Tiff Needell

GORDON MURRAY IS BEST KNOWN AS DESIGNER OF THE MCLAREN F1, BUT IN THE ’ 90S HE DIDN’ STOP THERE, AS TIFF RECALLS

WHILE THERE’S PLENTY OF DEBATE about mainstream icons that might be a good investment for the future, it’s always those hidden little treasures that can bring up a surprise or two.

Filming the latest BAC Mono recently reminded me of just such a machine – The Rocket! Created in 1991 by the ever-inventive McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray, and built by his and Chris Craft’s Light Car Company, it was like a 1950s Grand Prix car for the road.

Another YouTube search will find much younger versions of me and Jeremy Clarkson delighting in the thrills it provided when we tested it for Top Gear. More recently, Jay Leno has dug his one out to create a new surge of interest.

It wasn’t quite the first racing car for the road. When Ford launched Formula Ford back in 1967, they put some bicycle wheels and headlamps onto a Lotus 51 to make it road legal. But the Rocket was probably the first proper production car offering a genuine single-seater racing car experience. Gordon even made room for a passenger sitting in tandem behind the driver.

It might also be the lightest production car, at just 390kg. With its fourcylinder Yamaha motorbike engine producing 107kW, the Rocket had a power-to-weight ratio of 276kW per tonne – more than most modern-day GT cars. Launched with a price of around £45,000 (AUD$80,000), it was cheaper than a Porsche 911, whereas the BAC Mono is about twice the price of a modern 911.

With low, high and reverse ratio options for the five-speed sequential gearbox, you could scream the Yamaha powerplant up to its 12,500rpm limit while sitting low and snugly cocooned inside the cockpit. Freakily, the Rocket could do 167km/h in reverse, as one intrepid journalist found when he set an unofficial world record in one.

The wind blasts through your hair and you feel every ripple of the road through the light and direct steering. Driving alone, you can have a neat cockpit cover with a rest that butts up to your head. Remove that and your passenger can slide in behind with their legs running down either side of you. The only problem is that if you carry two 80kg humans the power to weight drops to 194kW per tonne.

In the Top Gear test I took the Rocket around Goodwood. It was a beautifully balanced delight, as you’d expect from the designer of World Championship-winning Grand Prix cars. With no aerodynamic aids at all, it was frisky, yet easily controllable.

The modern-day obsession with lap times is taking away some of the simple enjoyment of driving a car on the limit. The Rocket takes you back to where it should be.

While the Mono can hammer around a track at speeds that require gym visits to build up your neck muscles, the Rocket in many ways provides a more enjoyable drive while lapping a lot slower.

Only 55 Rockets were built as the ever-increasing complications of getting road compliance began to push up the costs. The good news though is that if you owned one today and wanted to sell it, you’d be asking around £100,000 (AUD$180K).

Without the necessary funds to buy either an old Rocket or a new Mono, the fun that both these cars have given me has made me think about Ford’s original idea. Maybe I can attach a few bicycle accessories to my Lotus 69F and head out onto the road...