Thursday 17 July 2008
The Kaipan 14 has presence, even something of the night about it that recalls tales of the Prague Golem. Its presence grows even greater when you're standing feet away from it.
The Czechoslovakian influence doesn’t end there though, since it’s based on the out of production Skoda Favorit. A car which saw out Communist rule and for which many people waited years of their lives. Though, as you can pick up a Favorit for as little as 10p over a pint, the practical and profitable blend easily with the emotional and philosophical up in the North Bohemian mountains where Kaipan is based.
Perhaps here then is the Czech renaissance. An almost iconic design. A stream of potential punters visiting their pre-war factory-showroom two hours north of Prague. Young dads willing to join the five-month waiting list for the Kaipan 14. Five cars in varying stages of production in the workshop beyond. A factory which turns out 10 Kaipan’s every month as kit and complete cars.
But then you open the Kaipan's distinctive long bonnet, and the worse fears for a car that is partly built from a second hand Skoda Favorit seem justified. Hidden deep within the long and cavernous engine compartment is a refurbished 1.3 Skoda Favorit engine that some how still looks rusty. A space that is crying out for an engine worthy of the design.
The impression gets worse as you turn the key. The engine struggles to start - three attempts - before it bursts into an exhausted rumble. Then you notice the pre-VW Skoda indicator sticks, dials and gear stick. Along with the dashboard switches that seem to come from my old toy train set. Crunching into gear - the box is from the Favorit too - and you’re off.
Somehow just then, the frown becomes a smile.
The fuel injection bolt-on helps flog the old engine up to a respectable 0-60 in 7.5 seconds. Although the front-wheel drive doesn't make the most of it. The lack of doors and any kind of roof gives it the edge. The grey of the tarmac caught through the bottom corner of the eye gives the thrill. But as the wheel base is slightly raised there is none of the tarmac skinning madness of a Caterham 7.
The spirit of the car - even if in practice it’s the size of a family car - gets you the kind of road space that means you don’t have to have to be suicidal to drive it. Behind the driver there is even a compartment big enough for beer, a barbeque and a tent. Just don’t try to park it - the long bonnet and raised rear make it almost impossible to tell where it begins and ends.
But get to know the car and Kaipan quality starts to show through Skoda-ness of it all -whether it’s the quality of the paint job, firmness of the body or the modified front suspension - even the small detailing such as the chrome and leather steering wheel. Kaipan have also sourced as many new parts as possible from the industry that helps keep the republic's 250,000 Favorits’ wheels tuning.
In the end to criticise the Kaipan 14 is perhaps to misunderstand its mission. It’s a fun car that without a roof is cheap enough to leave in the garage all winter without any family complaints; a car that in the Skoda Favorit loving world of Central and Eastern Europe has generated enough sales to enable a home-grown sports car company to survive and even grow. Not bad perhaps for a company which relies on word of mouth and reviews rather than advertising.
Kaipan themselves admit that in Western Europe the Kaipan 14 is going to be a hard sell - its Favorit-ness will put people off. Not helped by the registration documents of a new Kaipan 14 still saying that it's a very old Favorit.
Opposite in the showroom, the Lotus 7 look-a-like the Kaipan 57 shows the potential the 14 could have. The custom-built rear-wheel drive roadster with its 1.8 Skoda-Audi Turbo engine and top end specification - including a smooth new dash - combined with the body of a Kaipan 14 would make a killer combination.
With enquiries from the UK having stumbled over the Favorit dimension, this is exactly what Kaipan intend to do.
Model Kaipan 14
Price £12,000 (complete car), £4,000 (cheapest kit)
Engine Skoda Favorit 135-136
Body Composite body and steel tube frame
Transmission 5 speed, front-wheel drive
Top speed 87 mph
0-60 7.5 seconds
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