On Forgeries, Replicas, Lookalikes and Kitcars

Many if not most classic car enthusiasts are dismissive of kit cars and replicas, but C&R contends that this is short-sighted.

I have been writing about kit cars in both British and American kitcar magazines for decades, and the British kitcar industry in particular is at the leading edge of automotive design. Appearing now are exoskeletal cars with superbike engines and power-to-weight ratios that make current Ferraris look like lawn tractors. I have enjoyed watching men in unstructured Armani suits making notes at kitcar shows, and seeing stolen ideas appear on production sports cars five years later.

The current holder of the 0-100mph-0 title is a British kit car, the Ultima. It went from zero to 100mph and back to stationary again in 9.941 seconds, faster than a Bugatti Veyron*. It’s also faster than the usual Maclaren/Enzo suspects off the line, with a quarter-mile time of 9.941 seconds at 143mph. 0-60 is 2.6 seconds. All of those times were achieved on street tyres, with a standard Ultima-pricelist engine, and not by a professional driver but by the bloke who owns the company. The cost of lifting a leg over the world’s top supercars is about 10% of a Veyron, and you can build an Ultima in your garage at home.

This Ultima is a pure kitcar, not a replica or a lookalike. It goes much faster than Ferraris, costs about 90% less and you can build it in your garage if you’re clever enough.

The freedom to innovate, to push the boundaries and to create ferociously quick and competent cars is relished by kitcar designers, most of whom will simply not tolerate the restrictions applied to in-house production car designers by accountants and other suits. The one thing that all kitcar manufacturers have in common is that they’re unemployable.

Being snotty about kitcars is like choosing Marks and Spencer’s strawberry jam over the stuff you buy at a village fete. M&S production jam is sensible, safe and nice and has no lumps in it, but it doesn’t have quite the flavour of the handmade stuff, which is also much cheaper. However, not much more will be said about kitcars in Classics and Restorations: they’re mostly not yet classics and they rarely need restoring. And, it has to be said, many of them are horrible.

It could be argued that Lotus have never evolved beyond the kitcar stage, as they have yet to manufacture their own engine: TVR did evolve to the next stage with their own engines, partly because of owner Peter Wheeler’s disinclination to buy Rover engines from Germans and partly because he wanted to get away from the kitcar stigma applied by the ill-informed. A good question is whether TVRs were up to kitcar standards: yes, they definitely were. Hand-made tubular chassis, sculptural hand-made fibreglass bodywork, bloody fast and hard with track-bred handling – yes, that’s still a kitcar. The original spirit of Lotus lives on with Caterham, who still make vehicles fast and hard enough to qualify as proper British kitcars.

 

This is a Lotus Seven. No it’s not, it’s a Caterham. What’s the difference? Nothing. Caterhams are continuation Lotus Sevens with a different name. Is it a replica? Yes and no. Is it a lookalike? No. Is it a kitcar? Oh, yes. It’s fast enough and hard enough. 

 

Replicas are another matter. Even the nomenclature is messy: most replicas are really lookalikes. It’s possible to buy a genuinely replicated Cobra, but it needs to be an aluminium-bodied Polish-made Kirkham with their authentic 100%-copied reproduction AC chassis, not the improved and stiffened version, and it needs a replica side-oiler 427CI Ford big-block.

These Kirkhams were also re-badged and sold by Shelby. As were South African plastic-bodied kitcars made by Superformance in South Africa. It’s up to you how authentic you believe these are. If Shelby put his plate on an accurate replica of his 1960s cars, it definitely lent some authenticity: after all, Shelby put Ford V8 engines in AC Aces in the 1960s, and he has done the same thing again in the 2000s with Kirkhams and Superformances, so in that sense they’re as authentic as the earlier cars.

Pur Sang in Argentina make lovely replicas of Bugattis. They’re good enough to become forgeries. The difference between a 100% replica and a forgery is merely a matter of when the people selling them start telling lies. As soon as the financial value of car exceeds the cost of creating a forgery, there will be forgeries.

The question of authenticity also comes up with cars that have had major restorations: I recently became less excited by my restored 1938 MG TA when I worked out that the average date of its components was about 1955. With serious Bugattis and Bentleys, given the possible low percentage of an original car remaining and the ethical standards of some of those involved in classic cars, you would want to tread with care. If you just want the flavour and the spirit, no worries.

A replica that is not identical to an original is really a lookalike. However, the word “replica” is in common usage for lookalikes, so we’ll go with it.

Having spent much time over the last few years lunching with the owners of some serious classic cars, their attitude has rubbed off on me, and the lookalike Cobra I’ve been working on has deliberately drifted away from replication into something that is related to the original Ace/Cobra body shape but not much more than that: it will be lower, fatter, violently turbocharged with high-octane propane, and all it shares with Cobras is the body outline and being grossly overpowered. The further it gets from a Cobra, the happier I am: but retaining John Tojeiro’s sublime AC Ace proportions and lines is a good place to start for a special. (www.ayrspeed.com)

Is this a Cobra? No, it’s a kit lookalike, from Cobretti in the UK. It has a stiffer chassis, a stronger engine, much better suspension, brakes, ride and handling, and a motoring writer with a pathetic income could afford to buy, build and thrash it. (www.Cobrettiviperv8.com

If you see a Cobra on the street, it’s a replica. The originals are too valuable and too rare to be risked on the street among texters and drunks, and several owners of real Cobras drive around in replicas because that’s still fun. Nobody but the seriously rich can afford a real Cobra, but thousands of Cobra enthusiasts can play on the street with a tribute that is top fun: do we begrudge them that on the grounds of missing authenticity? That’s a personal decision.

My 1990s Cobretti was a fake, and didn’t even have the right brand of engine in it: a Chevrolet 350 offers  much more bang per buck. The fun of thundering around in it definitely wasn’t fake, though.

As well as building a couple of Cobra replicas, I also designed and manufactured a few Jaguar XK120 lookalikes. I wouldn’t do it again, because authenticity has become more important. At the time, I thought the XK120 was one of the most beautiful cars ever, and I wanted to look at one every morning before I drove it to work. With a real post-vintage Jag, you don’t try to drive it to work. The chance of being able to complete an entire journey every day would be low, and the drive would be uncomfortable: a real XK120 is a body styling exercise that slipped by the accountants and into production, and it’s based on a high, shortened saloon chassis. At 5’ 10”, the top screen frame is exactly across my line of vision because the screen’s too low and the seat’s too high.

I wanted an XK120, but a better version of it. So I copied the reference panels of a Jag restorer in Coventry, and replicated the bodywork in GRP. I then designed a new chassis in which the floor was below rather than above the chassis rails, dropping the floor and the seats by some 7”. I also used XJ6 independent front and rear suspension, and the 1970s iteration of the original XK engine.

My own XK120 lookalike, visually accurate to the gorgeous original 1948 lines, but powered by later Jaguar mechanicals. Ultimately disappointing: changing from authentic but flawed XK power to a Rover V8 power improved reliability, power, balance and handling, but lost the Jaguar flavour. 

The result was visually accurate, and was taken for the real thing at a car show by Philip Porter, which I took as a major compliment. “Here comes a gorgeous, very early XK120,” he announced over the tannoy as I rumbled past the grandstand behind a Daimler scout car. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid it’s a fake,” I said to the mike that was pointed at me. “I made it out of fibreglass and bits of XJ6.”

The 1970s Jaguar mechanics proved inadequate: I would have been better off with an earlier 3.4 or 3.8 XK engine than the bored-out-too-far 4.2. Jags have traditionally provided tremendous performance and extraordinary value for money, but that had to be at the expense of quality, particularly in the 1970s. In the end, my third failed 4.2-litre engine ended up in a skip and was replaced by a Rover V8, which made it a much better car but no longer a Jaguar, and the car was sold, a disappointment.

Nowadays I’d rather either have the real thing, even if it’s a bit nasty, or drive something inspired by a body style but visibly a completely different car.

My current Cobra-related project retains the recognisable basic body shape, but is lower, wider, slightly longer, has a backbone spaceframe chassis and uses a Japanese four-cylinder propane-fuelled extreme-turbocharged 1600c screamer rather than a 1950s truck engine. It’s the Cobra’s psychopathic brother who has escaped from the attic. Is it authentic? No. Is it a proper kitcar? Yes.

 

With a 300+bhp 1600cc engine turbocharged to 30lbs on 110-octane propane gas, engine bay heat is a problem. The cold-air intake is now at the front, so the scoop can be reversed so that the low-pressure area in front of the windscreen can be used to extract hot engine-bay air.

*Is a Veyron actually a Bugatti at all? The last “proper” Bugatti was built in 1962, then after 25 years of silence, the badge rights were bought by an Italian, who went bust a few years later. The badge was then bought by VW.  Current “Bugattis” have a plastic body and a VW engine, so purists might say they have more in common with a beach buggy than a real Bugatti.

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