Ariel Atom

Ariel Atom 2000 British sports car

In some ways, the Ariel Atom was as close as a roadster gets to an F1 car. Hang on … hear me out! The lack of proper headlamps was a dead giveaway, for starters. There was not enough frontal area for such fripperies. Anyway, the Atom would be wasted at night. Far better to spend the running costs blitzing daylit open roads. Not that those costs would be too exorbitant. The Atom could definitely have been filed under 'pared-down'. It was first glimpsed at Birmingham's British International Motor Show - in October, '96. Production began in 2000. Eight iterations of the Atom have subsequently been released. Enthusiasts are counting on more!

Simplicity was the Atom's watchword. Tightly focused simplicity, that is. Just as an atomic particle is a pretty miniscule piece of kit, so Ariel's automotive take went right back to bare-bones basics. Its weight said it all. Even by stripped-down supercar standards, 1,005lb was light. And it was not just the dearth of standard headlights. The Atom's 'cabin' was minimal, to say the least. Composite bucket seats were about it! Strapped into 4-point race harnesses, though, the two occupants were not going anywhere - except through high-speed bends. With suspension modelled on single-seater race cars - and tuned by Lotus - cornering was always going to be a gimme.

There are, of course, limits to the Atom/F1 car comparison. It is true to say that a top speed of 150mph might be less than competitive down today's straights. That was, though, from a 4-cylinder 2-litre engine - the i-VTEC - borrowed from the Japanese market Honda Civic Type R. Likewise, the original 220bhp may be considered down on power for a contemporary Formula One grid. That would, however, be increased to 245bhp with the Atom 2. And 350bhp was available from the supercharged Atom 3.5R. So, with adroit use of the 6-speed 'box - also sourced from the Civic Type R - scaled-down GP driving was clearly on the cards. To be fair, Ariel Motor Company - based in Crewkerne, Somerset - comprised just seven staffers. The proverbial whip was cracked by boss Simon Saunders. In the past, he had worked at Aston-Martin and GM. Styling was by Niki Smart. At the time, he was studying transport design at Coventry University. British Steel and TWR were among the sponsors of the student-led project. Asking price for the Ariel Atom was £26,000. Not half bad - especially for owners with vivid imaginations. For, it would not be too far-fetched - on a sunny day, at a twisty track - to feel yourself capable of similar feats to drivers of, say, your average F1 car. Up and Atom!

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Ducati Pantah 600

Ducati Pantah 600 1980s Italian classic sports motorbike

The Ducati Pantah was available in both 500 and 600cc forms. It was a technical stepping-stone for the Bologna marque. The 500 was launched in '79. The 600 appeared in '81. They would be an important blueprint for future development. As such, they ushered in more prosperous times for Ducati. When they were released, the firm was a little down at heel, financially.

Not that you had have known it by looking at the bikes. Fabio Taglioni made certain of that. One of the most esteemed engineers in motorcycle history, he had worked on the Ducati 500 V-twin GP bike. That was at the start of the Seventies. The machine's claim to fame was its toothed overhead cam belts. Taglioni now re-visited them - inserting appropriately detuned versions into the cylinder heads of the new Pantahs. They were smooth, reliable - and easy on the ear. Rightly, they allowed the V-twin exhaust set-up to assume aural centre stage. The rubber belts were cheap to manufacture, too. That was a boon to Ducati - who were keen to keep the price of the new bikes as competitive as possible.

Taglioni's delicate touch reached other areas, too. The Pantah's tubular steel trellis frame - and sensitive suspension - synced up to deliver steady as a rock handling. Its brakes came out of the top drawer, too. Brembo and Marzocchi had been sourced for the second to none cycle parts. Power output was impressive - without being awe-inspiring. The 600 made 58bhp - up from the 500's 52. However, those modest stats were aided by light weight. 415lb was all the 600 was shifting. As a result, 120mph was only just out of reach. And the shortfall was more than made up by the way it got to that speed. Surging acceleration had long been a Ducati hallmark. When the engineering excellence was aligned with typically Italianate styling, the Pantahs were on a sure road to success. A curvaceous half-fairing - and racy removable seat - lent poise and purpose to both front and rear ends. Ducati's dynamic duo had done their work well. In the wake of the Pantahs - both 500 and 600 - the firm was set fair to weather future economic squalls.

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Buick Gran Sport

Buick Gran Sport 1970s American classic muscle car

The Buick Gran Sport had Pontiac to thank. The latter's 'GTO' was the first 'muscle car'. As such, it saw a big-block V8 fitted in a medium-sized chassis. The result was hard-punching power - at a competitive price. Not surprisingly, then, the GTO sold well. Again, not surprisingly, Pontiac's rivals picked up on the fact. The muscle car era was born.

One of those rivals was Buick. In '65, they took their 'Skylark' car - and mated it with their 401ci 'nailhead' V8. As a consequence, the Skylark's output soared to 325bhp. While the Skylark 'Gran Sport' never played in the same sales league as the GTO, it nonetheless did good business for Buick. In '66, they followed it up with a more powerful Gran Sport. It now kicked out a cool 340bhp. Sales, though, were down on its first year. Attractive as it was, a brand-new Buick did not come cheap! So - in '67 - the 'GS' 400 was launched. A 3-speed auto transmission appeared. As an alternative, Buick offered the budget GS 340. Sales started to climb again.

The Gran Sport's finest hour came in the form of the GS 455. Released in 1970 - complete with a 355ci engine - oomph was nominally upped to 360bhp. However, Buick were almost certainly underestimating it. Road testers swore it felt more like 400bhp. At any rate, it was in 'Stage One Special Package' tune. That comprised a hotter cam, larger valves, and a modified carb. With all that hooked up, the Gran Sport was good for 130mph. Exotic 'GSX' styling options went toe to toe with the performance stats. Spoilers, stripes and supersize tyres made the GS 455 look as well as it went. Sadly, all good things come to an end. As soon as '71, the Gran Sport's best days were behind it. Low-lead gas led to less power. Insurance hikes kicked in, too. One way or another, the muscle car game was up. Like its power-mad siblings from other marques, the GS simply faded away. Times change - and the world moves on. But - like everything else - progress comes at a price. In automotive terms, that meant cars like the Buick Gran Sport. For - despite all their foibles - driving has never been quite the same since!

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Laverda Montjuïc Mk2

Laverda Montjuic Mk2 1980s Italian classic sports motorbike

When you bought a Laverda Montjuïc Mk2, you got what it said on the tin. Well, on the side-panel, anyway. Montjuïc was a motor racing circuit in Barcelona. Which told you most of what you needed to know about the bike. Conceptually, it modelled the 'Formula' flyers Laverda built for their single-make race series.

Unfortunately, that race-based concept was not entirely realised in the roadster. Certainly, Laverda had achieved substantial success at Montjuïc. And - in handling terms, at least - the Mk2 came acceptably close to replicating the agility of the track tools. That was largely thanks to the bike's light weight, sturdy tubular-steel frame, and Marzocchi suspension. Likewise, Brembo disc brakes recalled the race bikes' sixpence-stopping precision. And a high-speed weave - which had plagued the Montjuïc Mk1 - had been seen off by the Mk2's frame-mounted fairing.

No, it was the new bike's speed - or lack of it - which ultimately took the edge off its razor-sharp manoeuvrability. Flat out, the needle hovered around the 110mph mark. While that was adequate, it hardly set the world alight. Though the exhilarating exhaust note did what it could to redress the balance. To be fair, that was from a mere 497cc parallel twin motor. Even so - on paper - the Montjuïc had plenty going for it, in the performance stakes. For sure, a 'racer's crouch' riding position signalled straight-line intent. As did its 'tuned' engine - fed by air-filterless carburettors. The Montjuïc's high price tag, too, seemed to promise lots of whizz for your lire. A relative lack of power, though, was offset by other virtues. It looked lovely in the way that only a Laverda can. And the lines it carved through corners would have graced a maturing Michelangelo. Just that pesky top speed stat let the Laverda side down a tad. Apart from that, the Montjuïc Mk2 made motorcycling hay in the Spanish sunshine. Before heading back to Breganze!

Cord 810

Cord 810 1930s American classic car

Errett Cord was a man on a mission. To get rich - or die trying! Maverick to his core, cars were one of several saucers he was spinning. Cord may not have loved cars, as such - but he sure loved selling 'em. Cars like the Cord 810.

By '29, Cord had acquired Auburn and Duesenberg. And he had returned the two of them to profitability. Time now, then, for him to strike out on his own. First off, came the Cord L-29. It featured a Lycoming engine and front wheel drive. The motor was not much to write home about. But the FWD most certainly was. Miller racing cars were fitted with it. As a result, they were leaving their rivals languishing in their wake. Cord decided he had have some of that. In the showrooms, though, the L-29's high price, transmission issues - and lacklustre engine - held it back.

The Cord 810 was launched at the NY show - in December '35. Its unique selling point - FWD - had been upgraded. Powering it was a new V8. With the optional supercharger, it produced 190bhp. That gave a top speed of 110mph. Gear changes were electric - literally. A small lever activated cog-shifting solenoids. Innovative engineering enabled radical styling. Unitary construction - with no separate chassis - allowed Gordon Buehrig to draft a 'low rider' look. Headlights blended in with the fenders - enhancing the 810's clean lines. Inside, too, the Cord cut a dash. Its instrument panel was aeronautical in design. Convertible, phaeton, and two sedan models were available. But - even with so much in its favour - the 810 did not break the sales scales. To be fair, the Great Depression was not the best time to be in marketing! Errett Cord had other things on his mind, anyway. His ‘pushy’ business practices had attracted attention – some of it from financial regulators. So - in ’34 - Cord sought safe passage to England. With its captain no longer at his station, the good ship Cord was cut adrift. In ’37, it sank. The Cord 810, though – and its 812 successor – had made their indelible mark in the design annals. If not the cash registers!

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Ducati Dharma SD

Ducati Dharma SD 1970s Italian classic sports motorbike

The Ducati Dharma SD was a fine, if flawed motorcycle. Certainly, there was much in the plus column. Performance, handling and styling all passed muster - and more. In excitement stakes, the SD scored heavily. In practicality terms - less so.

Styling-wise - thanks to Italjet - the Sport Desmo was in fine fettle. The agency was run by Leo Tartarini. In the past, he had been a Ducati race rider. Now bringing his design skills to the table, for the Dharma, Tartarini fashioned a free-flowing seam of tank, seat and tail. The bike's 864cc V-twin engine looked impressive from any angle. Smart Conti pipes - and well-crafted wheels - set off the SD's sartorial swagger.

On the technical front, too, the Dharma delivered. Admittedly, it was not the most powerful bike on the block. Its around 60bhp output gave a top speed of 115mph. Real-world riders, however, were happy with that. And the bevel-driven valvetrain meant maximum use could be made of the poke that was available. Reasonable speeds, then, were a doddle for the Dharma. Ducatis had long been revered for their handling. The SD's firm, but flexible frame, sweetly-tuned suspension, and responsive brakes and tyres provided a reassuring and relaxed ride. Long and lively journeys, then, should have been a gimme. Too often, though, they were an opportunity for gremlins to emerge. To put it bluntly, build quality was not Ducati's forte. Electrics, say, could be 'trying' - especially in wet weather. No matter how beautiful a bike, viewing it in a downpour does not reveal it in its best light! And, peeling paintwork and chrome - while less of an immediate issue - eventually would also test owners' patience. So, a classic case of swings and roundabouts. In many ways, the Ducati Dharma SD was an all-round delight. So long as you had a lock-up! Oh, I almost forgot … Dharma was a cuddly lion in a children's book.


AMC AMX 1970s American muscle car

The AMC AMX was effectively a stripped-down Javelin. It was a full foot shorter - and weighed a lot less. That made sense - since it was the sole US 2-seater sports car, in '68. It stayed in production until '74. 'AMX' stood for American Motors eXperimental.

When a car sets 106 speed records - in a month - you know you have struck pay dirt! That is what Craig Breedlove did, in February, '68 - behind the wheel of an AMX. No surprise, then, that AMC saw fit to mark his success with 50 red, white and blue AMX Breedlove specials. Back in the real world, the AMX roadster's top speed was 120mph. The SS version - with a 390ci V8 - made at least the claimed 340bhp - and probably a whole lot more. If anything, muscle car stats at the time tended to be understated. Would that were still the case! Built with one eye on the drag strip, just 50 SSs were sold. Partly that was because the SS was supercharged in price, as well as power! If you needed more muscle from a standard AMX, way to go was … well, a Go pack! That gave you a 401ci V8 to play with. Output climbed to 330bhp. Go pack goodies also included uprated brakes, suspension, and wheels and tyres. Virtually a new car, then, really!

Sadly - by '71 - the AMX's muscle car days were numbered. In fact, they were over! By that point, it was no more than an alias for the top-of-the-range AMC Javelin. By '74 - and the end of its run - its superstar status was diminished. In memoriam muscle cars, though, the AMX was as moving as any. And as modish, too. Well, apart from the Mustang, maybe!

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Bimota DB1

Bimota DB1 1980s Italian superbike

The Bimota DB1 was a double dose of Italiana. It was the first Bimota to feature a Ducati engine. As such, the DB1 combined a deliciously torquey powerplant with the kind of looks that could only have been fashioned in Rimini. Unsurprisingly, then, the DB1 was a Bimota best-seller. It came at a critical juncture for the style-obsessed Italian marque. 'Arty' to its core, business was never Bimota's strong suit. Prior to the '86 release of the DB1, financially, the firm was in decline. But, with its long list of virtues - and a reasonable price-tag attached - the DB1 stopped, and then reversed, the downward spiral.

The Ducati factor in the DB1 was a desmo V-twin. A sohc 90° affair, it made 76bhp. Designed more for mid-range grunt than throttle-to-the-stop velocity, Ducati's output gave a top speed of 130mph. If that stat was underwhelming - at least, in superbike terms - the way the DB1 arrived at it was not. Suffice to say, acceleration was fierce! On top of Ducati's long-stroke motor, the DB1's tech-spec further fueled its fast-revving fire. For a start, it weighed a skeletal 354lb. As well as that, Federico Martini - Bimota's lead engineer - had blended the bike's fairing, petrol tank and seat unit into a single, streamlined shape.

Acrobatic handling was icing on the cake. Suspension was by Marzocchi. Brakes by Brembo. Pirelli brought low-profile tyres - on 16″ wheels - to the DB1's bend-swinging party. And - especially if you were short of stature - Bimota built the bike to be comfortably compact. It is true that - as 750cc machines go - it was not the most blistering bike on the block. But, for its overall strengths - and the Italianate cut of its jib - the Bimota DB1 takes its place at the top table of the world's superbikes!

Fiat 508S Balilla Sport

Fiat 508S Balilla Sport 1930s Italian classic car

The Fiat 508S Balilla Sport had much in common with the VW Beetle. And not just that it looked like one from the back. As with the 'Volkswagen' - literally, people's car - the Balilla was designed to be transport for the masses. That said, it was coach-built in Turin, Italy - so it went without saying that it was pleasing on the eye, too. Fiat HQ was in Turin.

Gianni Agnelli - head of Fiat - had a core objective for the new Balilla range. He wanted it to sell well. That comes as no surprise - Agnelli was one of the wealthiest Italians ever. The first model's unique selling point was that it had three gears. Plus, it was cheap … sorry, competitively-priced. It set you back 10,800 Italian lire. Throw in hydraulic braking - eat your heart out, Citroën - and it was a steal! Fiat's sales pitch clearly worked. 114,000 units rolled into - and out of - showrooms, during the car's five-year run. That was a record number of sales - up to, and including 1934, when the first 508 was released. And not only in Italy. Other parts of Europe also caught the Balilla bug. Production lines were started in Poland, GB and France. Indeed, the French firm Simca was founded to flog the new Fiat.

Particularly in France, then, the Balilla was possessed of a certain «Je ne sais quoi» - something its British rivals were perceived to lack. The 508 Sport had speed on its side, too - as well as style. Its four-cylinder 995cc side-valve engine made 36bhp - at 4,400rpm. Top speed was 110km/h. More than enough to sweep a lucky lady off her feet! So long as you did not forget your petrol money … the Balilla Sport drank around 9.5 litres/100km. But - all in all - mission accomplished for Fiat. The 508 series did more than make its mark - it became a sales sensation! That was the result of what passed for mass marketing, in the 1930s. The Balilla Sport was big business. Like those behind the VW Beetle, Fiat had got their sums spot-on!