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With thousands of hours’ graft put into this Pinto-powered MkI, Johnny Hickey has produced the perfect tribute to his family.

Now, you know sometimes when you go to a show or Ford meet, a car turns up that is just somehow perfect. Not perfect in a way like it’s had £50K and 20 years’ graft spent on it (because this one hasn’t), but just, well, right… That’s precisely the feeling that smacked us when we first laid eyes on the mint Mk1 Escort of Johnny Hickey.

It probably has something to do with the Escort’s spec — there’s nothing earth shattering or massively high-tech, it’s just top-quality with a few subtle touches, plus we’re well into wide arches and top-power Pintos on Webers too. Then there are the awesome-looking Revos, the paintjob, and the fact that every nut, bolt, pipe, hose, clip, seal, rubber and bit of trim is brand-new.

However, there’s still something extra, which isn’t realised until Johnny tells why he’s spent thousands of hours on the car over the last couple of years: “I built it as a tribute to my baby daughter, Jenelle, who died two years back,” he says. “As you can imagine, my head was gone over that, and being able to get down here and concentrate on building the Escort was my way of keeping sane. Basically, there are a lot of feelings in that car making the end result as good as it is.” 

Family Affair

Although Johnny’s Escort is definitely a fast-road car, anyone who’s into rallying, especially in Ireland, will know why he’s into the cars. The name ‘Hickey’ is a pretty famous surname in rallying circles, as dad Charlie has been competing for 25 years (always in Escorts), with his son navigating for him over the past seven, and uncle John has been known to drive rally cars too. Between the family members, there’s been a fair few events won. 

Add to that the fact that Johnny lives in Killarney, County Kerry, in the shadow of Moll’s Gap and the other stages on the Rally of the Lakes and Killarney Historic, and it’s no wonder rallying is in his blood. But there’s more… Johnny runs a freight distribution company that has the contract to deliver newspapers and magazines all over Kerry, so he’s possibly the first person in Ireland to get to read Classic Ford each month. Bonus!

Johnny started off with a dilemma as he ended up with both a MkI and MkII Escort to pick from when a friend sold him two cars. “The MkI, which was a Type-49 shell, was in better condition so that was chosen to be worked on first,” Johnny says. “It was orange and ran sweet on a downdraught twin-choke, and I never intended to go too far with the build. But a pair of Webers led to a Filter King and that led to… Well, eventually we were into a full-on rebuild. The costs got up too far so the MkII had to go, with every penny now sitting in or on the MkI.”

johnny hickey

Sprint Finish

The shell was in incredible condition and needed no rot-repair work, so the fibreglass wide bubble-arch kit, from Shamrock Spares, was grafted on front and back and then some subtle mods made to smooth out the body — the filler cap was removed along with the central bumper mounts (as corner bumpers were already planned). 

“The paintwork was carried out by John Flemming, who sprays most rally cars in the region,” Johnny goes on, “and the colour, Blu Sprint, is from a Fiat. I spent six months trying to decide what colour the car should be and then spotted a Punto in this shade. After a few trips back to make sure it was what I wanted John was let in on what the choice was.”

Five litres of two-pack primer, six litres of base coat and five litres of lacquer later, the shell was back in Johnny’s workshop ready for fitting up (this excellent space is at his work). Virtually everything that was put back on the Escort was either new (bushes, stainless nuts and bolts, rubbers, brake parts, lights, lamps, windows etc), or, in the case of the major mechanical components, reconditioned to as-new.

“The grille was probably my favourite find,” says Johnny. “Right towards the end a chap who saw the car said he thought he may have one and true enough it was hung up in his mother’s shed brand-new.”

The Impreza seats were a freebie(ish) too. “Uncle John had imported a new Subaru to build up as a rally car and said I could have them,” Johnny says. “Then he was chased by a Subaru dealer that had a customer who’d had an interior fire and needed some replacements. John stuck to his word, even though they’d have been worth a few thousand Euros if sold. I had to do a ‘bit’ of work for him in exchange!”

Stunning Tribute

The Escort should have been up and running pretty quick, especially as Johnny was working on the car until 11 pm five nights a week. The trouble was he had to have everything just right, so it took forever. “I was two days just lining those seats up,” Johnny admits, “and I put a brand-new carpet in, but wasn’t happy so got a professional in to do it properly. Then there was the wiring, sorted by Ronald Riordon — it’s all motorsport spec and mostly hidden. Where it is showing each part of the loom is colour-coded to blend in.”

Then, as the car approached the day it would take to the roads again disaster struck in the engine bay. “I’d just stripped and cleaned the original 2-litre 205 block Pinto,” Johnny recalls, “but when running it up a valve dropped, taking a piston out with it. After that I left the car alone for a month to cool myself down, before taking the plunge and phoning Burton Power to ask for the best race head it had.

“Jerry McCarthy was then given the task of boring the original block and rebuilding the motor to its current spec,” he continues. “When we rolling-roaded the finished article and set the Webers, 180 bhp was showing. The tuner reckons it’s good for about 200 bhp when all is bedded in and fully pushed, and said it was certainly the most powerful Pinto he’d seen. So I’m a happy man again.”

Well, we think ‘happy’ would be a slight underestimation of how we’d feel owning Johnny’s MkI. In a town famous for rally cars, it’s probably the one motor that will turn heads away from the action on the rally stages and to the car parks. Above all, though, the Escort’s a stunning tribute to his little girl, so that’s mission accomplished. Good on you, Johnny! 

Johnny Hickey, 1983-2021

Words Marc Stretton

Photos Gerard Hughes

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