The return of the kit car

When the motor giants stopped making rust-buckets, Britain's thriving kit-car industry ended up short of wrecks to cannibalise. But now, thanks to some stunningly attractive designs, it's making a comeback. Sean O'Grady reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You might, like me, have viewed the kit car as a thing of the past. It is, really. The heyday of the "industry" coincided with the age of the rust-bucket. In the 1960s, "monocoque" bodywork (that is, cars built without a proper solid chassis) and ever thinner and poorer-quality sheet steel was widely adopted by manufacturers - think Austin 1100, Mini, Renault Dauphine, Hillman Hunter, Vauxhall Cresta, Ford Escort. Think virtually anything made from 1960 to 1980.

Most of these vehicles would show signs of corrosion at a year or two old, would need some heavy welding by their fifth birthday, and would probably have a useful life of, at most, a decade.

However, even though their bodywork had turned into iron oxide, the engines and other mechanical bits would still be in perfectly usable condition. So a few enterprising souls hit on the notion of rescuing those bits and transplanting them into a light, glass-fibre tub, often fairly outrageous looking.

The idiosyncrasies of the British tax system favoured building cars at home, and that clinched it for many builders. Send away a few quid and by return of post would come all you needed to build yourself an exotic new motor with the engine, suspension, gearbox and lights off your expired Mini or Escort. And the new plastic body wouldn't rust. Conditions were favourable for the kit-car crew, and the industry flourished.

Then came galvanised steel, 10-year corrosion warranties and robots doing the welding, and car-makers discovered that consumers actually wanted cars that would last a little longer than an Italian summer. So the kit-car industry had to adapt.

Amazingly perhaps, it is still with us. In this corner of the new/old car market, there are some relative giants. The most famous British kit car, still going strong, is the Lotus Seven, later the Caterham Seven, which can still be bought in kit or fully built form with a choice of engines (it's up to you if you want to quarry one from an old Rover).

There are quite a few other Lotus Seven lookalikes on the market, as well as a smattering of Cobra, early Porsche and Jaguar replicas. More interesting are the attempts to make something more original, like the Suzuki motorcycle-based Stimson Storm, a "supertrike".

In this context, the Ultima GTR, one of the fastest cars on the planet, is outstanding. It will take you from zero to 60mph in 2.7 seconds, and on to 150mph by the time you've counted 12. It stops, too: witness its standstill to 100mph to standstill time of 10.3 seconds. Based on a thoroughly modern spaceframe structure, it certainly looks the supercar part, something that couldn't always be said of kit cars. And it's a formidable track weapon too. You will need a small-block Chevvy V8 for your Ultima and about £25,000 (the basic body kit costs just £4,165 plus VAT).

While the Caterhams and Ultimas represent the upper end of kit-car aspirations, there's always the amusingly named Bugrat. Marketed by RV Dynamics of Reigate, Surrey, it uses our old friend the Skoda Estelle/ Rapide as a donor car - if you can find one.

The total build-cost of this is estimated at £2,500, with most of that going on the kit (old Skodas don't fetch much). A little more expensive is the Amphijeep. As its name implies, this remarkable vehicle will get you waterborne as well as roadworthy from about £11,000 built. It uses parts from the Suzuki SJ 413 Jeep range, an impeccably rugged little 4x4 that is sadly getting very thin on the ground.

Anyway, you and your old Suzuki jeep can be cruising to work in all senses for the price of, well, a new Suzuki jeep that just can't swim. Think of the ferry fares you'll save. Got your spanners ready?

See some crazy kit cars at the National Kit and Performance Car Show, Donington Park, Derbyshire, 16 and 17 September ( www.limelight-exhibitions.co.uk)

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