Ask any Pistonheads reader to name sports car marques with a successful competition history that make cars with stunning good looks and chances are the names Lotus, Porsche and Ferrari will crop up. Well now there's another name to add to the list - Phantom.
The successful competition history part comes from the series of Phantom Supersports and Clubman racers that have won several championships over the years, while the stunning good looks part should be obvious from the photos.
I've done three photo shoots with this car now, and the appreciative comments it's received from members of the public each time plus the reaction it gets at car shows leave no doubt that the Phantom is a winner in the looks department. Personally I rate it right up there with the Series 1 E-Type, Griffith 500 and DB7 Vantage in my "sexiest cars ever" list.
The beauty of the Vortex isn't just skin deep either thanks to professional design and five years development. Both styling and mechanical design are the work of Chris Greville-Smith, who, when not designing Phantoms, works as project leader for one of the world's largest car companies and has previously worked for Jaguar, Jensen and TVR. Helping Chris develop both car and company is his partner in the project, Norman Morris, who's previously worked for Triumph sports cars and later became chief engineer for Rover before 'retiring' to run Phantom.
Financial restraints and commercial caution led to the Vortex being designed to sell as a kit car (initially at least) which in the light of the Strathcarron and Jensen debacles looks like a smart move, though in view of their talent and experience Chris and Norman were determined it would still offer levels of quality and refinement on par with production sports cars.
Under the Skin
The Phantom has been designed to take the engine, gearbox and sundry other bits from the original Rover 827, which might seem an odd choice but there's sound logic behind it, the 827 having an extremely reliable 2.7 litre Honda V6 and five speed manual box which easily outlast the rust-prone bodywork, meaning you can pick up tatty but mechanically sound donor cars quite cheaply.
However, while the choice of donor vehicle might be unusual the construction isn't, this being a steel space frame chassis with glass-fibre body. The computer-analysed chassis uses large section but thin gauge rectangular steel tube to provide a good compromise between high strength and low weight, while the one-piece GRP body has the floorpan bonded-in to form a semi-monocoque which, when bolted to the chassis, produces a very stiff structure.
That's obviously important to enable the suspension to work properly, and in the Phantom's case the suspension consists of custom made double wishbones at the front and De Dion axle with trailing arms and Panhard rod at the rear. This might seem another odd choice, but again there is logic to it, Chris feeling the De Dion offers some technical advantages, particularly the lack of camber compromise in corners when the car is rolling. Some suspension designers will take a different view, but the Phantom racers use a De Dion and they win championships, which should prove something.
Tall Drivers Stoop this Way
With its low roof - 4'2" - and high wide sills, ensconcing yourself in the Phantom's plush leather trimmed interior requires a certain amount of agility - though not as much as with an Elise - but once in you'll find roomy accommodation for two, complete with air conditioning, electric windows and heated rear screen.
Can't give a definitive opinion on the driving position because each of the three Phantoms I've been in has had different seats set at different heights, the lowest of which provided enough head and leg room to accommodate someone of 6' 7"! General impression though is that the driving position is good apart from the pedals, which are offset towards the centre of the car and widely spaced, leaving no room for your left foot and necessitating a bent leg posture. However, thanks to the cabin layout and adjustable steering column you can adopt this without having your knee wedged against the steering wheel so it's not a major problem.
On the Road
The car pictured belongs to a customer, who, understandably, doesn't want loony hacks let loose in it, so road experience in that was limited to the passenger seat. It's an automatic anyway so wouldn't serve to show the Phantom's credentials as a driver's car, but the superb exterior and interior finish do serve to show the high quality standards you get from Phantom, while a ride in the passenger seat demonstrated an equally high level of dynamic refinement.
However, a brief stint behind the wheel of the original prototype was possible, and while this isn't truly representative, lacking as it does some of the improvements built into 'production' versions, it does have a manual gearbox and can therefore be driven like a sports car should be. In fact I first drove this car about three years ago, since when it's been subject to several changes in the course of development, so my drive served as both memory refresher and update.
For a car that's 6' wide the Phantom is far from daunting to drive on crowded urban streets even on short acquaintance, the visible rising curves of the front wings enabling the front end to be placed with confidence, while rearward visibility is also good for a mid-engined coupe, making reverse manoeuvring easier than in an Esprit for example.
Since I last drove the prototype, its steering (unassisted just like a sports car should be) has been modified to reduce the amount of effort needed to turn the wheel at parking speeds, though happily this hasn't led to a reduction in feel, the Phantom keeping you informed of the road surface through the steering wheel in a way that few cars can match. Quicker gearing would make it practically perfect, and this is something Phantom are considering.
As for the handling, even during suspension development three years back the Phantom was impressive in its abilities as I discovered when chauffeured by Chris along a twisty lane near his home, the car cornering at high speed with little roll despite the lack of anti-roll bars, which development proved to be unnecessary.
All too brief recent impressions from the prototype's driver's seat are of a car that turns in well and isn't badly unsettled by lifting off mid-bend, while older memories are of a car that's easy to catch when you unexpectedly get it sideways…
Can't comment on the handling of the 'production' version, but the ride is certainly good, with noticeably less thumping over ridges than with the prototype, indicating that in fully developed form that unusual suspension should provide both a comfortable ride and safe, enjoyable handling.
Regarding straight-line performance, the Honda engine might be reliable, but being designed for the slushy Legend it's hardly high performance. Even so, its 177bhp propels the Phantom's 1025kg up the road reasonably quickly, 0-60 in around six seconds and 140mph seeming likely, which still puts the Vortex in Boxster territory. A simple chip swap gives 200bhp, and while tuning parts for the now discontinued V6 have never been plentiful, if you do want more power there's supposedly a company in the US that does a twin turbo kit for it.
There's certainly no lack of stopping power from the prototype's optional all round vented discs, while enthusiastic driving is also aided by the light precise gearchange, which along with an equally light clutch pedal also makes the Phantom easy to drive in the city.
As well as style and performance the Phantom also provides a useful level of practicality, with enough stowage space behind the seats for a couple of suitcases and an enclosed compartment behind the engine big enough for a sports bag. There's also the option of more stowage space in the nose if you forgo the spare wheel.
The Phantom is very much at the top end of the kit car market and this is reflected in the price. A full Vortex GTR kit costs just over £13,000, and there's the donor car, paint job, trim and other sundries on top of that to consider, which means that the total cost for a high specification self-build car could be around £20,000. Phantom reckon that many of their potential customers aren't into building kit cars though, so factory built turnkey cars are available from about £30,000. Taking this to the next stage, future plans call for the fitting of a more powerful current V6, at which point (finances permitting) Phantom can become fully-fledged manufacturers of all-new production cars.
For now though the Vortex remains a kit car - but while it might be made with used parts, thanks to its high levels of finish and that gorgeous body the Phantom is guaranteed to be one kit car that won't look like a poor relation when parked alongside more expensive production sports cars.
© Copyright Graham Bell 2002