Retro styling, 7.0-litre V8 power, 900kg… what inspired the Nichols N1A? | Top Gear
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Retro styling, 7.0-litre V8 power, 900kg… what inspired the Nichols N1A?

Steve Nichols gives TG the inside scoop on the car that’s at home on track as it is whisking you off to a pub lunch…

Published: 03 Oct 2023

The reveal of the N1A was one of the highlights of the summer (farewell, occasional warm weather, we will miss you), not least because of the tantalising details in the headline: a 7.0-litre Chevy V8, sub-tonne kerbweight and styling so dripping with Sixties-ness you can just about hear The Beatles playing in the background. Well, you might with the engine off.

It’s the maiden creation of Nichols Cars, a company co-founded by and named after Steve Nichols, the ex-F1 designer whose CV contains the most successful Formula 1 car ever made - the McLaren MP4/4 - and involvement in the two cars that made Mika Hakkinen a double world champion. Not to mention stints at Ferrari, Sauber, Jordan and Jaguar.

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Nichols isn’t the first F1 designer to dabble in road cars of course. Adrian Newey is currently working on the RB17 hypercar (having helped Aston Martin conceive the Valkyrie) while Gordon Murray’s warehouse of excellence and forthcoming T.50 supercar need no introduction.

So, what inspired Nichols to lend his skills (and name) to a car company? “My first job in Formula 1 was with McLaren, and it was beautiful for me because since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a Formula 1 designer. And it's a big team, big budget, big-time drivers. A bit like your first love, I've always had a soft spot for McLaren.

“And my friend John Minett had this idea to do a project for a track day car. We wanted to base it on the aesthetics of the McLaren M1A, which was really Bruce McLaren's first design, first car, which was a sixties Can-Am sort of car. So John's idea was to produce a road legal car that could also be used for track days. It really is kind of a race car for the road. It's probably more at home on the track, but still… on a sunny afternoon you can take it out for a spin and go to a nice pub for lunch.”

Sounds like a perfect Sunday to us. Initially they considered calling the car an Elva, named after the original that Bruce McLaren built for himself before he was inundated with requests to make more. But they decided the Elva name didn’t have much clout, and there is of course already a McLaren Elva.

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Eventually they decided to name the company after Steve. “I wasn't too keen,” he says. “I tend to be a bit more of a below the radar sorta person, I guess.” But eventually he was swayed and N1A offers “a little bit of a connection” to the M1A that inspired it.

The benefit of sculpting something fresh is that the internals aren’t bound by the past, as you’d expect from a continuation model like the Aston Martin DB5 or Jaguar C-Type continuations. Which means the engineering can be a little more modern: the transaxle is “very similar” to that found in the Audi R8, says Nichols, while the Chevy LS engine (“really lightweight, powerful… and not terribly expensive”) is “quite sophisticated”, says Nichols, after 70 years of development.

“It makes quite a nice, big V8 sound and [it’s] quite a bit more of an analogue car than some of the cars that have so many electronic aids. So it's more involving of the driver, I think. You still gotta change gear yourself, H-pattern gear shift. A little bit more of an old school experience.”

Beyond that it’s got a Graziano gearbox, tubular frame, carbon fibre panels - a nod to contemporary F1 - and a bonded aluminium chassis as per various Lotuses (Loti?) of days gone by. Developed by many of the same people, too. As is the suspension: the work of Lotus guru Richard Hurdwell, no less. “I always like to get experts,” says Nichols. “I want the best you can get, and I want those specialists to know more about their specialist area than I do. Otherwise I haven’t got the right guy.

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“And I like things to be light and stiff, which is a carryover from the Formula 1 aspect of things. So for what amounts to a fairly big sports car, it's quite lightweight.”

That word again: lightweight. When the N1A is signed off it’ll tip the scales at just 900kg, and “hopefully a bit less”. That’s more like the Lotus we’re used to than the one that’s beginning to pump out Eletre SUVs in their thousands.

Production of the N1A will be limited to 100 units, although the run will begin with 15 special edition cars: one for each of the MP4/4’s wins in 1988. That’ll have a higher spec - a few more “bling, bling bits” says Nichols - and higher performance parts, with the price somewhere in the ballpark of £375,000 before HMRC adds its 20 per cent. But the standard car will be “much, much less expensive”, driven in part by a desire not to stray into the territory owned by “multi-million pound supercars”.

If the N1A is a success, what’s next? “We’ve got a few things that we'd like to do. Some upgrades on this car, say. And we're thinking about some other projects too. Maybe something with modern styling, but the same sort of thing, you know? Powerful, lightweight, track day, legal for the road… so that might be a next project. We’ll just have to see what the future brings.”

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