‘Sweetly balanced’ may be a stretch, but the Brera-based Alfa Romeo Spider still has plenty to recommend it
Whatever fires your four-wheel passion – race cars, off-roading, sports cars, meet-ups, track days – we show how to have more fun for less money
This is a strange time to be a car lover or a driving enthusiast. The conversation throughout the automotive industry is so dominated by talk of self-driving cars and electric vehicles that it sometimes feels as though our modest little hobby is under attack.
And yet you might in fact say there has never been a better time to be a petrolhead. The track day culture in the UK and across mainland Europe is more vibrant now than ever before and new track-ready cars seem to arrive every other week. Meanwhile, second-hand track cars can be picked up for buttons. It has never been easier to get involved in grassroots motorsport, and if you are prepared to travel just a little, our occasionally sun-drenched island is home to some of the best driving roads in Europe.
The automotive landscape is changing around us, but there is still plenty of room to play. This is your guide to having fun on four wheels without breaking the bank.
Track day cars:
No traffic jams, no speed bumps, no HGVs, no tractors and no speed limits. Race circuits let you really wring a car out and a suitable chariot can be yours for £1000
CATERHAM SEVEN £10,000:
Burning through tyres and brake pads does mean the cost of track driving can build up. This is where extremely lightweight track cars come in. At no more than 600kg, a Caterham Seven simply doesn’t seem to use its consumables. The other advantage of Caterham’s flyweight sports car is that it holds its value remarkably well.
So well, in fact, that £10,000 will only stretch to a 15- or 20-year-old car (although that hardly seems to matter when the basic Seven design is more than half a century old). These cars are usually weekend playthings, so there are lots of low-mileage examples for sale.
RENAULTSPORT CLIO 172 £1000:
That Porsche 911 GT3 RS might well come flying past you every five laps, but the satisfaction will be all yours. After all, your entire track day car cost you less than the price of a set of tyres for the GT3 RS. And should you suffer a mechanical failure or misjudge your line into a demanding corner and end up gently interfacing with a tyre barrier, you’ll simply laugh it off.
Bargain-basement track day driving might just be the most entertaining sort. The car that ignited Renaultsport’s hot hatch hegemony in the modern era has the kind of edgy handling balance that’ll keep you smiling all day long.
BMW 330Ci (E46) £4000:
In standard form, the 330Ci isn’t really cut out for track work. It’s a little heavy and rolls a bit. But with a zingy straight six up front, perfect weight distribution and rear-wheel drive, it does make a brilliant starting point. Popular upgrades include coil-over suspension (at less than £700, the Bilstein B12 Pro-Kit is a very good option), sticky tyres, bucket seats and harnesses and a locking differential.
There are serviceable cars out there for as little at £2000 if you like the idea of starting from scratch, but for £4000 you should be able to find a car that has already been track prepared.
TOYOTA MR2 £2000:
A very particular set of attributes that makes a car suitable for track driving. Sharp and responsive handling, a good chassis balance, durable brakes and all the rest of it. The point is, it simply doesn’t matter that the third-generation Toyota MR2 looks quite a lot like a frog sitting on a lily pad.
At less than 1000kg, the dinky roadster is unusually light, and the mid-engined, rear-wheel- drive layout is perfectly suited to the race track. What’s more, £2000 really is nothing at all for a purpose-built sports car and you’ll find many examples in decent condition.
GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TRACK DAY CAR:
Before you start worrying about upgrades, and certainly before you ever venture out on a circuit, you should make sure your car is in a healthy state. That means ensuring all its fluids are at the appropriate levels, checking that the suspension isn’t on the brink of collapsing, the brake discs and pads aren’t hopelessly worn out, the exhaust is firmly attached and the tyres have at least some life in them. All of that is especially true if you’ve bought yourself a cheap track day snotter.
Soon enough, you’ll want to make some upgrades. The first thing you will notice is that the car’s standard brakes simply aren’t up to the task. Better pads and fluid will improve their durability and reduce your frustration. Braided hoses will improve your stoppers even further. EBC offers a full brake upgrade kit with grooved discs, pads, fluid and hoses for the Mazda MX-5 for £252.
You’ll be looking at tyres next — perhaps a set of Avon ZZRs — and coil-over suspension, too. Bilstein offers uprated springs and dampers for a wide range of cars at around £600 a set. Long before you begin worrying about engine power, look into a pair of bucket seats and harnesses. Being properly clamped into the car will make a bigger difference than any power upgrade.
Green-laning is like driving o-piste. You are technically on the public highway, but those highways can be so tricksy that only a 4×4 will do
LAND ROVER DEFENDER £7000:
The Land Rover Defender is one of only a handful of cars that can genuinely be described as iconic. With production of them having finally ended a couple of years ago, they are in ever-increasing demand, which means that you could buy one today, spend a year or two exploring the countryside around you and then sell it for what you paid, if not more.
With a budget of £7000, you will be looking at a car that’s 15 or even 25 years old, but if it has been looked after carefully and serviced regularly, it should keep on trucking. Rust can be a problem, though, all the way through to the ladder frame.
LAND ROVER DISCOVERY £4000:
Discoverys have become popular among the green-laning fraternity because they’re supremely capable away from a paved road in standard form, as well as being cheap to buy. There are plenty of cars at this sort of money, both Series 1 and 2 models, with the very leggiest Series 3s starting to drop within reach.
A set of all-terrain tyres will get you to the end of most green lanes, but lots of owners find themselves upgrading over time. Cheap differential guards and recovery points (think heavy-duty towing eyes) are popular modifications, but anything more is probably overkill.
SUZUKI JIMNY £2000:
Originally launched way back in 1997, the third-generation Suzuki Jimny is only just being replaced this year. It’s like a mountain goat – not a whole lot bigger, but every bit as capable on rough and muddy terrain. When we tested one alongside a Range Rover that cost 10 times the price, there were places the little Jimny could go that the big Rangie couldn’t reach.
All the Jimny really needs to turn it into the perfect green-laning machine is a set of all-terrain tyres. And £2000 is a healthy budget for a 15-year-old one.
JEEP WRANGLER £6000:
Land Rovers and Suzuki Jimnys are the darlings of the green-laning crowd, so you’ll stand out when you turn up in a Jeep Wrangler. Our friends across the Atlantic swear by them, and even without the enormous off-road tyres and massively uprated suspension that are so popular Stateside, the Wrangler is capable in the rough stuff (although a two- inch lifting kit at around £600 will do wonders).
There are far fewer Jeeps of any sort here in the UK than Land Rovers, but at £6000, you won’t be short of options. The six-cylinder 4.0-litre petrol is the engine to have.
Once you’ve had your fill of track day driving, you’ll want to progress to actual competition. Racing cars needn’t be expensive, but entry fees and running costs can add up
CITROEN C1 £3500:
The C1 Racing Club was formed as a spiritual successor to the Citroën 2CV series, where running costs had begun to escalate. The club says a C1 can be bought and race-prepared for less than £3500. Once built, the little C1 racing car is more fun to drive than you would ever believe.
The race calendar is made up of 19 rounds, mostly in the UK, with a handful of trips to the Continent. It features 24-hour races, too, including one at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Little wonder the series is proving so popular.
750MC LOCOST £3000:
The 750 Motor Club’s Locost championship is so deliberately geared around affordability that it even says so in the name. The tyres, for instance, cost £35 each and will last a full season. The Lotus-Seven-style cars are lightweight, fun to drive and just about perfect for honing your racecraft in.
You’ll find second-hand Locost cars for £3000 and a full season should cost roughly half that. The club holds 17 Locost events each year, all double or triple-headers, on the UK’s best circuits. The series also travels overseas, with Spa on the 2018 calendar.
FORMULA VEE £5000:
Now more than 50 years old, the Formula Vee championship is a stalwart of the affordable motor racing scene. It demonstrates that single-seater racing isn’t just for fearless young bucks and the super-wealthy.
With their mechanicals lifted from original Volkswagen Beetles, the cars weigh not much more than 300kg, so the 100bhp air-cooled 1300cc engines are plenty powerful enough. Another 750 Motor Club series, Formula Vee races seven times a season, with all rounds double-headers. Cars can be found for just £5000 and each weekend is no more than £350 in entry fees.
MSV TRACKDAY TROPHY £2000:
MSV’s Trackday Trophy was conceived as a bridge between track days and motorsport. It is as straightforward a transition from one to the other as you will find anywhere. If you already have a track day car, you will probably be able to race it. If you do not, suitable cars can be found for around £2000. Think Mini Cooper S, Renaultsport Clio 182 and Honda Civic Type R.
The races are 45 minutes in length and shared between two drivers, which means you’ll be racing with a buddy. Reckon on a full year costing £2000-£3000 on top of the cost of the car.
Chances are there’s a quiet B-road within 30 minutes of your home. All you need is a sweetly balanced drop-top sports car (sunshine optional)
HONDA S2000 £6000:
The Honda S2000’s handing balance can be a little, well, unforgiving at times. They aren’t inherently dangerous cars: they simply need to be treated with some degree of respect.
Besides, your ears will be so full of that glorious in-line four spinning away at 9000rpm that you simply will not care that you’ve just binned your sports car backwards through a hedgerow. The F20C engine is known to use oil, so some will have been run perilously low.
PORSCHE BOXSTER £4000:
It’s a poor man’s Porsche. No, it’s a hairdresser’s car. Quite why the Boxster has been so maligned over the years is anyone’s guess, but all you really need to know about Porsche’s mid-engined roadster is that it’s great to drive and not at all expensive to buy.
It is a purpose-built sports car, too, based on a platform designed from a clean sheet to be an entertaining driver’s car. Not even the E46- generation BMW M3, let alone the Audi TT, can claim that. Problems? Intermediate shaft bearing failure and leaky rear main oil seals are the biggies.
ALFA ROMEO SPIDER £8000:
‘Sweetly balanced’ may be a stretch, but the Brera-based Alfa Romeo Spider still has plenty to recommend it. A sweet and soulful V6, for one thing, although there are so few six-cylinder examples out there that you might just have to settle for the zesty four-pot. At least the car looks very pretty in a not- quite-exotica sort of way.
Avoid the diesel, which just isn’t appropriate for a topless sunny day car. And what of reliability? Lots of owners report many happy miles of trouble-free motoring and there are no commonly occurring horror stories.
MAZDA MX-5 £2000:
Certainties: death, taxes and Mazda MX-5s being talked up as the only bargain roadster you’ll ever need. This isn’t the first time the little sports car has made it onto a list like this, but until there is another car that matches the MX-5’s blend of fun, affordability and availability, it will continue to happen.
With a £2000 budget, you won’t exactly be the biggest fish in the MX-5 market pond, but you will find a good selection of first and second-generation cars. A tidy examples will hold its value if you look after it.
Where to drive:
When in search of great driving roads, head for the hills. As is so often the case around the world, the UK’s best roads are found twisting their way through hills and mountain ranges.
Snowdonia, the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales boast some of the best stretches of Tarmac and the lightest traffic. However, the most breathtaking corner of the entire country — both in terms of the roads and surrounding scenery — is in northern Scotland. The North Coast 500 was conceived by the North Highland Initiative three years ago to encourage tourism.
Starting in Inverness in the east, it cuts across the width of the country to the spectacular west coast before turning north. The stretch between Applecross and Lochinver takes in some of the most stunning views and very best roads you’ll find anywhere. The 500-mile route skirts across the very northern tip of the country, so you actually feel as though you’re driving on the edge of the Earth itself, and reaches its most distant point at John O’Groats, before slicing back down Scotland’s east coast. You could do it in a couple of days, but you’ll wish you gave yourself four or five.
Try out a manufacturer experience event:
The car makers in question view it as a bums-on-seats exercise, but to people like us, it’s just a chance to hoon about in somebody else’s car.
Porsche and Mercedes have built experience centres in the UK: Porsche’s is at Silverstone and Mercedes’ at Brooklands. In both cases, the facilities have handling tracks and low-grip drift circles. The Porsche Experience Centre also has a kick plate, which basically flicks you into a spin unless you’re quick enough with the corrective lock. You’ll spend anything from an hour to a full day driving the car maker’s latest performance cars, all the while being encouraged to push yourself and the car ever further. These experiences start at around £200, but you can spend £1000 or more.
If you really want to make some noise without being labelled a liability, though, you need to book onto one of Caterham’s drift days. You’ll pay £275 and spend several hours learning how to slide a Seven through cones and around obstacles. It is very possibly the most fun you can have at the controls of a motorised vehicle.
Cars and coffee:
You needn’t buy a whole new car to exercise your passion for all things automotive, of course. You may already own the car of your dreams, but even if you’re stuck driving a wholly uninteresting company car or family wagon for the time being, you can at least use it to convey you and a mate to one of the countless motoring events that happen right across the UK.
There are the two big annual events at Goodwood, naturally, but while the Festival of Speed and Revival now cost a fair whack to attend, the occasional Sunday Scramble at Bicester Heritage will set you back not much more than the cost of a pint of beer. What started as a ‘cars and coffee’ get-together in 2014 at the former RAF airbase has grown into one of the most diverse car meets in the country, with 1000 classics from right across the spectrum on display and thousands of people pouring in to ogle them.
The cars and coffee thing is really coming to life in the UK. A Google search will find one near you, be it an official event by Cars & Coffee (originator of the idea) or one of many copycat events.
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