Michael Stahl

HOPES FOR AUSSIE INGENUITY

IT HAS DAWNED ON ME THAT THE BEST CARS IíVE DRIVEN HAVE ONLY RARELY COINCIDED WITH THE BEST DRIVES IíVE HAD. UNLESS THEREíS A RACETRACK ON THE ROUTE Ė AND SOMETIMES EVEN WHEN THERE IS Ė ITíS ALMOST LIKE THE MORE CAPABLE THE SUPERCAR, THE LESS INVOLVING IT ACTUALLY IS.

Iíve just returned from New Zealand, where I had the privilege of driving the McLaren 650S.

Itís an awesome car, as much for its usability as for its power and its drivetrain sophistication.

But I drove it only on public roads, and in the midst of NZ publicising its 4km/h speed camera tolerance. My richer appreciation of the McLaren was limited to brief, furtive squirts. And the ability to now say that Iíve driven it. That puts me a couple of rungs above getting a selfie in the driverís seat, or filming one in traffic and posting it on YouTube, or driving one on Xbox. But itís not what Iíve always imagined supercars were about.

Even a racetrack can leave a supercar feeling hollow. Many years ago I drove a Porsche Carrera GT at Phillip Island. It was outrageously quick, stiff and sticky. Its limits were lofty, precarious and expensive. I could tell as much without seriously threatening them.

Then I went out in a 996 GT3. And had twice as much fun as it squirmed and slithered around.

I guess serious supercar owners have the luxury of time and track days to really explore their cars, but I like performance thatís more accessible.

A dozen years ago, I had hopes for the Smart Roadster. I figured, hereís the sports car for the 21st century: agile, inexpensive, rear-engined, interesting. It was horrible, of course, but that hasnít stopped me fantasising about dropping a 1000cc superbike engine into one.

Suddenly Iím excited again, this time by the recent appearance of the Volkswagen XL Sport.

The Ducati-powered, lightweight coupe concept wonít threaten Bugattiís Veyron, but I bet it would be a ball to drive on a mountain road at 100km/h.

Hereís where this is going. Worldwide, thereís a simmering sub-culture of car-building talent.

In Oz, I think of brothers Peter and Nick Papanicolaou, who between them designed and built the Spartan sportster. Initially powered by an 1198cc Ducati V-twin, and now by a supercharged Honda Jazz four, the Spartan is as sexy as a 1960s Ferrari.

At the moment, youíll only find the Spartan on the track, so Iíll also cite the streetable, Sydneymade PRB Clubman, which has been constantly developed through 300-plus examples since the early 1980s.

Both these cars reflect on the Oz scene in the 1960s and early 70s, when low-volume builders offered any number of odd, innovative and affordable vehicles ranging from dune buggies to sports cars such as the Nota Fang, Purvis Eureka and the thundering Bolwell Nagari.

Almost all were squashed in their tracks by environmental protection and design rules introduced in 1974. Probably intentionally, the rules created another barrier of protection for the major local manufacturers, already comforted against imports by a 34 percent tariff.

With the Big Three sadly ceasing local production by the end of 2017, import tariffs may be scrapped altogether, and our Australian Design Rules likewise. At the same time, itís now easier than ever to import and own a classic car, with the steering wheel wherever you want.

All of which makes me hopeful that we might one day kick open the garage door and welcome back some fast, fun and affordable Aussie ingenuity.

I still fantasise about dropping a 1000cc superbike engine into a Smart Roadster

No tears for ADRs

THE Australian Design Rules look like being a casualty of Australian motor manufacturing, and thatís no bad thing. For three decades, the often peculiar, niggly requirements were a thorn in the sides of importers, who couldnít justify the cost of compliance testing on affordable, interesting, but special-interest models like hot hatches (Peugeot's 106 Rallye, for example) and cabriolets.