Niche sports cars: Small but perfectly formed

They're fast, they're unusual and they're popping up all over the world. Mark Piesing reports on the rise of niche sports cars
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Driven by the fantasies of well-off middle-aged men, the power of the PC may be about to do for the car industry what YouTube has done for the media.

But I’m not talking about the world's first open-source car - cumbersomely named “c,mm,n” for “common” - which has been launched in Holland with all the specs and technical drawings available for free on the web. No, the biggest motoring beneficiary of the web revolution so far is the kind of cars that have two seats and go very fast.



It’s a case of “glocalisation” rather than globalisation, and it’s leading to a back-to-the-future-style revolution in which “every” country - from Estonia (ESTfield) to Mexico (Mastretta) - can once again have its own niche sports car company. Even if their largely exported production runs barely make it into three figure, and the cars themselves range from the £15,000 take-your-life-in-your-hands roadster to the obscenely priced super car.



From his purpose-built factory in Kolff, South Africa, ex-special forces soldier and trained engineer John Watson is planning his campaign of conquest. Named after an English relative, about 250 of his Lotus 7-esque 1.8 or 2lt Birkin S3 custom-built roadsters are already exported each year to countries including Japan, the US and Australia. Watson denies any similarities with the more expensive Caterham 7, but the British firm had better watch out as Europe is already in Watson’s sights for the export of the Birkin in both kit car and factory finished form.



Watson admits the biggest challenge in selling his £15,000 package of fun is keeping up with growth. Growth that he believes is down to cheap new technology that has allowed him to deliver the top end quality needed to compete internationally and so capitalise on the cost advantage that South African companies enjoy. As a result consumers know that cars like the Birkin “are more than the plastic bodied look-a-likes masquerading on VW Beetle chassis that was the typical ‘kit’ car of the past”.



Birkin, Watson feels, is in a very strong position to take advantage of the void created by the rising costs and prices of competitors in Europe. “So with some aggressive motor sport marketing we have a very good chance of exceeding our achievements of the 1980s” - a decade when Japan alone took every car Kolff could make.



According to Hans Herweijer, MD of mypowerproducts.com, a Holland-based suppliers of power trains to niche car manufacturers across Europe, “small companies can now cheaply use all kinds of new technologies like 3D modelling and rapid prototyping to visualise a product before its even there”. A breakthrough that helps them match the quality of the Big Boys, without having to blow their limited R&D budgets - and risk their companies - on projects that might turn out to be dead ends.



But he believes that it's the “pimp my ride” dreams of 40-something males with cash to splash that have lit the touch paper. “It is often the middle-aged business man's biggest dream to have a fast car and a unique one at that. They want something individual to identify with and they can afford to make the cars and buy them.”



Meanwhile in the other country down under Jock Freemantle is in the middle of planning the 2008 launch of his - and New Zealand's - first super car, the limited production F1 look-alike 550bhp BMW V8 Hulme. Only 20 to 30 of the £310,000 car named after New Zealand's 1967 F1 World Champion and national hero will be built each year.



Property developer and yacht builder Freemantle admits that “there is no rational need for an extremely limited production super car, but experience proves that worldwide there is a demand driven by the emotional desire to have the best, particularly when coupled to a passion for motoring”. This is especially the case, he believes, for those whose lifestyle is characterised by “extreme individuality, luxury, and exclusivity”.



But key to the success of the project is the technological base New Zealand has developed to build Americas Cup yachts which he hopes will transfer directly to the construction of super cars. So much so that Freemantle - backed by international investors - already has a second model on the way. The open-top aluminium 550bhp Chevrolet LS7 V8 Hulme CanAm is due to be launched next year, coinciding with the 40th Anniversary of Hulme's victory of the USA Can Am Championship



According to David Leggett, editor of motor industry analysis site justauto.com, it's never been easier to produce a low-volume sports cars. But as the Hulme shows the technological revolution isn't just about the hardware sitting on a designers desk. “With the web, information flows around the world in a way it has never done before. Best practice spreads so quickly.” Yet it's more than that too. “It encourages good designers and engineers to move from country to country. International investment follows, component suppliers set up and exports become easier.”



Although he believes that the desire for national glory shouldn't be ignored. “A few enthusiasts who identify with certain national values can now support a low-volume manufacturer. Throw in a few exports and you have a viable business model. And if you want to raise a ghost from the dead, MG would have survived as a British company if it had become a small niche sports car manufacturer - like the original plan.”



So in a hangar at Don Torcuato International Airport, just 35km from downtown Buenos Aires, father and son advertising execs Jorge and Martin Vazquez are fighting to recapture past Argentine motoring glories long forgotten in the rest of the world. Heroes such as Alberto Ascari at the Palermo Woods street circuit in Buenos Aires and races like the historical “1000 kilómetros de Buenos Aires”. Helped by close connections to VW Argentina, their company JVA Automóviles Especiales has already started to export their Porsche 550 look-a-like to Europe.



Using a VW engine and a purpose built chassis that JVA were able to design in-house thanks to the latest CAD technology, the Vazquez's believe the £45,000 2lt 100bhp JVA550 can compete with Europe's best.



Like many visionaries the Vazquez's are already dreaming of the next great leap forward - they call it the 5.8lt v8 600hp “GrandAm class” Fulgor.



Revolutions though have a habit of never turning out quite as they were supposed to. With the global crisis over sub-prime mortgages rumbling on as the world heats up, as well as another open-source contender - the OScar - in the pipeline, who knows where this might end.

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