Graham Bell samples a road and track car made with some unlikely parts
From some of the posts on Pistonheads it's obvious that many of you really like the Lotus Elise. That said, some find it a bit awkward to get into while others find it a little lacking in grunt. It's therefore obvious that what some of you would really like is a more easily accommodating, more powerful Elise - and that's pretty well what you get with the Shelsley T2.
The Shelsley is the brainchild of Peter Needham, who's a contract engineer by profession and a car fanatic by inclination, having over 20 years experience competing - very successfully - in hill climbs and sprints, often in cars he's either built or modified himself. Even though he's driven cars with ex-F1 engines, it's chassis and suspension design and set-up rather than engine power that's always interested him most, with his expertise being such that several other drivers have had him set their car up and seen it post quicker times as a result.
Although Peter originally devised this car around 12 years ago, other commitments meant he only actually started building it about four years ago, with this prototype first hitting the road a couple of years back. It's well sorted by now and naturally it fully benefits from Peter's track experience. The majority of the adjustable suspension is custom made, having tubular steel wishbones (with rocker arms and anti-roll bar at the front) with a combination of nylon and urethane bushes for positive location, which combine with the long wheelbase, mid-mounted engine and wide track to provide exemplary handling.
When it came to designing the chassis, Peter eschewed the usual spaceframe in favour of a sheet steel monocoque with tubular frameworks front and rear in aiming to provide greater crash protection than you get in Seven type cars. Side impact protection is provided by the box section chassis rails and door bars, while the tubular frameworks incorporate sections designed to deform on impact to help both lessen shock to the occupants and to protect the main structure from being damaged.
The suspension mounting brackets are a hefty 6mm thick for the same reason, the idea being that if you hit something solid, the suspension will break first, which is lot easier and cheaper to fix than a damaged chassis. This same logic is carried on to the use of a body made from separate bolted panels rather than in one piece. Crunch a corner and you can just buy a couple of new panels and perform a simple nuts and bolts replacement. So having a crash in a Shelsley is likely to be less painful to both you and your wallet, which should be of interest to anyone who's seriously into track days or sprints.
What should be of interest to anyone who struggles getting into an Elise is that entry to the T2 is no more difficult than with your average sports car, thanks to the long, wide opening doors and relatively low, narrow chassis side rails. The narrow chassis rails and central spine also mean the cockpit has ample room widthways, though it's not overly endowed with length which could be a problem for anyone significantly over 6' tall. For those of more average stature though it's fine, providing an excellent driving position with straight-ahead pedals, and while the Maestro steering column is non-adjustable, the way it's mounted in the Shelsley means that you can at least set the height and rake to suit yourself during the build.
As you'd expect with this type of car, the interior is fairly basic, but the simple inclusion of carpets and flocked GRP panels for the dash and doors (which after two years are proving to be surprisingly hard wearing) stops it looking spartan. Most 'sports' seats can be fitted, with the recommended Sabelt items shown here being particularly comfortable, while the heater and controls from a Rover 200 and a heated windscreen courtesy of Ford add both more comfort and winter practicality. Yes, practicality.
Surprisingly perhaps given Peter's competition history, the Shelsley wasn't designed as a pure track day toy but as a year round daily driver that's practical enough for an enthusiast to use as an only car. So long as they don't need to carry much luggage anyway. On that score, the T2's front compartment is big enough to take a small suitcase, while there's enough room behind the engine for some squashy luggage, carrier bags or racing overalls and helmet.
The power unit of choice is Rover's turbocharged 2-litre engine (hence the T2 tag) which not only provides around 200bhp and 250ft lb as standard, but also comes with a transmission that incorporates a sophisticated Torsen differential to help put that power to the road more effectively. And if you think 200bhp is too tame, then simply fitting a suitable chip will yield 250bhp, while a bigger turbo, larger injectors and properly reprogrammed engine management will give you 350bhp!
However, with only 850kg to shift, even the standard engine as fitted to the prototype provides impressive straight-line performance (Peter claims 0-60 in around 4 seconds and 150mph) and unlike an Evo engine, there's no waiting for the tachometer to pass 3,000rpm before anything interesting happens. Instead, with the majority of that 250ft lb being available from just 2,000rpm you get instant urge virtually from the off. It's also got enough flexibility to travel quite quickly along winding roads without ever having to drop out of 5th gear - which also means you can get around 40mpg. Not that changing gear is any hardship thanks to a light, progressive clutch and a linkage that, while strongly biased for 3rd and 4th, is easy and precise to use so long as you don't rush it.
Many road and track cars use small steering wheels, quick racks and stiff suspension, which might be great on a smooth track but at high speed on rough roads can produce a nervous ride and twitchy handling, requiring constant effort and a firm grip on the wheel to keep control. In contrast, you can drive the Shelsley quickly along bumpy roads in a relaxed 'one hand on the wheel' manner. This is partly down to the suspension, which when set soft for the road does a surprisingly good job of smoothing the ride even along patchwork repair country roads. It's also due to the easy going steering provided by a large wheel and modified Maestro rack with 3.5 turns lock to lock (though 3 turns lock to lock is available).
This 'old fart' set up is a deliberate ploy by Peter to produce smoother driving and so reduce the risk of his car suffering from darty handling leading to sudden oversteer, which in mid-engined cars frequently spells disaster. Happily, the use of Maestro steering doesn't limit cornering speeds to 40mph, and even with the slow steering and soft suspension settings the Shelsley made moderately fast cornering along the blind twisty lanes feel easy.
Tugging hard on the wheel mid-bend upset Peter - "You're not supposed to drive it like that!" - but not his car, which responded with a noticeable weighting of the steering and the back end digging in as it instantly tightened its line with no worrying twitching or excessive roll.
Stopping power for the T2 is provided by MG Maestro vented discs and callipers at the front, while at the rear, Rover 200 callipers are mated to modified Nissan 280Z rear discs whose larger diameter means greater braking effort, as - from the driver's point of view - does a restrictor in the servo line. The resulting pedal isn't overly heavy though and enables you to brake hard without locking the wheels, and while the brakes don't feel massively powerful they slow you down well enough.
Throughout my brief drive the Shelsley felt solidly built and even potholes and manhole covers failed to cause any rattles. In fact the only untoward noise was caused by poor sealing against the windscreen frame with the hood up. A new hood with improved sealing and a revised profile to make the back less upright is on the way (as is a removable hardtop) but as the car lives outside and there was no evidence of damp carpets the prototype hood obviously keeps water out well enough. Driving with the hood down was much quieter and there was little draught with the side windows up, which along with the easy driving nature adds to the overall impression that the Shelsley T2 is a car that you could comfortably cover long distances in.
And although I didn't personally drive the T2 flat out, I've no doubt as to its high speed capabilities because this car has been driven at several sprints and track days where it's outrun virtually every other road legal car, including far more powerful TVRs and Porsches. Not bad for a car you can build with scrap parts for around £14,000!
But if you want a harder edged, more track focused car then wait for the forthcoming Shelsey TS, which does away with practicalities like doors, heater, windscreen and opening windows in favour of low level Perspex wind deflectors and lightweight one-piece front and rear ends. Build one of those with a 350bhp engine, uprated brakes and track biased tyres and you should be able to embarrass some mega-buck supercars. Just remember to ask your grandad's permission before you take the steering off his car though...
www.shelsley-cars.com (contact by phone is preferable on 01299 896619)
Copyright © Graham Bell 2003