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Motor Show `98: Small specialists prove the Brits have grit

The big players may be in foreign hands, but there are still UK car makers that can deliver surprises
BRITAIN'S INDIGENOUS car industry has not yet been totally plundered. All the mainstream players are now under foreign control, but several specialists remain independent. They have a strong presence - and several exciting new models - at the NEC.

AC, Britain's oldest car maker, has resurrected the Aceca name for a stretched, tailgated version of its slow-selling Ace. A lengthened wheelbase has made the pounds 69,795 Aceca the "most spacious full four-seater coupe on the market", claims AC. Power comes from Ford's ubiquitous 4.6-litre quadcam V8, soon to be an option in the Ace. Also new is the AC Mk11 289 FIA - a limited-edition replica of AC's racing Cobra of the Sixties, built on the same jigs and formers as the original seven cars.

Caterham reveals three new models. The Seven Silverstone - a stark aluminium- bodied sportster powered by a 153 bhp Ford engine - commemorates Caterham's 40 years in business, first selling, then making Lotus Sevens. The others are a Supersport-engined Classic, and a dual road-and-track Clubsport, which has big brakes and dry-sump lubrication (to prevent oil starvation on high-G corners). Its price includes circuit fees at the Caterham club's "turn up and enjoy yourself" track days.

Healeysprite launches two new models - a lookalike of the Sixties Sprite with a 1.8-litre Ford engine shoehorned under its bug-eyed bonnet; and the ambitious 4x4 Workhorse, a plastic-bodied pick-up powered by a 2.4 Mercedes diesel.

Jensen's revival by the Creative Group is centred on a new high-performance luxury roadster, costing around pounds 40,000. Long-nosed and short-tailed, this Jag XK8 rival promises to be a show star. Breaking with tradition, Jensen has turned to Ford V8 power, forsaking the Chrysler engines used in the Sixties Interceptor. With 325 bhp from 4.6 litres, performance of the aluminium-bodied supercar should be electrifying.

Lea-Francis has been ticking over for years making the Ace of Spades sports saloon. Backed by new funds, its new two-seater sports car is a radical departure, with active suspension patented by Jim Randle, Jaguar's former design chief. Of rivetted aluminium construction, the new Lea-Francis, shown as a prototype at the NEC, is powered by a front-mounted 3.0-litre GM V6 driving the back wheels. It's expected to cost around pounds 40,000 when sales start in 18 months.

Lotus (foreign-owned, but creatively still very British) has two new models. The 340R is a radical, open-wheeled Elise-based lightweight with the performance, handling and grip of a racing car. The absence of doors, roof, heater and dashboard is intended to heighten a unique driving experience. The only snag: production (if it happens) is some way off. Don't hold your breath. To boost interest in the fast but fading Esprit, there's a new Sport 350 variant costing pounds 65,000. Focused on driver entertainment, it's a race-bred, stripped-for-action lightweight capable of 175 mph. Only 50 will be made.

Marcos launches its new Mantaray, which inherits the underpinnings - and last year's nose-job - of the old retro-look Mantara. New tail-end treatment gives the Mantaray contemporary good looks in keeping with a TVR rival. Prices start at the pounds 33,000 for the 2.0-litre Rover-engined turbo. V8 power (either 3.9 or 4.6 litre) costs more.

Reliant has not abandoned its "Del Boy" three-wheelers, but the thrust of the restructured company is now on importing ready-made niche-fillers. The San Streak, made by San Motors in India, has a glass-fibre body as it is a Renault Clio-powered economy "funabout" with a projected price of pounds 8,000. The San Storm open version goes on sale in the Spring.

TVR astonished the industry when it started making its own engines to achieve grande marque status. Look out at the NEC for a new Tuscan Speed Six, powered by an in-house 4.0-litre, 350 bhp straight-six, priced around pounds 38,000.

Westfield unveils the FW400, reckoned to be its most radical sportster yet. Designed and built out of carbon-fibre (just like a F1 Grand Prix racing car), the FW (for featherweight) 400 is powered by a tweaked MGF engine mounted up front, as in all Westfield's other Lotus Seven-inspired cars. To even up weight distribution, the gearbox is at the back. Few exotic supercars can match the FW400's projected power-to-weight ratio of over 450 bhp per ton.