Words by Ya'acov Zalel
A new British car manufacturer is born and reconstructs a nostalgic auto landscape with a small GT car.
CarBuzz talks to Nic Strong, the owner of Sparlonz Plasticz.
Building one’s own car is a dream that has flashed through many gear heads’ brains time and again. It flashes for a second or two, or a day or two, till the obvious difficulties of producing a car extinguishes that dream. This is what happens to many dreamers, but not to Nic Strong and his new car company, Zolfe. Yes it sounds Germanic, but it has no meaning either in German or any other language. It’s just that Strong likes the letter Z. Now his company is completing its first steps in the automotive world as its first model, the Zolfe GTC4, is now production ready.
Strong is the owner of Sparlonz Plasticz, in Warwickshire, UK, the center of the British automotive industry knowhow. As a plastic manufacturer with ties to the automotive industry, Strong keeps tabs on the car world. He also likes to tinker with cars and, more than that, to drive them.
«Strong meant to build a car he would personally like»
A few years ago when Strong desired to go racing, he and two friends decided to build their own racing car. However, Strong meant to build a car he would personally like. It had to be in a classic shape, have a classic configuration and better than standard performance and handling. It also had to be easy to tinker with and cheap to run. The obvious conclusion was a two-seater, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive car with a drivetrain that will be easy and cheap to get and maintain. The result is the GTC4, with GT being for the car’s type, C for Coupe and 4 for the number of cylinders. And if it might remind some of the Opel GT from the 1960s or any coupe from that time, this is exactly what Strong wanted you to recognize.
The chassis is of a tubular spaceframe construction, the bodywork is made of plastics and the car’s total weight, including the 4-cylinder 2.3-liter 280hp engine, is less than 1,543 lbs. (700 kg). Top speed is 140 mph with a 0-62 mph sprint time of just 4.5 seconds.
«It’s just easy to the eyes»
The exterior design features a long bonnet with air intakes, a very short rear end, round headlamps and taillights and flared wheel arches. There are no exotic shapes or fireworks in the design; it’s just easy to the eyes. Just like Strong wanted it to be.
“I didn’t like Caterhams because they are silly little cars but I admired what they did,” says Strong. “I wanted to build a car that looks like a proper car but had a Caterham-esque handling and attributes. And then I like the TVR Chimaera and a bit of Lotus; I like classic cars and it had to be a GT because that is what I like.”
A few years ago Strong’s company produced the Modec, an electric van (the company went bankrupt two years ago), and so he bought himself a small facility for car manufacturing. In order to bring professionalism to the engineering aspect, he contacted Jez Coates, a former Lotus designer who did all of the calculations and engineering on the car. Strong’s instructions were simple: keep the car as light as possible, design a good suspension system and incorporate brakes that will be effective for a high-performance car.
“Jez had the same desire,” says Strong. “We just did well and the synergy was that I do the style and packaging stuff while he did the actual technical engineering.”
A Motorbike Engine
The first prototype built was propelled by a motorbike engine, which Strong could hardly live with. “I couldn’t get on with a motorbike engine because of the sequential gearbox and I am a bit of a car person,” he acknowledges. “Not a motorbike person. So I blew the motorbike engine after I stalled it about five times in tantrum.”
The road to the car was not a short one. It took a year to complete the first prototype with the motorbike engine. It was then discovered that the car was not big enough to accommodate tall and wide people. The car then went on display at the Autosport International and the crowd’s reactions were very positive. Following that, the car was re-engineered and today it accommodates people of all sizes comfortably, even when wearing racing gear.
According to Strong’s philosophy, the car had to be light and simple. “Of all things it was to keep it simple. I’m a bit of a fan of TVR but they got very complex, haven’t they, with their engine and stuff? We wanted to keep it simple so you can fix it yourself. It’s a driver’s car; maybe it’ll have a little prank but it mends easily.”
Design by Pick and Match
The design was done by applying pick and match methodology. “We picked cars that we thought would [do well] in their class and we targeted them,” explains Strong. “For handling we targeted the Caterham; for the torsional stiffness of the chassis, the new Lotus Elise; for ergonomic packaging we targeted the Audi TT. The front of the doors, you see, is Lotus and the windscreen you might see is Porsche. But you can’t actually see where the line is. That was the idea anyway.”
The project’s breakthrough arrived when an American customer ordered a car and preferred it to be equipped with a Mazda engine because it was easier to find and maintain in the U.S. Currently the car is also offered with a Ford engine. However, the Mazda and Ford engines are basically the same, argues Strong.
When the recession erupted like a volcano four years ago, the development process was slowed down to nearly a halt before it resumed once again in 2010. Meanwhile, a Syrian businessman had shown interest in the car and was ready to place an order for 10 units, in order to start a racing series in his native land. Then the Arab Spring engulfed the Middle-Eastern country.
A mule test car was built and tested on local tracks and on fine British B-roads. It also took part in one of Autocar magazine’s comparison track tests.
To the American and British Markets
So far eight cars, painted in either orange or black, have been built. The car was tested on the Bruntingthorpe test track where it had the legs of more illustrious rivals. “At Bruntingthorpe the Aston Martins, the Porsches, they are faster down the back straight but they can’t do the chicane as fast,” Strong says enthusiastically. “And the cars that can do the chicane as fast, the Caterhams, the Westfields, don’t have the same top speed. Actually on a smallish track like that it is almost unbeatable.”
The Zolfe GTC4’s future lies in the American and European markets. It will be manufactured in three versions: Sprintz -a road car, Sportz – a GT touring car with track capabilities, and Speedz - a track day version. In the future there might even be the Zolfster, a roadster version. The price in the UK is about $45,000, depending on the exact version and the options chosen. Among those options is a limited slip differential, electric windows, and air-conditioning.
“The Americans actually pushed us to build [the car],” says Strong. “And they happened to love British stuff even now. They’ve got fondness for British. They didn’t like the name because they said it is sound German which I suppose it does. I didn’t think about it but then again, Spatz, which is my other company, also sounded a bit German. It will be fantastic to sell them all over the world.”