Name: Adam Wilkins
Journalist since: October 2000
Current cars: Mazda MX-5, Ford Mondeo, Sylva Riot
Favourite marque: Lotus
Favourite UK circuit: Cadwell Park
Website designed & built by www.pandacreativeltd.co.uk
Jeremy Phillips is a name you will either have heard of or not depending on whether you are a ‘kit car person.’ He’s a highly talented engineer and has spent the last three decades designing lightweight sports cars with uncanny handling abilities. Since 1981, Sylva Autokits has established a terrific reputation for building brilliant specialist sports cars. Despite the fact that his recognition deserves to be much wider, the chances are you’ll only know that if you’re a ‘kit car person.’ I am, and I own a Sylva Riot.
Why am I telling you about Jeremy? One of the many astute things he has told me is that, in some social circumstances, you confess to any professional involvement in the kit car industry in slightly embarrassed, hushed tones. And, having written about kit cars for the last 13 years, I know where he’s coming from. It shouldn’t be this way: there are many very good kit cars and there are many very talented engineers in the kit car industry. I could beat the drum right now for the next eleventeen paragraphs about why you should take a closer look at the modern kit car industry… but sometimes it’s just easier and less exhausting not to bother. Besides, often the response is rolled eyes and a ‘yeah, well you would say that, you’re a kit car person.’
And that’s why I’ve really enjoyed the passionate, positive and enthusiastic videos recently published to YouTube by Autocar magazine’s Steve Sutcliffe. He’s not a kit car person (well, perhaps he is a little – he built one of Jeremy’s early designs, a Sylva Leader, in the ’80s) and yet he clearly really gets it. He sees the appeal of the big-hitting, fine-handling cars produced by the cream of today’s kit car industry, and how they offer something totally different to the increasingly nannying sports cars from the mainstream industry. When somebody who is paid to drive Ferraris and Porsches and Lamborghinis jumps into a Gardner Douglas, Lister Bell or XCS and gets wide-eyed about their capabilities, it makes my life a little easier when I’m cornered and trying to explain that some home-built sports cars are actually very good.
I'd read the buyers' guides, weighed up the risks and decided I was going to give in to the temptation of a cheap Mazda RX-8. OK, the threat of catastrophic engine failure would loom overhead, fuel consumption would be financially crippling and oil consumption even more so. But the chance to own a new-ish, technically interesting performance car for £1200 was a major draw.
At the last minute, I bottled it. My detailed research had been for nothing and I opted instead to take the safe route; I'd buy a bullet-proof MX-5 instead. Without even thinking to read a buyers' guide, I headed to north west London to view a temptingly cheap example advertised on Gumtree. The warning signs were all there... the car had obviously had a respray at some stage (blue paint showed through the flaking red that was fading to pink, and there was overspray everywhere) and it had a noticible lack of power at low revs. But for £700 (after haggling), you can't expect concours. Besides, in other areas it seemed solid enough. It didn't have the tinworm that afflict so many MX-5s. It had obviously been a long time since it had been anyone's pride and joy, but MX-5s last forever, right?
It lasted a month before it was off the road with engine failure. If you too are going to buy an MX-5 without conducting any research, I'd urge you to at least Google 'short nose crank.' Strangely, this is where choosing the MX-5 over the RX-8 suddenly made a lot of sense. I've no idea how much a used RX-8 engine is, but £150 was all it cost for complete replacement engine for the roadster, and swapping them took just two and a half days.
Full disclosure. It took a day to (almost) remove the engine in early 2011, and the other day and half to complete the job was in the summer of 2012. It was two and half days spread over more than a year, and in between times it lay forlorn and forgotten on the driveway. Without the help of some good friends – James Hayward and James Cribb both deserve name-checks here – it would still be growing moss today.
By now, the MX-5 wasn't my favourite car, and even after getting back on the road it hasn't showered itself in glory. A broken coil spring has left the handling a little imprecise and it has a strange fuelling issue below 3000rpm. There's more: the heater doesn't work, the air conditioning was a casualty of the engine swap and the driver's side electric window has gone on strike.
It had one shot at redemption: a week-long holiday in Scotland. If there's anywhere an agile soft-top sports car should shine, it's on deserted Highland roads. And finally, it happened. Thoughts of getting shot of it evaporated, and I finally decided that the little Mazda and I might get on with each other after all. For all that, the MX-5 (or at least this MX-5) isn't the car I thought I was buying. Where I was expecting a dynamically superb little sports car, what I've actually got is something that's showing its age but is rather endearing as a consequence. The foibles add to, rather the detract from, the experience. I enjoy owing it, but it's no RX-8.
I’ve long been of the opinion that life is too short to own the same car twice. With so many different ownership experiences out there, why would you want to get hung up on one marque and return to it time and again? There’s one, maybe two, exceptions to my self-imposed rule. The Mini I had when I was 17 was proving too unreliable for the 100-mile daily commute I was inflicting upon it, so it had to be sold to fund something a little more modern and reliable (and dull). When it sold, I vowed that one day I would own another. Similarly, the Lotus Elise that I sold after two years is an itch that I never quite finished scratching.
But it’s the Mini that I really I have unfinished business with. My old Mayfair may have been rusty, musty and faded, but it was my first car and therefore holds a special place in my heart. Buying another is a thought I’ve laid to rest for over a decade – until a friend threw me the keys to the Mini (pictured) that he had just acquired in part exchange for, somewhat incomprehensibly, a Saab 9-5 estate.
As soon as I parked myself in the unsupportive seat and settled into that peculiar posture over the near-horizontal steering wheel, it could have been the year 2000 again. In 2013, I might be older, fatter and balder, but in my mind I was 17. I half expected to tune to Radio One and find it playing Freestyler by the Bomfunk MCs, just as it did almost relentlessly during my summer with the Mini.
It doesn’t matter that a Mini is utterly flawed by modern standards. The ride might be appaling, the brakes woeful and a Euro NCAP rating a distant dream. None of that is of any consequence because there’s no modern car that compares dynamically. The total lack of inertia and immediate mechanical reaction to every input makes the car – and its driver – feel alive. You don’t need to be going fast to have fun and, as a driver’s car, that makes it as relevant now as it’s ever been.
That night, I came closer than ever to breaking my rule of never going back. The magnet that is Car and Classic drew me in and I lingered for ages on an advert for a Mini that looked just like mine… the same (horrible) burgundy paint, the same biscuit colour interior and same grey bumpers and grille. Unlike F396 JUF, it didn’t come complete with dents and rust and a driver’s door that didn’t quite shut properly. This one had just 12,000 miles on the clock and a £3800 asking price. That’s an awful lot more than the £950 I paid for my old car, and it was enough to put me off owning the same car twice.
The temptation is always to park it round the corner. That way I don’t have to fend off comments about the fading paint, rusting wheelarches and gaffer-taped bumpers. Yet I feel a pang of disloyalty every time I try to disassociate myself from such a reliable servant.
I bought my 1998 Ford Mondeo estate in 2009. It was only intended to be a spare car, used only when its large boot or tow bar needed to be called upon for load lugging and pulling my race car on a trailer. But when I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse on my daily driver of the time, a Toyota MR2 Roadster, I decided to put the old Ford into regular use. Just as a stop-gap, you understand.
Three and a half years and almost 80,000 miles later, it’s still in daily use – and I don’t care who knows it, I love it. It was outwardly tatty when I bought it, and I quickly felt liberated by not caring whatsoever about the cosmetic condition of my car. Where previously I’d choose a parking space with the utmost care – never leaving the car near a supermarket door or next to an MPV – today I care not a jot whether somebody bashes the car’s flanks with their car door or trolley. I’d barely notice a new scratch or dent, and even if I did it would struggle to raise a concerned shrug.
I’m ashamed to confess that the neglect extends to the old nag’s mechanicals. It had a new cambelt when I bought it, but since then it has been treated to no preventative maintenance whatsoever. Bulbs, tyres and a bit of welding to satisfy the MoT tester are as far as my shoestring ‘bangernomic’ budget have stretched. Oil is never changed, merely topped up. And the punishment for such a lack of mechanical sympathy? Two flat batteries in three and a half years. Every day, I’m astonished that the thing keeps going.
But keep going it does. Quietly cruising on the motorway or even attacking B-roads with disproportionate competence (all things being relative). From the inside, you can blissfully forget its down-at-heel outward appearance. It cost me £575 and if it dies tomorrow I’ve had terrific value. If it makes through yet another MoT, it owes me nothing.
But the reason every petrolhead should embrace a crap car is not to indulge in sadistic mechanical abuse. That bit, I admit, I find a little hard to justify. No, the reason is because the Mondeo has facilitated so much of my petrolhead activity. It’s towed multiple project cars, its boot has lugged a replacement engine for my MX-5 from the other end of the country and it has made two trips to Le Mans loaded to the gunwales with camping gear and people. I’ve been tempted to replace it with a more desirable estate, but then I’d be unhappy about an old engine spilling its oil all over the boot carpet. Most importantly, though, is this: the less you spend on the car you need, the more you have left for the car you want.
Explaining away a decrepit daily driver is a small price to pay.
Having reached a decade old, the Lamborghini had outlasted several generations of rivals from Ferrari. That means you can buy a current model at substantially cut prices if you opt for a second-hand model. Who couldn’t be tempted by a contemporary Lambo at £50k? Assuming you have that kind of money to spare, of course. The full piece is at FortyOneSix.com
It’s always fun searching the classifieds for cars that have reached the bottom of their depreciation curve. Surely the Porsche 944 falls into that category, meaning you can buy with your head (it’s an investment) and your heart (it’s a fine handling Porsche). What’s stopping you? More at FortyOneSix.com
There’s one way to short-cut to classic status – make it out of an existing classic. That’s what Rover did in the 1990s with the MGB derived MG RV8. Today, it makes for an interesting curio. I elaborate at FortyOneSix.com
Future Classic: Ford Racing Puma 4 January 2013
Special bodywork, bespoke engine tuning and some rallying heritage. The Ford Racing Puma came close to carrying the iconic RS badge. If it had, its status would be guaranteed. As it stands, it’s a special bit of kit that can be bought for a bargain price. My Future Classics piece can be seen on FortyOneSix.com