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Upper Hutt exporter dominates motor show

 
 
 

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Upper Hutt exporter dominates motor show

This weekend I met a couple of New Zealand’s top car exporters at the Constructors Car Club Motorshow in Porirua. As a petrolhead I am a catholic: If it has wheels and burns fuel, it has my attention.

There is enormous diversity in the bespoke car market. If you can imagine it, someone, somewhere probably wants it. It’s tribal too. Constructors Car Club folks talk about power-to-weight-ratio and weight distribution, so it’s no surprise almost all of the exhibits were sports cars. That said, the show did feature a beautifully-detailed 1957 Chevrolet sedan delivery and a big bad black V8 tricycle. Diana and I plan to cover the Port Road Drags this year, so I’ll put my V8 hat on next month. This show was pretty-much about the great New Zealand sportscar.

First to grab my attention was the Exocet, an Ariel Atom-inspired kitset built (literally) around MX5 mechanical parts. Ten grand for the kit. Another few grand for an MX5 to tear down for mechanical parts. Umpteen hours tucked away in the garage. What you end up with is a front-engined roadster that’s just the thing for car-club competitions that emphasise agility over straight-line speed. It’s way lighter than my 1990 MX5. On a one-eighth-mile dragstrip it could give a factory-stock V8 Commodore a run for its money, which the MX5 most definitely can not. I very much doubt it could match the MX5’s 180kph+ top speed. It has a tubular perimeter frame with the aerodynamics of a steel-pipe scaffolding. Neverthless, it would be shiploads of fun on a hill-climb or a tight little street circuit.

Ahem.

In the context of this blog, who knows what this car will do? It’s beautifully-designed and built. But it’s unproven. It is certain to face tough competition, and there is no way of knowing if the prototype heralds the birth of a fast-growing export business, or just another interesting episode in the history of New Zealand’s car industry. That is one of the main reasons for Technology Valley’s existence. We are a support network for businesses like Exocet.

I was lucky to meet Alex McDonald, a quiet, unassuming chap who reminded me of Angus Tait. Alex is the man behind “Almac Cars”, which was by far the most popular brand on display. At a guess, I’d say at least one in four of the one-hundred-odd cars on display came from Almac’s Upper Hutt factory.

Almac 427SCIn my opinion, the best exhibit was a metallic-blue Almac 427SC, a beautiful example of a car I consider to be Almac’s masterpiece. It’s a big-balls roadster in the Corvette/Viper tradition. Until recently, Almac regularly exported 427SCs through an agent in California. This was not quite equivalent to selling coal to Newcastle. Almac promote the 427SC as a replica of the AC Cobra, one of several 1960s English sportscars that featured American engines. But seriously, folks, this car is way better looking than the AC Cobra. Alex McDonald designed the 427SC by eye, based on an Airfix model. He improved on what was already a very shapely body.

Like all bespoke cars, no two Almac 427SCs are exactly alike. The car on display had a 351 cubic inch Ford (that’s 5.7 litres if you still use metric units) which satisfies the Constructors Car Club tribal craving for delicate weight distribution. And it’s powerful enough to make the car a truly challenging drive. You could spend years driving this thing in car club competitions and still not learn everything there is to know about getting the best out of it.

Folks that want a serious big-balls roadster can specify modern engines way bigger and better than 427 cubic inch Ford which motivated the 1966 AC 427.

Almac has a long-standing relationship with Upper Hutt manufacturer Graham Berry Race Cars, who have assembled many of the best Almac 427SCs. Many of the Almacs on display were home-built from Almac kitsets. Some were so well assembled you'd think they were factory-built.

Almac Clubsprint

I’m not an expert on marketing or branding. I could be wrong. But I have to say I think the Almac 427SC is more than just a “replica”. A well-built Almac 427SC should be far better than any AC Cobra ever was. For a start-off, modern V8s have wide flat torque curves and horsepower figures that 1960s engine builders could only dream about. Some collectors get a kick out of owning a car that has been touched by automotive legends such as Carroll Shelby or Colin Chapman. But legends are stories. Stories have to be written, and today’s gearheads are writing new legends for a new generation. The person who buys a professionally-built Almac 427SC, with chassis and suspension set up by someone who really knows what they are doing, gets a car that will blow the doors off the original AC Cobra. And it will be reliable.

Almac’s factory display featured a red Clubsprint XL (pictured), a gorgeous lightweight roadster in the Lotus Seven tradition. It wasn’t far from another factory display featuring another cute little roadster, the Fraser.

Auckland’s Fraser Cars promote their Clubman and Clubman S as Lotus Seven replicas. Come on. I remember the Lotus Seven. It was a key part of the Colin Chapman legend. But it was a 1960s car, with 1960s lack of power and reliability. And it never came with a 330 hp supercharged Honda engine, like the car under construction at Fraser’s Auckland factory. Like the Almac 427SC, I rather suspect the Fraser Clubman S and the Almac Clubsprint XL are far superior to the car they supposedly imitate. Real Lotus Sevens were built between the late 1950s and early 1970s, with small English Ford engines that were loved only because they weren’t as bad as any of other small English engines.

As I said, I am probably wrong to criticise the strategy of marketing these cars as replicas of legendary ‘60s sportscars. Fraser has sold more than 330 cars, including exports. That’s impressive when you build them one at time and no two are identical. But the bespoke car market is only just getting going. It used to be that the average family could afford one car for him and one for her. Now the norm is becoming one each for him and her, an old clunker for the kids to learn in, and one to play with. The one to play with could be anything from a battery-powered shopping cart to a twenty-tonne motorhome. The key point is that it will probably be custom-built. That is where New Zealand car manufacturers have traditionally succeeded. With greenies spurring the airlines to commercialise renewable crude oil, I reckon the custom-built car market’s heading for a period of explosive market growth. In my opinion, our manufacturers need to make their brands recognisable in their own right. A lot of people would love to own something that looks and drives like they imagine the AC Cobra looks and drives. The marketing challenge is to make sure the name “Almac” becomes intimately connected with the dream. AC provided the inspiration. Carroll Shelby gave it street-cred. The reality comes from a factory in Upper Hutt. As I said, I could be wrong about that.

Weltec AtomOne of the few non-car displays was Capital Books' collection of car-related books, featuring an exploration of the New Zealand auto industry called "New Zealand Manufactured Cars: A Cottage Industry," by Patrick Harlow. At fifty bucks it looks like a pretty good read.

Exporting bespoke cars is one of many ways New Zealand can boost per-capita wealth. That's urgent. This motorshow celebrated the history of our motor industry. New Zealand could do with a new generation of car manufacturers to get stuck in and create new stories for blokes like Patrick Harlow to make into legends. So I was very pleased to stumble upon the Weltec Atom, an east-west mid-engined exoskeletal roadster designed by Weltec students. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this car hit the road. I wonder if it might be too much to expect, to see it running at the 2014 Port Road Drags.

  

   

Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a} kevincudby.com

 
 
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