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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tomorrow's Vintage Race Cars

At the recent historic race weekend at Laguna Seca, I got into a discussion about what age limits still applied to vintage racers.  Vintage race cars, that is…many of the drivers already looked kind of vintage, and most of the cars seemed culled from the late 1920s (fast enough to be scary on those narrow tires and mechanical brakes) up through the early 1970s.  Last year an article appeared in Road & Track noting the arrival of the Mazda Miata (the first version, 1.6 liters, 1990-93) in a category recognized by the Sportcar Vintage Racing Association.  R & T noted that the original Miata was about as old at that point (27 years) as the MGB, introduced in 1963, was when the Miata first appeared…

Acceptance of those early Miatas would seem to bring back the idea (more of a recurring dream, really) of racing on a budget. Curiousity piqued, I took a look at the SVRA categories updated in January of this year.  Cars produced through 1972 are generally approved, while production cars made after that time need specific approval.  Those specific approvals have already been granted for lots of cars made after '72, including the Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 and GTB, all Fiat 2000 spiders (1978-85), the early Toyota MR2, all Alfa Romeo 2000 spiders (made until 1993) and the Triumph TR7 and TR8.  Lotus 7s have long been approved, but the Caterham version started production in 1973, and I didn't see a separate listing for those.  They'd seem a natural fit, though

As would another car which grew out of the Lotus 7 design, the Caterham 21.  Made from 1994-99 with the same 1.8 liter Rover inline 4 that appeared a couple of years later in the first Lotus Elise, the lightweight 21 offers a bit more space than the 7, but the removable side windows hark back to early dual-purpose road car / weekend racers like the Lotus Elite.The first year will be eligible for US import under the 25 year limit next year, but all cars are right hand drive, and there were only just over 4 dozen built.

As we've already mentioned Lotus a couple times (hard to avoid when you're on this subject), it seems inevitable that the SVRA will eventually recognize that Rover-engined Series 1 Elise (1996-2001) pictured below, and the Toyota-engined Series 2 which was the first Elise sold by Lotus for road use in the USA.

Though the last Elise Series 2 shown below disappeared from the US market after 2011, the similar Series 3 is still in production, so that means a reasonable supply of parts.  That would also apply to the hardtop Exige version.

Another car with virtually the same potential as the Elise is the Opel Speedster and its right hand drive sister car, the Vauxhall VX220, offered by GM from 2001 through 2005. There's a good reason I suspect these cars might behave much like the Elise on a track: they have the same basic extruded-aluminum chassis as the Elise, and were all built at the Lotus plant in Hethel, UK. Two versions of the Opel Astra inline 4 were mounted amidships, both with aluminum blocks and 16 valves: a 2.2 liter version with 145 hp and a turbo 2 liter with 200 hp.  Even the base version had more power and torque than the Series 1 Elise, and GM sold over 7,000 of these cars, so there are parts.  

The Vauxhall version offered the same features with right hand drive.  Body panels are not interchangeable with the Elise, and GM claimed that there were many differences in chassis details as well, though the construction system and materials were the same.  An intrigiung little roadster that most Americans have never seen, let alone considered as a racer,  the Speedster / VX220 was replaced two years after stopping production with an Opel version of the Pontiac Solstice  / Saturn Sky twins, which was in turn followed by the GM collapse.

But not all born-talented weekend dual purpose road / race cars came from Lotus, and one of my favorites is the Renault Sport Spider, built at the Alpine plant like the storied A110 rally cars and the mid-engined Le Mans V8s of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It was conceived to generate the same kind of interest that the Renault 5-based, mid-engined Turbo did in the early 1980s, and designed for a one-make racing series.  The engine was a 2 liter, 16 valve inline 4 with 148 hp, and the aluminum chassis with composite panels weighed about the same as the later Opel Speedster.  Though it was supposed to be a dual purpose car, when it appeared in 1996, the car was only offered with the "wind deflector" shown below. And of course, no top.  A helmet came with the car; somehow, this was very philosophical and French

In 1997 the Renault people shrugged and decided to offer a windshield with wipers, but still no top, never a top.  You were expected to go faster to keep the rain off your head. Perhaps this was to maintain conceptual purity…or possibly to avoid having to figure out where to put the top.  About 1,800 Sport Spiders had been built when production ended after 1999. I've seen a few in Europe, and they're even more intriguing up close than in pictures, having as much detail purity, perhaps, as philosophical purity.

Photo credits

Top photo:  windingroad.com
All others:  wikimedia

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