About 600 years ago, at roughly the same time that they were figuring out how to keep The Ark afloat, I built a kit car with my dad.
It was called a Sylva Leader, and it was based mostly around the underpinnings of a Vauxhall Chevette.
The chassis was bespoke, to which various bits of rubbed-down and Hammerited Chevette running gear were then attached. In the nose sat a 2.0-litre Fiat twincam engine that once provided the not inconsiderable source of thrust for a Fiat 125 TC. In the flesh the car looked a bit like a Caterham Seven with enclosed wheels and an unusually low nose.
All in, it weighed less than 500kg, so as you can imagine it really did go like stink when you put your foot down. It had about 140bhp thanks to a pair of juicy carburettors, and for a 19 year old at the time it was probably just a little bit too much.
Anyway, I never did have the accident that everyone else was so convinced that I would eventually have in it. And ever since I’ve had a soft spot for kit cars of pretty much every kind. Which is why our recent day out with the cream of the UK’s booming kit car industry (feature in the magazine next week, plus videos online) was such a special event for me.
But one thing I realised fairly soon during the day is that the kit car industry has changed dramatically since me and my old man first dabbled with it. Some of the cars I drove recently cost the very thick end of six figures, and none of them could be built for less than £20k. The car my father and I built cost, relatively speaking, less than a quarter of this all those years ago.
So we’re talking about cars that are alternatives to some of the best conventional road cars that money can buy – not just ropey old replicas that are sheds beneath their gleaming GRP bodywork. The XCS Fusion 427 that I drove, for example – an AC Cobra in all but name – costs around £85,000 and has a 639bhp supercharged V8 engine in its nose. But the thing is, it felt like it was worth every penny of that.
It was beautiful inside, and beautifully made outside. And it was fast enough around corners and in a straight line to completely humiliate our long-term Jaguar XKR-S convertible. As an alternative to something like an auto-only Jaguar F-type V8, it made an awful lot of sense.
As did the equally stunning, equally beautiful, similarly excellent to drive Gardner Douglas GD T70, which is based loosely around the Lola T70, and which could – as I discovered – all-but outgun a McLaren 12C around a circuit. Cost? Anything from £65k to twice that, depending on how much money you wish to aim at the V8 engine.
But my favourite kit car of the day was the quite delightful Lister Bell STR, which looked and drove for all the world like a real Lancia Stratos – for just £30,000. “But you can buy a very nice second-hand Porsche Cayman for that sort of money” I hear you cry. To which I’d reply “Yes, I know. But I’d take the faster, lighter, far more lovely to look at and no less exciting to drive Lister Bell STR every time, thanks.”
Kit cars; no longer quite so cheap and cheerful, perhaps, but for the die-hard purist – the sort of person who bemoans the relentless march of technology that is, they claim, anaesthetising the modern sports car – they could even represent the holy grail. Thank your lucky stars therefore that the kit car, as a breed, hasn’t been legislated against as it has been in most other countries. Yet.