guys trying to find our feet. Another highlight was a recently restored R32 Skyline GT-R with 450hp that the owner literally shouted at me to push harder and harder. I sort of lost the run of myself with that feature as my enthusiasm for the subject got the better of me, conjuring up an intro about the Mid Night Club that went on for way too long. How it got past the editor I’ll never know, but I’m sort of happy it did. I adored that GT-R, a glimpse of what the future felt like 30 years ago. Despite its technological prowess, it still felt mechanical to drive and so amazingly quick on the narrow roads we were on. The RB26 has to go down as one of the greatest powerplants in history, too.
Over the space of a few months we got to experience cars we’d only dreamt about. If you’d told the 10-year-old me that I’d not only get to drive, but to spend hours on end with the likes of a Tommi Mäkinen Evo or E30 M3 I wouldn’t have believed you.
It was a great way to see these cars and get some understanding of what made them so special, in a way that you can’t at a show or event with 100 other cars and crowds of people around. This was Cian and I being left to do our thing and attempting to convey our impressions of these amazing creations through photos and words, hopefully giving the reader some insight into our thoughts.
Looking back on it now, I’m proud of what we did. And we have naivety to thank for a lot of it.