Niche Birkin S3 punches well above its weight

By the second day I had hauled out my pair of racing boots to avoid another one of those mishaps where I mistakenly aimed for the brake pedal but dabbed the throttle… The narrow-bodied Birkin lives up to its name, even for my small frame and size 7 feet. At first this is an intimidating car because of its numerous idiosyncrasies but before long I was challenging cars three times the size at four times the price. The little Birkin knew no limits, it was larger than life.

Dean Knoop is the co-owner of Birkin Performance Cars, a proudly South African product under license to reproduce a copy of the illustrious Lotus 7 S3 Roadster since 1983 .Birkin is a registered vehicle manufacturer and is not a fly by night bunch of garage builders. With Birkin-founder John Watson still involved at a development level each Birkin is expertly build at the KZN-based factory. You can assemble it yourself from a “ Birkin in a Box” component kit with  full factory backing or buy a finished product, built to your exacting specifications ready and licensed for the road.

There isn’t a purer experience out there. At the wheel of the Birkin there is no socialising on your phone or trying to chew down that fast food burger. No bluetooth music. In fact no music at all. Forget confusing infotainment menus or distracting touchscreens. All that concentration now falls squarely on pulling a smooth shift at 7000rpm.

Day to day life with a Birkin S3 175 juxtaposes the familiar routine we’ve come to know. Tall as an SUV’s wheel arch, other motorists hear the Birkin coming long before they see it. There are no doors, nothing to lock when you leave and nowhere to store any valuables, bar a small boot at the rear – that being the only pet peeve. If you don’t slide your legs in before sitting down you can’t get in – not helped by seat adjustment that makes an Alfa 4C seem luxurious.

Dotted around the steering wheel are a few VDO gauges for amperage, rpm, speed and fuel. Buttons too for indicators, lights and hazards. Yet the best view are bits of the suspension bobbing up and down along with every tooth of rack and pinion steering precisely transferred to the wheels – a huge advantage when aiming for the apex. All of which is very cool.

The 2.0-litre Ford Zetec engine (the one fitted to an early 2000 model Ford Focus) is upgraded to 130kW primarily through Omex throttles with air filters peeking out the side of the bonnet. The engine brims with personality; crackling through the exhaust as you slow down to a robot or buzzing furiously like an angry wasp trapped inside a jar. In an era of augmented engine sounds piped into the cabin, here you’re listening out for every stoke in the combustion process.

Despite sounding like it was permanently tuned on a knife edge, the motor ran impeccably. The splutter on a cold start is part of the charm and the harder you drive it the sweeter it becomes. Impressively light on fuel too – considering the acoustic fireworks – with probably the perfect dosage of power to unleash 90% of the time. If you consider how rare it is to thrash a new AMG on public roads, you’ll savour the Birkin’s perfect output.

With the Birkin’s weight of 585kg not much more than the sum of an engine, transmission, wheels and suspension, the power to weight ratio imbues it with astounding vitality. A Colin Chapman recipe of ‘add lightness’ is what allows the Birkin to conquer large prey.

Up to 80km/h Birkin is rapid with the feeling of speed exaggerated by the visceral combination of noise and lightly clad aluminium bodywork. Above that you don’t really need to go, it’s a scalpel for cutting between traffic, eyeing out small gaps before pouncing.

Rear wheel drive I expected the Birkin to be a jolly handful but those 15-inch wheels running 1.2bar pressure is a sticky combination. Off the line and onto a 0-100km/h time of around 5.5 seconds it’ll chirp with a quick shift to second. On a hard throttle into a tight corner, she’ll just lightly break traction but a gentle touch of opposite lock corrects the line. Prodigious levels of grip quickly weigh up the steering, so if you throw it hard into a bend, expect that un-assisted steering to place some strain on the forearms.

Before I handed back the keys I had a drive in the larger XS Birkin. Wider by 70mm and longer by 100mm this is a far easier car to drive with vastly better levels of comfort compared to the narrow body. Powered by the crisper Duratec motor, this version feels considerably quicker than its claim 7kW hike.

Sure the Birkin redefines the term niche and our complete car at R390 000 means there are dozens of other options out there, all with greater comfort and the possibility of being your only car whereas the Birkin certainly couldn’t be. But this car crawls under your skin in ways few and far between. A design that speaks to all ages. A car that removes all the seriousness, all the dull moments out of life and reduces the finished product to the quintessential pleasure of driving

To put the performance into perspective, the lap record for a Toyota powered 1.6 20 valve ( stock engine) Birkin around Zwartkops is 1:09s. Now look at the machinery behind that:

Rank Vehicle Driver Time PS / KG
1. McLaren 570S unknown 1:10.01 570 / 1440
2. Nissan GT-R (R35) Sabine Schmitz 1:11.55 480 / 1740
3. Porsche 911 Turbo S Sabine Schmitz 1:12.63 530 / 1585
4. Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Sabine Schmitz 1:13.22 571 / 1620
5. BMW M5 Competition Package Dion Rupert 1:13.39 575 / 1870




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