“Chevron? Chevron? A car? Never heard of it.” If that is your reaction (one likely to be very widely shared) then tap the shoulder of Charles, Goodwood-owning Earl of March, and ask him what a Chevron is. The response will be both detailed and delivered with affection. Or do the same with Sir Stirling Moss, happily now recovering rapidly from a near-fatal 30ft tumble down the lift shaft of his Mayfair home. You will receive an instant recall of “possibly the best-handling car I’d ever driven”.
The list of the great and the good who have driven Chevrons is lengthy indeed: Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Jody Scheckter, Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Jordan are just a few who took the ultra-lightweight, British-designed-and-built racing sports cars to dozens of victories. No fewer than six Chevron drivers went on to become Formula One world champions.
It was an extraordinary track record of success for a company whose life began in a small lock-up garage in the backstreets of Salford, in Greater Manchester.
Chevron built just 494 cars between 1965 and 1978, the year in which the liquidators were called in after the founder, Derek Bennett, died in a hang-gliding accident in Lancashire.
The company rarely employed more than a few dozen people and mostly used a simple tubular spaceframe chassis with fibreglass or aluminium bodies. But its cars were sensuous looking, lithe and agile, and today they fetch up to £300,000 at international collectors’ car auctions.
Bennett, who lacked any formal qualification but was a brilliant, intuitive engineer, never made a road-going sports car. But this year, his successors at Chevron, led by chief executive Helen Bashford-Malkie (an F1 driver and chairman of the British Women Racing Drivers Club), have brought a new generation of Chevron racing cars into production.
During 2011, says Bashford-Malkie, the first “track day” Chevrons (for owners not wishing to race but simply enjoy their cars at racing circuits) will also be delivered; these will be followed by the first fully road-going Chevron two-seater sports coupés ever to be made. The target price is about £50,000 for the still-to-be-named road car. It is destined to look virtually identical to the similarly priced Chevron GR8 race cars, about a dozen of which are this year competing in their own race series. After driving the race version – which is also effectively the prototype for the track day and road-going versions – on Silverstone’s new and challenging south circuit, it is reasonable to conclude that rivals for a road-going version are likely to number very few indeed.
In the eyes of many, the Chevron GR8 is one of the most exciting cars ever to turn a wheel. The DNA of its 1960s and 1970s forebears is instantly evident, but the sensuousness of its curving body somehow contrives to be bang up to date, in similar vein to the curvaceous – but complex and costly – models now emerging from Maserati.
In race trim, the GR8 has an agility belying its simplicity and relative lack of horsepower. It weighs just 600kg – less than half the weight of most Ferraris or Porsches. In terms of power-to-weight ratio, the 260 horsepower, 2-litre Cosworth engine and six-speed sequential Hewland gearbox put it on a straight-line par with the likes of Porsche 911 Turbos. But its lack of weight and sophisticated wishbone suspension mean – to the evident annoyance of Porsche, Noble GT and other “supercar” drivers on the test day at Silverstone – that the little Chevron simply runs rings round them through corners.
“Little”, in this case, is a deeply meaningful word. One of the biggest drawbacks of modern high-performance cars is their sheer bulk and width; a major barrier to enjoyment on, say, the winding backroads of Wales or the Scottish Highlands. The GR8 sits, in size, somewhere between Lotus’s diminutive Elise and Exige two-seaters and their larger, more luxurious but still compact Evora, launched last year.
The GR8 also has an element of practicality – something that Lotus ignored for a long time, at some cost to its sales. Crucially, the GR8 is easy even for tall, older and anything but slim drivers to enter and exit. Since many potential owners able to afford the car would fall into those categories, accessibility was a vital part of the design brief, according to Martin O’Connell, Chevron’s chief engineer and test driver.
There are downsides, however. The car in its present form is very much pure racer. The driver is surrounded by a cacophony of mechanical noise, and there is no power steering. The current solitary racing seat will need replacing with a pair of practical seats, and creature comforts will have to be added, no matter how minimalist an approach is to be taken. Soundproofing, carpeting and a heater will be essential, even though in-car entertainment, air conditioning and similar features may not. (This is an approach also being taken by Porsche, with its fastest and most expensive 911 model, the imminent £167,000 911 GT2 RS.)
All this will add weight and cost, although even an extra 200kg would leave the Chevron with giant-killing performance.
And just as Lotus has faced criticism for the high price of the Evora (about £60,000, with a full list of extras), so Chevron is also likely to find it challenging to offer a competitive road car at a competitive price.
It will be helped, however, by the eventual planned production of just 200 GR8s a year, as this means it will qualify for so-called single vehicle type approval, partially exempting it from the regulations applied to higher-volume cars.
Helen Bashford-Malkie and her husband Vin (another racing driver, who worked with Derek Bennett for several years) own Chevron Racing Group outright, with other private investors collectively holding a 50 per cent stake in its Chevron Racing Cars subsidiary. Both profess themselves unfazed by the challenges. In five years’ time, Bashford-Malkie predicts, Chevron will be a considerably larger company, building substantially on its former glories.
“But what’s important is that you have to have your heart and soul in this business,” says Bashford-Malkie. “We’re not in it to make many millions, or become another Aston Martin.”
Race thoroughbred turns into road-going beast
£49,500 + VAT (GR8 race car)
0-60mph sub-four seconds, top speed 170mph (estimate)
No close rivals
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