Challenging BMW Autocrossers With a Merkur


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story and photos by alan cesar

It makes a helluva noise,” says Ben Martinez. He loves the whoosh of a turbo. He also carries an undying passion for his Merkur XR4Ti, despite the problems he’s had with it.

If it weren’t for sheer stubbornness and determination, Ben would’ve ditched this project years ago. For his first three years of ownership, something broke at every autocross. Friends kept telling him to get rid of it. It was nothing but trouble.

This car’s initial attraction certainly isn’t its name, which is more appropriate as a serial number. Its formula, though, is definitely appealing. The Merkur XR4Ti began as the Ford Sierra, a European, rear-wheel-drive design with a manual transmission and independent rear suspension. In U.S.-going models, whooshing came standard.

The new name was meant to make it appeal to the import buyer who may be turned off by an all-American Ford badge. A biplane spoiler added Euro flair and reflected the model’s overseas success in the World Touring Car Championship.

Bye Bye, BMWs

Ironically, Ben loves this car partly because it’s a Ford and emphatically not a certain German car. When he first bought the Merkur eight years ago–from a man who owned hundreds of them, which is another level of love entirely–Ben started autocrossing it in D Street Prepared.

BMWs dominate that class, but Ben didn’t want to follow that same formula. He’s not just hardheaded and committed: He wants to challenge himself and build a unique machine. “Everyone has done [a BMW] and all the information is shared. I wanted to do something different,” he explains.

In the harsh midday light of hypercompetitive autocrosses, it became clear that this wouldn’t be easy. Ben’s XR4Ti was a high-maintenance partner. He was constantly fixing things and putting money into the car. The BMW was also hard to beat.

He dug through the SCCA rules trying to find out how to go faster. “I could’ve done shocks or replaced some bushings, but it was mostly TLC kind of stuff–not really enough that I could pick up a whole lot of speed. I was stuck in a rut, didn’t know what else I could do to make the car faster,” Ben recalls.

His wife–Ben’s affections aren’t limited to the automotive–noticed he was miserable and asked him why he didn’t switch classes. That’s when he grabbed the rulebook with a new goal and found a different playground. Street Modified was pretty much open, and it allowed him to have some fun with the car’s setup.

Common Solutions for an Uncommon Car

As any XR4Ti owner knows, its T9 transmission is a weak point. The switch to Street Mod allowed Ben an upgrade to a T5 from a Mustang, which soothed some of his headaches.

He frequently also burned up the original car’s viscous limited-slip differential. Quaife makes the only obvious aftermarket option, but it’s a $1500 option to stomach.

Ben is resourceful, however. He has 30 years of experience as an automotive technician, but he also knows when to ask for help. He removed the center section of his differential and took it to a diff shop with simple instructions for the man at the desk: “Find me one that fits this.”

With a little bearing adjustment, a diff from a Chevy S-10 fit perfectly. Ben then got an Eaton clutch-type limited-slip unit for a mere $300. “I love when people tell me it can’t be done!” he beams.

Cossie-Worthy Output

The Ford Sierra Cosworth grille and Cosworth-style vented, carbon-fiber hood hint at the car’s underhood modifications. Ben also has a Cosworth bumper, but it’s shorter than the U.S. bumper. That means it’ll stay in the garage until a friend makes a spacer to keep him legal in his class.

Ben didn’t get the European-spec YB Cosworth engine–he’s not insane–but the XR4Ti’s original T3 turbo guts now sit inside a Cosworth turbo housing. It makes 18 psi, no problem, but he’ll soon upgrade to a ball-bearing turbo for better efficiency.

That 2.3-liter Lima engine is known as somewhat coarse, yet torquey and robust. Ben says with a Boport iron head (it’ll be aluminum next year) and high-lift camshaft, his engine spools fast and revs to 7300. That gives him enough range to hold second gear on even the fastest autocrosses.

Its aggressive cam gave it a lopey idle, which produced noisy MAP sensor readings. Ben added a baffle between the manifold and the MAP sensor to settle the pressures so the ECU could operate on reliable numbers.

Today, this Merkur is far more powerful than any of the road-going Sierra Cosworths it emulates. The twin-cam Cossie made 201 horses in street trim. (Racing versions made between 400 and 550 horsepower at the crank.) Ben’s modified mix of Euro and Americano produces 300 at the wheels, with 320 ft.-lbs. of torque.

Niederländischer Hosenträger

Aftermarket components made for an XR4Ti don’t exactly fill the catalogs here in the U.S. Ben had to search, fabricate and improvise to make his suspension and brakes work as well as they do.

Before fitting AST coil-overs at all four corners, he sourced front coil-overs from Leda, a British firm, and made his own camber plates. On the rear, he had installed NASCAR springs (they fit perfectly in the perches) and custom-valved QA1 shocks designed for a Mustang.

Scalloped rotors made a big difference for 2013: He saved 20 pounds of unsprung weight. Ben chose Wilwood calipers because of the available parking brake–a class requirement. “I had to have brackets specially made,” he says. “Nobody makes anything for these cars.”

Determined to Succeed

Ben’s not one to give up. He’s had success in other uncommon cars in his autocrossing career, which started when he drove his 1972 Ford Pinto past an autocross in California circa 1988. “I rolled in and saw Pat Kelly at the registration table. I asked her, ‘How can I do this?’ She said, ‘Do you have a license?’”

Sufficiently addicted, he successfully campaigned a 1974 Mercury Capri in DSP, beating BMWs for many years in that German-made Ford. It brought him close to a national championship, earning him third place in 2003. Always running an uncommon machine, Ben’s often answering his “How can I do this?” queries himself.

Obsession and determination have solved Ben’s problems, and despite his constant head bashing, the Merkur finally earned him first place in the DSP class at the 2009 Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals. He’s yet to trophy since the switch to SM, but that is the definite goal. For 2013, he finished two spots out of the trophies, behind pairs of Nissan 240SXs, GT-Rs and BMW 3 Series.

When faced with a challenge and even discouraging words, he dug in and pushed harder. Ben won’t give up. “This car is a love affair,” he says. “You just keep trying to make the relationship work.”

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Comments
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Shaun
Shaun HalfDork
4/22/18 2:56 p.m.

Well Done!  I liked those when I first saw them on the street and I still like them.

gswaybright
gswaybright New Reader
4/23/18 12:36 p.m.

Hats off to Ben and his XR4Ti. I had an '89 that I ran in the '93& '94 One Lap of America. Loved it, but I eventually was bitten by the Miata bug.

mrblah
mrblah New Reader
4/23/18 1:25 p.m.

are these allowed in cam?  I did a basic engine mod (supercharger pulley) got stuck into a modified class where you need hoosiers and I'm not happy about that.   I need to find something else to autocross and the cam class is huge local with lots of good drivers

PT_SHO
PT_SHO New Reader
4/23/18 8:48 p.m.

In reply to mrblah :

Sorry.  The SCCA Classic American Muscle rules for 2018 say:  < Eligible Vehicles     • Vehicle must be either a domestic automobile or truck (pick-up or SUV) of front-engine/rear-wheel-drive (FE/RWD) configuration>

So you're SOL on the "domestic" issue.  While I am on the FE/RWD issue (Taurus SHO). 

Those rules, especially on engines, are very restrictive.  We always have people show up at the autocrosses asking "What about my car, it's just got a (cam, upgraded turbo, Lexan window, carbon fiber hood, all of the above) it's basically stock right?"  And the answer is, "No, go directly to Street Mod, do not pass GO.  And good luck in the big pond with the vicious fishes there!"

CAM is getting really popular and is nearly wide-open rules-wise.  That of course means there are now $100,000 cars there.  It's whatever floats your boat of course - CAM looks way fun, but a Street Touring R or U car will usually tear them up time-wise.

Tk8398
Tk8398 Reader
4/24/18 5:23 a.m.

I remember seeing that car when he first got it finished. I actually saw him not that long ago but he had a formula Ford instead.

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels New Reader
5/3/18 11:34 a.m.

I had a merkur once, and when it ran right it was fun to drive and garnered me several speeding tickets from North Carolina's finest, sadly. :) It was a wonderful road car but sadly lived up to the FORD acronym. I traded it for a subaru and never looked back. yes

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