Life in the fast lane
I recently bought a new Vauxhall Astra, with a very nippy turbo diesel engine, automatic headlights and wipers, four doors, a roof and a windscreen. That puts John Begley’s new car in the shade because his has no roof, doors or windscreen – but it does do nought to 60 in 2.8 seconds and will top 100 miles per hour after less than 11 seconds, which is about the same speed with which your jaw will hit the floor when you see it.
The Elemental RP1 is a stunning supercar with a ‘feet-up’ driving position that helps give it phenomenal downforce – it has achieved more than one ton at 150mph in tests, and offers the driver a Formula One experience possibly unlike any other road car.
The RP1 is Begley’s dream car in many ways. As a former designer of race chassis and aerodynamics for both British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) and Formula 1-winning cars, he has one of the strongest CVs in the business, but took the leap into production because he just couldn’t find a track-day car that excited him enough.
“Cars have always been a big thing in my life – restoring a Volkswagen Beetle and Karmann Ghia and a Porsche 914 is just what you do, isn’t it?” Begley grins. “I went off to the University of Hertfordshire to do a degree in vehicle design and then worked for Nissan touring cars, Vauxhall and on to McLaren Formula One. Yes – it’s mostly cars with me, and predominantly racing cars.”
Reassuring then to note that, away from the office, his version of jeans and slippers is to nip off in his Mondeo estate or Rover 25. “That’s what happens if you invest all your time and money into a company,” he explains.
I imagine my father-in-law would have got on well with Begley. Both quiet gentlemen with a passion for engineering, components and tinkering, liking nothing better than a quiet Sunday that included time with the bonnet up on the driveway or in the garage.
But at Elemental, Begley is the steel chassis that everything else hangs off – and the warmest applause and nods of appreciation were reserved for him at the very end of last year when the first production model was handed over at the company’s Hambledon headquarters in Waterlooville, complete with a custom colour scheme of pearlescent white, matte black and lacquered carbon.
“The first buyer is in London and he seems to be quite mind-bogglingly chuffed with it, and even goes and sits in it in his garage if it is too cold to take it out,” admits Begley. “It was a great moment for us all and – with another three in build – it is all very exciting.”
It was a key turning point on a long and challenging drive. Like pulling off the A28 for lunch at Saint-Saturnin just a few miles before you reach the beloved and aspirational Le Mans track; you know you are within touching distance, but it is good to pause and build up the anticipation.
Earlier on the journey, the headlight-bulb moment came when he and a friend were racing with the famous 750 Motor Club and were driving Locosts, an enthusiast’s car modelled on the Lotus Seven. Trying everything to squeeze more performance out of the 1300cc Ford Crossflow engine, Begley realised he could do better.
“There was only so much I could do with it and I wondered about modifying this, that and the other almost just as a home project,” he remembers. “We made an aluminium tub for it and the whole gist right from the beginning was to get the feet up, so we looked at that and it started to get really interesting.
“It simply evolved from there and there started to be interest from people, so we thought we would take it a step further and it became more serious as time went on and we started to assemble a team and I became the founder of Elemental Cars in 2012.
“They are a really strong group of people – you couldn’t ask for better, quite frankly. Everyone knows a bit about everyone else’s field, but then specialises in their own areas, so we don’t end up working in isolation.”
The ‘feet-up’ position Begley mentions is a trademark of the RP1 and unique among roadgoing vehicles. It replicates a Formula One driving position, and means the seat is tilted back nearly 30 degrees, bringing the pedal box up higher than your hips.
As well as creating the closest possible connection between driver, car and road, the advantage is that it creates a gap under the feet where the Elemental team can use radical front diffuser aerodynamics to control the airflow and create the astonishing downforce at the front of the car that is dazzling drivers and was described by one reviewer as “serious mechanical grip augmented by the hand of God”. Another added that “above 60mph it feels like Nellie the invisible elephant has parked her behind on the bonnet”.
Begley sees it very simply. With your feet in the normal flat position there is a good ten inches of wasted space from your legs to the underside of the dash. That does not appeal to the supercar designer in him, so he moved the feet up into that space and worked on the gap they left behind.
The performance that results was highlighted at another key stop-off on the Elemental journey – the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where the car posted strong times on the famous hill-climb, despite weather that went from very wet to damp to sunny and back again.
“The weather could certainly have been better, but it was an interesting week,” laughs Begley. “It is an exciting place with a real buzz and the whole design of the car was running through my head while we were there and watching the RP1 going up the hill.
“It was wet and the thing is quite a beast, so caution was the better part of valour, but it did well and, on our stand, we put a chassis at a rather ‘jaunty’ angle so we could display those aerodynamics that make such a difference to the performance.”
There is a pride in that jaunty angle, mixed with a comradery with motoring enthusiasts keen to see the next great supercar and then mixed again with the commercial side of the operation. Explain to this appreciative and highly-knowledgeable audience how the car does what it does and you will inevitably attract attention and sales.
And for their £82,250 – plus VAT – that audience will get more than just a copy of the car that buyer number one is enjoying so much. Each vehicle can be tailored to suit individual driving requirements, and pushed as far as the customer would like, from unique paintwork or engine tuning to bespoke race development, tuition and support.
“It was always intended to be used on the track,” said Begley. “And – holy moly – when I first put my foot down in it, I didn’t do it for too long. It is hard to describe, but certainly a unique experience, which also gave me a good idea of the few things I wanted to change on it, like a throttle spring that was a bit stiff.
“But how it is driven is another thing and is completely up to the individual. I probably won’t potter about too much on the track in it, I’m more likely to pop out and see some friends at the weekend.
“There is more than 200 litres of luggage space because the rear frame comes to a pyramid shape, so on the rear quarters you are left with big areas of nothing where we have attached bins.
“The idea of that is that if you want to go to Waitrose, you can get a lot of stuff in there, including your helmet if you are driving with one, or your tent and your pants if you are away for the weekend – and a 50-litre fuel tank to help you get there. The car is pretty light, so if you don’t drive it insanely you can get pretty reasonable miles to the gallon.”
The next step, he reveals, is an unexpected one. Adding a windscreen to “bring it more in line with a normal car rather than an extreme device”. He adds: “The windscreen will make a world of difference for comfort and ease and then we will look at doors and a roof later on.
“Things like doors – and hinges – are exceptionally hard because of the sealing you need to do, which is an art in itself. Then we will be looking at engine upgrades, or downgrades if we use the one-litre engine more – which is a lot more manageable.”
Building a racetrack supercar that can also be manageable enough to do the weekly shop is a stunning achievement, and the whole South-East of England is now being picked out by RP1 headlights on full beam. There is outstanding potential here for Begley’s project to create a cluster of businesses, a cutting-edge supply chain and a queue of investors. They’ll all be racing down here.
Published: 03 April 2017