The best GT40 replica? Steve Hole made the trip to Thruxton to find out
Few people can fail to be entranced by the GT40, and it’s hard to believe that the original was first wheeled out of its workshop way back in 1964, and it’s really difficult to grasp that the car is 40 years old.
The design, which remember, was hijacked by Ford from Lola, and was based on Eric Broadley’s MK6, and is a thing of sanguine beauty, perfection from every angle.
Mid-sixties schoolboys - me included - had their imaginations well and truly stirred and I like many others had a poster on my wall alongside my footballing heroes of the day. Although a bit hazy I can remember it winning at Le Mans in 1968 driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi and I’ve been an admirer ever since.
One problem about ownership though is that they only made 131 ‘proper’ originals, which makes the total of its cousin, the Shelby/AC Cobra seem like a mass production run. They are scarce and you have to be a serious millionaire to even contemplate adding one to your collection. The other point to remember is that they were mostly, pure racecars and there weren’t that many on the road.
This was an obvious attraction of course to potential replicators, but where do you find an original to take a splash from? We’ve all seen the efforts that were approximations done by eye, and frankly they don’t work, looking like a mis-matched suit sitting uneasily on the eye.
However, if your name was Ken Atwell and you were a big cheese within Ford’s Motorsport division, you’d be allowed access to a priceless original with a few rolls of chopped strand mat and a gallon or three of resin.
Thus was born in 1982 the KVA GT40 replica and the first true GT40 replica, which in turn spawned all the others. Atwell’s first effort was the less sexy Mk3 version and was based on Cortina mechanicals, which is a bit like giving a sprinter a pair of Doc Martens! Before long he was persuaded to go into kit production and by 1984 had added the even less popular long tail Mk2 to his range, and the KVA kits had also gained a reputation as being very difficult to build.
However, in late 1984 Ken did finally produce the version that everybody really wanted - the Le Mans winning Mk1 and before long erstwhile KVA agents GTD, High-Tech and Tornado developed their own kits based on KVA shells and started to rack up steady sales. It was KVA however who’ll go down as the pioneers of the GT40 replica movement (incidentally, the car is still available on the US market under the American GT banner.)
Sadly of those UK originators, only Tornado are still around, and the quality of their kits has improved immeasurably and still sell in steady numbers. The less said about the farcical demise of GTD the better really. It's sad because the announcement of Ford’s modern day take on the GT40 - called simply 'GT' - has rekindled the passion for the original all over again, particularly in the USA. The limited availability of the new car and the hundred grand price tag has scared off all but the most well-heeled.
Enter at this stage Rick Chattell, MBE and boss of Thruxton Sportscars who are the newly appointed agents for CAV the well respected South African marque.
For several years Cape Advanced Vehicles have been supplying cars to the American market in large numbers and have along with their fellow South Africans Hitech Automotive, (better known as Superformance) taken that market by storm.
Although CAV had an initial brief foray into the UK during a short liaison with GTD, no cars were supplied. Imagine my delight then when Rick Chattell offered me the exclusive first UK drive.
Rick Chattell was in the British Army for 17 years, and was a Captain in 2 Para, part of the renowned Paratroop Regiment and as a helicopter pilot saw active service in the first Gulf war, and did several tours of duty in Northern Ireland and gained his MBE for bravery during a particularly iffy mission in Cambodia.
Since leaving the army in 1996, Rick has gained a commercial fixed-wing pilot’s licence and also set up a very successful corporate training and development company. Rick is clearly a man of pedigree and substance, and is also a confirmed car nut. He built a Spartan in 1983, so he was aware of the kit car industry. He stumbled across the CAV when on a trip to South Africa with the intention of importing some classic British cars back to the UK. Impressed with what he saw, negotiations were quick and CAV hit the UK.
One can’t fail to be impressed by the package. The cars are despatched from Cape Town fully built, completely trimmed and painted in one of eight standard colours, although they will paint the cars in whatever shade you specify.
We looked at a car in Le Mans blue that is an example of the other available option, as supplied to the US market, which is complete less engine and gearbox. Going this route allows fitment of your own choice of unit and transmission, although currently the CAV range consists of Ford 302 V8 in either carb or fuel injected guise, 351 Windsor and a forthcoming big block fitment, which will really liven things up.
I can see that the ‘turnkey minus’ package - as the American’s describe a complete car less power train - will be quite popular here in the UK. But as Lee Noble once said, “If someone’s got 35 grand they’ve got 45” and I think that to a certain extent that’s true especially in the CAV instance, but time will ultimately tell which option is the most popular.
The prospect of driving the beautiful CAV GT is one that had been filling me with excitement for days and before I get a chance to think about it, Rick threw me the keys and told me to “Take her for a blast”.
Here we go
As I’m strapped in to the sumptuous leather and Wilton clad interior, I’m amazed at how much room there is in the cockpit and I am already imagining what it was like to be Dan Gurney at Le Mans! Certainly the dash layout is the same, with the all-important rev counter taking centre stage, while the speedo sits away to the left, but angled conveniently towards the driver. All switches are marked, and my eyes are drawn to a button marked ‘Air-Con’, and Rick flicks the toggle with an accompanying “you’ll need that!”. He goes on to tell me that it comes as standard, along with the leather and Wilton carpets on all cars. He also runs me through the fuel tank procedure, and with twin tanks via a single gauge controlled by a toggle switch it’s important to remember to keep the tanks ‘even’ to help with weight distribution.
The big V8 barks into life with no need for throttle assistance and the offset pedals are quite closely grouped together, with the clutch being very stiff which is quietly reassuring actually, as you wouldn’t want or expect a ‘namby pamby’ pedal in such a machine would you?
The gearchange is currently mounted centrally, but there’s soon to be an option of an original-style right hand shifter, mounted on the wide sill, and I have to say that the Audi, A8-spec Getrag gearbox is superb. Initially I thought that someone had super glued the lever in neutral, but having experienced these transmissions several times before I remembered that they require and reward a positive hand. Thoughtful, precise changes are met with a he-man cog-change. Another option is the ZF 6-speed, which is equally purposeful, but comes at a considerable £8477 inc VAT premium.
On the move I’m serenaded by a lovely growl about a foot behind my left ear, and around the fairly confined, uneven lanes near Thruxton, the car is superbly tractable and happy to just plod along and displays no signs of any supercar histrionics at all.
Mind you as I approach the A303 slip road I have to confess I couldn’t resist the temptation, and floored it in third, and suddenly all hell brakes loose and ‘Mr Hyde’ well and truly arrives! We leap forward, with the big 255 profile 15” Goodyear Cobra tyres scrabbling momentarily for grip. Pretty soon I slow down a little, and notice looks of absolute glee on fellow road users' faces!
On the move the CAV GT is actually very nimble with light and accurate steering and astonishing turn-in, whilst the handling balance encourages you to attack tight corners without any danger of losing the tail. The front end communicates its approaching limit with a little bit of gentle understeer. The rear stays firmly planted giving no indication as to where its ragged edge may be, but although a pussycat, it probably would ‘reward’ liberty takers with a substantial smack in the kisser.
The brake pedal also requires a good bootful, but when the system warms up proves to be an absolute revelation, and the 354mm ventilated discs all-round do a good job, and there’s a brake bias knob in the cockpit that can be adjusted to suit, while the servo assistance is also a godsend.
The thing that sets the CAV apart is the beautiful stainless steel monocoque with built-in roll over and side impact protection, and I can vouch for the feeling of solidity and creak free interior.
Ride quality is just how I like it, nice and pliable and I had been suspecting a rock hard set up, that might rattle fillings out, but I’m proved to be wrong, as the car takes pot-holes and expansion joints in its stride, which is just as well given the perilous state of our pock marked road network. For the record the front suspension set up features unequal length wishbones, with billet steel uprights and an anti-roll bar, while the rear is also an IRS arrangement, with double trailing links, a lower inverted A-frame, upper transverse link wishbones, aluminium uprights and an anti-roll bar.
When I eventually return to base I’ve got a stupid ‘perma-grin’ etched across my face and the CAV has totally charmed me, and I don’t really want to get out. Those brass eyelet clad seats just like the real cars had are extremely comfortable.
As you’d expect quality comes at a price but I’m happy that what we have here offers real value for money. Turnkey minus prices start at £54,050 inc VAT while complete cars are from £68,500 inc VAT. Although you get a good standard package there’s a long options list that will satisfy the purist and if you want you can have such items as NACA ducts, a Gurney bubble, periscope rear vents and an alternative nose section. Even if you want the genuine Mk1 shape, (the CAV is a hybrid) then the factory can supply it for you. Thruxton Sportscars keep two cars in stock at all times, but if your order has to come ex-works you’ll be quoted a reasonable 12-week lead-time.
I was extremely impressed with the Thruxton Sportscars set up and of course the CAV GT itself. I’ve no doubts that Rick Chattell has a winner on his hands, as it really is a sublime machine.