Home » The Rolex Is What Happens When You Combine A Rover And A Lexus: Members’ Rides

The Rolex Is What Happens When You Combine A Rover And A Lexus: Members’ Rides

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Today, We will be looking at possibly the most reliable garage ever to be featured in this column! It consists of four British cars, so you know there are never surprises there. I’m playing around with the formatting here, and instead of starting with the main car, I wanted to try building up to that and saving the best for last. Let me know if you like it the other way around.

I am sure I am not alone in this among Autopians, but I have always thought it would be amazing to be a racecar driver. Lapping around a track as fast as you can, not having to worry about speed limits or the drivers with big Altima energy trying to run you off the road, it’s just you and other racers vying for supremacy, and hopefully having some fun along the way. The world of racing does not have to be strictly for the rich anymore, with more accessible options like autocross and The 24 Hours of Lemons out there. I have always been fascinated by Lemons and would love to someday put together a team and have some fun trying to keep a cheap POS running long enough to survive the race.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

For those who are not familiar, the whole series is based on just goofing around and doesn’t take things seriously at all, which makes it even more entertaining. Lemons cars are supposed to be purchased for less than $500, though you can, and most do spend far more modifying them both for safety and for longevity. Then the “race-prepped” cars go out on the track and race for 24 hours to see which cars are still running at the end. Prizes are handed out in the most inconvenient way possible, including but not limited to a legitimate check written on a toilet seat that is somehow legal and cashable. This whole series is just a way to hang out and have fun while attempting to get some of the crappiest cars imaginable on the track.

Today we get to look at an entry from Autopian member Mrpeugeot, who did more than just wish he could participate! He gathered some friends many years ago, and they are living the dream after buying and then modifying the car we will spend the most time with today, though the other cars are equally interesting! I am excited for this one!

Welcome to Member Rides, where we share the cars and stories of Autopian Members. The potential to be featured here is a perk for Autopian Members of every level, from the ultra-affordable “Cloth” tier all the way up to “Rich Corinthian Leather.” Click that link and join today!

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Mrpeugeot is a founder of a sensor company for autonomous vehicles, and judging by his garage, he is also a huge glutton for punishment. This makes him perfect for being featured here! His British garage includes a future EV project, and notably relying on a Mini to run autonomous driving software, but my personal favorite is the Rolex, a Rover with an unexpected heart transplant. Any one of these cars here would be well suited to an article all their own, but today we will focus primarily on a Rover 3500 Lemons champ that has been racing for more than a decade.

How did you get into cars?

I’ve been into cars longer than I’ve been sentient. As a kid growing up in Iowa, I was fascinated with European cars – particularly oddball cars. Hence, I had a Fiat 850 Spider, an Alfa Romeo Milano, and a Maserati Biturbo that forced me to learn how to work on cars, because there was nobody else within 250 miles who knew how to fix them! I went through a brief foray into French cars (Peugeot 505 Turbo S, Peugeot 405, Citroen DS), and then somehow fell into British cars (see list below). Lemons truly supercharged my mechanic skillset, and I recently finished my first transmission rebuild!

What’s currently in your garage?

  • 67 Lotus Elan
  • 70 Triumph Spitfire
  • 71 Austin Mini 1.3
  • 80 Rover 3500 with 1UZ
  • 98 4Runner
  • 19 S60
1967 Lotus Elan
That is such a classic color combination!

Talk to me about the Elan, how has it been owning a classic Lotus?

The Elan is an amazing car to drive! I’ve had this one for eleven years, now. I was looking for an Elise, but this came up in the Craigslist search. I was intrigued because so many people over the years have remarked on how great it drives. It turns out…they are right. It is incredibly nimble and neutral, with a telepathic steering rack that predicts where you want the car to go. Whenever I drive it, I’m shocked that a car that came out in 1962 feels so modern and agile.

1967 Lotus Elan S3
Elan with some awesome friends

This particular Elan has been a world traveler; it was sold new in the UK in 1967, and then was sold to an enthusiast in Japan in 1987. It stayed there for a few years before coming to California in the mid 1990s, and it has been here ever since. Surprisingly, it has been remarkably reliable… save for the fact that when you use the horn, the fuse box overheats and the car stops running for ten minutes.

1970 Triumph Spitfire Mk3
Another beautiful British classic

You said the Spitfire purchase was unintentional, what’s the story?

I bought the Spitfire when I was 26 after having gotten dumped by a woman I was smitten by. It was more or less something to take my mind off of her. The only hitch was that I was broke at the time, so I had to ask her to loan me half the cost of the car so I could buy it. As a result, every time I drove it for the first year, I thought about her. At first, I thought about how much I missed her. But then, once I was over the relationship, I thought about how much I owed her. So, I paid her back, we became friends, and the Spitfire has been in my stable for two decades.

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Spitfire At Alpine Dam
Miata seats in the Spitfire

Why is this the perfect car for an EV conversion?

The engine in the Spitfire is apparently an evolution of a 1930s Massey Ferguson tractor unit, which is to say it’s a crude iron lump that wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian-era boiler room. These engines are also known for thrust washer failure which causes the crankshaft to slowly eat into the engine block. That hasn’t happened to mine (yet), but if and when it does, I’m planning on pursuing a conversion. Most likely this will be a low-power forklift motor, and a partial Tesla battery pack. I’d be perfectly fine with a 50-mile range. That’s about as far as I’ve ever driven the Spitfire at any given time.

How did you come to use a Mini for use to run AV software?!

Mini With Sensors
Tricked out Mini

I’ve owned the Mini for a decade now, and this was yet another unintentional purchase. Every Christmas, my wife and I go on a romantic weekend alone in Lake Tahoe. Except ten years ago, she invited her entire family along without telling me. So, as one does, I spent part of the weekend holed up in bed checking out the local Craigslist ads. Lo and behold, there was this beautiful Mini in Quincy, CA… more or less the middle of nowhere. So, while my wife was busy entertaining her family, I took a brief road trip and… bought a Mini!

For work, I run a tech company that makes software for the sensors used on robots and autonomous vehicles. Most companies in this space need some sort of vehicle to test sensors, software, etc. And most have something uninspiring like a Hyundai Elantra or a Honda Civic. I figured… why not the Mini?

Rigging it up wasn’t too hard; I found a roof rack from a Jeep Wrangler, built a platform, and we attached two LiDAR units, a radar, and two 3D sensors. We mounted an ethernet switch, a USB hub, and a power inverter in the back parcel shelf, put a Linux computer in the front seat, and voila…British Leyland is now represented in 21st-century autonomy. Here’s a writeup I did on converting the car for The Robot Report here.

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1998 4runner
Gotta have one reliable car

How do the 4Runner and Volvo fit in? 

The 4Runner has been in my wife’s family since new. It recently passed 200K miles on the original everything, with no sign of letting up! About the only significant mod is that it now has Apple CarPlay and a back-up camera.

Volvo S60
S60 with friends

The Volvo is a solid, comfortable daily driver…and the twin-charged four-cylinder adds a good dose of fun. With that said, the car it replaced was a 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Lusso, which was probably the most fun modern car I’ve ever owned, and which was 100% fault-free for the three years and 40K miles that I owned it.

Towing The Sd1 Up From La
The Rover before surgery

Which brings us to the “Rolex.” What’s the story?

The Rover aka the Rolex. I’ve raced with the 24 Hours of Lemons since 2011. I started as an “arrive and drive” with my friend’s team “Pit Crew Revenge.” At the time, he mostly had Hondas, and I raced a CRX, a Civic coupe, and a Del Sol. But, as is clear from the rest of my fleet, I am an enthusiast of terrible British cars.

My good friend and fellow racer Ulrika wanted to build something special, so we started thinking about great cars for Lemons. We found a horrible Jensen Interceptor for $2K, but it was so rotten it was likely unsafe. Then in October 2013, we spotted this Rover SD1 for sale in LA for $200. But there was a problem: it had no engine.

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First Attempt At Fitting 1uz V8
Creating the Rolex

We figured, let’s get it and put in a Chevy 350 or Ford 351. So, she went down to LA in our Land Rover Discovery, and picked up the SD1 (fun fact: we bought it from a guy who was the US expert for the Facel Vega. He had bought the SD1 for the Rover V8, which he tried to put in a Facel Vega. It didn’t fit). When we got the Rover back, we started looking for engines. Our friend Chris suggested we think Japanese V8. When it suddenly dawned on me that a Rover with a Lexus engine would be the Rolex, there was no turning back.

We had to source the donor Lexus SC400, remove the engine, transmission, and wiring harness, and get all of that to fit (and work) in the Rover. We had signed up for the September 2014 Lemons race at Thunderhill, so we had a forcing function for when we needed it operational.

By the week before the race…it still wasn’t running. The engine would catch and run for a split second, and then shut down. That was enough for us to have faith that we could make it work. So, with that shred of hope, we winched it onto a trailer and headed to Thunderhill Raceway.

On The Way To The First Race
Getting towed to the first race, still not running

How did that first race go?

We unwinched it into the paddock, and started to chase every possible avenue for the no-start. Even arcane possibilities like the Lexus’ anti-theft system shutting down the ignition. So we reconnected the Lexus door handle to the wiring harness, and still nothing. This went on for nearly the entirety of the three day race weekend.

By Sunday afternoon, with only two hours left in the race, I decided to try and clean the ECU pins. And that is when I noticed that the ECU was only half seated. I shoved it in the rest of the way, hit the start button, and…voila…ignition! Except that the car was only running on four out of eight cylinders (one coil had decided it had had enough).

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With an hour left in the race, we limped the car to track entry, and managed to do two miserable laps before the car completely died right before start finish. We were towed back to the paddock, but at the very least, we knew we had a car that could (kinda) run and (kinda) drive.

Rolex Clock Livery
Rolex complete with clock, for a couple laps

What was next for Rolex?

For its first five years, we ran the Lexus automatic and Rover rear-end. Both were robust and held up to endurance racing like champs. But, of course, we figured a five-speed and a better rear axle would shave seconds off lap times. So out went the Lexus automatic, and the Rover’s 2.84 open rear diff was replaced by a Ford 8.8″ with a 3.73 ratio. We yanked out the clutch-pack limited slip setup and replaced it with a Richmond PowerTrax locker.
As a result of these modifications, did we shave seconds off our laps? The answer is…nope. Same lap times, but now we were a few thousand dollars poorer. At least the five speed made it more fun to drive. Perhaps the most Lemon-y part of our experience with the Rolex is that we’ve run it for a decade in Lemons and it has won absolutely nothing. How much more Lemons can you get than that?
As for as liveries, we started out theming it as, well, a Rolex. We painted it gold and put a giant working wall-sized clock on the hood. The hour and minute hands flew off within five laps.
Jam Sandwich
Jam sandwich livery
We then themed it as the classic “jam sandwich” British police car (the jam sandwich refers to the white top and bottom, like bread, with the orange marmalade-y stripe in the middle). After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we themed it in Ukrainian colors and ran a fundraiser where we raised nearly $20,000 for displaced Ukrainian families and aid workers assisting in Ukraine.
More Rolex Wrenching
Ukraine Rolex

The Rolex has now done 19 Lemons races over a decade. Besides the Lexus V8, it also now sports a W58 5-speed from a Toyota Supra, front brakes from a Jaguar XJs, a Ford ranger driveshaft, and a Ford Explorer rear-end with a Detroit locker. It’s a big sloppy beast of a car to race, but it can be exceptionally quick when driven right, regularly matching the lap times of the mid-field Miatas. We’ve also built one other car for Lemons: a 1991 Sterling 827SL that had 300K miles on it, yet has done at least four 500+ mile Lemons races without drama!

For your dream garage you said you would want: 

  • Bristol 411
  • Fiat 130 Coupe
  • Ferrari 328GTS
  • Peugeot 505 Turbo SW8

Has anything changed on this list? What appeals to you about each of these? 

I had a Peugeot 405DL and a Peugeot 505 Turbo S, both of which were super comfortable, great handlers, and very reliable. The 505 Turbo SW8 is kind of the ultimate 505. Long roof, turbo power, and 8 seats. The Fiat 130 Coupe and Bristol 411 are archetypal “gentleman express” cars from the glory days of European GTs. The 130 Coupe has such groundbreaking design from Paolo Martin at Pininfarina, and the Bristol 411 is the epitome of hand-built British luxury, with a huge Chrysler V8 to boot. The Ferrari? Well, I’ve just always wanted one, and the 328 is my favorite mid-engine V8 Ferrari from a design standpoint.

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What was the best car you have ever owned?

The best car I have ever owned would probably be the 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Lusso. It was comfortable, reliable, and an absolute joy to drive whether it was a daily commute, or through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. I’d buy another Giulia in a heartbeat, and I hope that Stellantis gets their act together and learns how to build a realistic dealer network along with an actual marketing plan.

Thanks, Mrpeugeot! If you’re a member keep your eyes open in the coming weeks for a link to a new member survey (we’re still working our way through backlog). And if you’re not a Member – what are you waiting for? Join today!

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Adam Rodnitzky
Adam Rodnitzky
21 days ago

So fun to see my cars featured here. Thanks again Brandon for writing this up!

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
24 days ago

I noticed the ECE headlamps on the US version Rover and wondered how did you manage to swap them as the headlamp brackets were welded to the body and were not interchangeable between US and ECE headlamps. One would have to cut the brackets or chisel it off the chassis then weld the different brackets onto the chassis.

Adam Rodnitzky
Adam Rodnitzky
21 days ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

Yes, indeed, these are the European lights. The only thing I can say is this is how the car arrived when we got it. I never knew this conversion was difficult; it certainly doesn’t look like a hack job (unlike the rest of the mods we’ve done on the car!)

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
24 days ago

Spitfire photo appears to be at Alpine Dam on Mt. Tam here in NorCal?

Adam Rodnitzky
Adam Rodnitzky
21 days ago
Reply to  Dudeoutwest

Correct!

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
20 days ago
Reply to  Adam Rodnitzky

If you’re local, I hope you’re visiting Pre-Stage in Marin these days. It’s an excellent and low key gathering of really decent cars and bikes.

Adam Rodnitzky
Adam Rodnitzky
19 days ago
Reply to  Dudeoutwest

I plan to join one of these days. I have been on a few BCRs, and always enjoy them

Strangek
Strangek
24 days ago

That’s a fleet to be proud of, well done!

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
24 days ago

“remarkably reliable…” except, “when you use the horn the fuse box overheats and the car stops running for 10 minutes.”

that’s one of the most gearhead statements ever. It should be chiseled or burnt into the header for the garage door.

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
23 days ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Like my former colleague with the “reliable Alfa Giulietta” that would increase the radio volume when you lower the driver’s window.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
24 days ago

Like a broken clock, even the Rolex works twice a day.

LTDScott
LTDScott
24 days ago

Hey it’s Adam R! I met this dude randomly several years ago at the taping of the first episode of The Grand Tour on a desert salt flat outside L.A. when I randomly spotted a 24 Hours of Lemons cap in the crowd, and as a fellow Lemons racer we got to talking. I love the odd assortment of cars he and his team have raced.

Adam Rodnitzky
Adam Rodnitzky
21 days ago
Reply to  LTDScott

Hey Scott! Hope to see you at another race one of these days!

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