Endangered Species
Evo|November 2019
The naturally aspirated, manual gearbox performance car is a rare beast these days. Thankfully, a few hardy souls are still flying the flag
Adam Towler

Funny how a rustle of leaves can deafen when there’s complete silence. Green foliage bursts from any and every exposed crevice, crack and gulley, frenzied in growth now that it’s completely unrestricted by human hands. Decay, rot, subsidence, erosion; slowly, but with a sense of crushing inevitability, nature is reclaiming what was once its own.

RAF Upwood’s days are most definitely numbered. New housing is well under the wire, encroaching on and then systematically consuming its core buildings that once stood neat and proud. This is ground that would have shaken to the roar of Rolls-Royce Merlins slung under the wings of De Havilland Mosquitos and Avro Lancasters, and latterly the thunder of its Avon jet engines on the groundbreaking English Electric Canberra bomber, but now there’s simply the distant rat-tat-tat of a heavy pneumatic drill, thumping into the ground to create foundations for three-bed semis.

Yet the longer I stand amongst this post-apocalyptic landscape, the more I’m aware of another presence. A loose, deep, sinister thud of an idling V8; a low, dazzlingly blue nose protruding past a smashed-in shutter door; the glint of an antiquated headlamp shining in the dark of a fire-ravaged room, like a single, shy eye out on a stalk. Remember that scene in the original Toy Story movie where Woody and Buzz inadvertently find themselves stuck in the bedroom of the psycho lad who lives next door? Aghast, they’re surrounded by the Frankenstein toys the boy has created by mashing together heads, torsos, tracked vehicles and so on, slowly creeping out from under his bed. Here too, gingerly, the Ford Mustang GT, Toyota GT86 and Caterham 310R roll slowly into the open, but just as our animated heroes discovered, there’s nothing to be afraid of. They’re freaks – with naturally aspirated engines and manual gearboxes – but they’re to be celebrated, not feared. They’re the survivors. For now.

We’re here because of a chance conversation in the evo office. It started with the Stang, as plenty of chats do at present, and probably emerged from another overwrought monologue from yours truly about the simple but heartfelt appeal of rumbling around in the big ol’ Fast Fleet pony car, letting it pull from barely 1000 revolutions per minute and driving everywhere with the windows down, Dukes of Hazzard style, just to enjoy that Detroit bassline. It feels so good partly because, it dawned on me, it was a rare, almost illicit thrill. This in turn got us thinking about which other new performance cars still offer a similar combination, namely an engine breathing at atmospheric pressure, and three pedals and a stick.

Would you believe the answer is around seven? No, none of us could either. Apologies if we’ve missed something obvious, but I make it the aforementioned Ford and Toyota (and its twin, the Subaru BRZ), some of the cars from the Caterham stable, Mazda’s MX-5, Nissan’s 370Z (yes, you can still buy one) and the new Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder. You can argue about whether certain cars are derivatives or independent in their own right, but whichever way you slice the pie created by the traditional sporting car recipe, it’s a very small number, and one easily low enough to put them on the endangered species list.

This is a trend that began in earnest at the turn of the millennium, and as such, it’s nothing new. And yet it does feel like the endgame has crept up on us all, an accelerated demise of something we at evo, and I’m sure many of you too, hold so dear. Why this should be the case inevitably leads us to a dissection of evoness at a cerebral level. It is the sort of discussion often to be heard in a good pub frequented by driving enthusiasts – or just as likely in the paddock at a trackday – and its sliding scale of viewpoints is entirely analogue, never binary. There is no right or wrong answer, for we all gain our unique motoring fix via a different concoction of sensations, experiences and emotions, the mix subject to various weightings for the key elements depending on the individual. But at its core is the separation of speed and driver involvement, of whether the thrill is in reaching the destination quicker than ever, or in the work you have to do to reach that point, albeit seconds – or whole minutes – later.

Undeniably, there are many factors at work here – a perfect storm that has made what many would classify as the purest form of driver’s car almost extinct. We’ve all heard the emissions and fuel consumption argument, and I think we all understand that the law is, inevitably, an ass. A ‘downsized’ and therefore inevitably turbocharged power plant may well respond more frugally in a laboratory test, particularly under the previous NEDC regime, and an auto ’box may well be a free pass on the rollers, but in the real world most of this stuff is nonsense. You only need to drive something such as a Porsche 718 to realise this: its fuel consumption is often worse in reality than its naturally aspirated forebear, and don’t even get us started on the other attributes lost in the switch. We’re not saying turbocharged engines and automatic transmissions don’t have their place – of course they do – but a more sensible solution is surely to select the best engine and transmission for the weight and remit of the car, rather than a legislative straitjacket approach.

For me it comes down to this: if you want the best car, if you want the quickest car, if you want the fastest car around a circuit or on a drag strip or wherever, then the thrust of this story is entirely academic. But if you view the very task of driving as entertainment in itself, something to be learnt and hopefully mastered, and these days, more than ever before, an activity that’s a hobby, then there’s still no substitute for a manual transmission, and more often than not, one combined with a naturally aspirated engine.

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