Today’s fashion for ‘restomodded’ cars reborn as performance takes on much-loved classics is now a thriving scene. We drive three of the best
17 November 2019

I’d like to pretend there’s an elegant reason why we’ve selected these three old cars with new or upgraded components – modernised classics, restomods, call them what you will – but the simple truth is that the concept is intriguing and we’d heard good things about these ones.

They’re a new kind of performance car, if you like; all that modern supercars are not. They bring performance down to approachable levels but keep the craftsmanship and desirability sky high. At least, that’s how I imagined it.

So here we are, at Llandow Circuit, south Wales, with three of the best of them. The idea is to have a track drive today and a road blast tomorrow, with some boring everyday driving in between.

All three cars do things differently. The smallest here is branded GTA-R by its specialist builder, Alfaholics. It’s a GTA-aping Alfa Romeo that can be based on any 105/115-series coupé – this one started as a 1967 1300 GT Junior. Alfaholics can simply restore one of those for you but, if you tick the full gamut of GTA-R options, you’ll spend the best part of £300,000 and have the kind of car you see here, with a 12-point roll-cage, seam-welded monocoque, titanium suspension bits, Alfaholics gearbox internals and a twin-cam, twin-spark four-cylinder engine originally from a 75, bored and stroked to 2.3 litres, fitted with lightweight internals and making 240bhp. The car weighs just 830kg.

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Alongside it is a Porsche from specialists Tuthill, who do brilliant things with old 911s, including rallying them, racing them and ice-driving in them, which I’m told is the most fun you can have in a car. This is a bespoke customer build, a 1973 2.4-litre E-series 911, with a wide body. It’s more road car than track car but lovely nonetheless. The engine is still a period 911 2.4-litre, and the car is prepped to usable, fast road spec.

Next to that is a Jensen Interceptor, modified by Jensen International Automotive with a novel twist: a supercharged 6.2-litre Chevrolet LSA V8 making 556bhp. So quite a lot of novel twist. JIA takes an Interceptor, tidies the shell, fits Jaguar-influenced independent rear suspension and installs the mighty motor. Subtle it is not.

A track car it isn’t, either, but that’s fine – its time will come on the road. For pictures and video, though, we run it around Llandow and, by gum, does it ever have an engine. The reardrive Interceptor R Supercharged is ferociously fast in a straight line, driving through a six-speed auto here. You can spec a manual, but the auto suits the Interceptor’s demeanour. This is a softly sprung, comfortable car, with a shell that lives without the stiffening of the Alfa so it feels more ‘classic’. Still, it steers with slow slickness, and while the brake pedal is soft to the extent you might think it’s here in an advisory capacity only, in fact retardation is good.

There’s more to enjoy on circuit in the Tuthill-modified 911, although you suspect one of its 2.0-litre ‘Cup’ race cars would be more engaging still. But the 2.4 E’s steering is lovely and the balance is good, albeit erring towards understeer thanks to a wide rear track and balloon tyres. The engine is lustful and the gearshift positive, and whatever Tuthill has done to the bushes and control weights, it feels terrifically solid. On narrower tyres and more track-focused suspension, I imagine you could swap some track focus for road focus. Tuthill will build you one however you want. After a day on track, I took the 911 on a motorway and then some back roads and loved it – and I’ve never felt cooler than getting out of it at the end.

More on that when Saunders and Disdale take up the story. Meanwhile, the GTA-R is an utter joy on track. It rides on relatively skinny 195-section tyres but still generates masses of grip. Its heavy steering is full of reward and its engine, while revving to 7500rpm, is as gutsy and tuneful as any road-going four-cylinder in existence. The long-throw five-speed ’box is more accurate than anything with a lever that long has any right to be, and the brake pedal is brilliantly weighted. Everything is unassisted.

But it’s the handling that makes it. Before I drove the GTA-R, the man from Alfaholics said it was more rewarding than a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, which I humoured with a ‘well, he would say that’ sort of nod.

Yet its balance is so good that I think he’s right. Going into a corner there’s a touch of understeer, which you can trail brake through, or you can just turn in slightly too fast, get on the gas and power through, with the GTA-R telegraphing perfectly that it’s about to slide, foursquare but slightly rear biased, through any turn you like. It might just be one of the 10 most enjoyable cars I’ve ever driven. On track, at least. On the road? Over to my colleagues.

Matt Prior

The daily grind

A long day of full-on track driving has passed by the windscreens of our three restomods, and the closest we’ve come to trouble in any of them has been some hot, smelly brakes. What can you say to that – except ‘bravo’? It proves beyond a doubt that the major mechanical renovation of cars like these isn’t just for show; it achieves pretty remarkable results.

Now for some tough testing of a different kind. Our digs for tonight are 50 miles west, near Carmarthen. But before we can head for them, Disdale and I have a two-car mission to Magor services 50 miles to the east, to deposit a car that someone will eventually need for onward transport. Sounds like a simple trip, but much of it will be done in the dark and cold, in rush-hour traffic. These will be the sort of miles that modern cars make so easy but old ones generally don’t.

I already know what kind of time Prior’s going to be having as he pedals the Porsche westwards – because, after a dark, spluttering 6am start, I brought it from the Midlands to south Wales this morning myself. But for some heavy controls and a particularly noisy set of pipes, though, our 47-year-old 911 is pretty easy to drive. The brakes are brilliant. The headlights and wipers are first-class. In many ways, it doesn’t feel like an old car at all.

The car has lowered torsion bar suspension, which makes for a ride that feels a bit wooden over sharper bumps, and for a steering rack that needs plenty of heft to get it beyond a quarter-turn. If you took exception to either characteristic, though, you’d just commission the good people at Tuthill Porsche to configure the car differently. You can have what you want, after all; old 911s, they say, are supremely adaptable things. The carburetted engine is smooth, torquey, characterful and potent enough, with only the occasional tendency to stall when slowing down from a long cruise. It demands some care when you’re accelerating from low revs so as not to over-fuel it, while the notchy gearbox likes a deliberate, well-timed shift and the odd double-dab of clutch. You soon get used to both, though. Other than that, you just need to be careful not to put petrol in the oil tank by mistake (an exterior oil filler just behind the driver’s door was one of the curios of the E-series 911).

The Alfa? That’d take a bit more getting used to, as I find out when Disdale moves over for our return leg from Magor. Crumbs, it’s really noisy when working; less so, mercifully, at a cruise – but it’s still the sort of car in which, like the Porsche, you’d want to wear earplugs for a long drive.

The roll-cage, deeply sculpted seats and four-point belts make it the trickiest of the three to board by some margin – and there’s less room in front of the controls than the other two have. But, Lordy, what rewards there are once you’re getting stuck in. It sounds utterly rampant above 4500rpm and goes like stink. Handles sublimely, too, with more lightness and immediacy than the Porsche and better balance. Wherever you are, wherever you’re going, you’re very unlikely not to be enjoying yourself.

I certainly am – until the dusk around wherever we are descends to total darkness and I discover that the Alfa’s LED headlights have a regrettable tendency to switch themselves off completely now and again. Only for a few seconds at a time – but long enough to focus the mind on an unlit motorway. Sometimes it will happen when you indicate or turn the heater on, at other times entirely without warning. Very Italian. Last time I checked, though, it’s not something that 10-year-old Fiats do any more.

Still, at least the Alfa’s headlights work 99.5% of the time. As we get back to the Jensen for the last leg of our evening motoring, the mood of our trip takes a turn and the less palatable side of restomod ownership is revealed as we discover that the Interceptor’s sidelights work fine, as do its main beams – but its dipped beams don’t work at all. Ah. A call to JIA suggests we check the wiring to the footwell-mounted dip switch, and then the fuse box, but neither yields any luck.

All we can do is limp in convoy to the nearest garage, buy some electrical tape and blank off the car’s headlights as much as possible. It’s either that or let a blown fuse bring this whole test to a premature end. It’s a comfy car, the Interceptor – and much more so than either of the other two here, it should be noted – but not nearly comfortable enough to stand in for a proper bed and a cooked breakfast for a road tester who’s had a 16-hour day.

Matt Saunders

On the open road

I’m sweating here, and it’s not just because the Alfaholics GTA-R 290 doesn’t have air conditioning, or that with its four-point harness pulled tight you can’t reach the window winders. No, the reason perspiration is forming on the brow is that for something so flyweight the Alfa requires a fair bit of muscle to hustle.

It’s a crisp and bright morning after the night before and last night’s headlight woes are forgotten. We’ve wound our way from the hotel near Pendine (leaving the car park took longer than expected, as vehicles such as these attract the right sort of attention everywhere you go), to some twisting roads in the Black Mountains – the sort that should ideally suit these sorts of cars, where driving for the hell of it is what it’s all about. Yet with their serpentine switchbacks, your arms and legs are working twice as hard as in a modern, and that comes as a shock to limbs pampered by power assistance. Yet like all things in life, the harder you work, the larger the rewards – and in the case of the GTA-R, the rewards are very large indeed.

The compact and quick Alfa is perfect for roads like these, dancing into and out of corners with dizzying agility (watching the boat-like Jensen in my rear-view mirror lurching hilariously from port to starboard as Prior tries gamely to keep in touch further highlights the GTA-R’s nimbleness). There’s just the right balance of grip and slip, while the steering is hefty but it’s quick and precise and delivers real feedback – not as much as the Porsche, but not far off. The stiff and short-travel suspension is occasionally ruffled by sudden, sharp imperfections, but otherwise the GTA-R corners fast and flat, riding the bumps with aplomb.

And, of course, there’s that glorious engine. Yes, it’ll spin to the heavens, but on HM’s highway you can short-shift and ride the wave of tractable, digitally managed torque. Even then it’s still fast and physical, feeling closer to a Caterham than anything else here. That’s not something you can say about the Jensen, although we all agree it feels more at home here in the hills than at the track. Of course, it’s bigger and heavier, while its focus on cruising comfort means it’s more of a point-and-squirt device than the maximum-momentum Alfa Romeo and Porsche.

Surprisingly, traction is good, and there’s not much call for the RaceLogic traction control, while the power-assisted steering is easiest to manage here, even delivering some decent feedback. It’s only when you really press on that the Interceptor starts to feel its age, quick changes of direction resulting in those nautical lurches. Of course, if you want a sharper drive, then the adjustable dampers can be firmed up, plus there’s the option of an anti-roll bar at the rear. But when the long drive home from Wales beckons, it’s the Jensen’s long-striding cruising gait and wall-to-wall leather-lined and air-conditioned interior that I end up wangling my way into.

Falling between the two in terms of down-the-road dynamism is the 911. The aim for this example has clearly been to make it as benign and as usable as possible (the interior is exquisite), but that doesn’t mean it’s dull. The balloon tyres and wider track mean it never feels anything but secure, but in classic 911 style the nose bobs around in rhythm with the road and the steering constantly writhes in your hands, gently keeping you in touch with the Tarmac.

Like the Alfa, it feels delightfully compact, allowing you to pick from a choice of lines and yet stay resolutely in your lane, the front end going just where you place it thanks to strong bite and steering that ramps up the weight gently. Most surprisingly, there’s no unruliness if you change your mind mid-corner; instead, the Porsche simply tucks neatly in. And the brakes are cracking, the firm pedal and progressive response bettering even the GTA-R’s.

If there’s a let-down, it’s the engine. It sounds glorious as it wails away into your slipstream but, with less than 200bhp, it feels a little limp. It’s not such a hardship on the track where you can keep it singing happily away near the redline, but out here the low-speed response isn’t as strong, while those carbs occasionally cause some coughing and spluttering, allowing the Alfa and Jensen to pull effortlessly away out of the hairpins.

Naturally, you can upgrade the engine, adding both muscle and tractability, which is precisely what’s happening to this particular car next. And therein lies the appeal of restomods like these. They are essentially blank canvases limited only by your imagination, taste and (significant) budget. You want a sharper Jensen? No problem. A quicker and more mobile-feeling 911? But of course. An Alfa with air conditioning? That’d be nice.

James Disdale

The devil in the detail

JIA Jensen Interceptor

Donor car: 1973 Jensen Interceptor

Donor car cost: na

Restomodification cost: £320,000 

Total cost: £320,000

The Jensen’s shell is shot blasted, then any necessary welding is undertaken and replacement panels are added. The interior is stripped and fully retrimmed in Bridge of Weir leather and fitted with a bespoke dashboard, and switchgear plus an infotainment upgrade and new Smiths instruments. Front suspension is rebuilt and rebushed and its geometry altered. Independent rear suspension is fitted in place of the live axle, with uprated springs and adjustable dampers. Cast alloy wheels or three-spoke JIA rims are offered. Engine is replaced with either a normally aspirated LS3 or supercharged LSA Chevrolet V8 and six-speed automatic transmission (new cars get an eight-speed transmission), RaceLogic traction control system and AP brakes with ABS.

Total man-hours: 3000

Alfaholics GTA-R

Donor car: Alfa Romeo 105-series coupe

Donor car cost: £10,000-£30,000

Restomodifcation cost: £310,000

Total cost: £320,000-£340,000

Alfaholics like to start with an original car or one that hasn’t been restored for ages. The shell’s seam is welded, it gets a 12-point roll-cage and carbonfibre doors, bonnet and bootlid. The aluminium twin-cam engine from a 75 is bored and stroked to 2.3 litres and uses Motec engine management. There’s still a live rear axle but the close-ratio ’box and limited-slip diff get Alfaholics internals. Titanium top front wishbones, adjustable gas shocks and lightweight springs are also used. Power steering is an option. 

Total man-hours: 3000

Tuthill Porsche 911 2.4E

Donor car: 1973 Porsche 911 2.4E (E-series)

Cost of donor car: £90,000 (est)

Restomodification cost: £150,000 (est) 

Total cost: £250,000 (est)

Shell treated and resealed, exterior rechromed, repainted and upgraded with widened body. Interior, boot and engine bay remodelled and retrimmed Competition pedal box, shift mechanism and steering wheel fitted; electronic air conditioning added. Engine reconfigured for carburettors and new exhaust fitted. Lowered and stiffened torsion bar suspension fitted along with new damper struts and wider wheels. Competition-grade brake upgrade with new master cylinder added. 

Total man-hours: 1500

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Comments
4

TS7

17 November 2019

...but at circa £ 1/3 Million I'd expect the headlights to function.

17 November 2019
Mad money but these are great, I really like the MG LE50, I remember reading about it when it came out, a re imagined better to drive classic car, other than the price, what's not to like.

17 November 2019
I also remember reading about the frontline mgb and thinking modern upgraded Mazda mechanicals in an mgb shell , what's not to like , except the prices. I now realise £65k is peanuts .. !

17 November 2019

If you have not already done so, do watch the associated video for this story.

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