Longtime drag racer and classic Ford fan for even longer, George Bebikan sadly passed away in early October. Here’s the original feature on George and his infamous Pro Street Zephyr from the November 2010 issue
Built outside a block of flats in central London, George Bebikan’s Pro Street Zephyr is street-driven and runs sub-10 second quarters. Much respect.
Space is almost priceless in the heart of a city, and despite everything having its price, you still have to sacrifice certain things to live in amongst the towers of glass and concrete. But if you are prepared to think outside the box, then you can find ways to make things happen.
It’s quite ironic that George Bebikan loves to play on the quarter-mile because, like his native central London, it’s a small space, but one that he’s a master of. He has done it the hard way too, with engine swaps the recurring theme. “I had a Mk2 Cortina with a 351 Cleveland in it, that would have been the early ’80s,” he says. “After that I had a Mk1 Escort with 3.1 Essex in it, then a Mk1 Cortina estate that was completely stock on the outside, but fitted with 3.1 V6 and Zodiac overdrive.”
The reason for all the engine swaps was partially reliability, but partially record-chasing. “I wanted to run faster,” says George. “Many years ago when I was running 13s I said when I run 11s I’ll stop. Then it was 10s, now it’s nines and my wife’s given up asking.”
The nines are deserved because it’s never been straightforward, and as much as we love the Zephyr sat here on big and little rims, dark and brooding, it’s decades and a far cry from where it all started. “It was owned by my sister-in-law’s father-in-law, I saw it for the first time 27 or 28 years ago and asked if he wanted to sell it.” The answer was always the same though. “I’d see him two or three times a year and he’d always say no.”
Finally, many years later, he changed his mind. “One day his wife spoke to Ann and said is he still interested?” says George. “She bugged me to buy it, that was when I’d gone through my ‘giving up hot rodding’ stage, I got into photography and found I was just taking pictures of cars. So I bought another one.”
Unfortunately the big Z had been neglected. “He lived down in Hornchurch,” says George, “so I got somebody to go and recover it — only when it arrived did I realise how bad it was. It was shot. You could have sandblasted it and swept it up into a bag. The only sound panels were the roof and rear quarters.”
This was in late 1989, and here’s where George climbs up on to his hero altar — instead of walking away he got stuck in. “We lived in a block of flats and it was done outside,” he says. “You want to do something? Reel the cable out 300 ft. I did all the welding first, starting with the inner wing on the right hand side which was terrible, I thought because I’d done that, I had to do the next one which was worse. There were holes in the floor and the boot floor was non-existent.”
It’s bad enough working on the street, but on the end of a 300 ft cable in a public car park outside your flat? “It was 1992 when it first went on the road with an AMC engine, a 360 cu.inch V8,” AMC? “It was the first engine I came across really.” Fair play, but George quickly discovered that his newly-sprayed VW Tornado Red Zephyr wasn’t going to get any quicker with an AMC motor under the bonnet. “You could maybe get a manifold for the AMC, so I got the small block. Back then it had a Volvo 265 axle, Revolution wheels and it was red.”
The move to a small-block Chevy meant more tuning parts, but given George’s history up until then, why not swap to another project? “I like the car,” he says. “When I first built this it was slower than the Escort I built. But you can go anywhere in this and not see another, it’s different. Most people don’t even know what it is.”
Starting off in the 14s, then heading into the 13s, George went for a TH400 auto trans next and put a 9 inch Ford axle in at the same time, but it’s not all about the quarter mile… “It’s not the drag racing, it’s about driving a street car — you can find out how your car is progressing,” he says. “Plus I quite like the idea that there is nothing in the high street that can touch me.”
Making a move to mid-blue from red, to ‘hide’ it in the pits as the Zephyr was becoming well-known — that colour was deemed too bright in the winter of 2008, so it got sprayed again by George and son Kai in their garage, which you can find in the Elephant and Castle.
Plenty of development has been and gone in the intervening years, all done in-house. “We take the view that you can’t say you can’t do something without trying it first, I mean how do you know? So everything bar the engine machining I’ve done.”
It was at the Classic Ford Show in 2009 that George decided the next stage was needed. “Backing off at the top end the front was pitching up and down, almost leaving the floor. I didn’t realise how fast I was going until one of the marshals stopped me and said ‘are you wearing a helmet?’. Kai gave me the ticket and it said 139 mph.” The Zodiac — ‘Grandad’s smoke car’ as granddaughter Holli calls it — was now running high 9-second quarter miles on street tyres, with a healthy shot of nitrous.
So over last winter the father and son team moved the engine 9 inches back, added a tube front end and a 12-point cage as an upgrade over the existing one. The work started last November and as yet George has been unable to get back to where he was although it’s better than looking at a stripped-out shell… “Externally it looks the same,” smiles George. “But how many months did it take? At one point I stood here and said, I had a 9-second car before, now I’ve got a pile of scrap.”
Now we know different and we’re pretty sure that one day on a weekend, George will have left his professionally-equipped archway garage in central London and driven the Zephyr up the M1 to Santa Pod, street driving it back that evening with a low 9-second timing slip tucked in his wallet.
That’s no small feat as most of you will know, but when you’ve done the time you too can reap the rewards. With twin turbos or a procharger on the list next, which is partially why the engine got moved back, George will still drive to the strip, the shops or just home at the end of the day. We’re glad that the city didn’t beat George on this one, in fact we don’t think there’s much out there that ever will.
Words and Photos Bryn Musselwhite
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