by Allan Walton New Zealand Sportscar Design 1989
The driver of the Audi A8 glanced over at the open- topped roadster next to him at the traffic lights, probably wondering if he was looking at a genuine MG TF. The lights changed to green and the roadster sped up the road ahead of the Audi. Using the tiny, dash-mounted rear-view mirror I watched the Audi driver talking soundlessly to his passenger; I could almost predict how the conversation went: "Is that a real MG?" - "No, it can't be - no fifties roadster accelerates that quickly!" - "Maybe he's got a supercharger?" Sorry guys, no supercharger - just two litres of single cam Japanese technology. I was out and about, terrorising the neighbourhood, in one of Kit Kar's MG TF replicas - and the silly grin on my face was getting bigger with every passing mile.
Starting out as a backyard project, initially instigated by Aucklander Russell Hooper, the T Car has become the most popular NZ-made kit car since its first appearance in 1984. Based on the MG TF, the T Car is more an evocation of that car's original spirit, rather than a vile replica, and the key to its success is undoubtedly its continued development ; over the last 11 years. The early cars utilised a Triumph Herald chassis and were mostly powered by Nissan 1200cc or 1400cc engines. The biggest change came in 1989 when the company began manufacturing their own chassis units using GM front and rear suspension.
This move allowed the car's designers to comply with impending changes to MOT regulations and, in the process, gave kit builders an easier task. The new chassis features increased stiffness and has added extra length and width to the car and, with 14in or 15in wheels, the later T Cars look far better proportioned than earlier examples. Engines for the new T Car were sensibly upgraded and current options are for either 1800cc or 2000ce Nissan engines, both coupled to five-speed gearboxes. (For a more detailed story of the T Car's origins refer to New Zealand Classic Car, January 1995.)
The sun may have been shining but it wasn't very warm - and the wind ripping through the open cockpit was distinctly chilly. Through the spokes of the wood- rimmed steering wheel the needle on the big, black-on-white rev-counter (inset into a walnut burr dashboard) was flickering around at just over 5000rpm. Lifting my eyes from the instrument panel, my view of the road ahead was framed with a long bonnet; leaning slightly over to one side I could look at the front, right hand tyre as I aimed the car through a sweeping corner. The car wanted to go faster but the wind-chill factor was becoming more important as it tried to blow me out of the cockpit. I backed off the accelerator, slowing the wind velocity and allowing the heater to blow a few wafts of hot air around my feet.
At normal traffic speeds the Nissan engine burbles along very quietly, with a fruity exhaust note, but once you stuff your right foot down, the engine gives off a pleasant snarl and the exhaust emits a purposeful bellow. Purists may blanch at the thought of a Japanese engine but the carburettored Nissan Z2O makes all the right noises and gives the T Car true 1OO mph potential - after that the law of aerodynamics, allied to a large frontal area, tends to slow things down.
But the first thing that you notice when you're driving a T Car is the sense of solidity the car conveys; scuttle shake has been banished and you don't even have to suffer the ignominy of having your kidneys souffled as you would in a genuine TF. The steering is light, but ideally weighted and both clutch and gearchange are commendably smooth; fifth gear in the torquey two litre T Car makes for relaxed cruising and the little car is perfectly happy toddling along at 1OOkph+ speeds. And, whilst the chassis engineers have evolved a far more neutral base for the T Car, its designers have not completely dialled out the fun factor. Charge into a tight corner and the car's front end starts to run wide - that leaves the driver with two options, the simplest of which is to lift off the gas - do that and the T Car's nose obediently tucks back into the apex. Then there is the not-so-boring cornering method - squeeze the accelerator down and the car's tail steps out, pushing the nose inwards; then simply hold the four-wheel drift with a touch of opposite lock. As you exit the corner you wind off the lock and floor the gas pedal - now that is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. And, unlike modern sportscars, all this fun happens at relatively moderate speeds so you can enjoy yourself without running the risk of a major disaster.
I have a friend, with many years of classic racing experience under his belt, who believes that cars can be made to handle well using two differing methods. Method 1 involves the fitment of super-sticky modern tyres; this is the manner in which most modern cars are made to handle properly - but once you run out of tyre grip you are in for a very quick sideways ride through the scenery. Method 2 calls for some superior chassis tuning, something which Lotus, for instance, has made its reputation on. With this method tyre grip is of proportionately lesser importance - it is the suspension and chassis doing all the work. It strikes me that the T Car complies with Method 2 (although not to the same extent as a Lotus!)- and this is confirmed when Warwick Tweedy informs me that tyres bigger than 185 section can badly affect the T Car's handling capabilities. It just doesn't need gumball tyres to do the business!
The T Car's chassis is fully certified and each one is stamped with its own VIN number - this makes the process of certification an easy one. The basic kit can be ordered to almost any level of completion - from a bare chassis to a fully finished car. The most popular option is to order a chassis completely fitted with front and rear suspension; this allows the kit builder to take delivery of a chassis that can be easily pushed to and fro - an important factor if garage space is limited. Kit Kars estimate that the average build price for one of their T Cars is around the $NZ20,000 (about $US 9,500) mark - but with their special 'buy-as-you-build' deal you can spread your payments out over a suitable period. No special mechanical knowledge is required to build one of these cars and only a suitable selection of standard handyman tools is needed.
The T Car's biggest advantage over many other kit cars is its simplicity and the ready availability of parts - everything from replacement fibreglass panels to nuts and bolts are available direct from Kit Kars' Onehunga factory. They also carry a huge range of period accessories to allow the kit builder to personalise their car. Most importantly Warwick and Russell are always on hand to offer building tips and advice.
At the end of an cold and windy hour- long drive in the T Car, it was with some reluctance that I handed the keys back to Warwick. He asked me if I had enjoyed the drive - but by then the icy wind had permanently frozen the silly grin onto my face!
Sportscar Design '89