Thumbing Your Nose at Constraints

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What are the elements of a car that you have come to expect as standard? Windshield? Bodywork? Radio?

Modern cars are highly constrained by legislation for safety and emissions, as well as by customer expectations that have emerged over successive generations and fostered by sophisticated marketing campaigns. These constraints can seem restricting or just part of the scenery, but a breed of cars that has emerged, primarily in England, challenges them. In fact they downright laugh at the “rules”.

These cars from Noble, Radical, Ariel (picture below) and a handful of others build on the legacy of such stripped down cars as the Lotus Seven, these days living on under the Caterham name. They are street legal, but are primarily intended for the track. Traffic has become so bad in many parts of England that I guess track days have emerged as a means of experiencing driving fun in a safe and open environment. These cars make the Lotus Elise look like a Cadillac.

A new contender is now coming from an unexpected direction: The X-Bow from Austrian motorbike manufacturer KTM. They are Europe’s second-largest motorbike manufacturer and the X-Bow evolved out of an attempt to make a high-speed quad-wheel ATV. It uses a high-tech turbocharged 4-cylinder engine from Audi, and the two firms at one point had been collaborating on its development. It’s a striking looking car that blends motorbike and Formula 1 aesthetics. Right now it is still in prototype form, but is expected to hit 60mph in under 4 seconds.

I find these cars interesting because they show how constraints can be sources for creativity. Colin Chapman, the late founder of Lotus cars and designer of the original Seven, was obsessed with the constraint of light weight, and this philosophy pervades all these track cars. The Ariel Atom does away with many of the usual elements of cars, like bodywork, to achieve a weight of 1300lbs (600kg). The X-Bow comes in at 700kg, so relatively porky.

But in a world of mass-produced cars designed for the mass-market appeal and based around strict regulations, these small start ups are taking a nimble approach by breaking conventions. They feed, parasite-like, off the components and infrastructure created by the big car companies, and intermingle these with bespoke components, niche functionality, and polarizing styling to create some of the most “useless” yet interesting cars on the road.

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Ariel Atom