Fancy a sports car offering Elise levels of performance and handling for half the price of the Lotus? Then take a look at the GTM Libra.
If you haven't heard of GTM I'd better tell you that they're one of Britain's longest established and most respected kit car companies, with present directors Paddy Fitch and Peter Beck running it since 1979. Their previous model to the Libra, the K3 Rossa, was the first car to use Rover's K-Series engine mid-mounted, and people from both Rover and Lotus visited GTM's factory to inspect it while developing the MGF and Elise, which should give you some idea of how highly regarded GTM are.
The Libra also uses a mid-mounted K-Series, though it's a different animal from its older (and still available) stable-mate. Whereas the Rossa is a practical fun car designed to take all it's parts from a single donor car (Rover's loveable Metro:)) to provide a simple and economical build, the Libra was designed from the outset as a no-compromise driver's car to cater for the growing number of enthusiasts who want a car that will deliver both on the track and the road.
The core of Libra is a tub-like chassis weighing just 98kg and yet has a torsional stiffness of 14,000Nm/degree, which compares with 68kg and 10,133Nm/degree for a bare Elise chassis. The suspension mounted to it was specially designed for the Libra by specialist engineer Bryn Davies.
At the front this is conventional double wishbones with adjustable coilover dampers and urethane bushes. The rear end though is decidedly unconventional, employing four Y-shaped trailing arms (two per side naturally) each of which pivots from the monocoque's rear bulkhead using track rod end ball joints rather than bushes. Completing the set-up are special long coilover dampers running diagonally from the uprights to a high point on the bulkhead.
In keeping with the Libra's road racer ethos, the entire front and rear ends can be removed for easy access to the mechanicals and the engine is visible beneath the Perspex rear screen. Any K-Series engine can be fitted, but realistically anything less than the 103bhp version of the 1.4 litre 16-valve unit isn't worth even considering. The 111bhp 1.6 and 120bhp 1.8 (as fitted to GTM's demonstrator) engines are both more worthy, though naturally the one to really go for is the 143bhp 1.8 VVC unit. And if that's still not enough, GTM even produce a special version of the Libra to take the 2.5 litre 177bhp KV6.
Negotiating the high sills necessary to give the monocoque its strength inevitably makes getting in and out of the Libra trickier than with your average saloon, but it's still easier than installing yourself in an Elise. Once you're in there's plenty of space with ample legroom and headroom, and in fact GTM say the Libra will accept drivers up to 6' 8'' tall - so if you're a pro basketball player looking for a sports car you know who to see.
Intrusion of the wheel wells means the pedals have had to be offset towards the centre of the car, putting the accelerator where you'd normally expect the brake pedal to be - just like in a Ferrari F355! Naturally this is something you soon get used to, and apart from that the driving position is good with plenty of lateral support from the lightweight Sabelt seats.
The minimalist interior continues the road racer theme, being all visible screw heads and no padding (apart from the seats of course) though as a bare fibreglass floor would look pretty naff the Libra does sport carpeting.
Looking out from within, the Libra's low nose gives a good view of the road ahead, even if it means you can't see any of the car forward of the windscreen. The high tail produces the opposite effect at the other end, but the short overhang means there's no bodywork behind what you can see, so reverse parking shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Heavy steering when parking certainly isn't a problem due to the use of a left hand drive Metro rack (mounted upside down) with a leisurely 3.7 turns lock to lock. Something nearer the 2.5 mark would be better suited to the car's handling capabilities, but it isn't commercially viable to get special racks made in the small quantities GTM produce so it's something Libra owners have to live with.
On the Road
Sadly, insurance restrictions meant I could only sample the Libra's on road performance from the passenger seat. To compound matters, a glut of roadworks and heavy traffic made it impossible to find enough clear road to really demonstrate the Libra's performance beyond a couple of bursts of flat out acceleration. These showed that even with a bog-standard 1.8 K-Series the Libra gets up to 90mph or so pretty quickly. For the record, this engine hustles the Libra up to 60mph in a little over six seconds while the VVC does it in about five and a half.
Inevitably, cornering at speeds that wouldn't worry a Reliant Robin did nothing to demonstrate the Libra's handling abilities, though the general consensus seems to be that the special suspension combined with its light weight (750kg) and 45/55 f/r weight distribution makes the Libra a very nimble good handling machine. I can at least vouch for the fact that it has a comfortable low speed ride...
I can also vouch for the fact that the Libra is impressively rattle free, and while the combination of no sound deadening and an engine just behind you does result in louder than average levels of noise, it's not much louder at 90mph than it is at 30mph.
The Libra's glassfibre body (designed by Richard Oakes of 1970s Nova fame) isn't just pretty, it's pretty aerodynamic too as the Libra didn't suffer the buffeting from the strong winds present that day. The slippery shape also helps towards the claimed 50mpg on motorway runs.
That brings us onto the Libra's practical aspects, which like its performance aspects are pretty much on par with those of the Elise - namely practical enough to use on a daily basis just so long as you don't need more than two seats and aren't in the habit of transporting bulky objects. Actually, for a road racer the Libra's carrying capacity isn't too bad, boasting enough room behind the seats for a suitcase or two plus a boot in the tail. This doesn't have much height or length but it is full width and will take a set of golf clubs - though I expect Libra owners can think of better things to do on a Sunday morning.
Being a hardtop also helps make the Libra more practical from the security and weatherproofing points of view, while open top motoring for sunny days is available courtesy of the lift-out roof panel.
Along came a Spyder...
Of course there are some for whom only a full convertible will do, and to cater for them GTM have introduced the new Spyder which debuted at the Donington Kit Car Show in September. This was still being worked on at the time of my visit but production is due to commence at the beginning of December.
As you can see from the photos, rather than simply chopping the roof off the Libra coupe, GTM have opted for a complete rear end re-style along with a slightly changed front. Consequently they're treating it as a new car in its own right and call it simply the GTM Spyder rather than the Libra Spyder, even though mechanically it's identical to the Libra coupe (apart from shorter rear dampers and the fact it can't take the KV6).
If you don't mind getting your hands dirty and do all the work yourself, including stripping all the mechanical parts from their donors, GTM say you can build a 1.4 Libra from around £10,500, with a VVC-engined car costing about a grand more. GTM estimate that a competent DIY mechanic should be able to build a Libra in around 150 hours (once donor parts are ready) and thanks to the comprehensive nature of GTM's kits and the use of coloured gel coat for the body, it's basically a straightforward bolt together exercise.
Alternatively, if stripping scrap cars doesn't appeal then GTM can supply complete packages of either used or new parts ready for you to install, and if the thought of having to pick up a spanner at all is too much then GTM can also supply complete turnkey cars.
For more information contact GTM: www.gtmcars.co.uk
© Copyright Graham Bell 2001