In the Eighties, electronics had limited application and tuning, especially on ‘popular’ cars like the smaller Fords and Vauxhalls, which were still involved in the time-honoured techniques of skimming cylinder heads, polishing and porting to improve gas flow and fitting performance air filters and exhausts.
None of this, it must be said, is particularly scientific compared with the highly sophisticated software analysis at the heart of much of today’s engine upgrade work.
The evolution of Chris Stewart’s career mirrors this. A Vauxhall dealer apprentice with an engineering background and a strong independent streak, at 23 he struck out alone – or rather with wife Karen – to set up his own enterprise.
“First I did servicing from a van, then we were able to afford a rented workshop and I started with one ramp, and before long I was up to four, by which time we’d run out of space, so we moved to premises in Shirley, which we occupied for 11 years.”
It was at this suburban high street location that Chris gained his reputation as a Vauxhall tuner, at a time when the GM subsidiary was basking in the sunshine of numerous touring car victories by Scot John Cleland, ultimately being tempted further into the sport with its Super Touring V6 Vectra challenge.
Although tuning still involved go-faster accessories like higher pressure fuel regulators and deeper plenums, increasingly the key to extracting more power was the ability to interpret and manipulate the engine’s ECU.
This is where Regal has developed its particular expertise, and while 15 years on hot Vauxhalls and other marques continue to emerge from Regal’s workshops, the lion’s share of the business is Porsche.
Chris explains how this came about: “Effectively we had maxed out the Vauxhall market and the marketplace anyway was changing. We started offering BMW and VW supercharger kits and got into the VW Cup in 2007, and the logical step after that was to build a car for the Porsche Cup.
2008 was the last season before the recession hit and with ex-Touring car driver Tony Gilham, we scored second at our first attempt! It’s a very big commitment: with ten weekends of two races per weekend, racing is too tiring and we’ve scaled back our involvement, but that’s how we got into the Porsche aftermarket – you have to grow into it.”
In 2005, Regal was able to acquire its own premises on a semi-derelict site a mile or two away at Portswood. Chris was at last able to configure the kind of operation he wanted. “It’s perfect – it’s only five minutes from home, and being next door to a dual carriageway I can make as much noise as I want.”
Racing the Cup 911 put the firm in contact with several big names in the Porsche aftermarket business, especially in California, from where Regal has always supplied parts.
Here, Chris was able to see first hand how companies like Evolution Motorsport – Regal’s impressive four-wheel dynamometer is the same model used by Evolution – and GIAC (Garret Automotive Integrated Corp) worked.
He built up, as Chris puts it, an arsenal of software. He was especially taken with Alex Ross’s SharkWerks of Los Angeles – there are 50 Porsche dealerships within driving distance of his workshops, he says. Chris has drawn a lot on SharkWerks’s expertise too.
“These are all well-known names internationally, and working with them gives us credibility: people trust us to work on their cars. It’s all about creating a profile. We’ve always sold a lot of parts, but we’re equally interested in getting customers to use our workshop as well.” Regal’s business comes from both advertising and recommendation.
He gives an example of the kind of tuning he offers: “If you can get the data off the car and verify that it’s good, then you can modify the ECU. But you have to be able to get through the manufacturer’s security.”
He holds up the ECU from a Turbo Tiptronic 996: “Mercedes supplies the Tiptro to Porsche and normally you can’t get into it, but thanks to GIAC’s backdating software we can make the shift speed faster and lift the change point. It enhances the Turbo and people really appreciate it, especially on the track.”
Chris’ knowledge of the 911 is impressive, and he’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is either, owning a superb Gen1 997 GT3 with EVOSit software and Wavetrack differential, as featured back in Issue 94 of Total 911.
Word certainly gets around too, and although Regal would not usually be working on cars within their guarantee period, a Swiss customer was recently referred to Chris by a Midlands OPC, because the dealers’ remit does not allow the OPC to carry out non-factory modifications.
As a rule, Regal confines itself to water-cooled Porsches. “The earlier cars often need structural work, and we’re not set up for that, and they tend to leak oil everywhere!” jokes Chris. Regal does no mechanical rebuilds itself, instead subcontracting this locally.
It would need a separate workshop, and Chris wants to keep the focus on software work and the more straightforward brake and suspension upgrades, but Regal also does routine maintenance for its customers, and runs its own MoT bay in order to be able to offer a complete service.
How does Chris see the next five years? “Lower emissions and better fuel consumption will mean more emphasis on smaller turbocharged petrol engines. I see more hybrid work: Pamamera hybrids have been on the market since 2011 and both diesel and petrol versions are tunable.
“The challenge is going to be cracking ECU security codes. I think also there will be a market for retro stuff like Singer, carbs to throttle bodies, beautifully machined parts and electronic ignition.
But at the moment there’s plenty of work rejuvenating 996s. I get more enjoyment from taking a tired 996, doing the suspension, brakes and exhaust and making it rev properly. It doesn’t cost very much, and you get a tight, responsive car with 300bhp – it’s enough to have great fun with.”
Regal is a classic family firm: behind the reception desk are Karen and younger son Ashley. Ash’s older brother, evidently a chip off the old block, has already departed to set up his own tuning business in London, but with his dad’s example that’s understandable.
Chris Stewart has built an attractive niche operation in which the 911 is now his main activity. “Since getting into Porsches, I haven’t looked back. It’s been fantastic fun.”
|Location||Portswood, Southampton, UK|
|Most commonly fettled 911:||996 Turbo|
|Most popular product:||EVOMSit software|
|Most unusual 911 challenge:||Sorting a Martini replica 997 Turbo that had GT2 panels and was a real ‘bitsa’ of aftermarket mods. Regal nevertheless got it running smoothly, dynoing at 700bp.|