A well-designed all-glassfibre GT car
A surprise awaited us when we tested the Rochdale Olympic recently, for the firm of Rochdale Motor Panels, well known for their glass-fibre shells, especially the Rochdale GT, have succeeded in producing a remarkably refined and well-designed car of monocoque chassis-less construction entirely fabricated in glass-fibre.
The Olympic is the work of Richard Barker and one can assume that his inspiration came from the Lotus Elite which is the only other all-glass-fibre car in the world. However, in catering for the proverbial impecunious enthusiast a number of easily obtainable mechanical components had to be incorporated into the design and in the end it was decided to build two models, one catering for BMC components and the other for Ford Eight and Ten or 105E parts. Naturally in the interest of initial cost the idea of irs had to be abandoned in favour of the less costly rigid axle but it may be used in a future design.
The complete outer skin including the undershield is moulded in one piece by the hand laying-up process without any joins and all the necessary bulkheads and wheel-arches are then bonded in whilst the shell is still in its mould. As on the Elite the windscreen pillars are a weak point and they are stiffened by a steel tube which runs over the windscreen to give protection in the event of an inversion. All points of potential high stress are reinforced and mounting points for suspension, seats, steering, pedals, safety belts and even side jacks are moulded in, while on the inside the parcels shelf, facia panel with a detachable hooded instrument panel, rear shelf and rear seats are all moulded in. The prototype car, fitted with Morris Minor components, was tested over 30,000 miles of varied country for 18 months and no structural failure occurred, but a number of detail improvements have been made to the production models. The prototype was also tested for drag and the airflow was found to be particularly efficient, as the only apertures are for the sump and differential, the exhaust system being recessed into the bodywork.
The car we were loaned for test was one of the early production models with Riley 1.5 components. This includes engine, gearbox, front suspension and rear axle, wheels, brakes, steering column, wheel and instruments. The obvious advantage is that service is available from BMC dealers and components will be relatively cheap to replace.
The Olympic has a wheelbase of only 7 ft 2 in and this necessitates the fitting of the engine well back to obtain the correct weight distribution. There is, therefore, a fairly wide hump in the centre of the car and to give driver and passenger some leg room the car has been made fairly wide, the overall width being 5 ft 3 in The driver has to sit with his legs biased to the right but with acquaintance any discomfort soon disappears. The front seats have been designed for the Olympic with glass-fibre frame and without looking impressive manage to do their job effectively. Pedals are well spaced and the left foot can rest on the dip switch. The three Riley instruments are grouped in front of the driver with the speedometer on the left, rev-counter in the centre and oil pressure, water temperature and fuel gauge on the right. The usual warning lights pre incorporated, toggle switches operate the lights and wipers and the Riley self-cancelling winkers stalk is fitted. An MG-A fly-off handbrake is fitted on the driver’s side of the tunnel and is useful for supporting the left leg. The Riley gear lever falls between the seats and has had to be bent forward to put it within reach of the driver.
Most specialised cars fall down on the standard of their finish and in such mechanical details as window winders, door locks, and in glass-fibre bodies, doors, boot and bonnet lids are often a bad fit or very flimsy. In the case of the Olympic few of these faults manifested themselves; the exterior finish was probably one of the best we have seen and we were surprised to learn that the body was self-coloured and had not been cellulosed, nor are there any of the ripples commonly associated with glass-fibre coachwork. The doors, of double skin construction with a large map pocket, are hung on aluminium concealed hinges and are an excellent fit and rotary type door locks are fitted. The double-arm window winding mechanism works well although some lost motion was apparent. The windscreen is of toughened glass, a laminated one being £5 extra, the door windows are glass, the rear screen is of perspex as are the rearward opening quarter-lights.
The car was delivered with inoperative oil pressure gauge and fuel gauge, faults which would be unforgivable on a car sold by a large manufacturer on which Purchase Tax had to be paid but bearing in mind the fact that the car is the product of a very small undertaking whose premises were recently gutted by fire, in addition to which the car had covered some 10,000 miles of testing in the hands of its designer we felt that these faults could be overlooked. The interior trimming could also be improved but since the car is sold as a kit the individual owner can incorporate his own ideas. On the road the perfectly standard twin SU, 661/2 bhp at 5,000 rpm Riley engine which is mounted in a steel sub-frame propelled the 13 cwt Olympic at a very pleasing pace. In plain figures we reached 60 mph from rest in 11.7 sec and 70 mph in 15.3 sec, while a top speed of over 100 mph is well within the reach of the Olympic, with a tuned engine and higher axle ratio it could well approach 120 mph.
The Riley torsion bar ifs is used at the front with Armstrong dampers and at the rear the axle is located by locating links and a torque rod and sprung on coil springs with Woodhead Monroe dampers. Soft springs and firm dampers allow large wheel movements and this endows the Olympic with a good ride, perhaps at the expense of damper life but the result seems well worth the cost. The short wheelbase allows some pitching on rough surfaces but the car can be driven over really rough ground at speeds which would appal most saloon car drivers and on a boulder-strewn track which Rochdale use for testing, the Olympic was extremely fast, the rocks just bouncing off the underskin. On more normal surfaces the car can be driven at very high speeds, averages of well into the 50s being obtained on trips to Silverstone and Prescott. The Olympic understeers slightly and is at its best on long sweeping corners, the wide track allowing little roll; on slower bends the power can bring the back end round, creating oversteer, on which occasions one would appreciate higher geared steering than that offered by the Riley rack and pinion, a point which Rochdale will probably attend to before long. Despite this slight criticism the general handling of the Olympic is of a very high order and with the Riley engine one is able to surprise the drivers of some very expensive sports cars.
The noise level in the Olympic is commendably low, aided by sound deadening material on bulkheads and under the bonnet. The engine reaches a vibration period at around 80 mph which can be unpleasant and on the Motorway could become tiring. Softer engine mounting rubbers might help, but balancing of the crankshaft and con-rods would probably provide the complete cure. One or two other squeaks and rattles were present but they were of the easily curable type.
On the test car a couple of dwarf seats were fitted, the backrests of which folded down to reveal the interior boot, the spare wheel being clamped to the undershield ; a good deal of space is available above the wheel for luggage but accessibility is not the strong point of the boot. For short overnight trips we found that the children’s seats would accommodate a suitcase and a holdall, while the large shelf below the rear window would hold hats and coats.
Only one weak point was discovered on the Olympic and this was in the cooling system. If journeys were covered at even pace with no flat-out driving or creeping in traffic jams the temperature remained normal but straying outside these limits meant the possibility of boiling. No fan is fitted but an electric fan could be easily incorporated and an increase in the size of the header tank may have a beneficial effect.
The Olympic is not, of course, as cheap as conventional Ford-based specials, but for the Riley-based car the basic shell complete and ready to take the mechanical components sells for £256 which includes modifications to the customer’s own mechanical parts, such as welding brackets to back axles, modifying the gear lever, lengthening the steering column and supplying several new components such as dampers. If required Rochdales can supply new mechanical components, in which case a kit of parts covering most of those required to complete the car can be obtained for £670; for Morris Minor or Ford 105E the cost would be £598 while for those who prefer Ford Eight and Ten components the basic cost of the shell is £248.
Whilst it must be remembered that a cheap family Car can be purchased for the same price as a Rochdale kit, the high performance allied to excellent fuel consumption (our car returned 33 mpg) would require a much larger outlay, added to which the Olympic will not rust or corrode and should have a longer useful life. A leading Insurance Company has granted special rates for the car which approximate roughly to the rates applicable for the saloon to which the engine is fitted.
The stigma of the word “special” can be forgotten in connection with the Rochdale Olympic—it is a completely successful design which can be expected to give its owner exceedingly pleasant motoring of the decidedly quicker variety at some two thirds of the outlay required for a conventional production car. That it should have been produced by a very small concern is entirely in accordance with British motor racing history. Several lightweight versions of the Olympic will be in action on the circuits before long—we shall watch their progress with interest. MLT.
In brief, April 2010
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