Bare-bones little Birkin S3 can leave supercars for dead when the tar twists, writes a windswept Thomas Falkiner
‘Hey! Dude!” I stop, turn around and notice that the hip young lady who has just parked that Mercedes GLE Coupé is indeed hollering at me. “Is that small and sassy-looking sports car yours?” I tell her it is, jangle the keys in my hand. “Wow it’s cool! What is it? I’ve never seen one before.” And so I tell her what I told all the other rubberneckers who asked the same question today: it’s a Birkin S3: a modern-day recreation of the Lotus 7 that Colin Chapman bought to market back in 1957.
Simple to build and affordable to own, this frog-eyed creation was a hit with enthusiasts. Its lightweight construction and excellent power-to-weight ratio offered performance then attainable only in much dearer sports cars. The road-legal Lotus 7 could also be used in Clubmans weekend racing. Aspiring racers could use it for the work run on weekdays and take to the track come Saturday. Genius, no?
Chapman’s Lotus continued building the 7 until 1973 when it sold the design rights to a company called Caterham. However, due to the car’s fairly rudimentary design many other companies around the world have been given licences to reproduce their own versions of this quirky British institution. One, Birkin Performance Cars, has done so locally since 1983. That’s right, the machine you’re looking at now is a proudly South African product: honed and homegrown in an intimate production facility in Prospecton, KwaZulu-Natal.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking, but don’t. This is no garden-shed special cobbled together with string and chewing gum. Assembled with 33 years’ worth of engineering know-how, the Birkin S3 is an SABS-approved production car that comes with a proper VIN number. Banks like Wesbank will even finance one.
Be this as it may, there are trade offs. Although the Birkin S3 is no kit car (a term that riles Birkin sales and marketing manager Dean Knoop) it is unlike any other contemporary production sportster you’re likely to pilot. There are no HVAC controls, no air-conditioning and no fancy, 24-speaker Bose sound system primed for Bluetooth audio streaming. My test car had no roof, but a canvas hood can be specified for Highveld thunderstorms.
Yep, in the digital realm of the 21st century the Birkin S3 is brazenly analogue. Here’s the thing though, once you turn the key and fire whatever engine you choose to bolt beneath the aluminium bonnet (from a mild Ford Zetec to a wild Duratec), you no longer care about the bare-bones packaging. In a Birkin, it’s all about the drive.
Once you get used to the low seating position (you can literally stroke the asphalt with your right hand) and all the bewildered sidewalk stares, you’ll discover that the S3 handles much like a slightly longer and more powerful go-kart.
Yeah, I know, MINI says this of their cars but trust me, they’re lying. This is the real deal. The tiniest tug on the steering wheel is enough to drastically alter the direction of the car’s nose. These super-fast reflexes mixed in with a laughable kerb weight (mine was a mere 565kg) means the S3 rips through corners like nothing else. Set it up to suit your driving style, and you can leave most supercars for dead when the tar begins to twist.
Then there’s the acceleration. With its miserly build, the Birkin takes off from a standstill like a greyhound that’s just caught sight of a rabbit. Build up the revs, dump the clutch, snap that gear lever through the gate and you’ll be hitting 100km/h in no time. Between 3.8 and six seconds depending on your engine choice. Drama? There’s lots of it. With independent throttle bodies and a large side-exiting exhaust system the S3 roars, pops and burbles with all the angry bravado of a proper racing car. All of which tears a smile across your face of Jokeresque proportion.
Provided you use it in short bursts that is. The cramped cockpit and seats. Exposure to the elements and m0tor’s heat slow roasting your feet when stuck in traffic. The threat of having your sunglasses whipped from your nose at over 80km/h. And let’s not even talk about the highway.
I drove from Northcliff to Kempton Park, and the engine’s drone gave me the kind of headache that can be quelled only with a giant box of ibuprofen. Anything more than a 100km round-trip and the S3 will get on your nerves. But driven sparingly, as a weekend toy for blowing away the cobwebs, the Birkin is a joy. A raw, rich-in-pantomime driving experience that few, if any, modern sports cars can match.
Fast Facts: Birkin S3 180
Engine: 1998cc four cylinder
Power: 138kW at 6500rpm
Torque: 208Nm at 5500rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
0-100km/h: 5.5 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: N/A
Price: From R495000