Rare Breeds: Four Obscure British Sports Cars
Fret not when another British sports car maker slips under the waves. Since England is the cradle of two-seat entertainment, whenever an automaker like Triumph or TVR succumbs, some up-and-comer arrives to fill in. In the land of fish and chips, creativity isn't so hindered by balance sheets and business plans.
To take the pulse of the enduring British sports car phenomenon, we targeted marques located at four points of the two-seater compass. Two have existed for decades, two are newbies, all are obscure. What these brands lack in notoriety, they more than make up for in originality.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company, now celebrating its centennial, diversified from war planes to automobiles in 1946. BMW blueprints, seized as war reparations, sustained the carmaking division for more than a decade, until antiquated six-cylinder engines were finally replaced by hearty Chrysler V-8s.
In 1997, TOBY SILVERTON arrived with business acumen, self-taught engineering skills, investment capital, and the bravest ideas in Bristol's history. The Dodge Viper V-10-powered Bristol Fighter -- what the fifty-two-year-old chairman calls "the supercar that works" -- was designed from the driver's seat out.
While answering the phone at Bristol's Kensington (London) two-car showroom, Silverton explained that plant tours and press drives are unheard of at the last luxury maker still in private British hands. "We usually annoy the press," he noted. That said, we were next in line after Rowan Atkinson for a few miles in the Creamsicle orange Fighter formerly owned by Silverton's wife.
Silverton detailed the features he and his engineering team put into the Fighter's design. The car's tall build and gull-wing doors provide easy entry and chairlike seating for Bristol's large-in-stature patrons. A wraparound windshield eliminates A-pillar obstruction. A short, narrow footprint combined with 41 degrees of steering lock yields a tight turning circle. Six inches of ground clearance and a minimal front overhang make this the supercar that doesn't have to tiptoe over speed bumps.
The Bristol Fighter in front of Sherman's Hall. The author's ancestral family home in the village of Dedham was willed to a boys' school in 1599. John Constable, a noted artist, studied there in the late 1700s, and the Dedham valley that inspired his paintings became known as Constable Country. Three Shermans departed from Dedham for the New World between 1633 and 1640. Philip Sherman served as Rhode Island's first secretary. He and two uncles begat four notable Shermans: Roger (who signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution), William B. (Valley Forge survivor), Civil War general William T., and U.S. Vice President James S. Plus the technical editor and the photo assistant.
The Fighter's steel spaceframe, clad with a mix of aluminum, carbon-fiber, and Kevlar body parts, yields a curb weight of 3600 pounds. The 8.0-liter V-10 engines purchased from Chrysler are tuned to 525 hp in the base Fighter, 628 hp in the S edition, and 1012 hp in a twin-turbo T model. Claimed top speeds range between 210 and 225 (governed) mph. Prices start at about $350,000 and venture smartly upward with extra power and personalization features.
Slipping into the Fighter's wide leather seat is as pleasant as donning a robe and slippers by a winter fire, but don't forget to pull the door down on the way in. The aircraft heritage is conveyed by a cockpit resplendent in engine-turned gauge surrounds. Only in a Bristol will you find a fuel-pressure gauge and an engine-hour meter.
This is a gentleman's express, so the Viper's vicious hiss doesn't live here. The sound track is powerful yet composed, thanks to well-muffled, three-inch exhaust pipes. Bristol's redo of the Viper's six-speed transmission trims shift effort and adjusts gear ratios yet still provides 60 mph in first with quiet sixth-gear cruising. Rocketing to illegal speeds on the motorway is no problem.
The big surprise is quick, friction-free steering that gives the Fighter a willing nimbleness on the tight back roads surrounding the quaint village of Dedham, where my forefathers resided until 1633. The high seating and turretlike visibility take the anxiety out of sharp turns. Overall quality is exemplary except for the lack of a left footrest and hints of gear whine.
Silverton has no aspirations to spread Bristol's reach to America. Those with the means to own a Fighter probably won't consider that an insurmountable hurdle.
Toby Silverton may be the first Bristol Cars chairman not on a mission to annoy the press. Honoring long-standing tradition, Silverton created a modern Bristol blessed with prodigious American horsepower. A Viper V-10 heart beats under the hood of every Bristol Fighter.
How did a svelte, mid-engine coupe with Italian-esque coachwork end up at a British firm known for affordable kit and race cars? Blame the global recession, which tripped the Farbio GTS just as production was about to begin.
In 1958, six years after Colin Chapman founded Lotus, Ginetta Cars was established in the same vein: to supply road racers with cars they didn't have to build from scratch. Graham Hill raced a Ginetta in 1964, and Nigel Mansell co-drove a Ginetta Zytek LMP1 racer with sons Leo and Greg this year at Le Mans. In 2009, F1 and motorcycle champion John Surtees drove an experimental electric-powered Ginetta G50 through the Eurotunnel to mark its fifteenth anniversary.
LAWRENCE TOMLINSON, chairman of the LNT Group (construction, health care, real estate, etc.) and an avid racer, bought Ginetta in 2005 to tune up the product range. The stillborn Farbio GTS was added to the portfolio this year. According to Tomlinson, the rechristened F400 will serve as Ginetta's supercar at a bargain price of less than $150,000.
There's obvious Lotus Evora flavor in the exterior, although the F400 is significantly shorter, wider, and lower. Where Lotus crams vestigial back seats, this car has luggage space over a transversely mounted Ford 3.0-liter V-6 pirated, along with a six-speed transaxle, from the Mondeo. A steel-tube frame is supported by a 105.3-inch wheelbase and dressed in carbon-fiber bodywork. Ginetta claims a 2700-pound curb weight, some 400 pounds less than the Evora.
While the game plan includes supercharging to boost the engine to the 400-plus hp touted in the name, that hardware was absent from the demonstrator we borrowed for a jaunt around Ginetta's Garforth home base. Nonetheless, the 300 or so horsepower in our tester was enough to register a positive impression.
Long doors welcome you into a spacious, beautifully orchestrated cabin. Equipped with a touch screen that handles audio, phone, climate control, and navigation functions, this Ginetta pays homage to no one's kit car. Indexing door glass, LED exterior lighting, stunning metal interior trim, and French-stitched leather reflect serious attention to detail. Hints of carbon fiber and a small-diameter steering wheel support the supercar cause.
The best news is that the F400 is quick and light on its feet. The engine feels and sounds eager to go, the steering and the brakes are well endowed with feedback, both ends of the car generate ample grip, and there's no detectable body roll at street speeds. This highly competent platform should have no difficulty handling another hundred horsepower. The shift linkage could be more positive and the interior needs more padding at elbow and knee touch points, but, overall, Ginetta is lucky to have such a promising addition to its family.
Lawrence Tomlinson added panache to his lineup with the rescue of the Farbio GTS project earlier this year. Unlike other members of the Ginetta family, the renamed F400 is intended purely for road use, although this mid-engine coupe has the legs for an occasional track day.
SDR V-STORM WR3
Colin Chapman envy runs deep in England, even twenty-eight years after the Lotus founder's death. SIMON DICKENS, a forty-two-year-old former service manager and car enthusiast of humble means, has successfully taken the initial steps down Chapman's well-trod kit-car path.
Inspired by the Lotus Seven and Ariel Atom rudimentary roadsters, Dickens began sketching the car of his dreams five years ago while on vacation. Convinced that his brainstorm had merit, he hired two freelance engineers to solve structural and suspension riddles using modern computer-aided design (CAD) tools. The unorthodox one-plus-two seating is very versatile: the center driving position means the kit car is perfect for track days, while the plus-two seats accommodate thrill riders such as Dickens's two children.
A few V-Storms were made using motorcycle powertrain components before Dickens took the epic plunge. He quit his day job, ordered parts built to his blueprints, and set up SDR Sportscars operations at his home near Manchester. About a dozen kits have been sold, and Dickens was about to order parts for a batch of ten cars when we arrived at the two-car garage that serves as SDR's engineering lab, warehouse, and parking space.
Stripping off two fiberglass panels exposes a previous-generation Subaru Impreza WRX turbocharged 2.0-liter powerplant. A five-speed transaxle converted to two-wheel drive, twin radiators, an oversize intercooler, and a custom exhaust system complete the compact propulsion package. Dickens offers the stock 230 hp, the STI's 280 hp, or up to 350 tuned horsepower to suit customer whims.
Climbing aboard this 1650-pound four-wheel motorcycle is hassle-free -- as long as the driver mounts first. The seat and steering column aren't adjustable, so what you build is what you get. A Koso programmable instrument cluster combines tach, speed, and warning info in one unit. Since the cockpit in this test car suits Dickens's build, tach readings below 4000 rpm and the immediate road ahead aren't part of my view. That said, the center seating position feels natural, and watching the front suspension's action over bumps is highly entertaining.
The giant snorkel rising behind the driver's head howls like Darth Vader snorting nitromethane. High on Dickens's fix-it list is muffling the induction noise and uncorking the exhaust to enhance the WR3's audio mix.
Thirteen pounds of turbo boost blast this machine quickly to the redline, so my left hand was busy coaxing the high-mounted, slightly reluctant shifter through the first three gears. To 75 mph, the vestigial windshield is enough to deflect the wind (and rain) above your eyes, but above that speed a closed-face helmet is essential.
The SDR's balance is so good that 205/40WR-17 Yokohama tires suffice front and rear. The ride is supple, and there's ample warning of an impending loss of grip. A quick flick of the steering wheel easily catches slides.
The price of entry is about $23,000 for a complete kit plus another $3000 or so for the necessary Subaru parts. According to Dickens, assembly takes about 150 hours; his hired agents build turn-key cars for about $36,000. Gentlemen: start your torque wrenches.
The lack of a factory and a staff hasn't hindered Simon Dickens from pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams. Working out of his two-car garage, Dickens has concocted all the clever bits needed for a Subaru-powered three-seat breeze machine.
Street-legal formula cars are like the Loch Ness Monster: lots of hype with little tangible evidence of their existence. But myths of a one-plus-one-seater weighing about 1300 pounds, packing 575 hp, and wearing license plates are true. Say hello to Nessie, a.k.a. the Caparo T1.
A former McLaren designer and engineer duo created this astonishing sports car in 2005. ANGAD PAUL arrived as the financial angel in 2006. His day job is serving as CEO of Caparo plc, a thriving British and Indian producer of steel and auto parts. Nurtured by Caparo Vehicle Technologies, the T1 evolved into a $460,000 car with a power-to-weight ratio twice that of a Bugatti Veyron. Aft of the molded carbon-fiber tub is a 3.5-liter Menard racing V-8 tuned for the road and a six-speed sequential-shift, magnesium-cased transaxle.
This is a high-caliber, double-barreled son of a shotgun with a real racer's 200-mph-plus top speed, full wing and ground-effect aerodynamics, and more than enough g-joy to induce nosebleeds. The T1 can also be fitted with mufflers, street tires, air-conditioning, and a canopy for legal road use.
Matt Cummings, a Virgin Atlantic pilot, accomplished racing driver, and Caparo T1 Cars director, explained that he had sprinted a T1 from 0 to 197 mph to 0 twice in the length of a one-mile straightaway. A T1 under cover in his shop would soon attack the Nurburgring Nordschleife's absolute lap record of 6 minutes and 11 seconds, which was set by Stefan Bellof driving a Porsche 956 in 1983.
Some begging persuaded Cummings to roll a T1 out for photos followed by a drive back into the garage -- but no more. The affable director said that our visit caught him by surprise, but there are other reasons why Caparo is nervous about journalists. Three years ago, a T1 prototype driven by a seasoned racer and television commentator erupted into a ball of flame . . . at 150 mph. Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson griped about understeer and an underbody panel coming adrift (although the Stig had no difficulty eclipsing the quickest car on Top Gear's lap-time chart by seven seconds).
I snuggled into the form-fitting cockpit without removing the carbon-fiber steering wheel but made no attempt to share the space with a co-driver. The smallish V-8 fires up at the touch of a button and revs with abandon, unhindered by flywheel inertia. Two large mufflers civilize the beast so well at idle that transmission gear rattle is the dominant sound.
First gear slams home with sledgehammer efficiency following a pull of a steering-wheel paddle. The touchy clutch pedal is used only to get rolling, since gear-changes, clutch dips, and throttle blips are all handled by air solenoids. Regrettably, no upshifts were necessary during my 100-yard drive.
Understeer was not an issue. If anything, the T1 felt like it could use a touch more rear wing as it was hustled back to its safe haven.
This experience suggests that the T in the Caparo T1's name stands for tease. Not to worry; we have a plan. Communications are under way with the American owner of the record-attempt car. After its Nordschleife assault and trip to the colonies, we intend to revisit this cockpit with test equipment and a route at the ready.
The honorable Angad Paul uses the T1 to showcase the capabilities of his Caparo Vehicle Technologies division. This dual-purpose one-plus-one sports car can be configured as a dedicated track runner or as a street machine with a canopy top, mufflers, mirrors, and lighting equipment.