"photography Michael Fordham/influx Harley Peters is 22 years old. But the car that is at the centre of his life has components that were manufactured before his granddad was born. "It started with my old man really," he tells me "
Ron Harris: The Con-Rod Father
The legendary Ford tuner’s legacy lives on
Earlier this year the Ford tuning world lost a legend. Thankfully Ron Harris’ legacy lives on through his children, grandchildren, and the family business, Harris Performance Engines…
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s fast Fords ruled the streets. If you wanted a fast car you could use every day, you wanted a Ford. And you were spoilt for choice too. Cortinas, Capris, Fiestas, and Escorts all offered performance models in their range. In fact there was a hot version of pretty much every Blue Oval model produced, built so Ford could take on the motorsport stages of the British and European touring car racing as well as the world rally stages. So, ready-tuned versions of regular hatchbacks were available straight from the dealer forecourt.
But what if you wanted to make your fast Ford faster than the next man’s? Well, in that case you needed an engine built by legendary Ford fettler Ron Harris.
Ron began coaxing more power from engines at the tender age of 14, soon after he left school. Having completed an apprenticeship in mechanics, before moving on to work at a Ford main dealer in Croydon, Ron then completed his National Service with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After leaving the army he returned home, where he turned his mechanic’s hand to working on the trucks of the family-run haulage firm.
But it wasn’t until the ‘70s that the Harris name became synonymous with fast Fords. Yes, he’d built engines for his neighbour’s grasstrack racers, and other bits and pieces along the way, but Ron Harris first became a household name when he, along with his sons Jeff, Andy, Martin, and Ronnie, started shoe-horning monster 300bhp V8 engines from American muscle cars under the bonnets of humdrum Zephyrs and Zodiacs, inadvertently sparking the makings of the now-iconic ‘South London scene’ that is still such a huge part of classic Ford ownership today.
At the same time Ron was also making waves in motorsport circles too, hence the abbreviation of the business to HPE Motorsport to cater for the racing side of things. The Harris boys soon made their mark too, Andy was the Hot Rod National Points Champion, Ronnie won both the British and World Championships in his Stock Rod, and eldest son Jeff also enjoyed various successes on the short ovals too. The one thing they all had in common? They were all running engines built by Ron, of course.
It wasn’t long before everyone wanted a Ron Harris engine in their car, and so began the next chapter in the life of this incredible man, and a long association with Ford’s four cylinder motors.
To start with this focused mainly around the Crossflow units as found in early Escorts, Cortinas, and Anglias, but naturally progressed to include the later Pinto engine too. And he produced some truly staggering results! How does a 200bhp 1700cc Crossflow grab you? Or how about 250bhp from a naturally-aspirated 2.2-litre Pinto?
Ron’s success building powerful, reliable engines for both the street and race track led to him being affectionately referred to as the Con-Rod Father, a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Ron, by his own admission, was happy just to offer his services to family and friends, never actively seeking to grow the business. So when he began to take a back seat from HPE and started winding down the engine builds, and eldest son, Jeff, took over the reins of company, things were about change.
“Dad was happy just building engines for people he knew. He viewed it as more of a hobby than a way to make a living. Building engines was just something he loved doing,” Jeff explains, “but when I took over the business in 2007 I knew I could build on the excellent foundations dad had already laid to take the business to the next level.”
Jeff had always been around to help his dad whenever he needed a hand, and is himself a talented engine builder – no doubt having picked up the odd trick or two from Ron throughout the years – having built his first engine when he was just 10 years old, and many, many more since!
Jeff has gone on to build numerous different engines for various makes and models, but the vast majority of the company’s workload is still linked to the Ford engines that Ron was renowned for.
“About 80% of the engines we build are either Crossflows or Pintos,” Jeff points out, “I guess that’s what we’re best known for, and we’ve got dad to thank for that.”
In order to take HPE to the next level, Jeff needed something special to help launch the company onto a greater stage. And that came at the back end of 2013, when a TV production company approached him. “They asked me to build a Crossflow engine for an Escort Mexico they were restoring, which would be part of a TV programme on Channel 4, called ‘For The Love Of Cars’,” recalls Jeff. After appearing on the show it seems that, as with his father before him, everyone now wants an engine built by Jeff Harris.
But they’ll have to be quick, as Jeff is already planning his next moves. “My son, James, now works with me and he’ll be the next generation of Harris to take the helm of HPE,” Jeff smirks.
James joined the company full time about two years ago, after gaining his education in Motorsport Engineering at Brooklands College and working at Carlin Racing (a large race team that is responsible for furthering the careers of many of the current grid of F1 stars), and he has already added his own stamp on the business. His expertise with transmissions means that HPE can now sort out your fast Ford’s gearbox and axle as well as build its engine – something his father and grandfather were unable to offer customers.
Sadly, Ron passed away earlier this year, and the loss of such a legend sent shockwaves through the entire classic Ford community. Over 1500 people attended the funeral, which is testament to just how many people had a connection with the Con-Rod Father.
Ron’s legacy lives on today through his children and grandchildren, and Jeff and James are doing their best to ensure the Harris name remains synonymous with fast Fords for years to come…
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