06 November 2023
When Nick Cusack got in touch to tell us about a remarkable Range Rover designed and built by his students, we thought you’d be as impressed with it as we are…
This might well be the coolest school project ever – the build of a motorsport-inspired Range Rover pick-up to truly exacting standards: school was never this interesting back in my day. This unusual project is the brainchild of Nick Cusack, a teacher at the Střední průmyslová škola Emila Kolbena (that’s the Emil Kolben Technical High School to you and me) in Rakovnik, a town of some 16,000 souls in the Czech Republic about 35 miles west of Prague.
From left to right: headmaster Jan Jirátko, Jiři Laža, Daniel Cusack, Daniel Nosek, Jan Novotý, and Nick Cusack
Nick hails from Henley-on-Thames but his wife, Kamila, is Czech, and they met and married in the UK before deciding around 19 years ago to return to Kamila’s homeland. Nick has worked at the Emil Kolben school since 2006, where he teaches Technical English in IT, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, as well as Mechanics, Bodywork and Fabrication in the workshops. Kamila works there too, as an English teacher.
Patrik, Jan, Lukáš and Dominik removing the 300Tdi and R380 gearbox
The background to the school’s name gives further insight into why the Range Rover project was so apt for the students. Founded in 1883, the school has been recently named after Emil Kolben, an important figure in the early industrialisation of his country. Born near Prague in 1862 and the son of a shopkeeper, after graduating from the German Technical University, Kolben was granted funds to continue his studies and travelled widely, eventually working for Thomas Edison in the USA for several years, and then for Oerlikon in Switzerland. He returned to his homeland in 1896 and established his own business.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Kolben’s company employed over 15,000 people and produced a wide range of electrotechnical and engineering systems as well as complete industrial plants, using technologies and equipment that were far above the standards of the time. Soon after the 1939 annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, Kolben, who was of Jewish extraction, was removed from his post and sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He died there in 1943.
The modified front bodyshell takes shape
Today, the Emil Kolben Technical High School offers study to over 330 pupils aged 15 to 18 in three fields: Information Technology, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, as well as three types of apprenticeship: Electrician, Metal Machinist, and Mechanic/Fitter. “The school has a very strong reputation,” Nick explains, “and our graduates are highly sought-after by employers both locally in Rakovnik and elsewhere around the country.”
Nick has been a Land Rover fan for many years. “My first one was a Series IIA that I fitted with a V8,” he tells me. “And it had only the second Ashcroft automatic transmission to be fitted to a Land Rover. That was around 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve had over a dozen, including a Lightweight, a 110 Td5, an ex-army 109, a Discovery 200Tdi and a Range Rover 200Tdi.
“I purchased this one from Italy around 15 years ago. It is a 1989 four-door and it came with a 3.5-litre V8. I immediately converted it to a 300Tdi with an R380 gearbox and Borg Warner transfer box. It was my daily driver and I used it to commute to the school, so it was always a familiar sight to the students. After a hard life and over 600,000km later, the usual rot had set in, and it was time to decide on its future.
Tadeáš and Martin installing the new engine
“As a teacher at the technical school, I thought we could start a project with the students to rebuild the vehicle. The headmaster, Jan Jirátko, was hugely supportive. All we needed to do was decide exactly what kind of rebuild it would be. If it had been a particularly rare model, or an early two-door, we would have restored it to something like original spec, but in this case we found our inspiration elsewhere, and in a way that would make the project more challenging and more interesting for the students. We decided to rebuild the car as an homage to the FIA-spec Range Rover truck cab or pick-up conversions that were popular on the Paris-Dakar in the early 1980s. We wanted to retain the fundamental characteristics of the Range Rover so we didn’t shorten the chassis or change things like approach and departure angles. We wanted the end product to look like a Range Rover.
“The project started during the term before Covid arrived, and the car was stripped down to the last rusted nut and bolt. At this stage we had up to 18 students working on the project. Looking at the parts (and the rust) laid out in the workshop was pretty nerve-wracking, and I must admit there was a brief feeling of ‘OMG what have we started!’
“During the pandemic the Czech Republic was no different to other countries across Europe, and soon we had government-imposed restrictions which meant everything was pretty much on hold for most of the following year. This turned out to be the most frustrating moment in the entire project, although with the headmaster’s support it was possible for students to attend individually with social distancing to do certain work on the vehicle, supervised by me.
High-compression 3.9 V8 has tubular headers and a full stainless steel race exhaust system
“Once things started to return to something resembling normal, momentum picked up again. Getting the chassis blasted, repaired and repainted was a big moment. We sourced the 3.9 engine in the UK and found a sound R380 gearbox with the correct bellhousing, and an original Borg Warner chain-drive transfer box. Parts availability in the Czech Republic is limited, so much of what we needed was acquired in the UK, a lot of it from Paddock’s, whom I’ve used a lot over the years.
“Wherever possible, we would use the machine shop facilities at the school to fabricate parts. Local engineering and fabrication businesses donate a lot of material to the school, typically off-cuts or surplus stock, and this proved invaluable and very cost-effective when we started to make our own components. Most of the small fixings are made from stainless steel, because we had plenty of it at our disposal as a result of these generous donations.
“The engine was rebuilt and is now a high-compression 3.9-litre
V8 EFI complete with tubular headers and a full stainless steel race exhaust system that sounds amazing. We installed the engine slightly further back than standard to ensure the centre of gravity would be in the right place, and this was achieved by the simple expedient of swapping round the propshafts.
Patrik working on front hub and brake assembly
“The students did all the work, even when it came to complex tasks like rebuilding the diffs. We settled into a routine where I would do the job so they could see what was involved, and then we would dismantle whatever it was and the students would do it all over again, under my supervision. Sometimes, we would do this four or five times over. It extended the project timeline significantly, but it meant that everyone on the team got to experience even the most difficult jobs.
“The axles were rebuilt and strengthened, new brake components fitted with vented discs, and after some experimentation we settled on standard V8 coil springs and twin Monroe shock absorbers at each corner. The aluminium tank mounted behind the rear of the cab is fine for now, but we will probably upgrade it to current rally specification in due course.
“We modified a standard wiring loom to suit, and fitted a larger aluminium radiator, which was possible because we had moved the engine back. This is cooled by twin electric fans and venting beneath the front panel, and once we’d established this was working effectively we were able to fit our bespoke front panel, which is laser-cut with the school’s logo.
“All the panels except the rear wings were fabricated from aluminium and we spent a great deal of time on the attention to detail, to ensure the final panels achieved our overall aim to maintain the look and feel of a Range Rover.
Impressive from all angles. Nick Cusack hopes to enter the Rakovnik Rangie in a few classic rallies
“The rear wings were an interesting project, helped by the fact that I had some previous experience with fibreglass while working on boats. We took the original door and rear wing and stuck them together, filled all the gaps, and took a mould from that. The result was perfect.
“The only thing we had to outsource was the creation of the FIA-compliant roll-cage, and in this we were very fortunate in having a company called Krob Motorsport right next door to the school, which was actually founded some years ago by one of my old students, Jiři Krob. They created an amazing cage for us, and several students who worked on the project now have jobs with Krob.
“As the project neared completion, we had to decide on the paint job. We wanted the Range Rover to be painted in a shade of blue similar to the school’s colours, and we found exactly the right colour on JLR’s current palette, Maya Blue. Once the vehicle was completed we put it on the weighbridge, and total weight came in at 1500kg. We were particularly pleased to find that weight distribution to all four wheels was pretty even.”
Cab bears the crest of the town where the school is based. FIA-spec roll cage was built by Krob Motorsport, founded by ex-pupil Jiři Krob
I ask Nick what’s next for the Rakovnik Rangie, which apart from a few brief test runs has only really been used so far to showcase the school’s capabilities during open days for potential pupils. “The school will be celebrating its 140th anniversary in September this year,” he tells me, “and the headmaster and I plan to have the Range Rover on display. After that, I’d like to complete a shakedown, because I’m sure we will need to fine-tune some aspects such as the suspension set-up. Beyond that, my ambition is to enter it in the school’s name in a few classic rallies.
“The project really was very rewarding for all involved, and I’d like to thank the students, whose commitment and dedication made it happen. Many of them came in at weekends and during the school holidays to work on the project, as well as evenings during the school week. They learned a great deal and some now have careers in the automotive and motorsports industries.
“When I first proposed the project there were more than a few people who said it couldn’t be done! Thankfully our headmaster, Jan Jirátko, was incredibly supportive, and I’d like to thank him for his enthusiasm throughout the project, as well as all the workshop foremen who made this project possible. All of us are very proud of what our students have achieved. It would be nice to do another Land Rover project in the future, so if any LRM readers want to donate a vehicle to the school, please contact me via the editor. I’ll be very happy to come and collect it!”
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