Top 10 Specialist Sports Cars
Britain’s cottage industry of specialist sports car manufacturers has produced some remarkable machines. We outline ten of the best
Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious. It’s a tired old acronym, but if anything it befits Lotus as a business much more than its products. This revered marque for so long mirrored the fortunes and motivations of its talismanic founder, Colin Chapman. His envelope-pushing tendencies were all too apparent when the Elite broke cover in October 1957. The concept of an all-glassfibre monocoque was new, the tiny coupé boasting a drag coefficient of a still credible 0.29cd. And powering this brave new world? An all-alloy four-banger conceived originally as a fireman’s pump. From a meagre 1216cc, the Elite was capable of 110mph.
AutoFact: Lotus lost money on all 1030 made to 1963.
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Ginetta G4 Series 2
This shapely tiddler was conceived in the 1950s, arrived in the early ’60s and never really left. At a time when most of its rivals are already four decades into a career lull, you can still buy a G4, albeit with a Ford Duratec engine under the flip-up front rather a pre-crossflow four-pot. Introduced in late 1960, and officially unveiled at the following January’s Racing Car Show, the G4 instantly found favour. First among developments was a hardtop, then the Lotus Eleven-like rear bodywork was junked in late ’62 in favour of an 8in longer, more rounded affair. This became known as the Series 2 edition.
AutoFact: In 1964, Ginetta introduced the race-inspired G4R version with independent rear suspension.
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Unveiled at the 1964 Racing Car Show, the timber-hulled, Volvo-engined Marcos 1800GT was intended as a stopgap until a proposed three-seater, mid-engined sports car came online. It never did as the 1800GT was greeted with acclaim. Unfortunately, the lofty £1500 asking price was a barrier to success, yet it cost more to produce. In a bid to make it more accessible, the car’s de Dion rear end was phased out in place of a live axle, but the corresponding drop in price to £1340 didn’t result in an increase in sales. Marcos was in danger of tanking so, in 1966, the much cheaper 1.5-litre Ford four-cylinder was substituted.
**AutoFact:*** Stylist Dennis Adams, together with brother Peter, also created the Probe design studies.
Founded in 1959 by butcher Giles Smith and German-born ex-Prisoner of War Bernard Friese (Gilbern being a contraction of their forenames), the first model, the GT, was based around Austin A35 components. With gradual developments to the model, culminating with the BMC B-series-powered GT1800, production ran at around one unit a week by 1965. A year on, an all-new car was launched, the Genie being a much larger 2+2 coupé with Ford V6 power. Essentially a more sophisticated variation of the Genie, the Invader went on sale in 1969 with constant developments refining the concept. The range was augmented with an estate variant from 1971, but the firm expired three years later.
AutoFact: A Trevor Fiore-styled, mid-engined car was in the throes of creation when Gilbern tanked.
The Crusader was created by a breakaway band of former Lotus men headed by Paul Haussauer. The car’s unorthodox outline was penned by John Frayling who had previously styled the Lotus Europa, while its glassfibre monocoque was largely the work of Brian Luff. Powered by an 875cc Sunbeam Stiletto four-pot, the Crusader could top 100mph thanks to its drag coefficient of just 0.32cd. The wedge wonder was well received when launched in 1971. Sadly, for all its considerable promise, the Crusader’s life was a brief one. The Fuel Crisis and a host of other outside forces killed off the Clan marque in late 1973.
AutoFact: There were several attempts at a marque revival, but none was officially sanctioned.
Elva Courier MkI-III
Launched in 1957, the capable Courier featured a glassfibre body and a tubular frame designed by marque instigators Frank Nichols and Peter Knott. Power came from a 1489cc MGA engine. The Courier MkII appeared in 1958. Powered by the latest 1622cc version of the MGA unit, the new strain was physically distinguishable from its predecessor by its curved windscreen, which replaced the previous split-screen arrangement. In 1961, Elva’s US importer failed to pay for a number of cars so there was no option but to liquidate the company. Production rights passed to Trojan Ltd, which recommenced manufacture in September of the following year with the revised MkIII.
AutoFact: ‘Elva’ was a contraction of ‘Elle Va’, French for ‘She Goes’.
Strictly speaking, the genesis of the Griffith was sparked in New York rather than the marque’s spiritual home of Blackpool. American Andrew Jackson ‘Jack’ Griffith installed a 289cu in Ford V8 into a TVR Grantura MkIII to create the Griffith 200, which went on sale in April ’64. The Griffith Car Corporation followed through with the uprated 400 seven months later, TVR having already launched its own variation – with Griffith as the model name rather than the marque identity – at the beginning of the year. The tag was dropped in January ’67 to coincide with the model’s relaunch as the Tuscan.
AutoFact: Jack Griffith found greater commercial success converting mainstream fodder into convertibles.
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The Piper marque was the brainchild of George Henrotte who, together with his business partner Bob Gayler, produced tuning parts. The move into building cars occurred after a customer commissioned a sports-racer. This, in a roundabout way, led to the GTT which featured a backbone chassis and Austin-Healey Sprite (later Ford) power. Unveiled at the 1967 Racing Car Show, the project was undone by the death of Robin Sherwood who had acquired the rights to build Pipers in series. Works manager Bill Atkinson stepped into the breach in ’69. A revised version of the GTT, the P2, arrived in 1971. The marque later operated under the Embrooke Engineering banner, the last car being made in ’74.
AutoFact: The GTT was styled by artist Tony Hilder.
The specialist sports car industry is littered with intriguing what-might-have-been stories, the 515 being among the most unfortunate. The Falcon marque had been at the vanguard of the ’50s ‘specials’ movement, but this bold coupé marked a major change of direction. Arriving at the January 1963 Racing Car Show, it featured a chassis made by Progress Engineering, 1.5-litre Ford power and styling by mysterious Brazilian Tom Rohonyi. One car was equipped with a Coventry Climax ‘four’, and there was briefly talk of a Le Mans bid, but a changing of the guard saw the model canned before it had a chance to shine.
AutoFact: Rohonyi is believed to be a fictitious name. The actual stylist was moonlighting so didn’t want to be credited.
Unveiled at the 1965 Racing Car Show, the G10 roadster was a classic in the making even if some onlookers couldn’t resist commenting upon its fuzzy likeness to an MGB. Such comments were understandable when you factor in the use of the B’s doors and windscreen. Priced at £2729, the 4.7-litre Ford V8-engined G10 wasn’t cheap but it was well equipped. Fast too, even if the speedo that read to 220mph was a touch optimistic. Unfortunately, the G10 was axed after only four cars were made. However, the model was reworked to feature MGB power and Triumph Vitesse derived front suspension. The resultant G11 didn’t fare much better, though.
AutoFact: The G10 won on its debut at Brands Hatch in 1965 when driven by Chris Meek.
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Pictures courtesy of Rota Archive