Reprinted from Practical Classics, May 2011
A magazine specialising in new cars gets regular offers of the latest models to test. The manufacturers want to get their products to a wide audience as soon as they can, and obviously a whole automotive PR and marketing industry has grown up around this relationship. But the little guys, the ones with the cottage-industry products and the mad ideas, want a look-in too. Sometimes they are such no-hopers that publications just couldn’t justify giving them the space. Opinions on this could vary when I was at motor in the Eighties. I tended to give the hopeful creators a fair hearing, but maybe I was just too soft. My then road test editor colleague was similarly sympathetic, but the technical editor (who outranked the road tested) had a heart of stone.
So it was that one particular string-andglue kit car was sent away, with its designer, having made a long journey to our office. ‘Take it away! We don’t want it!’ were the words that rang in the unfortunate man’s ears. Some cars, however, showed promise. Remember the Clan Crusader, the Imp-based cuneiform coupe with the glassfibre monococque? The County Durham-based manufacturer fizzled out in the Seventies but one Peter McCandless in Newtownards, Northern Ireland acquired the design (a process by which hangs another tale) and started to make improved versions in 1984. I drove one and it was great. McCandless, buoyed by enthusiasm, set about developing the next model, to be called Clan Clover. Into a flared-arch mutant of the original body design was now inserted, in mid-engined fashion, an Alfasud flat-four and matching transmission (hence ‘Clover’, as in leaf). And I was first to test it, the car having been sent over to the Alfa Romeo dealer nearest to motor’s office. it revved, it rasped, it showed every sign of being the mid-engined sports car Alfa itself should surely build. But not for long. it misfired at high speed or under full load or if it rained. The throttle stuck open unless you hooked your foot behind the pedal to pull it shut. The driver’s side wiper flew off, to be crushed by a following Marina. The glass rear hatch, under which sat the engine, jammed shut.
And more … but the best part was the retractable headlamps, which would flap up and down when you turned them off, one slightly more rapidly than the other. Once they were in phase you could remove the motor fuse, unless you were travelling at speed on the M25 with nowhere to stop and get out. it was great for clearing a path through traffic, not so good in the traffic jam a mile further on. The Clover’s final ignominy came when Alfa Romeo GB took issue with the Alfa badge on the nose, and the company folded shortly after we ran our story. All I did was report as I found, but I still feel a bit guilty.Later on, at Carweek in the early Nineties, I reported on a new Tatra plan (so to speak) to bring new Tatra 613s to the UK. This involved developing a fuel-injection and catalyst system and bringing the interior up to the standard of luxury expected at the high price that would have to be charged.
“It revved,it rasped, it showed every sign of being the mid-engined
sports car Alfa itself should surely build”
Free-spirited engineers Tim Bishop and Chris Partington (both great two-stroke experts, incidentally, a habit they still indulge in today) were the scheme’s architects and I duly arrived at Tim’s workshop for a drive in the enormous, square-cut, metallic blue saloon with its potent air-cooled VS hanging out the back. As a lover of curious cars I thoroughly enjoyed the Tatra. But it was never going to work as a business idea, because the people it was notionally aimed at wouldn’t have tolerated the vague steering, the tail-wagsdog handling and the approximate fit and finish. Post-communist irony can work, but not at that price. Predictably, the project vanished without trace. Sometimes, though, a breath of brilliance comes from nowhere. I’d never heard of Pete Waller and his Sussex Performance Engineering company before he called me in 1987, but his tuned Mini SX (1380cc, single SU HIF6, torque-optimised camshaft and trick exhaust) blew us all away. Forget a CooperS; this was how a hot Mini worked best. The Mini SX retailed for £5862 plus £185 for Minilite-style wheels … and only 35 were made before SPE closed. 0951 WRP, where are you now? Actually, it’s at Anglia Car Auctions’ premises in Norfolk – and it’s for sale. Call 01553 771881 or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you fancy it. That’s if I don’t get there first.