Royal Kustoms – Rallying Rods of the U.K.

They do it a little differently in England. And Royal Kustoms is a breath of fresh air – a business founded on pure passion for early Fords and the flathead motors that power them.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

England is a marvelous place for all kinds of reasons. For starters, they drive on the other side of the road but it’s okay, the pedals and steering wheel are also on the other side. The other big difference is that their fanny is a few inches ahead of our fanny. Keeping an eye on these differences are more than 5 million CTC cameras. Oh, and gas is about $10 a gallon hence, a lot of economy cars with little engines.

However, despite all these hardships there is a thriving hot rod scene but it is a little different. Take, for example Royal Kustoms where they build some wicked, long-distance rally cars based on early Ford coupes.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

Located about 100 miles west of London, Royal Kustoms & Flathead Emporium, to give the business its correct name, was started by Jim Turnbull and his partner Julie Ware in 2003 out of Jim’s love of the flathead Ford V8 and hot rods. Jim started his first hot rod at age 17 as a result of watching American Graffiti. These days he drives a bright red blown flattie-powered Deuce roadster – surely a unique sight in Jolly ol’ England!

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve


When it began, Royal Kustoms was primarily a domestic business fueling a small band of loyal customers until one day fate came a-knocking in the form of a customer who was endurance rallying a ’36 Ford 3-window. The robust Ford was ideal for long-distance events such as the Peking to Paris or The Road to Saigon organized by the Endurance Rally Association (ERA). This year they hosted the first Trans America Challenge from Charleston, SC., to Seattle, WA.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

Started thirty years ago in 1988, the ERA has organized more than 65 major events in more than 50 different countries. The rallies typically cross thousands of miles of difficult terrain, last a little over a month, and are open to two classes: Classic for pre-1975 vehicles and Vintagent for pre-1941 vehicles. Turns out the trusty, reliable pre-’41 Ford V8 is ideal, well, almost.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

According to the instructions, “Tents, sleeping bags, and all spare parts including wheels must be carried by each entrant.” And, you are on your own, no crew following along in a nice air-conditioned SUV and you have to carry all your own spares. The ERA has a support crew but again their instructions say, “The ERA’s travelling support mechanics are the best in the business at roadside repairs but they do not carry parts for the participants.”

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

Jim said, “The Fords are tough, but not tough enough for an 8,500-mile, mostly off-road endurance race.” Typically the cars average 250 miles a day but some legs can be as long as 370 miles—day after day for more than a month. “The 1935-’40 coupes are proving to be the most robust, roomy and therefore most popular” Jim Turnbull said.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

“We begin with the chassis and everything is modified with reliability and ease of on-road maintenance in mind. You might break down in the middle of Mongolia where there is literally nothing to help you fix a broken car. You might find a welder, if you’re lucky.”

The original Ford chassis is boxed and plated as necessary. The rear end is a heavy duty 9-inch Ford axle-suspended on parallel leaf springs, dampened with anti-roll bars, pre-set Fox shocks with hydraulic bump stops and restrained by limiter straps. The brakes are trusty drums because there were no disc brakes on the pre-WWII Ford.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

It’s a similar diet of beef up front where a stock Ford I-beam axle is suspended on a stock transverse leaf spring. However, Toyota shocks are typically used becuase they can be found almost anywhere in the world. The original Ford steering box is replaced with a big, heavy-duty GM quick-ratio box. Incidentally, a spare I-beam just fits across the inside of the car behind the seat.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

For power Jim turns to the trusty French flathead Ford V8 block that is stronger than its earlier American counterpart. They are, unfortunately, getting harder to find. Jim completely rebuilds the engine in-house using parts sourced mostly in the U.S., including Holley-based superchargers supplied by Joe Abbin of Roadrunner Engineering.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

“These motors get about 18-20 mpg.” Said Jim. “But you’re not allowed to carry any spare gas so we have to fabricate big fuel tanks that are good for 750 miles.” The transmissions are Tremec TKO 5- or 6-speed because they are tough and easy to shift and these are tiring events. “Reliability is key.” Commented Jim. “We install dual Facet Red Top Fuel pumps, dual fuel filters, dual Stromberg 97 carbs, dual ignition systems, dual MSD coils, and dual radiator fans. We even install split wiring harnesses that are easy to switch out in case of an accident. It’s like building an airplane, you don’t want it to quit mid flight so we double up.”

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

The cars do carry some spares including front and rear leaf springs, wheel bearings, brake shoes, a clutch, shock absorbers, a water pump, gasket set and starter and alternator, but that’s it.

Even the interiors have to be outfitted like a real rally car with banks of instruments and all the necessary navigation, communication and all important safety equipment. Julie performs all of the custom upholstery work in-house.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

The construction of an early-Ford rally car typically takes about 3,200 hours and quite often customers supply their own donor car. However, Jim can just as easily source a good base vehicle.

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

“Our roots are in traditional hot rods and kustoms with a ‘K’ and we have to keep that in mind.” Said Jim. “But those customers don’t usually call from Russia in the middle–of-the-night saying, ‘We’ve broken a drive shaft. We need you to ship one as soon as possible.’ It’s those calls that make building rallying rods really interesting.”

Royal Kustoms UK, Fuel Curve

If you are craving an international adventure behind the wheel of a Pre-War Ford hot rod, give the crew at Royal Kustoms a call.

Photos Courtesy of the author, Averie Cole, James Mitchell and Hot Rod Postcards

Born in England, Tony grew up loving automobiles and after many years as a journalist transitioned into marketing roles for several companies including SEMA, Boyd Coddington and the SO-CAL Speed Shop. His friendship with NHRA founder Wally Parks led to a role as executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. That, in turn, landed him in Portland, Oregon, where, as executive director, he was instrumental in the build of a new type of educational museum: World of Speed. Sort-of-retired, Tony now enjoys the three Rs: Reading, ’Riting and Racing with Ron Hope’s Rat Trap AA/FA.

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