Road impressions: Vegantune Evante

“Evante” means progress!

One thing George Robinson can be congratulated upon is the choice of name. “Evante” does not actually mean anything in French so it does not have to compete with “Elan”, but it has an evocative Latinate sound, like “avanti” — go! Another thing the Lincolnshire constructor deserves high praise for is the car itself, a wonderful reincarnation of Colin Chapman’s best-loved product, full of all the Elan’s virtues and lacking its readily-forgiven short-comings.

Twenty years slipped away when I drove the Evante from Robinson’s premises at Cradge Bank, just outside Spalding. As I eased my foot off the clutch I prepared, mentally and physically, for the doughnut “wind-up” . . it was not there, of course, because Metalastik couplings have been consigned to history, replaced by modern Hardy Spicer-type Ford Sierra constant-velocity jointed shafts.

It took a couple of hours, and some fast driving on straight, but indifferently surfaced fenland roads, to be sure that Evante is the genuine, pedigree son of Elan. There were places where I could imagine the Elan wandering off the straight and narrow, as mine did on French bis routes between Le Touquet and Le Mans, or Pau. It always tended to follow the contours, but the Evante did not. Oh, and the softly-suspended rear end used to scrape the tarmac in the dips, but the Evante’s did not.

The Elan used to make a dreadful hullabaloo at more than 80 mph, a mixture of wind noise, engine thrash and the peculiar dynamo whine, but the Evante — with the extra benefit of a Sierra five-speed gearbox — remains relaxed at 100 mph, although with the hood down I would not care to pass judgement so far as wind noise is concerned. Robinson, just back from a dealer trip to Germany, says it is far quieter than the Elan on autobahnen, and I would believe him.

I had been warned that Robinson might get twitchy if the “Elan” name was mentioned too often, but he was only too pleased to explain the Evante’s background, in the course of which he paid high tribute to Chapman’s design skills, reckoning that he has influenced modern car design more than anyone realises. “Between 1962 and 1974 the Lotus Elan was a truly marvellous sports car,” says Robinson. “Time moves on, though, and towards the end it needed updating. There weren’t any motorways to speak of when it was designed, and it wasn’t anticipated that it would be run at high speeds for very long, so it could be criticised on stability.”

Robinson had a special relationship with Lotus, and more and more customers came to Spalding to have their Elans serviced, tuned, repaired and generally improved. In the reception area was a fixed-head Elan which he has just renovated, looking better perhaps than the day it was made.

It came as little surprise to learn that Robinson, before setting up the Vegantune company in 1965, used to build BRM Grand Prix cars in their heyday years of the early 1960s, because people who were entrusted with building Graham Hill’s cars would be craftsmen whom a World Champion would trust implicitly, and those skills are never forgotten (later, in his Lotus years, Hill sometimes finished racing on three wheels, but knew better than to blame his mechanics!).

Between 1965 and 1974 Vegantune was a top name in tuning racing engines, particularly in Formula Three and Formula B. Lotus, Brabham, Chevron and March were all customers, and Alan Jones, James Hunt, Tom Pryce, Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Frank Gardner and Vern Schuppan all laid the foundations to their careers with Vegantune engines prepared by George Robinson. Alan Mann was another customer, having Vegantune prepare his Escort race and rally engines.

The first oil crisis, in 1973-1974, was a hard time for many people but hit Vegantune’s business particularly badly. There was the three-day week, electricity cuts, and Robinson’s booming business was down to a trickle of customers.

When in doubt, diversify, is the motto. Robinson substantially expanded his Lotus repair work to keep the business ticking over, and a useful bonus came in 1975 when Lotus asked Robinson to produce the Ford-based twin-cam engine on its behalf. A good customer, from that day to this, is Graham Nearn’s Caterham Car company.

“In 1979 Lotus wanted to stop twin-cam produced cars,” Robinson recalls very clearly. Its own LV alloy engine (Vauxhall-originated) met all its own needs, and Robinson decided to follow the same route by developing the four-cylinder, Ford block twin-cam engine himself.

The blocks still come from Ford, as it happens, but since 1981 the engine has been so developed that it is called the VTA — Vegantune Type A. Until now the VTA engines have been 1620cc, rated at 140 bhp or at 160 bhp with larger ports, higher-lift camshafts and a higher compression ratio, but from now on the capacity will be standardised at 1699cc, and 10.5:1 compression. The power is the same, but the torque is improved.

It is a lusty engine, no question, smooth throughout its range and powerful in the 800kg Evante, but in a sophisticated age the level of induction noise, a throaty gargle which once we thought wonderful, might be considered high. Robinson has the answer for that already — more substantial air-boxes which will mate to the twin Dellortos more effectively than the glass-fibre boxes used until now.

The decision to construct cars, rather than merely renovate them, came with the preparation of the VTA engine, but it took a few more years for Robinson’s plans to reach fruition. “I could see the areas in which the Elan needed improving, and despite similarities in appearance, which are deliberate, this is a completely new car.”

The doors are similarly designed, of course, the pop-up headlamps look similar but are electrically, not vacuum-operated; the windscreen is identical, but no other item is carried over. The backbone chassis is now made of tubular steel, epoxy-coated like North Sea oil platforms; the suspensions are double wishbones instead of MacPherson struts. The gearbox and differential come from the Sierra switch-gear, locks and other items from the Escort. A major improvement on the Elan is the construction of the bodywork, glass-fibre cloth being far stronger than the original mat, and now double-skinned in all the areas concerned with stress and safety (bulkheads, doors, windscreen surround) and foam-filled. “It’s heavier than the Elan’s body, of course,” says Robinson, “but it’s far safer. It meets all the safety standards and it’s less damage prone, as well as being easier to repair.”

There can be few markets in the world harder than the Japanese, so far as type-approval is concerned, but the Evante is compliant with Japanese and German standards and these are the best export markets. It is hardly likely that the original Elan would have met any of the Japanese criteria, but then the Japanese were of no consequence a quarter of a century ago.

Girling 10in disc brakes are used front and rear, with a mild servo that will be increased slightly in 1988. There is scope for four-wheel drive, should the market move that way markedly, and ABS braking could be installed, though not until the more compact Bosch K-Jetronic injection replaces the Dellortos.

Similarities between the Evante and the Elan are far too strong to be coincidental; had Robinson wanted to break with the past completely, he would have styled the car differently, and the coupe model, which will appear at the British Motor Show in October, will take a large, positive step in that direction.

Robinson does the styling himself, and the coupe is on the drawing board. “That way lots of people see it, and I hear their opinions. Apart from that, the longer I look at it, I find that I change my mind about some detail, and I can change it.” I ask why Robinson had not managed to find a better location for the front number-plate, always a problem for Elan owners. . . and another elevation of the coupe is produced showing a flattened, number-plate area set into the front apron!

The air dam, markedly curved forwards, and the pronounced lip across the back of the bootlid, are clearly in areas Chapman did not explore pre-1962, but they, more than anything, help to stabilise the Evante at high speeds by moving the centre of air pressure backwards. The weight distribution is about the same, placing equal weight on the front and rear wheels with the driver aboard, and the foam-filled “explosafe” safety fuel tank, 64 litres in capacity, is mounted above the differential.

The polished wood dashboard (walnut, oak or teak to the customer’s choice) is highly reminiscent of the Elan’s, but the VDO instruments are not. Restall reclining sport seats, trimmed in Connolly leather, are another concession to luxury, and there are nice extra touch., such as an electric interior release for the boot lid, centrally located inertia reels for the seat belts, and a proper recess for the high quality soft-top when it is lowered.

The power-to-weight ratio of 200 bhp per tonne provided by the Evante 160 model falls neatly between the Porsche 944 Turbo and the Ferrari Testarossa, as publicist Graham Arnold (formerly Lotus Cars’ sales manager) is keen to point out. In a snug-fitting open-top car the impression of speed is all the greater, and the acceleration seems quite breathtaking as the Evante uses the full span of the tachometer in each gear. Along with the Caterham Super Seven, this is the closest thing to driving a racing car in road trim; the ability to reach 60 mph from rest in 6.4 seconds, and a claimed top speed of 132 mph, is indicative of the Evante’s exhilarating nature.

What is difficult, in a car so light, is to combine good roadholding with ride comfort. When Chapman designed the Elan he was up against sports models such as the TVR, the Marcos and the Morgan, all guaranteed to loosen a road-mender’s fillings, and he established new parameters with long, soft spring travels and comparatively firm damping. Now Robinson has gone a full stage further with more sophisticated wheel locations, springing and damping that are possibly firmer than the Elan’s in ride, but not markedly so, and providing infinitely better handling characteristics at the limit.

The Evante has much more rubber on the road — better for handling, inevitably worse for ride. Chapman made do with 4.5J steel wheels, a rim-width also found on the Austin A35 and quite adequate for a sportscar which initially weighed 700kg. Robinson is in the process of switching from an unlovely alloy star pattern wheel in the Alleycat range to smarter K&N wheels (6J rim-width and I4in diameter) equipped with Avon Turbospeed 195/60 VR 14 tyres. Ultimate handling is infinitely better, the Evante having superbly progressive, vice-free handling as far as it was possible to judge on public roads, while maintaining a thoroughly reasonable ride quality.

A local businessman, Tony Elmer, put up the capital to launch the Evante and became a partner in the company; Robinson’s son Jeff is in charge of production, son-in-law Phil Gardner in charge of body and paint production. It is, by any standard of judgement, a family business, a cottage industry even, in an unprepossessing collection of buildings. Doors open, though, on a pair of engine dynomometer test cells and a gas-flow bench tended by engine specialist Rod Creasey, on a workshop which contains computer tape-controlled lathes and drills, and a modern paint-spray booth.

Fourteen people work there, and last year they produced 40 Evantes and a lot more engines. Robinson is emphatic that he does not want to expand, does not want the responsibilities of modern, smart premises which might bring everything under one roof, If his first name was Heath, visitors would understand better, but it is the quality of the product which really matters.

Having produced the first 40 cars, of which 26 were exported, Robinson stopped production in October to prepare for a new series which started up in January. Visible detail changes are very minor indeed— a tidying-up of things like door catches, 1.7-litre engines, standardising some optional equipment —but the real progress was in the production, jigging everything properly so that all the parts fitted first time.

“In 1988 we’ll be able to make each Evante in less than half the time, our saving will be perhaps 60%, and we’ll be able to produce 100 cars with the same number of people that made 40”, says Robinson, indicating a labour saving that would even make Sir John Egan envious.

The most vital question of all, of course, is whether 100 customers can be enrolled each year at a tax-paid price of £14,887.70 per membership. Such a market in finite, and of course as each year passes there are more used cars offered for sale, perhaps competing for the same customers.

Clients, in Britain anyway, buy direct from Evante Cars, and it is best that they do not go up there starry-eyed, expecting to stand on red carpet and be lulled by soothing music. The coffee machine produces quite a good cup, and a Radio One diet issues from the workshop; the dream begins when you look carefully at the workmanship, and drive towards the A1 in a pretty, vivacious sports car.

“Our aim is to be another Aston Martin,” says George Robinson surprisingly. “Let’s face it, Lotus, Aston Martin and ourselves are the only specialist British manufacturers to produce our own engines, so that must say something about us.

“I admire Astons for their quality, but the DB4 was the best they ever made. I don’t see why they had to become so big. People who wants sports cars don’t want big cars, do they? All the people I meet want small sports cars, just enough for two people and their baggage.”

A quarter of a century ago Colin Chapman would have said just that. I am not sure that he would have approved altogether of the air dam and the rear spoiler in the aesthetic sense (though he would have appreciated their usefulness), but I am certain that the maestro would have driven an Evante the length and breadth of East Anglia at Mach 1 speeds, enjoying every minute. MLC