25th March 2022

The rise of the kit car: The humble homegrown hero

In the 1960s and 70s, a new style of humble homegrown hero began to rapidly infiltrate the imagination of countless motoring enthusiasts. The kit car craze gave the world some truly interesting machines, and while the traditional style of build isn’t as popular today, all have a place in the British motoring history books.

The rise of the kit car was partly down to the way new cars were being built. In the days before galvanised bodywork and 7-year warranties, it was common for a vehicle’s drivetrain to outlast its sheet metal. Manufacturers began to emerge, offering home-build kits that could integrate with common donor vehicles, featuring rust-resistant GRP fibreglass body panels. Suddenly, that MOT-failure Cortina looked less like a problem child, and more like a blank canvas.

The idea that you could transform a family saloon into a two-seater sports car, equipped with little more than some tubular steel, fibreglass panels and a set of instructions, was quite inspirational. Hundreds of small companies such as Banham, Dutton and Rickman began to bring their own ideas to the table.

The Volkswagen Beetle became a common donor, thanks perhaps to its simplicity, popularity, and pear-like propensity to rot in period. The Sterling Nova launched in 1971 and was perhaps the most memorable example of Beetle-based kit, available to buy off the shelf for an incredible 26-year period. Externally the Nova looked worlds apart from its humble underpinnings, its striking, futuristic body demonstrating the versatility of fibreglass. Then there was the Covin, which made use of the Beetle’s rear engine, rear drive layout, in a bodyshell that emulated the original Porsche 911 Turbo.

Another hugely popular kit car was the Robin Hood, a budget Lotus Seven replica from a Ford Sierra donor. Shifting 500 units each year by the late 1990s, the Robin Hood kit contained almost everything you’d need to build your own lightweight sports car – with all other parts contained within one of the nation’s best-selling and widely-available saloon cars.

Other companies followed suit, and the ‘locost’ was born – a nickname you may seen given to myriad Seven-style kits. A book around the same period titled ‘Build your own sports car for as little as £250’ further captured imaginations, encapsulating the true spirit of the home-built special.

If you’re in the market for a kit car today, you’ll still find a range of companies offering all manner of recreations and racers. You may want to save yourself the trouble and find one pre-built – if so, be careful of who did the heavy lifting. Look for one with a detailed build history, and information about the donor car if applicable.

What's your opinion on kit cars? We'd love to hear in the comments below.

I love Kit Cars, whilst there are the good, the bad and the ugly, there are many very worthy examples produced from the 70s on. I'd say I am the current proud owner of one of the most extreme Kit Cars still available to this day... an Ultima GTR, not just any Ultima GTR (they are all unique), but the very first factory-built example as seen on https://www.ultimasports.co.uk and on the GTR sales brochure. This car was developed and built by the Ultima Sports factory in 1998/9, first registered in 1999, used as a prototype for the new GTR model range, tested at MIRA and also used as the factory GTR demonstrator. This car featured in Which Kit magazines (May & November 1999) EVO magazine Le Man's trip (March 2000) and was test-driven by Tiff Needell on BBC’s Top Gear in 2000, so it has just a little bit of provenance! I’ve been a keen fan of Ultima’s since I first heard of them back in the mid-’80s. But having had the privilege to see and experience an Ultima Sport with an SBC V8 on track in France in the mid-’90s, I knew then I had to have one! It took a little while, but after various motorsport activities and a stint at racing in Sports 2000 and then selling my race car to build an extension, once that was done, the search was on. I did my research and after two years, I narrowed my choice to either a Noble GTO3 or an Ultima GTR? The Ultima GTR came out on top, though both obviously have the Lee Noble heritage! I purchased this rather special Ultima GTR back in April 2007 and immediately drove it home circa 300 miles directly after buying it (with only 7,600mls on the clock). Even though I took it easy (honest), it was fantastic to drive! I would love to have built one myself, but business and family commitments prevented that, so I went for this very first rather special factory-built example, with some very interesting history. It’s running a Knight Racing 6.8ltr full race/dry sump spec Small Block Chevy V8, de-tuned via slightly milder cam to just 487bhp & 487lb/ft torque (on the dyno) for reliability and drivability with a smooth wide powerband (a loss of around 100bhp compared to the race cam). I have used this car in Motorsport Sprints, Speed events and Track Days where it really does come into its own and normally achieves a 1st in Class e.g. standing start lap of Goodwood Motor Circuit in c.90 seconds, which is pretty respectable. And of course, enjoying the odd run out on the road and occasional Car Meet in the meantime! Why an Ultima you might ask? Well having owned and/or built and prepared a variety of motorsport orientated cars over the years, I wanted something quite extreme performance-wise, relatively easy to maintain and work on myself, competitive and also road legal. That way, in theory at least, I could drive it to on-track events, thus saving the need for a trailer and tow vehicle! In my opinion, the Noble was far too complicated due to the electrical systems and I prefer the ‘old school’ technology that the Ultima offered! As it turned out, whilst the Ultima GTR might ‘look’ fairly easy to work on, that isn’t always the case, especially when I’ve got the first one which was a development car and many parts are a one-off? So, it’s a good job I like a challenge! Likewise, the idea of driving to and from on-track events didn’t always work out either? With the on-track noise limits these days, it took a little while to come up with a solution that didn’t involve packed silencers, because they burn out too quickly! It’s still noisy on the road. And then in order to be competitive on the track, I’ve had to set up the car for track use which resulted in it being rather harsh and hard to drive on the road! Add to that, the very limited storage space for equipment, spares and tools etc. I also had a trailer and a tow car… again! Driving this Ultima GTR is quite hard work. Having a very heavy race performance clutch which feels more like a brake pedal, no assistance in anything whatsoever, large wheels, wide tyres and a track orientated set-up means it is more like a proper workout! But with the ability to achieve 0-60mph in a fraction under 3 seconds, a potential top speed of circa 180mph (current gearing), a power to weight ratio of 526bhp/ton, it beats going to the gym any day!

Trev, 30/03/2022