BAC Mono driven in Death Valley
The British car industry has bred a fair few Freds In Sheds over the years. Starry-eyed dreamers regularly come and go, and a few cars may even dribble out before the bailiffs come calling. But neither of the prime movers behind the BAC Mono is called Fred, and their fledgling car company is on the cusp of expansion. At TopGear we are confirmed Monomaniacs.
We also like a challenge, so when we said to Neill and Ian Briggs that we fancied taking this most elemental - with the emphasis on mental - sports car to one of the most hostile environments we could think of, they didn't run away and hide. Instead, they put the kettle on and had a think.
Words: Jason Barlow
Pics: Webb Bland
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
Now, a few months later, I'm pointing the BAC Mono towards a hazy, distant horizon, punching through the F3 race-spec sequential gearbox like Muhammad Ali laying one on George Foreman, feeling the hot desert air whip vigorously across my crash helmet, before letting rip with a heartfelt "Waaaaahhhh!" under-the-visor ululation. Suddenly, Death Valley looks like the most beautiful place on God's - mostly green, though not here - Earth, and things are even more exhilarating than I'd dared hope. Mad car, even madder place.
Ever since grabbing two banzai laps of Dunsfold during TopGear's 2012 Speed Week, I've been somewhat obsessed with introducing the BAC Mono to Death Valley. Why? Because the Mono is the most singular, single-minded, selfishly brilliant car ever, and consists only of the things it needs to go fast, handle properly and ride well. Nothing else. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Then there is Death Valley. Yes, it gets a bit hot here: it hit 56.7°C in 1913, while much more recently - July last year, in fact - it averaged 47.5° across 24 hours, making it the hottest 24-hour average ever recorded anywhere. Even in early March, the mercury generally hovers around the 27° mark, which is exactly what it's showing today. It doesn't help that most of the place names sound like something from a Judd Apatow cowboy satire: Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek, Hell's Gate. All in all, then, almost comically hostile territory.Advertisement - Page continues below
But it's also strangely, starkly beautiful. At least that's what I keep promising the BAC team, who, along with their US importer Shinoo Mapleton, have brought the only Mono in North America to the Spring Mountain race resort on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Shinoo's Sector 111 outfit is based 350 miles away in Temecula, California, and specialises in Ariel and Lotus, as well as trick aftermarket upgrades for them. This might be niche stuff out here, but it turns out the US market for lightweight, rather masochistic British sports cars is pretty healthy. If nothing else, they have the weather for it in California.
The Mono really is next-level stuff. Both Ian and Neill are industry veterans, the former on the design side (with stints doing yachts, hotel interiors and toothbrushes for first class airline cabins), the latter as an engineering consultant and project director for all sorts of heavy hitters, including Porsche, Bentley and Ford. The Mono was originally meant to be a bit of sideline fun, a ‘What if Carlsberg made track cars' philosophical noodle. Fair to say the brothers Briggs got a bit carried away and actually did it, prompting the rest of us to get very interested.
The Mono is a detail fanatic's dream. It uses 300 aluminium billets, has 41 separate carbon-fibre parts and draws on the expertise of around 100 British suppliers. It's not a beautiful-looking car in the traditional sense, but it's definitely a thing of beauty, and uncommonly well made for an ultra-low-volume homebrew.
"Car designers talk about getting volume into their shapes," Ian says. "But I wanted to take all the volume out of the car. It makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it's basically a series of mechanical components. There's bodywork at the front, but as little as possible at the rear. Just like on a modern superbike." Brilliantly, Ian also references film maker Chris Cunningham's stunning video for Bjork's ‘All Is Full of Love' as inspiration, and agrees that a Mono's bodywork - which can be removed relatively easily - would work as a piece of industrial sculpture hanging in the Tate Modern.Advertisement - Page continues below
This particular car has been sold (it costs a not-insignificant $175,000 in the US), so the guys have trucked it out into the middle of nowhere. As it's rolled carefully onto the road, it looks at once magnificently surreal and absolutely at home, not least because the Mono wouldn't look out of place scouting Mars with a Nasa logo on its airbox. We're on the edge of Badwater Basin, a badass place noted primarily for being the lowest point in North America, 282ft below sea level.
Apatow has been at it again on the Devil's Golf Course, a vast swathe of crystallised salt deposits that crack with a metallic sound, rather like the tinkling you hear as hot exhaust metal cools and contracts. There must be a billion tiny salt columns out here.Advertisement - Page continues below
It's also an awesome place to experience a car like the Mono. This might surprise anyone who casually dismisses America as a country low on asphalt-oriented entertainment, especially in a desert that spans several hundred miles.
But though there are obviously epic heat-hazed straights, they're punctuated by satisfyingly off-camber corners and unexpected crests and bumpy bits. Plus, there's the added bonus of only having to deal with other traffic once every, oh, 24 years or so, usually a lumbering RV with a powdered blue-rinse hugging the steering wheel.
No sort of hairdo would survive the Mono without a lid in place. Tricky to get into, it's fabulously comfortable once you're strapped in, just like all single-seaters, although your gentleman's area will initially protest. Trimmed in weatherproof synthetic suede, the quality of the cabin doesn't diminish the overwhelmingly race-car character.
You're practically on the floor. Push the M button in the middle of the wheel (a pricey hi-tech item in itself, housing various read-outs and switchgear), and the 2.3-litre Cosworth four-cylinder engine barks rather sullenly into life. Clutch down, engage first, off we go. This is easy. Let everything warm up and circulate, then just press play. Two numbers matter here: 280bhp, 540kg. Drive a Mono with any sort of gusto, and you get some idea what Felix Baumgartner must have felt like when he threw himself out of his capsule.
Badwater's salty deposits smear past, and while you try to filter all the information the Mono is throwing at you - amazing steering feel, lovely brakes, just perfect linearity all round - it's clear that with so little mass to contend with, you can do everything sooo much later than you would in any normal fast road car. Yet it rides superbly, and doesn't trade security or a sense of solidity for this supreme level of interactivity.
This is as naked and unplugged as I've ever felt driving anything, without feeling horribly exposed or having my spine gelatinised. The Mono has unusually generous wheel travel, but is somehow always scalpel-sharp. It's not a mega-downforce car; there's no sudden transition between aero and mechanical grip, and one of the most brilliant things about this little car is how amazingly friendly it is whatever the speed or weather. It looks intimidating but is vice-free.
Where next? For me, deeper into Death Valley, towards Furnace Creek, then up, up and away past Zabriskie Point. For BAC, it turns out the lunar landscape is on point: how does a Baja 1000, semi-off-road car sound? Maybe powered by that excellent new 350bhp AMG turbocharged four-pot? It's not as starry-eyed as it sounds.