The world of low-volume specialist sports cars is a slightly weird but thoroughly wonderful niche filled to the brim with ingenuity, enthusiasm and a will to overcome any obstacle and succeed. It has led to many bizarre creations all of which share a fabulous grassroot charm, even if they don’t all share equally well-balanced looks.
First of all, I need to set one thing straight, as this is a pet hate of mine. We’re NOT talking crude kit-cars here! Some people seem to confuse these specialist sports cars and simple kit-cars, but there is in fact a difference. Specialist sports cars were produced by companies with engineered capabilities of their own. It’s where the likes of Lotus and TVR were born. Growing in the mid to late fifties, they really had their heyday in the early sixties, but then slowly started losing momentum in the early seventies before finally being killed off when new VAT rules were imposed in the UK in April 1973. Yes, these cars relied on parts from existing models produced by big corporate car manufacturers like Ford, Rootes or Triumph, and yes they were more often than not delivered in component form to their first owner, as this was a way of dodging the VAT back then. And I suppose that’s where the confusion stems from. But it’s still a very different thing than a crude and utterly out of shape Cobra-wannabe fiberglass body being grafted together in someone’s shed with mechanical components from an old clapped-out Sierra.
Okay, rant over. So let’s move on. My whole line of thought here was actually fuelled by a recent reader comment. At the end of last year, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the Ginetta G15, and one reader replied that it was a very balanced and pretty design – something which was often a challenge when designing such small sports cars and thus many had failed. I agreed with the reader then, and still do now. However, it got me thinking about many of the other British specialist sports cars of that era. While I’ve always had a thing for this interesting little niche and thus appreciate pretty much all of these wonderful creations, I’ll also happily be the first to admit, that some of them are severely aesthetically challenged to say the least.
So the G15 is in my opinion a good looking specimen of the British specialist sports car, but there are of course others. Sticking with Ginetta, I think it’s fair to say that the evergreen G4 manages to look both purposeful yet also pretty at the same time.
But other manufacturers managed great designs too. I was lucky enough to encounter one of my favourites in June of last summer at the Tatton Park Classic Car Spectacular when I came across Arthur Speakman’s stunning Falcon Caribbean mk. 4. It’s such a sleek and coherent shape, seemingly worthy of so much more than the simple Ford Popular underpinnings – but this was of course the way enthusiasts back in the late fifties and very early sixties who couldn’t afford a new TR3 or MGA, could still manage to get themselves a sports car. As such, those simple, cheap and readily available underpinnings were really a very large contributing factor to the success of cars like the Falcon Caribbean – and of course its good looks. Falcon had come along way with the Caribbean mk. 3 and mk. 4 when compared to their earlier very simple mk. 1 and mk. 2 built for the pre-war Austin Seven chassis. Not surprisingly this lead to the Caribbean becoming Falcon’s best seller, during its production run between 1959 – 1963. It’s another one of those “almost-made-it” stories from the world of small specialist companies trying to establish themselves as proper car manufacturers. Sadly, Falcon only managed one more model after the Caribbean, but even the bold design of their 515 wasn’t enough and the company folded in 1964.
Another shapely and beautiful specimen of the British specialist sports car is the Tornado Talisman. They started out with the Typhoon in 1958 followed up by the Tempest and the Thunderbolt shortly after. Excellent names, but seeing as I’m focusing only on aesthetics rather than marketing and engineering, I think it’s fair to say that none of these were ever in risk of winning the beauty pageant. That all changed in 1962 with the introduction of the very handsome Talisman 2+2. Stakes were high but Tornado gambled it all in an attempt to make the transition into a fully-fledged car manufacturer. Besides the shapely new fastback design, the Talisman also offered a brand new chassis utilising a slightly redesigned independent rear suspension from the Typhoon, and it even became the first production car to use a Cosworth-tuned engine as standard. With that Cosworth magic, the 1340 cc Ford engine resulted in strong performance from the compact GT, and the interior was extremely well appointed with a comfortable driving position, decent sound-deadening and leather bucket seats. It was very much the complete package and thus received a very warm reception from the motoring press. To further emphasise the move upmarket, the vast majority of Talisman ended up being delivered to their first owners as fully-assembled cars, even though they were still available in component form. The downside was of course the cost. With the Talisman, Tornado suddenly found themselves competing against much bigger and well-established car manufacturers. Towards the end of 1964, with only 186 Tornado Talisman seeing the light of day, it was all over for the promising little specialist manufacturer.
This next one is perhaps a bit of a joker in the company of the Caribbean and the Talisman. Luckily we all have differing tastes, but I suspect fewer enthusiasts will agree with me on this one. Admitted, even I can see that the diminutive Rochdale Olympic is not as elegant and mature a design as the two others. But I can’t help myself – since the very first time I saw one in the flesh, I was hooked! I regard the design as the front end of a Porsche 356 grafted on to the rear of a Jaguar E-type fhc, then left in your shrinking machine a little too long, and finally given a light sprinkling of Ugly Duckling dust. Hey Presto! – you’ve got the Rochdale Olympic. No, it’s perhaps not stunningly elegant, but it makes you smile as it’s cute with a distinct sporting character. It just looks plain cheeky. It was also Rochdale’s most ambitious engineering feat as it offered a full monocoque fibreglass body of similar construction to the innovative Lotus Elite introduced only a couple of years before the Rochdale. Only the Elite needed several metal components within the shell for reinforcement, while the Olympic only had a single metal roll-bar incorporated into the windshield pillars. For Rochdale, the Olympic also represented a departure from Ford Popular underpinnings, as the Olympic in most cases made use of the BMC B-series engine from the Riley 1.5, along with front suspension and steering based on that from a Minor for the Olympic Phase 1, and a Triumph set-up with disc brakes on the front for the Olympic Phase 2. This neat little package resulted in strong performance and even better handling characteristics. From introduction in 1960, only about 400 cars were built, with production practically coming to a halt by 1967, even though the Olympic was in theory available right up until 1973, at which point Rochdale had totally ceased their car production.
How do you view these British specialist sports cars from the fifties, sixties and early seventies? Are they all merely crude kit-cars to you? Or do they represent engineering ingenuity and the physical outcome of the British love-affair with the sports car? Do you perhaps have a favourite? Or maybe you have even owned one, or still do? In which case we would love to hear some tales and experiences from your ownership…