Americans have a love for nostalgia. From old movies to old ways, it seems that remembering the good times from one’s youth is never far from our minds. Off-road racers are no different. Vintage motocross racing has become huge in the last 10 years, with the restoration and racing of pre-’74 bikes being especially popular.
Now it seems that restoring and “racing” vintage off-road cars and trucks is becoming just as popular. NORRA and their General Tire Mexican 1000 Rally plays host to vintage racers and their rides in what they term “The Happiest Race On Earth.” A veritable who’s who of off-road racing was at the last one; guys like Walker Evans, “Baja” Bob Gordon, Larry Roeseler, Jerry and Ed Herbst, and the ageless Bruce Myers, who drove one of his Myers Manx buggies. Call it “old guys in old race cars” if you want, but it sure looked like fun to us.
Honestly, we get some of the biggest responses when we showcase vintage race vehicles like the Big Oly Bronco or Mickey Thompson’s Challenger. We also admit that we have a big spot in our hearts for these vintage race vehicles, as we too enjoy restoring and racing vintage bikes, cars, and trucks.
That’s why when we saw this ’74 Funco SS II, which had been meticulously restored by ex-racer Norm “Stormin” Norman” Francis, we were jazzed and had to take a closer look.
As stated, Francis used to race—which is something of an understatement. Actually, Francis raced AMA motocross and dirt track professionally and then began racing off-road in everything from Class 5 1600s and Class 2s to three-wheelers at places like Baja and the Mickey Thompson off-road races.
One night talking with his friend Rob Hackett, TSCO Racing’s paramedic, over a few beers, he was telling Francis about a race he had just gotten back from. Francis told him about when he was racing throughout the ’70s-’90s. The conversation stayed in Francis’ mind, and it was shortly thereafter that Francis found this Funco. It was in pieces, the frame bare, and the fiberglass showing where someone had gone at it with a grinder. But he saw potential and at only $1,300 for everything, he figured, why not? That potential included a chance to not only rebuild a piece of off-road racing history, but also a chance to connect with his granddaughter, Abigail Iris. Francis proudly says that Abigail Iris did a great deal of work on the car with him, especially being able to reach into tight spaces where he couldn’t get.
Francis began the resto of the Funco SS II by replacing the torsion housing and removing what he jokingly referred to as “40 years of tabs and other mods” from the frame. With the housing repaired and back in place, Francis installed a Sway-A-Way 300mm torsion bar. Sway-A-Way has been the choice of racers since the beginning and remains the torsion bar of choice for many. A slightly different choice was the addition of Fox shocks, whereas Bilstein were what everybody ran back in the day. Francis says that it was due to acquisition rather than performance that he went with the Fox’s, but both companies produce high-quality units that have a long-standing tradition in the dirt.
Up front, the stock axle beam has been widened 6 inches and equipped with Tweed 2.5x1.25-foot arms and standard spindles. Again, Sway-A-Way torsion bars and Fox shocks account for the suspension. Francis used disc brakes out back, while, oddly, a set of VW drum brakes can be found up front.
Tall and narrow describes the wheels and tires that were used on these cars, and the Method Race Wheels (front: 15x4, rear: 15x6.5) are just that. They invoke the spoke wheels that some ran back in the day, and everybody ran the Sand blaster Jr. front tires (7.75x15) that Francis uses. The set of Toyo Open Country A/T rear tires (31-11.50x15) are the perfect tire for both desert and especially the short-course racing that Francis envisions for his car.
In keeping with the period theme, the engine was built to comply with SCORE rules. It has been bored out from the stock 1,600cc to 1,776cc (90.5mm bore) and has been completely balanced as well. The crank and rods are stockers, but the cam is a custom proprietary grind from the guys at WEB. Stock heads have been ported and polished and equipped with dual valvesprings with titanium caps and keepers to keep from floating at high engine speeds.
Nothing works better on a VW engine than a Weber, and a 40mm Weber carburetor feeds the fuel into the engine via matched intake manifolds. Providing the spark is a Bosch 009 distributer that has been equipped with a Compufire electronic ignition module. Getting the dust removed from the incoming air is done with dual UNI air cleaners and the spent fuel fumes are sent out the atmosphere via a Tri-Mil exhaust that ends with a SuperTrapp muffler. Years ago it may have been Earl’s, but Francis used Fragola and their plumbing products exclusively throughout the car.
Keeping the engine spinning, and power moving to the transaxle is done with a 12-pound flywheel. The VW Type 2 or bus, IRS transaxle has been fitted with a Kennedy Stage 2 Clutch and reworked with a 537 ring-and-pinion so that it’s more of a close ratio unit than the one that came from Stuttgart. It also uses Porsche 930 CV joints to connect to the rear wheels. The 930’s allow for greater articulation for the IRS transaxles, and are a long-standing trick of off-road VW racers looking for as much wheel travel as possible—all 13 inches or so of it.
And speaking of suspension, Francis wanted to get all the plush that he could, so he added a PRP suspension seat to the cockpit. He also used PRP products for the five-point harness and window netting. A ’70s-era Grant G.T. steering wheel allows Francis to get a grip while the Jamar floor shifter puts the tranny swiftly and firmly into gear.
The dash panel is spartan, to say the least. Handmade from aluminum by Francis, it contains everything that one needs during a race, which means there are a lot of electrical switches and not much else. Instead of actual gauges, there is an OIL light and an ALT light. If the ALT light comes on, you need to stop and install one of the extra fan belts that are placed strategically around the car. If the OIL light comes on … well, that depends on how far from the finish line you are. Close means that you keep racing until you finish or the engine grenades, whichever one happens first. Too far away means that you pull over to the side of the trail and wait for your crew to come get you.
To let them know what’s up during the race, Francis installed a Rugged Radios communications system, which he wired up himself as he did the entire car. He also has Rugged Radios in all of his chase vehicles.
Sure the frame had been used for the past 40 years, but Francis had to recondition much of the body that is seen here. Some pieces he began by making mock-ups out of cardboard and then had Temecula Valley Sheet Metal do all the breaking and sheering of the metal panels. For the fiberglass pieces, he says that he has over 100 hours in repairing the fiberglass and that someone during the past 40 years had used a grinder to remove the paint.
When he was ready to paint, Francis used PPG that was supplied by Temecula Valley Paint of Temecula, California. The scheme he decided upon is all ’70s, and just looking at it reminds us of a simpler, albeit more garish, time. We can almost picture in our mind’s eye this car running at the late, great Riverside Raceway in 1978.
For running at night though, Francis included a quartet of classic KC Daylighter racing lights. Daylighter’s were the choice of most off-roaders then and still throw a pretty bright beam now. And the iconic yellow covers just look perfectly in place on the car.
Every driver has a pit crew and sponsors, and Francis is no different. It seems that Francis’ granddaughter Abbie is a budding wrench, and was a big help in reaching all the stuff “grandpa” couldn’t and brother Ray Francis would drive over from Chandler, Arizona, to help do a lot of the heavy stuff that Francis, with his bad back, couldn’t do by himself.
Francis says that 90 percent of the pieces he used to build this car were obtained at Off Road Warehouse (ORW) in Murrieta, California. Without Joe, Conrad, Aaron, and Nick this could not have happened. Also Jaime at Method Race Wheels supplied all the wheels, Maxima oils furnished all the slippery stuff, and PRP supplied all the safety-related items.
Working together as a team in Francis’ garage, it took them eight months to get the Funco back into racing shape. And that’s what Francis has in mind for his car—for it to actually be raced again. Not that he’d be the one in the seat though. After a broken back and various injuries due to his years of racing, Francis will leave that to another. “I want to have this 40-year-old car raced in Class 12,” Francis said. “To show that you don’t have to have all the modern tech to race.”
Engine: 1,776cc Volkswagen
Builder: Norm Francis
Max Horsepower: 132 hp
Induction: Weber Carburetor-40mm
Front Suspension: Sway-A-Way torsion bars, Fox Shocks 2.0
Rear Suspension: Sway-A-Way torsion bars, Fox Shocks 2.0
Wiring: Norm Francis
Brakes/Rear: EMPI disc
Wheels: Method Race Wheels
Tires: Sand Blaster, Toyo
Bodywork: Norm Francis
Paint/Graphics: PPG, Temecula Valley Paint
Radio/Intercom: Rugged Radios
Chassis: Funco SSII
Wheelbase: 100 inches
Overall Length: 154 inches
Overall Height: 60 inches
Track Width: 70 inches
Weight: 1,285 pounds