Can a locally built Lotus 7 tribute thrill despite the basic vehicle being decades old?
“Add lightness.” That was Colin Chapman’s famous philosophy. And when it comes to sportscars, this statement from the founder of Lotus Cars still rings true. With physics forever playing a role in car design, so too does a reduction in weight.
The Birkin S3’s genesis car is, of course, Chapman’s legendary Lotus 7 – a lightweight road and track car that was in production from 1957 until ’73, when Lotus discontinued what it regarded as a vehicle whose time had come and gone.
Of the many companies that subsequently assumed the mantle where Lotus left off, British maker Caterham is the most acclaimed, developing the basic 7 template into a vehicle that has spawned a legion of fans and many a race series around the world. Another company to do this and one making one of the better 7-based cars is Birkin Performance Cars from Durban.
Our test unit is a S3 XS derivative, with “XS” denoting a cockpit that is 75 mm wider and 100 mm longer than the standard offering, making it suitable for taller/bigger drivers. Up front is a 2,0-litre Ford Duratec engine, tweaked to develop 138 kW and 208 N.m. You might frown at those figures, but on our scales (with a full tank of fuel) the car weighed in at a feather-light 633 kg. The result is an impressive power-to-mass ratio of 218 kW/kg.
Once ensconced behind the removable, tiny steering wheel, you’ll notice there are no superfluous features. If you thought a Lotus Elise was basic, the Birkin will come as a shock. The only thing between you and insects is a shallow windscreen and, below that, a dashboard and that wheel.
The cramped seating position proved a challenge, especially for some of our taller CAR staffers. You sit low with your legs almost parallel to the ground, stretched out towards the pedals. Kneeroom is an issue and all the tall guys all would’ve liked indents in the dashboard to accommodate their longer pins. Swapping the positions of the stubby gearlever and the handbrake would’ve also made for a better driving position. That said, however, the Birkin is highly customisable and, when ordering your own example, the vehicle can be made to measure.
Whatever minor discomfort you might feel is quickly replaced by the grin-inducing view over the louvred bonnet. It’s a position that, once on the move, affords a perfect view of each front wheel as it responds to the road surface.
Idly moving in traffic, however, is not a pleasant experience. You’re exposed to the elements, and the rising heat from the right-side-mounted exhaust quickly adds to the sun baking down on bare skin. All such everyday comfort concerns are soon allayed when you hit your favourite stretch of mountain pass.
The throttle is sensitive and accurate, while the steering bristles with feedback. Plant your foot in first gear and the needle cannons towards 7 000 r/min but, as with all Birkin operational requirements, you need to be vigilant. A left-foot stomp on the clutch is required before you run into the limiter at 7 200 r/min. Second gear feels just as intense, and it is only in third gear that you are granted a breather during which to gather your thoughts.
Under heavy acceleration, the Birkin feels like a greyhound straining at its leash and you need to continuously make small corrections to the steering wheel to keep the vehicle pointing in a straight line. An approaching corner requires a strong calf muscle and resolute pressure on the firm brake pedal to scrub off speed.
The unassisted brakes are very effective, but again you need your A-game to be on point; failure to ease off the pedal at lower speeds will cause lock-up.
Even shod with road-biased tyres, grip levels are high and discretion is the better part of valour. It’s best to be conservative with your corner entry and exit speeds. Later, you can lean on the lateral grip as your reflexes become better conditioned to react to any loss of traction.
Fortunately, the tyres afford ample warning before they begin to slip and you quickly learn how to modulate the throttle pedal. Through tight first- and second-gear turns, a quick prod of the accelerator induces tail-out action, but it arrives abruptly … catch it and you’ll have a wide grin on your face.