As much as we enjoy piloting modern machinery, there's something special about vintage vehicles, and that something is the pure, unvarnished connection between man and machine. But it's not always good. Things get dicey when the driving experience is a little too vintage. Despite our supreme adoration of the racing greats of yesteryear, clawing at the wheel, pulverizing the brake pedal, dumping buckets of sweat onto the leather seat and having our sphincter perform kegels isn't always our preferred flavor of fun. Some days, we're just not that hardcore. So the vintage vehicles we've come to love most aren't genuinely vintage at all – they're classic bodies wrapped around modern mechanicals. The Rizk RA is a prime example, and now there's this: the Superformance GT40 MkI, a car so raw that if it were edible, they'd slap "organic" on it and sell it at Whole Foods.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Superformance says it builds the GT40 so close to the original specifications that "over two thirds of the rolling chassis's parts are interchangeable with that of an original car, including the monocoque style chassis." That steel monocoque chassis is covered in a steel body, and then fitted with either a small block or big block engine, depending on customer preference.
Features tying our tester to the original are everywhere, while others variants have been upgraded to bring the standards into the new century. Seats with silver rivets make you feel like Gurney, but the specially designed air-conditioning unit up front means you don't sweat like the F1 legend. The replica also sports an aluminum crossflow radiator and oil cooler with dual electric fans, braided lines, and a shifter and handbrake moved to the center tunnel instead of the door sill. And Superformance does its tuning homework, dialing in the suspension based on the engine mounted behind your back.
The best way to describe driving a GT40 is to imagine one of those car adverts where people are suspended in air, driving a few seats and an engine, but no body. Now put those people's butts about seven millimeters off the ground and make them go really, really fast. Then add a lot of noise. That's driving a Superformance GT40... only better.
In keeping with its name, the GT40 only spans 40 inches from the ground to the roof, but it's surprisingly easy to enter (running starts at races like Le Mans meant easy ingress and egress had to be engineered). Open the door and step over the transom, then lower yourself under the large, round wheel. Doing the math, if your head is less than four feet above the ground, then your rumpus is just inches off the tarmac. When you get settled in, the seat feels like you're about to pilot a skateboard – only a little lower. Your view of the hood falls away through the windshield, with the fenders providing the sole frame of reference out front. Thankfully, they're about as far away as your calves.
Turn the key and there's an immediate realization: the 550-horsepower Roush 427 isn't behind you – all you're driving is a big engine bay. There's a sliver of metal that passes for a bulkhead, and you sit against it. In order to prevent your brain from keeping time with the vibrations of the firing order, there's a spring-mounted piece of metal behind the driver's headrest. Obviously, there's nothing in the way of sound deadening, and the surrounding metal and windows keep those explosive waves bouncing hither and thither.
Some cars don't come with a radio because the builders believe you don't need one or because you can put one in later. The GT40 doesn't come with a radio because the original didn't come with one, and if it did you'd need the auditory acumen of a whale or a moth to detect anything from the speakers. If the passenger talks with a raised voice, you can hear a few words, but it's best just to be quiet and let the engine hold forth.
The stats add up to nothing but a good time: 550 horsepower and 535 pound-feet of torque; an independent front and rear suspension with Bilstein coilovers and H&R springs; 275/60 R15 rubber out back; and a 40:60 front-to-rear weight split in a car with the center of gravity near a gnat and weighing just 2,400 pounds. In short: epic and classic, all at the same time.
Sixty MPH comes up in 3.4 seconds and 180 MPH hits you in just over 20 seconds. The car is perfectly flat through turns, because it has to be – with four inches of ground clearance there's simply no room for yaw. And here's a random fact: you get 5.9 MPG when barreling along at 200 MPH. With the 22 gallon tank installed, you can get from L.A. to San Diego in 35 minutes and still have gas left over.
The serious business of driving, even when not exploring the limits, is enjoyable. We don't know if we could do it all day, every day without earplugs, but we'd always be ready with a smile when the GT40 keys were in our hands. The steering is tuned more for racing than commuting, and with those wheel arches always in plain view tight turns and curbs are rarely a problem.
Naturally, the suspension is tuned to covering ground at speed, but the GT40 is still less jarring than a Lamborghini Murciélago (or a few subcompacts for that matter). The single-caliper Wilwood superlight brakes are throwback units that require the attention of vintage brakes. They're good, but if you want to get out the GT40 unscathed, you'll use the brakes like a properly attentive driver, not a kamikaze. The GT40 is a Le Mans beast, so its specialty is not close-quarters, Alpine combat. But on snaking roads with healthy straights, you'll run the show.
The Superformance GT40 is tremendous, a constant reminder of what motoring – not merely driving – is really about. It's a little too spine tingling to drive all the time. Like being in the zone – a rapturous place to attain and difficult to maintain – you'd die of the sheer intensity if you stayed there too long. Nevertheless, when you are there, like the Le Mans-mastering cars of the Sixties, you're nothing but win.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.