Dowsetts Classic Cars Tipo 184 | PH Meets

Do 1930s looks and 1990s underpinnings add up to 2020s fun?

By Mike Duff / Tuesday, June 29, 2021 / Loading comments

You could argue long and hard about what constitutes motorsport’s most glamorous period, but most would agree that the era of Grand Prix cars that straddled the Second World War should at least make the shortlist – high on both allure and danger. Yet for anyone wanting to play rather than just watch this is a hugely expensive club to join, with most bona fide racers from the period now much too valuable for actual competition.

Which is where Dowsetts Classic Cars’ Tipo 184 comes in. On first glance it looks like it should be lining up next to A Mercedes W125 or Auto Union Type C. The reality is far more humble, and much cheaper. Underneath the use of a Mazda MX-5 engine, gearbox and suspension components means that anyone sufficiently handy with the snappers could build one for just over £20,000 plus the cost of a donor Mk2 MX-5. Alternatively, Dowsetts will sell a fully built version to pretty much exactly the spec you see here for around £60,000.

Attractive pricing – offset for the need to put in hundreds of hours of labour – has always been core to the appeal of kit cars. But the plans for the Tipo 184 are more ambitious, including a single-make race championship that should produce some very close competition from a pack of almost perfectly matched cars.

The original idea for the Tipo 184 came from Ant Anstead, the copper turned TV car builder (and co-owner of Dowsetts) who created a similar take on an Alfa 158 Alfetta for his ‘Master Mechanic’ show. That one was based on an MGTD chassis and used a modern 2.0-litre Alfa unit; it sold for $100,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction in March. The decision to create a production version required a cheaper and more plentiful base car, as well as some substantial safety modifications to allow it to go racing.

“It’s not meant to be a replica, it’s an evocation,” says Jeremy McNamara, Dowsetts’ CEO, speaking to PH fresh from the car’s launch at the London Classic Show at Syon Park last weekend. “The original 158 was one and a half litre and had eight cylinders, hence 158. Ours is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder, hence 184.”

It doesn’t take much mechanical nous to spot the modern underpinnings. “We had some people coming up to the car at the show who recognised the Mazda suspension, and we’re not trying to hide that,” McNamara explains, “we’re trying to make the car as accessible as possible, that’s the whole point – it’s essentially a bolt together proposition.”

Plenty of kit cars have used MX-5 parts before, with the ability of mechanical parts to outlive rusting body components on older examples meaning there are plenty of potential donors out there. “We picked an MOT failure up for just £300 last week,” McNamara says, “mechanically there was nothing wrong with it.”

The Tipo 184 uses a unique steel chassis combined with the front and rear subframes from the MX-5. “There are six bolts attaching the one at the front and eight bolts attaching the one at the rear – our chassis is designed to accept both of those as they are, although most people will obviously choose to clean them up and probably repaint them,” McNamara says. Bodywork is glassfibre.

Suspension arms, hubs and brakes all come straight from the MX-5 – it keeps the road car’s servo – but the Tipo 184 gets unassisted steering and unique coil-over shock absorbers. It also loses the road car’s anti-roll bars and will run on cross ply tyres designed to give a period appropriate handling balance. All cars running in the championship will need to use a non-VVT version of the 1.8-litre engine and a five-speed gearbox. That means around 140hp against a weight of 700kg with the low-grip rubber ensuring that should still be exciting, especially when surrounded by a pack of rivals.

The humble engine is plumbed to a free-flow exhaust. The manifold has kept eight pipes, like the straight-eight original. “It’s a bit of theatre to be honest,” McNamara admits, “the front two and back two are blanks – but the exhaust does give it a really nice noise, it certainly doesn’t sound like an MX-5.”

Designed with input from the MSA, the integral roll hoop and a chassis designed to absorb crash loadings will make it much safer than any original car from this era. “We’re actually going to stretch it a little bit for the production version beyond the prototype, so it will be able to accommodate people up to 6’2″ or even 6’3″ safely,” McNamara promises.

Beyond the car, the bigger question is that of the planned race series: the need to fill a grid is always the challenge for promoters of any new championship. Those with longer memories might remember the abortive Formula Classic in the 1990s, based around a similar idea – in that case what was effectively downsized 1950s Grand Prix bodywork with Millington-Cosworth engines. No fewer than 18 cars were built for it, but none were ever raced. How will the Tipo championship ensure that those who build will have a reason to come?

“We’re reasonably confident,” McNamara says, honestly “you do need critical mass, which is going to be about 15 cars. So let’s say you need to have 25 out there because not everybody is going to be doing every race. We think we can achieve that next year – and we’ve also got orders coming from all over the place, the ‘States, Europe, Australia.”

The planned race format will consist of a 15 minute qualifying session followed by two 15 minute races, to be held at a variety of tracks. And while some race series are struggling to fill grids, cheaper racing has been enjoying a boom recently; if entry costs can be kept reasonable then McNamara’s predictions don’t seem outlandish.

Kit car makers have a vested interest in underplaying the skills required to assemble their wares, but McNamara insists that 200 hours in a realistic timeframe for assembling a Tipo. “And that includes stripping the donor car,” he says, “it depends on your skill level, but a keen amateur could do most things without any problems. You’ll have to bend your brake pipes, or get them done, because it’s too hard to ship pre-bent brake pipes. But there is no welding and no fabricating.”

Slower builders, or those wanting to spread the cost, will also be able to buy a car bit by bit – chassis, suspension, interior and everything else sold as separate kits. Dowsetts is also working on a conversion pack that will enable the car to be made road legal – having passed an IVA test – and is also planning to ultimately offer different body options around the same chassis.

“We can create different body styles pretty easily, so on the same chassis and running gear you could have an Auto Union, or a Lancia, or something else from that era,” McNamara says, “so you could have a grid with different shapes and colours, but everybody with the same power and basic performance. That would be pretty special, wouldn’t it?”

It’s hard to say no to that.

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