My one big chance to drive a car with a power-to-weight ratio twice as high as a Bugatti Veyron or Pagani Huayra (and much higher than any other road car in existence) comes just as the heavens open. After covering around 1,300 miles to arrive in Liverpool, where the until recently little-known minor manufacturer called the Briggs Automotive Company (BAC) has its headquarters, I'm left with two options: come back with nothing or get ready for a cold British shower.
So I get in. These are really not the best conditions to test a car without a roof. Thanks to holes next to my ankles, my shoes, trousers, and underwear will soon become completely soaked, just like the rest of my clothes above the waist. But before that, I have to sit down.
As expected from such an esoteric vehicle, even a trivial activity becomes a grand event. I have to put my feet where I'm about to sit (yes, after just walking through a puddle), then slide my legs down the long coffin-like footwell to lie in a reclined F1-style position and eventually place my butt on the mud I've just brought in. The seat cannot be moved—it's adjusted in the factory for its driver—so being below-average height, I can barely reach the pedals. My head is so low that instinctively, I try to lean forward for a better view, all for nothing as I'm already squeezed between the carbon-fiber mold pretending to be a seat and the thick Willans racing harness, which is best deployed with the help of a second person. Only now can the rectangular steering wheel be attached to reveal an instrument dash that glitters with an array of colors from its 13 buttons, and the surprisingly crisp and high-quality active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) screen.
This is the BAC Mono, and it's the epitome of the no-nonsense, purposeful car. It represents the idea of a KTM X-Bow or an Ariel Atom taken to a new level. Despite playing on the futuristic note, it has no electronic safety net, while the only options are interchangeable body panels of different colors (how's that for instant customization?) and tailor-made FIA-approved race overalls made to match the car.
The only windshield the driver has is the one on his helmet. The Mono is extremely light and uncompromising in every detail. Brilliantly designed and focused solely on the driver, it has only one centrally mounted seat. Two wouldn't work, as driving the car alone with one empty chair would destroy the balance of the suspension. That's the kind of detail BAC's engineers focus on. Even the name, Mono, underlines precisely this mission.
A big button with the BAC logo starts the engine. It's a straight four from Cosworth, at one time used also in the bonkers Caterhams. Its sound isn't really appealing, but right now I have more important things to complain about than regret a lack of V-8 rumble. The Mono is a regular Formula Three car in a fancy outfit. That's the reason for the wonderfully exposed spectacle of the working pushrod suspension, naked engine, and the Hewland hydraulic sequential gearbox.
There are three pedals, but the clutch is used only for setting off or smoothing gear changes (made with carbon-fiber shift paddles). Leave it alone and each shift feels and sounds like a shot from a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The monocoque is extremely stiff (built from steel, not carbon fiber, to limit the costs of bigger repairs) and vibrates mercilessly as the rev-hungry engine is bolted directly onto the frame, just like the driver's (muddy) seat in front of it. So much for the compromises in shedding weight.
The more the Mono appears to be one of the most uncouth and insane cars to ever wear a license plate, the more it surprises with its maturity and easygoing attitude. It's not hard to come to grips with it. It has something for everyone, amateurs and racing drivers alike. With a surprisingly long wheel travel, the suspension works with far more delicacy than in an average sports car. And there's even a kind of cargo space that can accommodate a laptop and a helmet. Tellingly, the body makes only limited use of its spoilers. While Radicals, Caparos, and all the other track-day gods are festooned with huge wings that start to work only at speeds few people ever dare to reach, the Mono relies mostly on the accessible mechanical grip that's there from the start.
BAC has one more advantage over makers of other small British curios. To this day, all of them without exception looked as if they had been glued with silicone in some garden shed. That's because some of them actually were. On the other hand, the Mono is built in a brand-new, state-of-the-art, shiny workshop with loving attention to detail and an open-minded approach. Its futuristic I, Robot-style looks were inspired not by some obvious jet fighter or anything related to racing, but a video clip by the eccentric Icelandic singer, Bjork.
Each body detail has a structural reason for its existence. Together, they bring a new standard to track-car aesthetics. Bright bodywork exposes the extensive use of carbon fiber and rain-resistant cloth (urine-resistant as well, as BAC proudly claims). The fit and finish are right there with the best of the big carmakers. Basically, nothing betrays the fact that the whole company is only a handful of people. Being a well-thought-out design, the cabin's not cramped, either. The Mono's not a small car; the track and wheelbase are similar to those of a Ferrari 458.
In contrast to most British automotive inventions, there's none of the usual suspicion that the whole thing will fall apart in a second. The Mono is made of the finest components coming from the best experts in their areas. The suspension was made by Sachs, brakes provided by AP Racing, wheels are the work of OZ, and the screen on the steering wheel (worth $8,000) comes from British specialists, Gems. The body's aerodynamics were co-developed with the University of Stuttgart, while Kuhmo designed the V70A tires specifically for this car. Just like F1 drivers, Mono drivers have two compounds to choose from: soft and super-soft. Speaking of Formula One: The Mono meets the 2009 season safety standards of the most advanced racing series in the world.
This all makes a decent argument for the $200,000 price, which is still high for a car with no windows, sat nav, radio, or a second seat. Blame the clients, though. As BAC says: "Initially, we wanted to set the price lower. But when potential buyers called us to ask how much and got the response, they were like 'Huh, is that all?' So we raised it adequately to their expectations."
The Mono is a special car, though. As I roll on the streets, covered in water, just as the roads are, passersby suddenly turn into paparazzi, taking out their mobile phones, pointing at me. Other drivers cheer. I react calmly until a truck driver at the traffic lights next to me waves his hand, encouraging me to open up the throttle once the lights go green. I'm the kind of person who doesn't need to be told such things twice, so I obediently floor the right pedal. Staring at the truck driver intrigued by this strangest of road-going occurrences, I didn't notice a giant puddle covering the whole road ahead of me that immediately sends the car aquaplaning. The rear end starts to fishtail (never has a verb been more apt) from one side of the road to the other.
Surprisingly, it can be calmed down by only a few moves of the steering wheel. You really have to try hard to lose control of a Mono. Predictability has never been so exciting, though. In this car, you are not only taken for a professional racing driver by other people, but you are closest to actually being one. Even with the 0-to-60-mph time of 2.8 seconds, it's one of those great cars where it's not the power or performance figures that count, but how they can be exploited in the real world. And that's why it's the most rewarding car to drive that has ever been invented.
The 2.3L engine comes with a relatively modest 280 hp and a Nissan Leaf-leveling 207 lb-ft, but no one would never ever dare to ask for more. The Mono is blisteringly quick, revealing even more talents at high speeds. Somewhere around 8,000 rpm, the sound coming from the competition-derived straight four finally gives the thrills it should, while the steering calibration proves to be in the league of Lotus and Ferrari.
With the head exactly in the middle of the car (length-wise and width-wise), the driver can work on the trajectory of each of the wheels with a precision measured in millimeters. As I wanted to see how this 1,300-pound, beefed-up kart handles when it starts to lose traction, I learn that even in these conditions the limits arrive gradually and are signaled in advance. Taking a tight corner or a fast sweeping curve, late braking, or exiting a hairpin, the Mono stays perfectly composed. In normal conditions, there's virtually no trace of understeer and only slight oversteer dialed in to let the driver exit a corner the preferred way. It seems impossible to beat this handling combination.
And thanks to this—among other virtues—it would be hard to find a more prominent manifestation of the British engineering talent this side of a McLaren P1. BAC proves that, even in times of ever-growing budgets consumed by high-quality standards and advanced technologies, a bunch of geek engineers from Great Britain can still compete with the big players.