Why owning a clubman makes perfect sense

By Alastair Dow

Set against normal benchmarks like comfort, practicality, beauty or safety the clubman sports car makes no sense at all. The styling is ‘basic origami’, flat panels set against fibreglass mouldings, with various exposed pipes, lights and arms poking out and creating the horrendous aerodynamic drag that the design is famous for.

There are few elegant perspectives except perhaps from directly above, where there are some visual overtones of pre WW2 racers, but that’s being kind. The front looks mildly purposeful, like a Noddy car on a mission, but the rear view is pure Super Mario Kart.

After heaving yourself over the sill and jamming your legs under the steering wheel while your feet fish for the close-set pedals, you find yourself sitting a few inches forward of the differential. Your bum is close to dragging on the ground, there’s nowhere to put your elbows and if you have a passenger you can find yourself knocking their arms awkwardly when you change gear, unless they are clutching the dash in terror.

The roar of the side exhaust, thrum of the tyres and battering wind make conversation below shouting difficult, suspension is harsh and rudimentary at best and there is no shielding from the mechanical noise and smell of the engine. Driving in traffic you feel as vulnerable as a cockroach on an ironing press; you are peppered with stones and leaves, and in the wet the front wheels pump a steady stream of wet road grime onto your right arm, from where it trickles down the back of the seat to form a cold puddle.

For these reasons Jeremy Clarkson loathed his wife’s Caterham, describing it as ‘the extreme frontier of motoring enthusiasm’. People who have ridden in a clubbie seem to fall into two categories, those who can’t wait to do it again and those like Jeremy who never wish to repeat it.

Such a car might have made sense when it was launched in the impoverished UK of the 1950’s but what explains their popularity 60 years later? Even if you build one yourself, a modern clubman is not a particularly cheap option. For a new one, unless you are mechanically gifted and resourceful, you’ll pay at least what you’d pay for an MX5 or a Toyobaru 86 coupe.

And what can explain the lack of development of the concept? It’s still a four cylinder rear wheel drive spaceframe box. It’s as if aerodynamics, doors, roofs, and climate control had never been invented. Sure there have been some refinements – modern fuel injected engines, disc brakes and independent suspension – but the basics of the car remain faithful to Colin Chapman’s original bare bones ‘cheap and cheerful’ vision. The persistence of the design is even more of a puzzle when you consider that there have been many attempts to produce kit sports cars with more modern lines and comforts, but their success has been modest in comparison with the traditional ‘Seven’ style clubmans which are still being constructed and sold in large numbers.

So with these mysteries in mind I asked members of ClubbiesSA a simple question – why do you own a clubman? The responses came from the builders, the racers, the middle aged and the ancient, people with long histories in motorsport and those with none. The answers were technical, emotional, and philosophical, but no one declared that they owned their clubbie for practical reasons. In fact the absence of practicality was cited as an attractor.

With four children I have occasionally asked myself the question, “Why not sell the clubman and buy a second car that I can use to commute to work every day of the year rain or shine?” but the answer is always “Why on earth would I do that?” I am happy to take the bus for 3/4 of the year for the feeling of freedom I get from my car, the smiles and conversations it generates on the road and the incredible performance for dollar value that it has. Arrow clubman.

There’s no such thing as a slow clubman

It gives the same thrill of speed and motion as a motorbike.
Once you have driven one you are hooked. Kestrel clubman.

The laws of physics dictate that light weight and a low centre of gravity are a good starting point for performance, and a 550kg clubman with, say, a Ford Kent engine in a mild state of tune will give most modern performance sedans a real run for their money. With a Toyota 4age 20v (an engine favoured by many) 911 Porsche equivalent performance is within your sights, and with a boosted clubbie with 200+ kilowatts at the rear wheels you’re right in supercar territory.

It’s a nice feeling to pull up at the lights next to a stove hot V8 Commodore knowing that you could blow it away if you wanted to. Puma Clubman

Correspondents for this article all loved the performance bang for buck, and the way the performance was expressed – visceral, unassisted, analogue, seat of the pants – wearing the lack of creature comforts as a badge of pride.

No windscreen, no doors, wind in the hair, no heater, fantastic handling, no leg room, no room for my shoulder. (Even) at 80kph … we all have had a ball. Chevron clubman

An icon of a simpler time

In the mid sixties I saw a Lotus 7, KAR 120C driven by Patrick McGoohan from the “Prisoner” TV Show. That planted a seed in my mind. One day I want to own one of those. Puma clubman.

It has to be said that the majority of people who own a clubman are not in the first flush of youth. Most are at the stage of life where they have the time and money to devote to something so pointless, but this does not entirely explain why they’ve chosen a clubman instead of something like an MGB or an MX5, which are probably cheaper, and certainly more practical and comfortable. Through the uncomplicated joys of clubman ownership people express their connection with a simpler time,

…a time when people took responsibility for their actions and enjoyment could be had by turning petrol into noise. A time when you could throw logic and comfort to the wind as you became one with your machine. Kestrel clubman.

Others were inspired by South Australia’s special historical connection to the clubman through Garrie Cooper’s Elfins, or through a youthful chance encounter with a clubman owned by a friend or business partner, which led to an itch that simply would not go away.

I was at a workshop where they had a clubman in need of a service and tune. I was lucky enough to go as a passenger when road testing. From this day my thoughts were I will get one of these when I can afford it! Amaroo clubman

Perhaps this nostalgia helps to explain the attachment to the 1950s design despite its well-documented limitations, but nostalgia too has its limits, with ‘upgrade-eytis’ being a common affliction of owners. Many clubbies feature state-of-the-art mechanicals under their mild mannered and unsophisticated skin including the latest brakes, tyres, computers, highly developed engines, sequential gearboxes, exotic dampers and dashboard bling.

I built one too!

I own a clubbie because of the satisfaction of driving something I built! Puma Clubman.

Knowing ‘every nut and bolt’ of a car is something that many enthusiasts declare but few have a better claim to the boast than those persistent souls who build their own. Building your own, even with a purchased chassis, is a daunting undertaking, not always completed, as evidenced by the number of projects for sale. Several nights a week for a year is considered the minimum, while some take years, but there is a special pride in building your own.

I have a great sense of pride attached to the knowledge that my own hands are responsible for everything that I get from this car. Arrow clubman.

For some the building and being part of the community of builders is at least as important as driving, and most owners like to fettle and maintain their cars. The global on-line community contains many top flight engineers who are very generous with their knowledge, and in South Australia we are fortunate to have several of these experts close at hand. Our local clubman community is tightly-knit, welcoming and supportive, also helping to explain why this apparently anachronistic vehicle remains so popular.

Mateship

Rather like a cult glued together with shared understanding of something mysterious and unaccountable to outsiders, the clubbie community offers more than just technical expertise, providing friendship and care through good and bad times in members’ wider lives.

My clubbie has been a great therapy for all the sickness and pestilence I have suffered over the years. I thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie with all of my fellow clubbie drivers. Lotus clubman.

In South Australia we are fortunate to have Clubbies SA, a lightly structured network led by the indefatigable Sean Power. Clubbies SA provides a welcoming home for all clubman marques and points of interest (racers, builders, social drivers), with regular coffee meetings, and sub groups who act as informal cooperatives when people need work done on their cars or to share accommodation on interstate trips.

So for these reasons, for the150 or so clubman owners in South Australia and the thousands around the globe, owning a clubbie makes perfect sense.

Thanks to the members of Clubbies SA who contributed their thoughts for this article.

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Rob Nethercote
    August 30, 2018 8:39 pm

    A brilliant article. You captured me well. Thank you for articulating the sheer cussedness of why we enjoy these wonderful blasts from the past.

    Reply
  • John Heritage
    August 30, 2018 11:16 pm

    A very well written article that I will post it on the shed notice board for those that have never understood my decades of involvement with Clubbies. Stick to the spirit of the formula and keep it alive.

    Allison Clubman

    Reply
  • James Peter Shone
    August 31, 2018 4:11 am

    A great read, well written and it accurately encapsulates why I have such an impracticable vehicle!

    Reply
  • James Peter Shone
    August 31, 2018 4:13 am

    A great read, well written, and accurately encapsulates why I own such an impracticable vehicle! Love it

    Reply
  • Great item! I built my Kestrel in the mid-90’s (mid-life crisis) with memories of an Elfin Clubman I had in the 70’s. I sold it to Sean a couple of years ago and am now buying it back! I miss the fun I had with it and am sick of driving other (boring) cars. Okay, I could buy a “state of the art” more powerful newer version but it wouldn’t be the same as driving something I built myself. My non-car friends think I’m mad and I’ve given up trying to explain why I want such an impractical car. I found the only way was to let them go for a drive (as the driver, not just a passenger) and the grin on his/her face said it all. Can’t wait to hit the road again in YX-3202 (hold it up to a mirror!) and get back into the clubby scene.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.