Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My cars: Sylva Leader 400

Intoxicating and uncompromsing, the Sylva Leader provided a tantalising taste of extreme sports

My girlfriend has a uniquely feminine way of describing cars. It revolves solely around colour, and it’s usually a hugely incomplete method of description, but in the case of my old Sylva Leader she may have been on to something. If you asked anyone to describe the car - even a bonefide petrolhead - the one word that usually came up was yellow. And it was indeed very, very yellow. And fast - as if Noddy and Big Ears had consumed way too much fairy dust one night and decided to try their hand at street racing with a homemade hotrod.

The Sylva certainly was homemade, and boy did it look it. The kit car industry has produced some staggering designs in recent years, but even in 1987 the Leader wasn’t one of its better offerings. The whole thing looked like a giant, slightly misshapen jelly mould, and yet - with it’s low stance and (yellow) roll bar - also strangely purposeful. This combination of the sublime and the ridiculous found many fans in the vicinity, and it never failed to raise a smile, even with typically disapproving audiences such as old ladies and the local constabulary.

The driving experience was always an event. It took several pumps of the throttle to prime the two huge Delhorto carburettors used to feed its 1800cc Lancia heart, but it was worth it. If you were lucky the push button starter on the left hand side of the dash would overcome the engine’s Latin temperament and it would fire with a delicious bark. Prod the throttle and the big carbs would let out a snort, while the side exit exhaust, barely two feet beneath your right ear, emitted a fiery rasp. To this day it remains the best four cylinder soundtrack I’ve ever heard.

On the road its performance was electric. The 150bhp produced by the Italian twin cam might not sound like much, but, with only 650kg to propel, it equated to around 230bhp/ton, which is 911 turbo territory. The brick-like aerodynamics may have blunted its potency at higher speeds, but this was a bit irrelevant for a speccy four eyes like myself, because at around 60mph (with next to no windscreen) my glasses began to take off. Factor in the lack of doors, a hood of any type, any security or anything remotely resembling a boot and the Leader’s everyday credentials began to look shaky.

As a general rule all Sylvas, and most Leaders included, are very fine handling cars, but some DIY suspension mods carried out by a previous owner had left mine with a few unwanted traits. The rock hard rear suspension made the car skittish to say the least, and loss of traction on bumpy roads was a sudden and frequently violent experience. The direct, but surprisingly numb steering, meanwhile, gave little indication of impending doom through its overly weighty helm. It made any of the TVRs I’ve since driven seem a bit, well, safe, but it was undoubtedly exciting and every journey bore a sense of occasion.

Another idiosyncrasy was the car’s braking system. Not only was it un-servoed, which takes some getting used to in this day and age, but it was well overdue for an overhaul. Even if you could summon the gargantuan force needed to operate the hydraulics I’m not convinced they would have done much good. To compound matters, the previous owners’ home engineering periodically reared its ugly head. One hot day the outer part of the throttle cable melted (later discovered to be a bicycle gear cable run perilously close to the exhaust manifold); only to solidify at the extreme end of its travel. Cue a flurry of screaming revs and wheel spin that sent me snaking down a narrow (but mercifully straight) country lane for a few seconds before I brought the clutch in. And, if experiences like that weren’t enough, an unidentified misfire would routinely kick in at high revs, and on occasions the car would simply fail to start altogether.

So does this mean the Leader was a bad car? Well, no, not in the slightest actually. It wasn’t even a particularly bad example. The body and chassis were pristine (if somewhat yellow), the engine performed spectacularly when niggling faults weren’t hampering it, and a damper change and some new rubber would have gone a long way to sorting out the handling. It was a few weekends work away from being a superb track day toy. Sadly, in truth, it was another car that succumbed to my learning curve. At the time I had no garage to work on it and little in the way of tools or practical experience.

The Leader was also a victim of its own appeal. The experience of blasting down country lanes with the glorious twin cam on full song, the hedges accelerating past your ear and the sheer force pulling you back into the seat was intoxicating. I wanted more, but even in pristine condition the Leader would have been a little extreme. What I needed was a car that could deliver the same hit, but also justify itself with fair weather trips to the office and the occasional weekend away. So I did what any sensible young man would do; I bought a TVR.

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