Kit Car Magazine October 2009
SPACE AGE SOLUTION
Following a string of extrovert but practical designs that the public just didn’t take to, MEV hit the jackpot with the Rocket. It’s not quite as ballistic as its name suggests but it’s a brilliantly designed, single-donor kit that delivers extrovert looks and refined performance in a universally affordable and surprisingly comprehensive package. Ian Hyne lights the blue touch paper!
Nowadays, everything’s a solution which comes as somewhat of a surprise when you were previously blissfully unaware of any problem. I don’t need the side of a huge HGV trailer to proclaim itself a delivery solution to tell me that if I want to shift a large load from A to B, I hire a van or truck, stick my load in the back and drive it to where it needs to go. Just as if I want to copy a document, I immediately think of using a photocopier without the need to consult Staples’ list of stationery solutions before coming up with the idea. Simple. No problem at all. But there are some aspects of mental wrestling to which the answer is rarely so readily apparent as in the case of ‘what sort of design is likely to find favour with the kit car buying public?’
The impetus behind the design and creation of kit cars has changed over the years. Initially they were the enthusiasts’ solution to the lack of new cars after the last war so pre-war saloons were modified to create lighter, two-seater sports cars. Thereafter, the enthusiasts directed their efforts at improving on the engineering of their dated machinery. Next, the advent of GRP allowed the creation of complex shapes such that styling came to the fore. Then it was beach buggies that placed more emphasis on extrovert style than engineering before we arrive at today’s situation in which style remains a strong motivating factor for buyers whether it’s retro, replica or contemporary while engineering is also high on the list of appreciated priorities as in the case of the Ultima, a 200 mph superecar that you can build in your garage – but at a price. And it’s not so much price alone that is the problem but the blend of engineering, performance, style and quality that a manufacturer can provide for what the market sees as a fair and reasonable price. Getting that one right really IS Rocket Science.
It was a problem that confronted MEV’s Stuart Mills and Julie Wilson when contemplating the styling their first kit-form hit would adopt. Most will immediately say that the Rocket is a thinly disguised copy of the Ariel Atom and it’s easy to see why they would jump to that conclusion but that’s not quite the case. Plenty of people have thought of using an exoskeleton design before as it’s something that has long been part of the extrovert stylist’s visual arsenal. But it took Ariel’s Simon Saunders’ commercial courage to produce the car, the basic form of which is seen in the Rocket, SDR Storm and the new Deronda from Alternative Cars and it’s bound to appear in cars yet to come as evidenced by the MK Extreme shown at the recent Stoneleigh show. But as far as MEV’s Stuart Mills is concerned, though the Atom may have registered in his subconscious, it was his Harley Davidson V-Rod that provided the artistic stimulus leading to the Rocket.
Like many modern bikes that wear their engineering as styling, the Harley wears its frame tubes on full view rather than concealed under the tank, the seat and behind the engine, with the minimal panels occupying the irregular spaces between them. That’s not quite how the Rocket has turned out as its bodywork simply comprises a bonnet and engine cover but the overall effect of a fully exposed chassis and minimal bodywork, as well as reducing the necessary components that constitute a car to less than those invested in a Caterham Seven, also looks surprisingly attractive, the shape being defined by the steel tube frame rather than by the body panels. Visual impact aside, the mechanical underpinnings of the car combine mechanical refinement, constructional convenience and price appeal as the donor parts are largely culled from the Ford Focus.
This modern saloon, as the UK’s top selling car for the last few years, is abundantly available, affordable and bang up to date with many advanced features and while they don’t all find a place in the Rocket’s specification, those that don’t are easily saleable as spares on E Bay. Body panels, trim parts, seats, interior panels, doors, glass, instrument packs, air-bags etc. all assist in greatly offsetting the cost of a donor car which MEV regularly buy in for around £1,000. On their website, the company states that experience has taught them that an air-bag system can command several hundred pounds especially as the cost new is around £700 and that from up to £1,000 spent on a suitable donor, generally up to £800 can be recouped from the sale of the unwanted parts. That’s a powerful economic argument.
What do you need? The engine and gearbox complete with ECU, engine bay wiring loom, sensors and diagnostic port, driveshafts, front hubs, radiator and fan (non air-con), engine mounts, fuel pump and fuel gauge sender unit, header tank, brake fluid reservoir, steering column, column controls, ignition switch, steering wheel and pedal box, rear callipers and discs, handbrake mechanism, gear change mechanism, exhaust manifold, seat belts, wheels and tyres. Should you decide to go for new wheels and tyres, four-point harnesses etc, then just add the unwanted donor parts to the for sale ad.
The chassis is in round-tube. The main rails are 2” CHS steel with lesser gauge ERW bracing tubes, a CDS tube roll-over bar and 16-gauge aluminium floors and tunnel. The wishbones are also in round tube and located on Polyurethane bushes. Front uprights are Ford Cortina, Hyundai (same things) or MEV’s own steel replacements but you don’t need to worry as they’re included in the kit. The Sierra steering rack also comes with the kit, as do the Pro Tech aluminium coilspring damper units. Pedals are Ford Focus although they require fairly major modification so MEV offer a Wilwood aluminium pedal set operating twin master-cylinders and a balance bar as an alternative at £215 which isn’t bad. At the back there are round-tube wishbones clamping MEV fabricated steel uprights to accept Focus hubs and bearings along with Pro-Tech dampers.
The engine is the Ford Focus 1,600 Zetec unit. It also comes as an 1,800 and 2-litre although the 2-litre units are hard to track down. If you want more power than the 1,600’s 100 bhp achieved with the standard Ford Efi equipment, then go for the 1,800 rather than the 2-litre. It doesn’t offer quite the same power as the 2-litre but it uses the IB5 gearbox which is significantly lighter than the MTX 75. Finally, the brakes. The Focus system is more than adequate for standard engines although if your donor yields rear drums, around £50 will upgrade to discs which MEV urge you to do although in truth, it’s probably more about looks than necessary braking effort. However, this car has Wilwood discs and alloy callipers all round.
Bodywork is minimal comprising a rear engine cover with a fixed forward section and hinged rear, a bonnet section and four cycle wings, all in your choice of colour. The first car’s engine cover incorporated a tall air scoop which has since been reduced to a smaller one as the engine gets more than enough cooling air flowing round it while a further mod is a small spoiler moulded into the trailing edge.
The first car used a grey powder-coated chassis with black GRP panels and black centred, chrome-rim wheels and looked suitably space age and though the yellow car smacks you straight between the eyes, especially on a bright, sunny day, I don’t think it’s quite as visually successful. Certainly, first impressions are that there’s precious little for your artistic talents to get to grips with but Stuart tells me there are some pretty lurid cars in build and on the road, one of which has a chrome powder-coated chassis which I look forward to seeing. (Latest news is that the car has been built, SVA-ed and sold at the recent Stoneleigh show so pictures will have to do.) Anyway, the livery is up to you but let’s get it on the road.
The 1,600 engine develops 100 bhp @ 6,000 rpm with 110 lbs ft @ 4,000 which, in a car weighing 480 kgs, equates to a power to weight ratio of 212 bhp per ton which is not to be sniffed at and which certainly allows the Rocket to live up to its name in road car company.
Hop aboard and, rather than feeling horribly exposed, the large diameter chassis tubes actually promote a feeling of solid protection and confidence. Yes, it’s a novelty sitting in a car in which you can put your hand through the side and touch the tarmac but it merely adds interest to the driving experience rather than being anything you need to fear although it’s a pain if you drop your sweets or sunglasses on the move! In the driver’s seat, the décor reflects the total simplicity approach. Dead ahead there is a small Vapor LCD display main instrument while centrally mounted is the push button control and warning light panel supplied with MEV’s electronic E-Dash printed circuit wiring system that greatly simplifies and speeds the wiring of a car as all the fuses and relays are already fitted to it and all you need do is connect the wires from the various circuits to the terminals along one edge. There’s more on it on MEV’s website as it’s equally easy to fit to any kit car. That’s it, everything else being operated by the Focus column stalk controls.
Start her up and the engine whispers through its stainless steel exhaust system available on the extras list. As I set off, the controls have the soft, smooth feel of the Focus that supplied them. The clutch is light and smooth, the gearlever slithers between slots, the steering is a bit slow with the Sierra’s 3.7 turns between locks but the wheel is fluid in my hands, the ride is soft and totally absorbent on Pro-Tech’s finest, amounting to an initial experience that’s far removed from the screwed down sports car I was expecting. But initial impressions are soon tempered by the realisation that the Rocket is extremely comfortable, flowing, easy and relaxing to drive but that it’s also deceptively quick.
200 bhp per ton is hardly a stratospheric figure in comparison to the huge thump available under the bonnets of many of the industry’s top performers but it certainly makes for a very rapid road car that will hit 60 mph in about 6 seconds and which has the 16-valve characteristic of bags of seamlessly delivered power and torque available pretty well anywhere in the rev range.
Off the line the soft suspension promotes solid grip to launch the Rocket on its ground-hugging horizontal flight path. As the revs quickly rise, the gear change lacks the rifle-bolt precision of a direct mechanical linkage but the twin cable system still slithers its way through the gate with unerring accuracy if not lightning speed. Whether going up or down, you’ll never miss a slot and coming down, the well regulated throttle still has the necessary response to ensure the smoothest of fast changes. On the GO side, it’s all good news and if 100 bhp just isn’t enough, you’ve got the option of a bigger engine or electronic enhancement. Indeed, MEV’s Sonic 7 model fitted with the Ford Focus 1,800 cc engine has just been breathed on to deliver 170 bhp but at a price – around £1,500 for the throttle body and ECU conversion.
It’s also good news on the stop side where the Wilwood system is instantly and progressively responsive in a Herculean manner that knocks off speed in an instant while the bias is perfectly set to avoid lock ups in all but the most panic induced applications.
If there’s a chink in the armour of this car, it’s in the steering where the Sierra 3.7 turns rack supplied in the kit is just a bit too slow. While everything’s nicely under control, it’s fine but when you need to react quickly, either by accident or design, it just lacks that little bit of speed that could spell the difference between recovery and a trip over the grass. When I first drove this car, it was on the wide, smooth sweeping roads surrounding MEV’s Mansfield HQ. On these roads it felt smooth, fluid and utterly composed. At that time, I was due to drive it on the Guild of Motor Endurance event crossing every mountain range between Angouleme in France and Santiago in Spain but sadly, it didn’t happen but having driven the car again and this time in the infinitely more tortuous environment of MEV’s tight, twisting test track, I’m glad as multi-hairpin mountain roads would have been hard work. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it at all, it’s just than when the going gets really twisty, it needs a faster rack and for an extra £95, MEV can supply a quicker 2.4 turns one. At the moment, in the really tight stuff it’s a bit slow to really turn in and also pressing on through tight bends, if you need to lift off, you get a little bit of lift-off oversteer that a quicker rack would make much easier a quicker to counteract. The tight twists also have the back end stepping out at various points at which time the Rocket’s balance would again be aided by a quicker rack. Of course more power would exacerbate the situation but then car set up can also go a long way to keeping it all in check.
When not pushing as hard as you either can or dare, the Rocket is an absorbing car to drive. Caterhams and their ilk provide great entertainment when you can see exactly what the front wheels are up to but in the Rocket, you can see the complete suspension, wheels, springs, dampers and brakes doing their thing, not that brakes put on much of a show but the flexi-pipes certainly twitch when you really use them.
Practicality? Forget it but that’s not to say the car doesn’t have practical aspects. The wind deflector works extremely well and even driving without goggles, the slipstream didn’t trouble my eyes at all so the rain would hopefully, register a similar miss. That said, MEV did hint at a bolt-on full screen for the car but it’s yet to make an appearance. Nor do the footwells fill with road grit, dust and debris as I imagined would be the case. Whether by accident or design, the lack of side panels causes no problems whatsoever. And you can get stuff in it – not much I grant you but there is space behind the driver’s seat (the fuel tank is behind the passenger seat) in which MEV has currently created a simple aluminium storage bin but I’m sure the creative minds of kit car builders could come up with something more commodious and secure that also looks good. They’ve also built an aluminium storage bin in the front of the passenger footwell for additional cargo space. In addition, if you fancy the run to Le Mans, the area above the engine cover and between the surrounding roll cage provides decent space for stowing a tent and a couple of sleeping bags. There’s also space under the bonnet. You’d need to move things around a bit but the radiator sits in the centre of a fair old space such that an enterprising builder could install a weatherproof luggage locker. But primarily, the Rocket is for entertainment which is something at which it excels.
You quickly warm to the Rocket and it comes as no surprise that sales have topped sixty units in a fairly short time and show no sign of abating despite the introduction of the Sonic 7 which was MEV’s response to the constant enquiries for a Rocket with more bodywork. You’ll like it even more when you hear the kit costs just £3,999 + VAT and that MEV confidently predict you can put a car on the road for around £7,000.
That prediction is largely due to the kit contents which include the chassis, wishbones, bushes, ball joints, front and rear uprights, a set of coilspring damper units, the steering rack, front brakes, aluminium front and rear bulkheads, centre tunnel, floors and radiator pipes, Perspex wind deflector, aluminium fuel tank and locking cap, seven-piece GRP set and the wing mounting brackets.
The rack, front uprights and front brakes are used but fully serviceable while the rack is the 3.7 turns unit that can be upgraded to the 2.4 turns option for £95. On the extras list, you’ll find the stainless steel exhaust at £324 less the manifold which you take from the donor, the seats available in black or to match the body colour at £180, the MEV E-Dash wiring loom complete with fuses, relays and an IVA compatible lighting set at £412, the Wilwood alloy pedal assembly with clutch and brake master-cylinders and balance bar at £215, powder-coating for chassis and wishbones at £235 and the MSA spec. 48.3 mm CDS roll cage welded to the chassis at the time of manufacture for £200. That comes to £4,965 plus 868 in VAT making £5,833. Then there’s the donor at around £1,000 or around £200 if you manage to recoup £800 from the sale of unwanted parts so suddenly, £6,000 seems a tall order. If it has to be £6,000, you could always use the Focus seats, seatbelts, pedals, wheels and tyres etc. but as ever where budgets are concerned, expect it to be nearer £7,000 and you won’t go far wrong even allowing for aftermarket seats, four-point harnesses, new wheels and tyres, instrumentation, steering wheel and the inevitable bits and pieces for which even the most detailed budgets fail to allow.
So buy it, strap yourself in, light the blue touch paper and prepare for launch!