Charge of the light brigade

From the salt flats of Bonneville to the grippy asphalt of Santa Pod – and an unlikely contender in the race to become the world’s fastest street-legal electric vehicle  

writer Jonny smith | photographer Matt Woods

By common consent drag racing is not for the faint of heart. Of all motor sport disciplines, it is – quite literally sometimes – the most explosive. Its competitors are a breed apart who think nothing of piloting a 16ft long rocket ship to 300mph, accelerating in a cloud of rubber smoke and roar of jet fuel to 100mph in less than a second. In short, its adherents are not known for their lily livered, liberal sensibilities. Less hair shirt, more hairy chested. 

So you can imagine my trepidation when over the summer I arrived at Santa Pod drag strip – celebrating its 50th anniversary – in an eco-friendly, battery-powered city car and attempted to set a new world speed record. 

My car was a 1970s Enfield 8000, and I sought to make it the world’s fastest street-legal electric vehicle. I remember staging up the lifesize Hot Wheels toy (it’s 9ft long) on the start line, gritting my teeth and getting ready to unleash its power. Having already managed to achieve 13-, 12- and even 11-second quarter-mile times, we were about to try the thing at its full 2000-amp, 400-volt potential. 

The silent burnouts always confuse my fellow competitors. But if I could dip below a 10.24sec quarter-mile blast, I’d prove this tiny battery-powered car was not only the quickest street- legal electric vehicle in the world – but also able to outpace some of the most revered and expensive piston-powered auto exotica. But first, a bit of history.  

Several years ago my work led me to Japan, where I tested pre-production mules that would later become Nissan’s Leaf. As surreal and alien as it was, experiencing a smooth, silent swell of power whetted my appetite. 

I decided to follow the traditional hot rod philosophy of taking an ancient donor car to chop about, but without pistons or exhaust pipes. A plan to modify a long forgotten 1970s electric relic into a record-breaking EV dragster was hatched.

Not only that, but I wanted to remind people that this phenomenon of electric propulsion isn’t some recent discovery by Elon Musk. It’s more than 100 years old. Elon’s company was named after an AC induction motor patented in 1888 by a Nikola Tesla. And Henry Ford bought his wife Clara an EV because she – like so many well-heeled ladies back in the early 1900s – didn’t want to get oily hands or broken wrists from crank starting a loud, dirty petrol car.

In terms of racing, with the merited publicity surrounding Bloodhound SSC – the British world land speed record challenger – it’s easy to forget that the first recognised land speed record car was powered by batteries. 

French racer Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat drove his Jeantaud to an average of 39mph in December 1898. A month later he surpassed it, reaching 41.41mph (66.65 kph). The ‘Electric Count’, as he was popularly known, was challenged on many occasions by Belgian Camille Jenatzy. The pair wrested the record from one another six times in just four months, pushing land speed boundaries each time. What began as a speed trial competition set by magazine La France Automobile swiftly became an all-consuming obsession. 

Interestingly, the Electric Count’s Jeantaud EV is thought to have been the first car to employ a circular steering wheel. Jenatzy preferred a tiller and he is recognised as the person who created the very first purpose-built land speed record car. Aptly titled La Jamais Contente (Never Satisfied), it aped a torpedo atop a cart chassis, made from a complicated alloy cocktail (partinium) containing aluminium, copper, zinc, silicon and iron. La Jamais Contente featured two direct-drive 25kW motors running at 200v and drawing 124 amps for approximately 68bhp – big numbers that helped it break the 100kph (62mph) barrier on April 29 1899. 

The electric era was short-lived, however. In 1902 Leon Serpollet came along with a new-fangled steam engine, to become the first driver of a non-electric car to hold the record, and from 1909 the age of the internal combustion engine dawned. The current outright electric speed record is 204mph, held by former government minister Lord Drayson. 

So what of my car? Born out of the 1970s oil crisis, the Enfield 8000 was conceived as a daily commuter but failed to entice the public: only 120 were built, of which mine was chassis 003.

It may have flopped commercially, but it was well built: here was a rear-drive car with a square tubular steel spaceframe over which a one-piece aluminium body was formed – similar to thoroughbred race cars. The sales literature even boasted 0.29 cd, which was better aero than Porsches of the era. 

What’s more it has speed-record pedigree, of a sort. It was built on the Isle of Wight at the Somerton Works, which had previously housed Saunders Roe – the company commissioned in 1929 to build Sir Henry Segrave’s water-speed record boat ‘Miss England II’. And it was conceived by Enfield Automotive’s head designer John Ackroyd, the man who later joined Richard Noble to become a key member of the design and test team for Thrust 2. 

There’s a wonderful photo showing these unlikely bedfellows together during the celebratory Lord Mayor’s Procession through London in November ’83, after Thrust 2 had achieved the record-breaking speed of 633.468mph. An Enfield (not mine, sadly) acts as an escort vehicle for Thrust 2’s trailer. “It was a great coincidence and unexpected honour to have two of my designs nose to tail in the parade,” said Ackroyd, who has written a book about his eccentric engineering adventures. He still lives on the island and is one of our unsung motor sport heroes.

I know Ackroyd would be thrilled to witness the resurgence of electric power – not only in road cars but in motor sport, too. Formula E might not yet have won over all racing fans, but as more respected manufacturers commit (Jaguar is the latest) it is certain to grow.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles – with their instant torque and powerplants unaffected by thin air at altitude – are increasingly challenging for glory at Pikes Peak. In 2015, the ‘Race to the Clouds’ was won by Ryhs Millen in the all-electric e0 PP03.

Even the hairy-chested world of TT racing is not immune to electric power: “I was probably one of them on the start line laughing at the boys with what looked like a washing machine inside the frame,” says 23-time TT winner John McGuinness, of his first reaction to electric bikes. But when he was asked by Mr Honda’s son to try a Mugen Shinden electric motorbike on the legendary TT course, attitudes began to switch. 

“I’ve been sucked right in,” McGuinness says. “It’s the future. It’s such a joy to ride, smooth with torque always 100 per cent. There’s no gearbox but it gives tons of feel. It weighs 100kg more than my superbike yet feels lighter, is better balanced and easier to steer. 

“As a rider I love the fact technology is moving on so quickly. It’s not weird to ride, it’s just different. I wish everyone could experience it for themselves so I don’t have to try to describe it. My lad’s all over it. He understands it better than I do – I wish I was clever enough to know how it works.”

But it is in drag racing that battery power is arguably making the biggest sporting inroads – it lends itself perfectly. The distance is short, so range anxiety isn’t an issue. And torque delivery is 100 per cent as soon as the foot taps the pedal, which saves spooling a turbo or taming a manifold full of nitrous.

EV drag racing has been steadily growing in America over the last decade, with the creation of NEDRA (National Electric Drag Racing Association). One of my biggest influences for this project was a chap in Oregon named John Wayland, who has an electric Datsun 1200 saloon. Nicknamed the White Zombie, the Datsun evolved into the world’s quickest street-legal EV. I obsessed over YouTube videos of it slaying Corvettes and Vipers. In Britain there was only one electric drag car – the Black Current, a tube-chassis Beetle that spent eight years evolving from a 16sec quarter-mile car to an 8sec 160mph slick-shod weapon. 

It took more than a year to find an Enfield 8000 for sale, so when a faded blue car appeared from a Bristol shed I pounced. With a top speed of 40mph and a range of 55 miles, the Enfield was specifically designed for city work. A February 1976 road test of the Enfield reported, “With only 8hp the Enfield is no candidate for the drag strip.” I fully intended to change that: 8hp? Make that more than 800. The Flux Capacitor was born.

At this point my target was to run a 12sec quarter mile, thus beating Tesla’s Roadster. The build took shape quickly, with the car receiving a full roll cage while original four-link rear suspension/Reliant back axle were replaced by a bespoke Ford back end. Adjustable AVO coilovers completed the rear, the only part of the original floorpan to receive surgery. 

The Enfield’s front end was kept pretty stock, using the factory choice of Hillman Imp A-arm suspension and steering rack. These were rebuilt with coilovers, urethane bushes together with custom CNC machined carriers to hold the one-off disc brakes and AP Racing Caterham calipers. During this time the aluminium bodyshell was bare-metal stripped and restored.  

For speed the prime ingredients are batteries capable of discharging quickly and safely. The original Enfield 8000 used eight 12v lead-acid lumps that provided 150 amps, 6kW and 300kg. I needed hugely powerful lightweight lithium-ion batteries, especially as Tesla had just announced its first profit in 10 years and launched the game-changing Model S P85D.

The battery cells took a year to source, as they are made to order in Korea and require a military account to purchase. I didn’t have one of those, strangely, but British company Hyperdrive Innovation did. It shared my passion to make the Flux Capacitor quick, so ordered and carefully packaged 144 of them into three enclosures that live under the bonnet. Normally used to run the mini-guns and start the engines of a Bell SuperCobra attack helicopter, the 2400-amp, 300-volt battery pack promised 1200lb ft of instant twist. 

Within one weekend the car had knocked 3sec off the quarter mile. By experimenting with amps (torque) and volts (top speed) we could laptop fine-tune, while also experimenting with final drive gear ratios. 

There is something addictive about outgunning a loud lumpy V8 after a mute burnout. And as a V8 owner I can say that. The Flux Capacitor shocked people, and none more than me when it ran a 10.84sec quarter mile last year to become Europe’s quickest street legal EV. Bear in the mind that it competes in the Street Eliminator category, which involves a mandatory 26-mile road cruise as part of the qualifying process. 

Come 2016 sights were set on a world record. Sponsors Andriaki Shipping and Adrian Flux Insurance stepped up to help order an additional Hyperdrive 44-cell li-ion battery pack, bringing power up to 400v, theoretically to overcome our mid-track power sag. The ECU/controller limit is 2000 amps, which is a colossal quantity of lethal invisible power when you remember your house sockets are 13. 

With torque three times that of Ferrari’s £240,000 F12, the extra rear weight added only grip. The Enfield never stepped out of line. John Ackroyd’s aero remained unmolested and still felt ridiculously stable at 130mph. 

On July 16, with a decent ambient temperature (batteries don’t like the cold) and a headwind (far from ideal), the Enfield ran a pair of 10.1sec quarter miles at 122mph. 

I knew they were strong runs, despite the distraction of squeaking suspension joints and wind noise that you never detect in combustion cars. The critical 60ft line was reached in just 1.53sec. Motor brushes took a monumental punishment as I slapped the throttle on the start line (the Flux Capacitor channels all 1500lb ft through 14in road tyres). 

We estimate 0-60mph is now in the 2.5sec region and with no gearbox the acceleration is relentless. We pushed the rpm limit to 6,100 on what started life as a pair of forklift motors, and hit it just before the finish gantry. 

After an hour of charging and battery balancing, we managed a 9.86sec run at 121mph. I knew it was good because the motors made a more intense pitch of fizz. The Isle of Wight underdog had not only beaten the best Teslas, but my guru’s White Zombie. Quicker also than a Lamborghini Aventador, McLaren 650S, 911 Turbo S and on par with the £800,000 hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder. It’s still London Congestion Charge exempt, too. 

Not bad for a failed city car in which I can still do the school run. I like to think John Ackroyd would be chuffed to see one of his less successful designs morph into a record holder.

Of course, there is a downside. It has made testing many new petrol cars feel disappointing – even turbocharged direct-injection V8s with launch control. That would explain why companies like Jaguar are opting for Formula E. And perhaps why there are two Teslas outside my daughter’s school this term.