When it comes to building a performance car there is a general rule of thumb that you will find unanimous agreement on; you need a lot of power to go fast in a straight line, and a lack of weight if you want to go fast around corners.
Motorsport is a great place to see this theory in action. Should you ever find yourself in the company of a racecar, tap your fingers on the body panels – that tight metallic ‘dong’ you’re ears are usually greeted with is often replaced with a duller resonance of a lightweight composite – likely fibreglass or carbon fibre. Peek underneath and you will find components forged from exotic metals in place of the standard cast steel items. Inside the cocoon of plush textiles and surfaces we are used to sitting amongst have been unceremoniously ripped back to a cold, metallic shell stripped of any necessities. All this attention paid to reducing weight pays dividends in performance gains with improved acceleration, braking and steering.
‘Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.’ – Colin Chapman
Here are 10 classics (some of the modern variety) we would be looking at for some lightweight, chuckable fun.
10 Classic Cars Under 1000kg Leaderboard (scroll down to see the cars)
|Car||Weight (KG)*||Power (bhp)*||Bhp/tonne||Years manufactured|
|1||Caterham Super Seven||515||106||206||1973-present|
|2||Lotus Elise S1||731||118||161||1996–2001|
|3||Citroen AX Sport||715||95||133||1987-1991|
|4||Renault 5 Alpine Turbo||850||110||129||1982-1984|
|5||Peugeot 205 Rallye||794||102||128||1987-1992|
|9||Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 ti||1000||90||90||1966-1972|
*All figures are approximate given variance in manufactuer vs real world data.
#1 Caterham Super Seven – Weight 515kg
Chapman’s automotive embodiment of minimalism, the Seven is a car that occupies its own niche in the automotive world and also in the hearts of owners and admirers the world over. The Seven looks like little else on the road with it’s narrow body, barely wide enough to house two occupants, race-car like exposed front suspension and open wheel design, with little frog-eyed lights sat atop. So simple is their construction that they can be bought and assembled from a kit, a task many enthusiastic owners take on.
They have subsequently established a cult following both with those seeking a raw driving experience road and also with racers looking for an affordable, competitive car they can spanner themselves. With so little mass to move, these things of course don’t need much engine to hurl them along and can reach 100 km/h in sub 5 seconds. Sitting in what is basically a canoe on wheels it feels quite terrifyingly fast. Most motors sit somewhere in the 1600-2000cc range, usually of UK origin. Ford Pinto’s, Vauxhall’s red top and Rovers K-series have all found themselves wedged into that slender form over the years.
#2 Lotus Elise S1 – Weight 731kg
Following on neatly from one of the most famous Chapman designs, the Elise is the modern embodiment of mans philosophy of ‘simplify, and add lightness’. This pretty little sports car takes the same K-series engine that powered so many Seven’s but moves it from the front to the middle-rear of the car. The 1.8 featured an aluminium head, and put out a pokey 118hp, which is a miniscule amount by modern standards but remember this is a Lotus, and it of course has a little trick up its sleeve.
Gone is the spaceframe, replaced by a chassis formed of epoxy-bonded and riveted aluminum extrusions to form an incredibly stiff platform without the penalty of weight, tipping the scales at a staggeringly low 70 kg! This enabled overall weight to come in under 750kg. Steel is used as sparsely as possible, only in the cars roll bar, rear sub frame and the suspension mounts – also bonded in. Stonkingly quick down a twisty road, again like its predecessor the Elise delivers raw feel and experience that few of its contemporaries match.
#3 Citroen AX Sport – Weight 715kg
Our third flyer hails from France, a country responsible for a third of the cars on this little list of lightweights. The Citroën looks like it was designed with only a ruler and pen in hand, such is its lack of curves. But there is a certain charm to its box-like from, and construction – it really was cardboard thin in places resulting in that teeny curb weight that made it a truly chuckable backroad bomber. The GT and GTI are the models most people think of – and there are good reason these fine forms are becoming increasingly coveted. But of course the one we’re interested in is the most pared back of the bunch – the Sport, a little known homologation special built so Citroën could participate in the sub 1,300 race class.
Peppy is a word we will probably use a lot in this article – once again an apt description of the engine situation we have on our hands here. With so little mass to move the 95 horsepower lum pushed the little AX along nicely, and this engine was a little trick too having been worked over by regarded tuner Danielson Engineering, who increased displacement of the 1,124cc lump to a more useful 1,294cc, adding bigger intake and exhaust valves along with a twin carburetor setup.
#4 Renault 5 Alpine Turbo – Weight 850kg
Just look at this thing, the ‘Turbo’ decals, compact dimensions, 3 stud turbo fan-like wheels and rectangular front end combine to make a seriously cool looking, lightweight hatch. It also happens to be the first Turbo French hot hatch, with a punchy little 1.4 pushing out 110bhp with a little help from it’s Garret T3 turbocharger, which helped it along to 60mph in 8.7 seconds. That power was kept in check with a honed chassis featuring a lowered, stiffer torsion bar setup front and rear and roll bars, and owners could even opt for a special lightweight wheel reducing unsprung mass.
#5 Peugeot 205 Rallye – Weight 794kg
We could almost have filled this list exclusively with icons from the French manufacturers – just picking one Peugeot from a long list of lightweight legends was no easy task. But for us it had to to be the 205 Rallye, even over the legendary GTi. The Rallye badge (or sticker, more accurately) is truly special special one. It’s not the power (just 102bhp from a little 1.3) that makes them special but of course the weight, coming in at under 800kg thanks to it’s stipped out spec gifting a chuckabiity few modern hatches can compete with. That’s an impressive 56kg lighter than the already featherweight 1.6 GTi and 100kg under the 1.9.
That Rallye sticker carries an interesting story too – the car was actually built to complete in the sub 1300cc Group N class making it a proper little homologation special that counts Chris Harris amongst its list of owners, a man who knows a thing or two about fine handling cars.
#6 Mazda Miata, MX5 – Weight 960kg
The Mazda MX5 is seemingly the internets default answer to a ‘what car should I get?’ question. Weekend car, sports car, first car, touring car, track car, race car, drift car and even rally car – the MX5 is proven at every one of these disciplines and praised for it’s balanced handling and low speed thrills. A key factor in this is the cars low curb weight, meaning even with it’s lowly 114bhp 1.6 (or peppier 128bhp 1.8) the cars a near unmatched driving experience and is regarded by many as one of the best drivers cars of all time.
Like some of the other cars features on this list the emphasis is on momentum, trying to brake as little as possible and carry speed into and out of the corner. It really makes you think, and commit! But if you push beyond its limits that front engine layout makes it easy to catch.
#7 BMW 2002 – Weight 940kg
Following on neatly our next car is BMW’s iconic 2002, packing a similar silhouette to our little Alfa and also sharing the same cult following amongst its fans, which these two wonderful Petrolicious videos show can range from college kids to car designers. While the Alfa gets its punch via a modest yet peppy little lump under the hood, at BMW the belief was bigger is better, and two of their team felt their underpowered 1602 company cars needed a little more beef. The two boys from Bavaria unknowingly both had the same idea when they requested for the 2.0L M10 engine from the 2000CS Coupe, a car some 200KG heavier, to dropped it into their 1602’s.
They only discovered this on a fortunately timed service was being performed on both their cars at the same time, further confirming that this was the direction to go in, giving birth to the 2002. Dropping a big displacement engine into a compact and lightweight package is clearly a recipe for magic. And the 2002 truly was – a superb steer in a beautifully styled package. Handling was on point, MacPherson status up front and a fully independent rear feating semi-trailing arms out back.
#8 Austin Mini – Weight 650kg
If you have not witnessed the spectacle of Mini’s racing at Goodwood Revival, we suggest you jump on YouTube now and have your mind blown by the racing prowess of these comically compact and underpowered machines. Watch agog as they hold off cars 4 times their power and weight, staying off the brakes in places no other racecar could. The mighty Mini is a true giant killer on race track and rally stages, racking up countless victories in races you would never have thought. Its diminutive footprint and weight made it highly chuckable through twisty circuits and stages, and also gave superb performance in snowy conditions. Most commonly found with a 1.0L – 1.3L engine which gives adequate enough performance, many ambitious modifiers have fitted everything from Metro Turbo to K20’s engines.
However some Mini’s arrived already in a good state of tune thanks to a man named John Cooper. The Formula 1 constructor happened to be a friend of designer Alec Issigonis and used his knowledge of engineering race cars to make significant performance improvements to the little Mini. The early Coopers are amongst the most collectable cars now and frequently replicated, looking stunning on the smaller 10” wheels and foregoing the wider arches and wheels fitted optionally to later cars.
#9 Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 ti – Weight 1000KG
The Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 ti is a cracking little lightweight classic often overlooked due to the beauty of it’s limelight-hogging coupe counterpart. There is something honest and functional about the sedans blocky form which is rather endearing and unassuming, appearing quite the chic grocery-getter in standard form, yet transformed into something truly alluring with a few tweaks from standard Alfa cook book; add GTA wheels, shed bumpers, slam. This compact combines a lively drive with a truly sonorous note from it’s four cylinder, twin carb’d twin-overhead-cam 1300.
This little screamer packs a punch with 90bhp, found at 6000rpm with 88-lb.ft. developed at 4900rpm. Mated to a manual gear box and rear drive make it a truly immersive and analog experience for the keen driver. Stopping is taken care of via discs on each corner, Like the majority of cars in his article, the thrill comes at safe speeds, with the engine coming on cam at around 4000rpm and really awakening into a glorious note that has you believe you are travelling at far faster speeds than you actually are. Keep your foot pinned to the redline in this thing and you in automotive heaven – do the same in a modern turbo equivalent and you could quite possibly end up in jail.
#10 Porsche 914 – Weight 920kg
This potent little two-seater Porsche was hugely overshadowed by the iconic 911, to the extent a lot of people wouldn’t even know what one is if they saw it on the street. But those that do will know what a great little car it is, with sublime handling thanks to it’s mid engine layout and slow slung chassis. It’s a little known fact that the 914 actually generates higher G-forces in a corner than a 911!
They are reportedly a great steer on the road, with filmmaker and racing legend Jeff Zwart loving his, and are equally at home on the track, often found with bulging GT arches and wide slicks at each corner. The 110bhp 2.0 six from the 911 is the engine to go for, over the 80bhp 1.7 flat-four, but commands a considerable premium. If originality and investment value are less of a concern it is certainly possible to swap in all manner of engines, from the larger capacity sixes if you want to keep it semi-correct, or even a Subaru boxer for something unorthodox and wild.
Benefits of a Lighter Car
As well as better outright performance there are other benefits of lighter cars too. Slower wear on tires, and also brake pads, which aren’t having to work as hard, and the car will use less fuel too. These factors are certainly a bonus if you enjoy a track day or two, but on a race day can make the difference between winning and losing.
This approach of shedding pounds isn’t limited to the circuit either, with the guys at the strip adopting the same mentality. A time-honored drag racing maxim is: “For every 100lbs of dead weight you lose you gain a 10th of a second in the quarter mile.” So as well as handling benefits also think of weight loss as free power. Look at the cars run by crafty old school guys at the strip and you’ll see holes drilled out anywhere and everywhere they can get away with it in order to shed weight and squeeze every bit of straight line speed that they can from their cars.
Start Right; Start Light
Whilst a stripped out car has a proven performance advantage on track, talk to anyone who has driven such a machine on the road and they will tell you the novelty wears thin very quickly. So if you don’t want to go through the process of ripping out everything that makes your car a tolerable environment you’re best off starting out with something light to begin with.