by Allan Walton NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR August 2001
The T-Car – New Zealand’s longest established component car – has been through many changes in its 18-year lifetime. In its latest guise, the T-Car boasts twin-cam power directly lifted from Mazda’s popular MX-5 sports car. Allan takes the heart-transplanted T-Car for a test drive to see how this new combination works on the road.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles that must be met, and surmounted, by every component car manufacturer is the problem of outdated mechanical components. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of engineering a car only to discover, several years down the track, that the supply of specified drive train parts has dwindled to nothing. At this point, lesser manufacturers experience sudden cash-flow problems and, usually in the midst of re-engineering their car, they run out of available resources and the car – as well as the company – dies an ignominious death.
Of course, when talking about hard cash for future development, it’s not about component cars companies matching the astronomical sums splashed about by major automakers for the development of new models. Rather, the sums involved are considerably more modest – but when you are only selling a handful of cars every year, finances are easily stretched. Russell Hooper of Alternative Cars is well aware of the above pitfalls and, as testament to his business skills, the T-Car has moved through several periods of development since it was first introduced in 1983.
Russell is no stranger to development – the T Car, one of New Zealand’s first component cars, was originally based on the ubiquitous Triumph Herald chassis and powered by either Nissan or Triumph engines. The car went through MkI and MkII stages then, in 1989, received its own purpose-built chassis. This not only allowed for faster home assembly but also gave the car a wider, longer look than the earlier cars.
However, Russell was fully aware that, no matter how the car progressed in its current configuration, the T-Car’s standard motor options would eventually need a total rethink.
The last time NZCC looked at the T-Car (NZCC, May 2000) we noted that Alternative cars were working on new version of the car, and the plan was to adopt the Mazda MX-5’s 1.6-litre twin-cam engine and five-speed gearbox. At the time we commented that this choice of engine/gearbox seemed ideal for the T-Car, especially as MX-5s are now very reasonably priced and appear to be in very good supply in New Zealand.
As Mazda have produced over half a million of their roadsters, future supply prospects also look promising. Additionally, with the MX-5 still in production, parts will not be a problem and, for the well-heeled home builder, there is always the possibility of dropping a new, 150bph 1.8-litre engine and six-speed gearbox into a T-Car.
At that time, we looked forward to testing the revised car!
Alternative Cars eventually debuted their Mazda-powered T-Car at the recent National Motor Show in Hamilton and, on inspecting the car, I was immediately impressed with its lustrous silver bodywork and striking, burgundy leather cockpit. As an MX-5 owner, the combination of the T-Car’s ‘50s styling and a familiar engine and cog box was intriguing.
I didn’t expect the T-Car, with its ladder-type chassis, to display the Mazda’s impeccable handling characteristics but there were definite possibilities.
Russell calls this new, MX-5 powered T-Car an ‘evolution’ model – in that it is virtually unchanged from the current MkV car other than the addition of the Mazda engine and gearbox. Additionally, and more noticeably, the new car also sports MX-5 seats – instantly recognisable with their high-backs and head-rest mounted speakers. To some eyes, these seats may look a little incongruous in a ‘50’s-styled car – but there is little doubt that Alternative Cars have spent some time making the seats match the T-Car’s usual excellent, top-quality finish.
And this superb detailing and finish extends to the entire car, this does not look like a home-built ‘special’ – its smooth panel surfaces, glittering paint and carefully crafted cockpit bely its relatively humble origins. This finish is not exclusively available to factory built T-Cars and the careful home-builder can easily match – or even exceed – Alternative Car’s abilities in this respect.
Full of superb touches, the car’s cockpit is tremendously stylish – and features a polished wood-veneer dash which is embedded with an array of marvelously period-looking instruments, all of which are exclusively available from Alternative Cars. However, the real interest in this version of the T-car lied under it’s multi-louvred bonnet...
Russell explained that this car is the first step in a development plan which will eventually see the T-Car not only adopting the MX-5 engine, but also the entire MX-5 drive-train, with the car’s current chassis being modified to suit. This, final stage, will include MX-5 suspension components.
As I have previously discovered, the T-Car’s later, purpose-built chassis provided a quantum leap over the original Triumph Herald chassis, and it is reasonable to expect that the MX-5’s fully independent, double wishbone suspension set-up will endow future versions of the T-Car with greatly improved roadholding and handling.
At this stage, Alternative Cars have simply dropped the Mazda engine into the existing chassis, and future plans will include chassis modifications forward of the engine fire-wall to better suit the Mazda engine. Open up the bonnet sides and any MX-5 owner will recognise that view – and it also looks quite in keeping with the T-Car’s overall look, considering that Mazda chose to ‘traditionalise’ the engine before using it in the first MX-5 way back in 1989. Its polished, Alfa-style cam covers really do look very stylish in the
T-Car’s tiny engine bay.
The heart transplant hasn’t been achieved without some problems, however, and Russell tells me that he considers under bonnet temperatures to be too high. Indeed, during our test run the engine ran at around 190-degrees – sometimes creeping up over 200 when stuck in city traffic. This didn’t seem to bother the engine, which still idled supremely smoothly, but it is an area which Alternative Cars will be addressing as they proceed further down the development path.
Currently, the Mazda engine is fitted complete with almost all its standard fitments – except for air-conditioning. This clutters up the T-Car’s tight engine bay with a lot of unnecessary bits and pieces. This area will also be receiving attention, and Russell plans to rid the engine of many of its minor ancillaries. The plan also calls for a Link system to tidy everything up – currently the standard Mazda engine loom doesn’t want to speak to some of the T-Car’s instruments, the tachometer was wildly inaccurate in our test car. A Link electronic management system will clear up many of the minor problems remaining in the current set-up.
Fortunately, none of these little quibbles affect the T-Car’s on-road abilities and, like other T-Cars I have sampled, this was one was equally delightful. Drivers of modern cars may be a little put off by the T-Car’s slightly nervous behaviour; these cars tend to dance around the road a lot, but everything is so easy to use that passage through only a short leaning curve us required before the T-Car driver feels at home and comfortable behind the wheel.
True, the chassis can feel a little flexible at times – a factor we tend to forget when we drive monocoque or unitary-bodied cars as everyday transport – but you soon dial yourself into the T-Car’s handling characteristics. This aside, I was immediately impressed by the engine - as indeed I should be, I have been driving my MX-5 for two years now – and also by how it seemed to match the T-Car. The twin-cam is not as torquey as the old Nissan power plant Alternative Cars have used in the past, although it produces around the same amount of power. However, the gearbox is the big equaliser – its closely stacked, perfectly chosen (for the MX-5) ratios seem as if they were tailor-made for the T-Car. The end result being sparkling, through-the-gears performance. Under hard acceleration, the T-Car would be a close match for the MX-5 – which, I was surprised to learn, is actually lighter than the T-Car – but, as you would expect, top speed is somewhat blunted by the T-Car’s bluff frontal styling. This limits top speed, but the T-Car is still easily capable of beating the imperial ton – although, on a cold day, the wind chill factor would soon have you dropping down to more moderate speeds.
The T-Car will probably not appeal to drivers looking for outright power – this has never been a consideration for Alternative Cars, who leave that end of the market to cars such as the Fraser – instead it has found friends amongst those who appreciate its stylish evocation of the legendary MGT-type. Effectively, the T-Car provides all of the enjoyment of vintage sports car driving with the added factor of modern reliability and safety.
And, as Alternative Cars have been in business longer than anyone else in New Zealand, it’s pleasing to see that the company and its principals – Russell Hooper and Warwick Tweedy – are keeping up with the play. Not content to simply sit on their laurels, they have come up with a fresh interpretation of a well-tried theme – with very satisfying results. Now – I just have to wait until 2003 for the fully independent T-Car. I’m sure the wait will be worthwhile.
The T-Car fully complies with the latest Land Transport regulations, and includes safety items such a collapsible steering column, dual circuit boosted brake system, high pressure fuel system, high stop lights, interior impact design along with a very strong chassis and crash protection. Most home builds of the T Car average out at around $25,000. The
T Car Club, formed in 1987, now has over 170 members and holds regular meetings and social runs.
Having now been in business for 17 years, Alternative Cars are able to supply every part for the construction of one of their T Cars - right down to enamelled Union Jack badges.
The T Car has won much praise for the ease with which it can be built using only the usual handyman tools. No welding or fibreglass knowledge is needed – just the ability to follow the clear instructions in the build manual.
Alternative Cars can also provide partially built cars in stages right up to a drive-away, fully completed car.
The company also produces the Swallow – a glorious evocation of the legendary Jaguar SS100 sports car (see NZCC, May 2000).