BBuilding cars is tough, so when Ben Headley started his business he started small. To be precise, it started at 75% of the volume. The Little Car Company does what its name suggests, producing shrink-battery electric toy versions of full-size classics from the likes of Aston Martin and Ferrari.
The company made its way to £10m in sales and nearly 60 employees by chance over four years, says Headley, touring the company’s workshop at Bicester Heritage, a converted Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire that’s been turned into a hub for classics. cars companies. The company posted its first profit in the most recent fiscal quarter, despite supply chain problems that have hit automakers large and small.
Replicas start at €36,000 (£30,800), which means they can only be toys for the rich. But Headley isn’t content with building small, expensive electric versions of the big cars. The company is launching an ambitious, even imaginative, effort to do the opposite: build a full-scale, legal version of the remote-controlled toy car that was popular when Headley was a kid. By next summer, he hopes to launch a stripped-back electric off-road buggy for £15,000.
Headley, who worked as a retail consultant before becoming a frequent entrepreneur, came across the idea for the Little Car Company. He was importing cheap little knock-offs, but French automaker Bugatti asked him if he could come up with something better for the Geneva Motor Show. He spotted a business opportunity when an amateur then contacted him to ask for one.
“We sold the concept and then we had to make the thing,” he says. “We thought, ‘Let’s go as honest as we can.'” “
He borrowed an original from the car, an open-top Type 35 race car first built in 1924, and set out to make it as close as possible to the original, but with a rule against fake exhaust.
Other cars followed: a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa built with the help of original blueprints, and an Aston Martin DB5 two-thirds the size of the car made famous by Sean Connery in the James Bond spy movie franchise. For DB5, the company worked with the Bond filmmakers to copy gadgets like toy gunsights and smoke machines from No Time to Die.
The steep price tag means replicas will be out of reach for all but the richest, but on the Bicester Heritage track, it becomes easy to see why wealthy car enthusiasts would consider buying in the tens of thousands. With Hedley – the former speed skater for Great Britain – at the wheel, the Aston Martin DB5 replica looks almost peppy as he flings it around tight corners. Even with the Guardian’s somewhat more restrained accelerator in use, it doesn’t feel all that far removed from driving an electric convertible (if your head sticks out of the sunroof).
This is where the idea of a full-size car comes in.
“We started thinking, ‘We have this great powertrain,'” Headley says. “The jump to build a city car was too far. What if we took a small car and made it bigger?”
The model he chose is the Tamiya Wild One, a remote-controlled off-road toy first released in 1985. The Little Car Co. version will be 3.5m long, 1.8m wide and weigh around 250kg – large enough to carry two people. Depending on the number of battery packs installed, the range should start at 50 km (30 miles) – more than enough for the average UK commuter.
If a price of £15,000 materializes, it would put him in the range of car buyers. Little Car Co. will never be a mass-market automaker, but if it can meet the challenge of making the Wild One Max non-highway legal, the idea of people using it in urban transportation doesn’t seem so far-fetched either. (Although perhaps in warmer climates, he’ll be somewhat open to the elements.) Cheap, small and electric cars like the electric G-Wiz or Citroën’s latest Ami cubes will be increasingly attractive as prices fall.
“This could be an alternative in the summer instead of hopping on a diesel SUV,” Headley says of his prototype. “It’s great fun. It’s just a completely different experience.”
Making the Wild One Max was a lesson in the increments modern cars are made with, he says. Air conditioning, giant touchscreens, and electric seat adjusters add to the weight, and thus the carbon footprint and cost.
Starting his company in the face of a pandemic and impending recession, he says, “was kind of a tough exercise.” “Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong.” But he is not dissuaded, and is trying to raise £10m in the fourth round of investment for the company in order to get more space. He eventually wants to make “thousands” of cars a year.
“We want to show that electric cars can be fun and don’t have to be 1,000 horsepower and 2.5 tons,” he says.
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