Blasphemy! That’s what some people will call it. Those that worship at the alter of performance will be saying a few Hail Mary’s to cleanse their sinful souls just for reading this feature. After all, it’s one thing to praise the lowered, but when it comes to tuning a performance icon such as the Mk2 Focus RS, the Ten Tuning Commandments are very clear when it comes to suspension mods – thy shall only fit coilovers to your performance car, especially one that has been equipped with 400 raging ponies under the bonnet! But throwing more spanners into the modifying mix than Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code did to the bible, is Derbyshire-based Ford fan Gaffa, who has defied the faithful and kitted-out his flying Focus with a full-on AirRide system!“I’ve never been one to simply follow what everyone else is doing,” laughs Gaffa when we meet him and his lime green Focus RS at an abandoned industrial estate on the outskirts of Derbyshire. “I’d much rather make my cars stand out and be individual, as to me that’s what modifying is all about. If someone else doesn’t like it, then that’s their problem.”
As a true blue Ford fan since he was 20, Gaffa has spent the last 19 years tuning and styling his fast Fords to make them not only perform better, but also look the part too.
“My first Ford was a Fiesta RS1800 which really got me hooked onto Ford’s hot hatches,” Gaffa explains. “After that I had an Escort RS turbo before moving on to a Mk1 Focus RS, which was just an amazing car, and each and every one was modified and given my own personal twist.”
Gaffa loved his Mk1 Focus RS and clocked up over five-years of ownership, but his head was turned when he spotted the Mk2 model for the first time in the metal…
“I was at the motorshow at Earls Court in 2009 when I saw a bright green Mk2 Focus RS slowing revolving on a turntable on the Ford stand,” he recalls vividly. “It was the first time I’d seen it and it just looked amazing. I knew right then that one day I’d have to have one.”
At the time however, the recession had hit and the price of the lairy coloured performance car was out of Gaffa’s reach, but by biding his time and watching the pennies, a few years later he made the trip down to Bristol-based RS sales specialists, RS Direct, to part-exchange his Mk1 model for a secondhand, but immaculately presented, Mk2.
“When I bought the car I thought it was standard,” Gaffa says. “It wasn’t until the dealer bought out all the paperwork that I discovered it had already had a glut of well chosen performance mods under the bonnet.”
Sending the power output skywards was a Mountune air filter, an Airtec intercooler, a Milltek exhaust with sports cat and a Bluefin stage 2 remap, which saw the Mk2 pushing out a respectable 350bhp. It was also skimming the tarmac thanks to a set of H&R lowering springs.
The revelation that his new ride had already started on the slippery slope of tuning meant that Gaffa was only too keen to continue on in the same vein.
“I’d had the car around two months before I just couldn’t resist swapping the Mountune filter for a K&N induction kit and replaced the sports cat in the exhaust with a full de-cat pipe. It didn’t do a massive amount to increase performance, but it made the car sound incredible!’ he says.
Soon after the exhaust was note to cranked to eleven, Gaffa started hearing rumours of Mk2 RS owners’ factory plastic inlet manifolds exploding and causing serious damage. Apparently the problem was traced to faulty software, however Gaffa was taking no chances with his pride and joy and upgraded the inlet to an AS Performance item. Powdercoated in deep gloss black it’s not only a preventative measure, but it also looks much more appealing than the stock inlet too.
With the car going and sounding like a proper hot hatch should, it was time for Gaffa to add his own unique twists to the car’s exterior.
“The Mk2 RS is a great looking car from the factory,’ he explains. “It’s aggressive and lairy straight out of the box, so I knew I didn’t need to do anything too drastic to getting looking how I wanted.”
A simple colour coded bonnet lip and de-badged grille started the ball rolling before being joined by a deeper front splitter and Gaffa’s own evil eye conversion for the headlights made from shaped vinyl. It’s a very simple but devastatingly effecting mod that really adds aggression to the car’s front end.
The fat gold painted 8x18in Compomotive MO6 alloys with 255/35/18 Nankang NS2R tyres also joined the party and filled the RS’s arches perfectly, although there has been some debate about the colour…
“I got the wheels from a guy who was selling his Mk2 RS and was putting the car back to standard. He swapped them for my set of standard wheels,” remembers Gaffa. “I wasn’t sure about the colour myself at first, but I really like the green and gold look now, although I’ve had some stick for them on Facebook and the forums, but that never bothers me.”
But little did he know at the time, but the minor fretting over the colour of the rims would lead to a much larger torrent of disapproval a few months down the line…
“After fitting the rims and dealing with a few internet haters, I upped the power some more with a Bluefin stage 4 remap plus a set of secondhand 550cc injectors that I managed to get off of Facebook. It took the power to just over 400bhp and the car was a proper weapon, but, because the H&R springs sat the car so low, I was constantly catching the front splitter. It was only a matter on time before I smashed the whole thing off. Something had to be done. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise I was opening the floodgates…”
Looking for a solution to his vertically challenged RS, it was one of Gaffa’s VW driving mates who first suggested an air suspension kit. In German automotive circles ‘air ride’ and ‘hydraulics’ are becoming increasingly popular as owners strive for the lowest cars around as a way to elevate their ‘scene status’. However in the fast Ford market, it’s a very different story, with air bags seen as a cursed addition that has no place on a hot hatch that’s designed to perform on road and track.
“I was recommended to go and see Luke Massey at Plush Automotive in Leicestershire as he was fairly local but also comes highly recommended for air ride and audio installations,” Gaffa says. “When I got there, Luke showed me some of his previous work and told me the options for the various air ride kits on the market. It was all very impressive stuff.”
Now, if you’re not up on your air ride systems, here is a brief run down. The kits replace your suspension with a special damper and bag system that acts like an adjustable spring. The amount of air inside the bags is what alters the ride height and is controlled via a cabin controller. A compressor is used to add air into the bags and special valves used to release the air. This means that kits can be used to sit the car practically on its side sills in some cases, or raise it up to tractor-like heights when needed. However, since the early days of air bag systems, which were renowned for their poor ride quality, boat-like handling and difficult set up, the new breed of air bags now available on the market are much more sophisticated pieces of kit.
“Luke told me that there were no off-the-shelf kits for the RS, but that he could make one,’ says the 39-year old Ford fan. “I opted to go for the top of the line kit in the form of Air Lift Company 32-way adjustable struts and bags and an Accuair air suspension management unit with iLevel app for iPhone. It’s one of the more expensive kits, but definitely one of the best, as it was key for me to retain the car’s performance.”
At £5000 for the fitted kit, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but Gaffa was unrepentant about his purchase.
“The kit is just brilliant,’ he enthuses. ‘The kit has sensors in the system to allow it to be self leveling, so it will automatically set itself to the correct pre-set ride height whatever the loading in the car. It means that you know it will always be the right height whether you are in the car on your own or are four-up with a bootful of luggage. You can also adjust the damping to suit your driving style and independently raise or lower any or all corners. It’s very clever stuff.”
Also, as you may have guessed from the iPhone app, Gaffa can also control the ride height from his smartphone. Clever stuff eh?
But it’s not only trick gimmicks that made the Air Lift kit an attractive option for Gaffa, as it was the ride and handling that also ticked the boxes.
“The air ride handles just like coilovers and the ride is as good as standard,’ he says. “In fact it may even be better, as the car tends to stay flatter through hard corning now as the self leveling counteracts the body-roll. But the best part is, that I can now have the best of both worlds. I can have the handling and low-slung look of a coilover kit – in fact I can go much lower, until the inner arches hit the tyres! – but I can also, at the touch of a button, raise it up for daily driving or lift it even higher to clear speedbumps with ease.”
But even with such a glowing reference, people have still seen fit to admonish Gaffa about his choice, sticking to their old outdated views on what constitutes performance tuning when it comes to suspension.
“It makes me laugh, as most of the people that have negative views about the kit have never even been in a car with air ride, and if they have it was one of the early systems,” chuckles Gaffa. “If they came for a blast in this, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to change their minds!”
And as we finish the last snaps of Gaffa’s lime and gold ride, the wide Compomotive rims tucked deep into the arches, it certainly has the looks to convert any doubters of the benefits of running on air. And when the light from the last flash bulb dies, with a simple press of a button, the RS rises back off the deck and Gaffa can gun all 400 horses leaving us in the wake of a swirling cloud of acrid tyre smoke. So if it is indeed a sin to like faqst Fords with air ride suspension, after spending the day with Gaffa and his RS, we’d better be on the look out for a priest, as we’ve got one hell of a confession to make.
2.5-litre, 5-cylinder, 20v turbo, AS inlet manifold, 550cc Bosch injectors, K&N Group A air filter, Airtec front-mount intercooler, Bluefin Stage 4 remap, Milltek turbo back exhaust with decat
405bhp / 402ft/lb
Factory 6-speed manual gearbox with standard LSD
Airlift company struts and bags, Accuair air suspension management with iLevel app for iPhone
Standard Focus RS discs all round
WHEELS & TYRES
8x18in Compomotive MO6 alloys painted gold with 255/35/18 Nankang NS2R tyres
Debadged grille, colour-coded bonnet lip, Triple R front splitter, smoothed under header lights, black vents, rear wiper removed, custom made evil eye headlight eyebrows, Fly-eyes on fogs, green fog light bulbs, Garfield valve caps
Standard Focus RS interior, Air ride boot install by Plush Automotive
Peter Williams at Demon Performance Centre for all servicing and repairs, Luke Massy at Plush Automotive for the AirRide install, Ady Thompson at RS Direct for the car, Chris Oldham at Caps’n’Cuffs for the Garfield valve caps and the misses for putting up with me!
This feature first appeared in the MARCH 2015 issue
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