Road-legal racing cars for speed junkies

These speed machines make driving feel like pure sport. Simon de Burton reports. Photography by Duncan Elliott

The author test-drives Briggs Automotive Company’s Mono, from £135,950
The author test-drives Briggs Automotive Company’s Mono, from £135,950

According to Ian Fleming’s description of the Bentley Continental driven by 007 in the 1961 novel Thunderball, “Bond had the most selfish car in England.” But were Fleming alive today, he would have to concede that Bond’s Continental, with its “trim, rather square” convertible body, power-operated roof and two “large armed bucket seats in black leather”, has been thoroughly surpassed in the selfishness stakes by the car in which I recently had the ride of my life (albeit one during which I was preoccupied with not going sideways on the rain-drenched roads of Runcorn, Cheshire).

The single-seater Briggs Automotive Company’s Mono is made in Britain
The single-seater Briggs Automotive Company’s Mono is made in Britain

Indeed, the BAC Mono is probably not only the most selfish (road-legal) car in England, but in the entire world. As its name implies, it has but one seat. There’s no roof of any description, and no windscreen either. There are no doors, there’s certainly no heater – and it looks as though it has no right to be out and about on the public highway. Yet, despite its apparent shortcomings as a road car, the Mono is attracting steadily more attention. Now, as the upgraded 2017 model enters production, more than 70 Monos have been sold, the Briggs Automotive Company is running at a profit and the build rate is predicted to grow from two-and-a-half cars per month to four cars per month by the end of the year.

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In the grand scheme of automobile manufacture these numbers are, of course, minuscule. But the fact that there are people who will happily pay £135,950 for a base model Mono bears testament to the fact that, for those who really, really love driving for driving’s sake, less is undoubtedly more.

Neill Briggs – who created the Mono in partnership with his brother Ian – at the marque’s factory
Neill Briggs – who created the Mono in partnership with his brother Ian – at the marque’s factory

And you don’t get much less of a car than the Mono, because it weighs in at a gossamer 580kg – that’s 775kg lighter than Porsche’s hugely capable 718 Boxster, for example. Its ultra-rigid chassis is made from an artfully welded network of tubing draped in a featherweight body of carbon fibre and foam, with a six-speed Hewland racing gearbox and a 2.5-litre Ford Duratec engine producing 305 brake horsepower. The result is nothing short of a road-bound jet fighter that accelerates from standstill to 60mph in 2.7 seconds and scorches to a top speed of 170mph – yet, despite such track-ready performance, the Mono is remarkably easy to drive (once, that is, you become familiar with the almost supine seating position and the fact that you’re controlling it from the middle, rather than with a steering wheel on the left or right).

Caterham Seven 620S, from £45,495
Caterham Seven 620S, from £45,495

The British-made Mono is the brainchild of brothers Neill and Ian Briggs, who were born in Widnes, just 8km from the 1,000sq m factory where the cars are now built. “We came from a humble background,” explains Neill. “My father worked at ICI and had an interest in motorsport, which he developed from the age of eight after seeing Stirling Moss win the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955. He passed that interest on to us, together with a fascination with designing and making things – he made everything, including our furniture and even a motorhome so he could take us on holiday. He would always allow us to help and explained how things fitted together, which enabled us to understand the way they worked. And it was our father who encouraged us to combine our interests with our careers.”

The Caterham Seven Academy’s £24,995-plus price tag covers the cost of competing in an annual race series
The Caterham Seven Academy’s £24,995-plus price tag covers the cost of competing in an annual race series | Image: Caterham Cars

As a result, Neill used his talent for maths and physics to earn a place studying mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester, while Ian capitalised on an innate ability to visualise by enrolling on Coventry’s world-renowned industrial design course. Having completed their studies, the pair followed highly successful careers in the automotive world (plus a stint in yacht design for Ian), before experiencing a “desperate itch” to pool their skills and create a car that “worked as well on the road as it does on the track”.

Ariel Motor Company Atom 3.5, from £34,000
Ariel Motor Company Atom 3.5, from £34,000

“The idea was to design a car for the luxury market that existed purely for the joy of the machine – a car in which driving becomes a sport,” says Neill. “So we took out the legacy of transportation and tried to visualise how a car would look if it were made solely for the pleasure of driving. We never thought that it should be anything other than a single seater and, because no such road car existed, we took influence from outside the automotive sector – in particular, we looked at jet planes and superbikes.”

The KTM X-Bow RR, €115,800
The KTM X-Bow RR, €115,800 | Image: Joel Kernasenko

From the outset, the car was designed to be user-friendly and surprisingly comfortable, its light weight allowing for compliant suspension and also ensuring that wear and tear on components is minimal – to the point that none of the cars in circulation has even needed to have its brake pads replaced, despite many thousands of miles of hard driving on road and track. “We have customers who don’t go near a road with their cars, and others who don’t go near a race track,” says Neill. “One German owner covered 9,000 miles in eight months, just touring in his Mono around areas such as the Alps and the Black Forest.”

Lotus 3-Eleven, from £91,900, which has a top speed of more than 170mph
Lotus 3-Eleven, from £91,900, which has a top speed of more than 170mph | Image: Group Lotus

Typically, buyers are aged between 35 and 65, own eight to 10 cars and are highly successful, self-made business types who appreciate the Mono’s status as the only single-seat road car on the market – and, in particular, the fact that each one is effectively bespoke. “Every seat is made for the specific client by the same technicians who make the seats for F1 drivers. The body can be finished in any colour or design, and every customer knows that their car will be looked after by one of the people who built it because of our ‘flying doctor’ facility – when a car needs servicing or repairing, we just put an engineer on a plane and they turn up at the owner’s home to do the work.”

The Lotus 3-Eleven, from £91,900
The Lotus 3-Eleven, from £91,900 | Image: Group Lotus

But while the Mono is unique in concept and design, it is but one offering in an automotive niche slowly being filled by cars that represent the antithesis of the fully integrated, high-tech, safety-feature-laden “transport solutions” that many of us travel in today. One of the most successful is the Caterham Seven, which has evolved from Colin Chapman’s original Lotus design of 60 years ago. The bestselling version in the UK, with 56 being delivered per year, is the Academy model, which is a £24,995-plus road-legal track car, the purchase of which includes the cost of competing in the annual Caterham Academy race series.

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“The Seven remains relevant and is more popular than ever for the simple reason that, as modern motoring moves ever closer to the autonomous, an increasing number of people realise they want to own a car that they can really enjoy and have fun with,” says David Ridley, Caterham’s chief commercial officer. “The Academy cars are limited to 56 units annually and are sold exclusively to novices who want to learn to race. The price includes the costs of the race season, and we never have difficulty finding buyers – there are already 40 orders on the books for 2018. The next bestseller is the 620 [620S, from £45,495, and see “Seventh Heaven: The new Caterham 620R” on Howtospendit.com], which is an extreme-performance model that has brought us younger, wealthy buyers who want a pure fun car to use alongside their daily vehicles.”

Somerset-based Ariel Motor Company, meanwhile, is experiencing great demand for its remarkable Atom. Launched in 2000 by engineer Simon Saunders, Ariel has steadily grown to the point that it now makes around 100 cars per year, with its latest Atom – the 3.5 – starting at £34,000. “My father founded the business at a time when track days were becoming popular – and interest has grown steadily because people are looking for a departure from their day-to-day, sanitised vehicles,” says Ariel co-director Tom Siebert.

“The Atom was designed as a road car for the track, rather than being a track car for the road like, say, a Radical [see “The Daily Beast” on Howtospendit.com]. It’s all about driver involvement, meaning every input results in a response – which is completely unlike a modern saloon car – and that makes it very engaging. It has also proved successful because it is an extremely reliable and easy-to-use product. Nowadays, people don’t want to have to pick up spanners and get covered in oil, they just want something they can get in and drive when they feel like having fun. The other aspect that appeals is that the residual values of the cars are very strong. We recently advertised a 2010 model for £33,950 that only cost £6,000 more when it was new. This low depreciation, combined with annual servicing at around £600, means people can buy an Atom and have several years of enjoyment with it for very little cost.”

Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM, meanwhile, had an unexpected hit on its hands with the launch of the extreme X-Bow car (RR model, €115,800). All 100 cars in the initial limited edition had sold before the first one rolled off the production line. The vehicle, which features a full carbon composite monocoque and a chassis developed by Italian sports car specialist Dallara, is built at the rate of around 100 units per year.

But since the aforementioned Colin Chapman effectively invented the concept of the car for the pure joy of driving, in the form of the versatile road-or-track Lotus Seven, many will see the modern marque’s latest take on the theme as the obvious choice for thrill-a-mile driving. Inspired by Chapman’s aluminium-bodied road-legal Eleven model of 1956, Lotus’s 3-Eleven is available as both a pure race car for £126,700 or in road-legal format for £91,900, each with a 3.5-litre supercharged engine that endows it with a top speed of over 170mph. Just 311 will be built, it’s the most expensive production road car Lotus has ever made, with the fastest acceleration, and it’s described by CEO Jean-Marc Gales as a car that condenses the marque’s engineering know-how into a hardcore package that, he admits, “won’t suit everyone”.

Which surely sums up the thinking behind this entire breed of unashamedly “selfish” sports cars – because they owe their existence to drivers who, now and then, don’t want to be “everyone”. Even on a rainy day in Runcorn.

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