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Monday 24th November 2008


PH HEROES: ULTIMA GTR

It's a Le Mans lookalike that gives hypercars a hard time. PH drives the Ultima GTR...


The Ultima is rather annoying really. For years it seems that everything the established billion-dollar supercar manufacturers try to do this tiny British carmaker goes one better. Porsche and Ferrari build this car that goes that fast on a state-of-the-art test track, but then Ultima comes along and goes faster on a bit of disused runway with tufts of grass poking through.

It’s the motoring equivalent of the cyclist Graeme Obree, who joined a who’s who of legendary cyclists by breaking the Hour Record on a bike he made from an old BMX and washing machine parts. No matter how much cutting edge technology is stuffed into the latest hypercar, the build-it-yourself Ultima always seems to be there.


Ultima makes two cars, the GTR and Can-Am, and the company’s roots go all the way back to 1983. Automotive engineer extraordinaire Lee Noble originally set the company up as Noble Motorsports Ltd and the first car was perhaps predictably called the Ultima MK1. It may have looked like a Le Mans car for the road but under the skin things were a little more humble. It had a square tube space frame chassis, Ford Cortina front uprights/brakes/steering, Austin Princess radiator and Renault front uprights/brakes on the rear.

The V6 engine and transmission were taken from a Renault 30. The MK1 became the MK2 in 1984 and Noble Motorsports’ own rear suspension was used along with Lancia Beta rear brakes. Ted Marlow was Ultima’s first customer and took delivery of a red MK2 fitted with Ford’s 3.1-litre V6 Essex. Before long Marlow re-engineered his MK2 to accept a small block Chevrolet V8 coupled to a four speed Porsche transaxle.

He also decided to trim off a large section of the car’s rear to create the look we are familiar with now. The MK3 was launched at the end of the eighties still using Renault V6 power and donor parts. In 1991 the TAG McLaren Group purchased two Ultima MK3 kits from Noble to use as prototypes during development of the F1 supercar.


In 1992 Marlow purchased the rights, jigs and moulds for the MK2 and MK3 from Noble. By 1997 the company, now called Ultima Sports Ltd, had sold 150 cars and moved to a larger custom built premises in Hinckley, Leicestershire. In 1998 the company started work on the Ultima GTR, which was to be a far more refined and powerful car than anything the factory had produced before. This was joined by the Can-Am, which was basically an Ultima Spyder.


In 2004 a standard production spec 640bhp Ultima GTR driven by Richard Marlow demolished the world 0-100mph-0 world record, as well as claiming new world speed records for accelerating from 0-60mph and 0-100mph while it was at it. By 2006 Richard claimed the 0-100mph-0 record for the third time and the following year the GTR720 unofficially beat the Top Gear lap record by almost five seconds.

Sounds quick, but I decided I needed to find out what this supercar-slaying performance felt like for myself. PHer Pete Taylor, aka LuckyP, came to the rescue with what must be one of the finest Ultimas in the country. He built it himself and it is finished in sinister black with the same carbon fibre alloy wheels as found on a Koenigsegg. It is covered in bespoke touches that Pete has added himself, such as a reversing camera, and various other bits that have been pinched from various Toyotas.

We meet at Brands Hatch and straight away I am taken with just how nicely proportioned the car looks. Low, purposeful and with a dash of Porsche 962, although much smaller. The car is made from GRP (carbon fibre was tried but dropped in favour of this original construction) and power comes from a Chevy 6.3-litre V8. Power varies but straight out the box the GTR has 534bhp and 528lb ft of torque, with the power fed through a Porsche G50 five speed manual ‘box.


0-60mph takes less than three seconds, 0-100mph a smidge over five seconds and depending on the gearing you will be looking at a top speed in excess of 220mph. After establishing that I am understandably the first person apart from Pete to have ever driven the car I squeeze myself ungracefully into the cockpit. It’s small but there’s a surprising amount of headroom and more than enough legroom.


The gearstick is on the right, racer style, and has a precise rifle-bolt action that is easy once you get used to it. Pulling off is a tricky affair because thanks to a racing clutch you need to get the right balance between stalling it and cannoning into the nearest wall. I manage to get away, feathering the throttle on to the main road. You may as well be sitting on the front bumper, such is the position of the cockpit, although this gives a great 180 degree view out of the curved front windscreen.

The huge amount of torque on offer from that massive V8 means that the Ultima is driveable at low speed, but it also means that there is razor-sharp throttle response and grunt from virtually any speed in any gear. The car has been set up with a reasonable amount of camber on the front wheels to make it an effective track weapon but this means there is a daunting amount of tram lining.

On bumpy narrow back roads you daren’t even change gear in case one arm is not enough to keep the steering wheel in check. But of course a car like this is not designed for shopping runs and comes into its own on smooth fast tarmac. The steering feel is of course incredible, giving you Caterham-like feedback. Pete advises me to take it easy at first on the throttle, so I squeeze it barely half the way down.


The acceleration is immense and unrelenting, a linear wave of V8 power. This is one of those rare cars were the scenery starts to blur in front of your eyes creating a kind of tunnel vision. It is blisteringly quick and incredibly focused. Yes, it is hardcore and unashamedly single-minded in its approach to going fast, but this is refreshing.


Cornering is flat and there is an abundance of mechanical grip, although undoubtably the power could overwhelm that whenever you need. It’s an absorbing drive and you have to stay constantly alert not allowing for any lapse of concentration. But this is the beauty of this car – it is never easy but the rewards are endless. While everyone else makes their cars more complicated, Ultima keeps it simple and effective. Which is sometimes all you need…

 

Thanks to MotorSport Vision for the loan of Brands Hatch for the photos!

Author: Oli S