Rare, fast and endangered but still rolling along

Britain's cottage supercar makes are thriving, but some manufacturers are looking abroad to manufacture their cars in a bid to keep their costs down
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We all know that Britain is no longer a major car-producing nation in its own right. The main factories, MG Rover's Longbridge excepted, are owned and run by foreign companies, even if some of the cars they expel have British badges.

We all know that Britain is no longer a major car-producing nation in its own right. The main factories, MG Rover's Longbridge excepted, are owned and run by foreign companies, even if some of the cars they expel have British badges.

Yes, Jaguars and Land Rovers are designed here too, and the German-owned Rolls-Royce and Bentley have British input into their redefined presences, but we are no longer like France, Germany, Italy, the US, Japan or Korea.

Our car-making is, in fact, almost post-industrial. It has mirrored the progress of the Industrial Revolution itself: we were in at the start, and grew out of it first.

But there is another side to British car-making. We have an unequalled network of advanced engineering companies, so we can develop the ideas even if we do not then commercialise them. This is why most Formula One teams are based here, and why we make more racing cars than any other country. And, related to this, we have a remarkable automotive cottage industry.

I have just done a rough count of all the carmakers in the UK. It currently hovers around 22, not including the pure racing cars or the lower end of the kit-car market (another British oddity) in which you have to find a lot of the parts yourself. There is some foreign ownership among these smaller players, specifically the two most famous names of Lotus (a majority Proton shareholding) and Aston Martin (Ford-owned); otherwise talent is home-financed.

That is a lot of marques. Of this cottage industry, TVR is the biggest player. It can even lay claim to being the second-biggest all-British carmaker after MG Rover, which is either an accolade for TVR or a sad indictment of our industry's evaporation.

But just as well known as TVR, maybe more so for its epitomisation of perceived British eccentricity, is Morgan. Even Morgan has modernised, though; it realised it could not live on wooden-body-framed relics and long waiting lists forever, and nowadays has the Aero 8 with a stiff aluminium chassis, BMW power and a body style as bipolar between ancient and modern as it is possible to be.

Caterham is the most familiar of all the little guys. Caterham nowadays has moved its manufacturing from Surrey (although it still has a showroom there) to its busy factory in Dartford, Kent. Its considerable success (the Japanese are especially keen) is still based on a developed Lotus Seven, a car conceived back in the 1950s, and with the right lightweight materials and potent engines (at their ultimate in the £36,200 Superlight R500) it can generate a thrill like nothing else. You can still buy a Caterham to build yourself. Many do.

If not, you might choose a Westfield. There is a hint of Caterham about Westfield's more popular lines, but the interpretation is different -- not least because one model runs a hefty Rover V8 engine. The family-run, Kingswinsford, West Midlands company makes 500 cars a year, some as kits, and has also made a wide-bodied trackday car called XTR2 with a potent Suzuki Hyabusa engine. An Audi TT unit is an alternative.

Who, then, are these other cottage industrialists? They are a varied bunch, but all somehow manage to find their way through legislative strictures and create their individual cars. The days are long gone when anyone could design a car, ensure it complied with simple Construction and Use regulations (the right number and position of lights, mudguards, exhaust system and so on) and let it loose.

Today's regulations are more complex, and are framed with the bigger manufacturers in mind. They have to submit their cars for crash tests, which are very expensive, so expensive that the little players just cannot afford it.

For these companies, defined by their low production volumes, there exists Single Vehicle Approval, a detailed examination by the Vehicle Inspectorate on each individual car. It covers most of the safety and integrity rules applied to volume cars, but instead of a crash test the inspectors will use their knowledge and experience to judge a design. It is a good system in theory, protecting the cars' users and ensuring high standards. Without it, and given the regulated and litigious world we live in, the tiny carmakers would die -- but those makers often curse the system's inflexibility.

Still, there are always newcomers, sometimes reviving treat names from the past. The latest attempt to resurrect Jensen failed last year, but Invicta flies again.

Invicta was one of Britain's grandest pre-war sports car makes. Now the name has been reborn under Michael Bristow, old-Invicta enthusiast (and owner) and new-Invicta mastermind. The project is dream realisation; a British rival to Porsche and Ferrari. It was delayed when a test driver destroyed the only running prototype, but another was built and production is slowly under way at the Chippenham, Wiltshire factory. That is not far from Marcos, and Chris Marsh, son of Marcos founder Jem, is the engineering brain behind Invicta.

The styling is by Leigh Adams, son of Dennis Adams who shaped several Marcos models. The carbon-fibre body, made in a lightweight, one-piece moulding, clothes a tubular steel chassis and the Ford 4.6-litre, 32-valve V8 that Rover now uses in the MG ZT 260 and SV sports car. It is a wide machine -- 6ft 7in -- and expensive at £69,950. Does it work?

I drove that second prototype, which was clearly work in progress. It looked hefty, imposing and a little odd, as though it was melting in the sun and the curves were distorted. It felt suitably fast and potent, if not as bombastic as its creators intended, and it handled well. I could partly forgive the imperfect interior detailing as it was to be modified, but it was almost impossible to see around a right-hand bend thanks to the intrusive screen pillar and mirror.

The Invicta was quite good, but not great. Maybe it is better now. Maybe it will ensnare those bored 911 owners, or maybe not.

There are survivors out there. AC is Britain's oldest car company and also has one of the most turbulent histories. Currently it is based in Frimley, Surrey and produces the Cobra, as it has done on and off since 1962, and has reforged its licensing deal with Carroll Shelby, the American creator of the Cobra idea (a fat Ford V8 in an AC Ace sports car).

In parallel to this, AC makes a cheaper, carbon-fibre-bodied version in Malta -- not the only piece of low labour-cost outsourcing among our cottage industrialists.

Ariel is a tiny North Perrott, Somerset-based company as new as AC is old, and makes a tiny sports car called the Atom (a name once used by Fairthorpe, a long-gone kit-car maker). The name honours the defunct motorcycle maker, but the car is maybe the closest you can get to an open-wheeled racing car for the road.

It wears its structure on the outside, is powered by a Rover K-series engine, and is the brainchild of long-time car and interior designer Simon Saunders.

The engine configuration that crops up again and again from Ascari to Westfield. is V8. The Ultima boasts Chevrolet V8 power and 1980s Le Mans looks -- it's a fierce beast. Intuitive engineer Lee Noble, who now makes his own cars, was involved in the Ultima's design as he was with that of the earliest Ascaris. Ultimas are expensive, often bought as a kit of parts as a satisfying project for the well-heeled petrolhead.

Or take Ascari. The name suggests, intentionally, that of champion Italian racing drivers, but it actually stands for Anglo-Scottish Car Industries. The Scottish part has gone -- Ascari is based in a handsome and modern factory in Banbury -- but the KZ-1, a mid-engined coupe with BMW V8 power, is about to enter production after many delays. It is a handsome, beautifully built machine. Ascari also runs a racing team and owns a track in Spain.

Then there are the truly radical. Radical Cars make true racing cars for the road, one of which holds the road-car lap record at Germany's tortuous Nurburgring circuit. They have a full-width body, and have become the ultimate choice for speed among the growing band of drivers who take part in trackdays to find thrills no longer available on the road.

The Peterborough company makes 150 cars a year powered by motorbike engines. The top model uses a Suzuki Hyabusa unit enlarged to 1,500cc, which delivers up to 250bhp -- in a car weighing 500kg.

Most of these small makers are profitable and are on a sound footing, but some live in crisis and are periodically being reborn. Some are now finding that outsourcing their labour to cheaper countries helps contain costs, while others have more pressing problems.

Lee takes the Noble path to realise his dream machine

There's a Noble way to make cars. Many are the specialist car companies set up to realise a founder's dream, only for it all to fold as costs soared, the car turned out to be a dud and buyers stayed away. It is actually easier to design a no-compromise supercar than an all-compromise supermini, and thus harder to advance the art. Just occasionally, though, it all gels together.

The Noble is the perfect small maker case history. Lee Noble, already experienced in fast-car design (McLaren among others) with other specialist makers, set out to do it his own way because he could. And the car that defines his Barwell, Leicestershire company today is that rare thing, a setter of new standards.

The Noble M12 GTO, powered by a smooth-spinning, twin-turbo version of Ford's V6, is one of the best-handling, most entertaining mid-engined GT cars you can buy, a kind of bigger Lotus Elise with a roof. Dramatic looks are complemented by the way it sounds good too, with a wonderful sonourous resoannce form the exhaust. It has a top speed of 170 mph, boasts 344 brake horsepower, 368 lb/foot of torque and will travel from rest to 60mph in 3.7 seconds. Car magazine has described it as a low-flying jet.

And it is not even especially expensive by the standards of its immediate rivals, starting at £48,505. The M12 is a proper car which works, a car complete and competitive in a way rare in the specialist world. It might not have got this far, though, and might have fallen prey to the common specialists' malaise of under-funded over-expansion, had Noble and then-business partner Tony Moy not stumbled upon the idea of getting the chassis and bodies made and painted by High Tech Automotive in South Africa.

Now Noble makes 200 cars a year, will launch an open version in August and has recruited Belgian rally star Fanny Duchateau to campaign a Noble in the GT Cup race series. At Noble, it would seem, things just work.

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