Close Encounter Of The Ascari Kind

IMG_5653bAsk any automotive journalist about an interesting car story, and I guarantee they’d all have something exciting to tell. So today I thought I should share with you one of my most interesting experiences, and it all began one day while watching an episode of BBC’s Top Gear.

In this episode, which first aired in fall 2005, Richard Hammond tested the Ascari KZ1.

IMG_5671While I knew about Ascari and had some insight on their brief history, it was while watching it on TV that lit up something inside of me.

It encouraged me to look up their website and send them an email. In my email, I introduced myself as an auto journalist for a British site I was writing for at the time, and expressed interest in learning more about their car.

I thought the email will probably get ignored and that I’ll never hear from them.

To my surprise, I got a reply email the very next day. It was answered by a guy named Nathan Millward, who was working for a PR firm, which handled Ascari’s affairs. To my delight, Nathan knew who I was and was a fan.

IMG_5655Not only was he very helpful in providing me any information I needed, but also asked if I was interested in a “Test Drive.” Of course Nathan, I replied,  I’ll surely take you up on your offer. But there was a catch, I had to fly over to UK at my expense, and his first suggestion for a drive was in January 2006.

I could have jumped on the opportunity, but I thought that January would probably not offer the ideal climate to test a supercar.

So I hesitantly asked if I could schedule the test in late March or April.

Nathan replied, “the factory is just finishing off the (new) press car so as soon as I have confirmation I can start booking test drives. At this moment in time I can’t see a problem with the end of March.”

Perfect, I set the date and planned my trip. To save money, I contacted my aunt and uncle in UK, and asked if I could stay with them. Since I had to pay for my flight, I could use all the savings I could get.

Since my relatives were more than happy to have me visit, I was on my way to get some seat time in the KZ1.

Once in UK, the journey still had some kinks to work out. I was staying in Leicester, which is over an hours drive from Banbury, where the Ascari factory is.

IMG_5640To get there, I borrowed my cousin’s Peugeot 206 along with his TomTom navigation device, and got to Ascari’s very impressive HQ.

I stepped inside and first drooled over the Ascari Ecosse, their first road car (pictured here) and then paged Chris Burton, who was the one man show at Ascari. He handled all press and sales for the company.

Chris seemed to be a very different kind of personality compared to Nathan. Chris was not as friendly as Nathan and was very much to the point. While he didn’t know much about me, he still agreed to not only show me the production facility, plus show me an informational film on the company, but also thankfully decided to hand me the keys to the exotic and extremely rare Ascari KZ1.

IMG_5624While doing the factory tour, I saw a few KZ1 race cars and a half-built road car in their production bay, but seeing my tester in the flesh was an experience far more exhilarating. While I had driven some exotic cars by this point, getting the opportunity to drive the KZ1 just felt a bit more special. Plus, I wasn’t going to just get a quick drive in it, I got to keep it for half a day. Trust me, this was the beginning of one of the best days of my life.

First I was given a briefing on the car and Chris took me for a short spin to not only show me what the car can do, but also to gas it up. Tweaked BMW M5 V8 motors (as found in the KZ1) do like to drink lots of premium gas.

IMG_5649We then headed back to the factory to drop Chris off, and I quickly grabbed the TomTom GPS device from the 206, and stuck it in the Ascari. The instant I pulled out of the parking lot, the first dab of the accelerator threw the navigation device off the windshield. So I pulled over and found a better spot to mount it, and more firmly this time. It worked, because the unit then stayed there for the rest of the day.

I made my way out to the A423 and headed back to Leicester. During the first portion of my drive, I was taking it very easy. I was not familiar with the route and since Britain is littered with speed cameras, I didn’t want to take any chances. I was also taking it easy because the car I was driving was worth $517,000 at the time. Almost every panel on this car is made from carbon-fibre and that means even a small ding will cost a fortune. So here I was, driving the most expensive car on the road (I came across nothing that was worth more) and I was keeping to the speed limit.

IMG_5675As I got near Leicester, I started recognizing the roads and knew where I can bury the throttle a bit.

Whenever I saw the opportunity, I attempted to rev match on downshifts and stabbed the throttle. This resulted in its BMW-sourced, 32-valve, 5.0-liter, V8 to make all sorts of pleasing noises, and that just planted a huge smile on my face.

The KZ1 is seriously quick. Thanks to having 500-hp and 368-lb/ft of torque, you will get where ever you are going, quite quickly. For the numbers people out there, the KZ1 can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in just 3.6 seconds, and top speed is in the 330 km/h region. Sure a modern day Nissan GT-R is quicker, but trust me, the feeling of power you get in a lightweight (1,350 kg), mid-engined, rear-wheel drive car with a normally aspirated motor and a proper six-speed manual gearbox (same unit one would find in a Pagani Zonda F) is something else. It feels more special and alive.

IMG_5678Speaking of staying alive, you do have to keep your attention in this car, because it has no traction or stability control devices. So if it goes sideways, it’ll be your talents and the cars excellent chassis and suspension set-up that will allow you to recover it, not some nanny device.

The handling really was quite good, I liked how this car sat on the road and how the steering communicated through the corners. Being on public roads, I didn’t push it to its limits, but taking off-ramps and roundabouts at slightly silly speeds did reveal that the set-up of this car was done by people who probably spend more time with race cars than with their wives or girlfriends.

Out of the motorway and onto city streets, the car makes you a star. Every eye on every street, crosswalk and traffic light was on me and the KZ1. Kids gave me the thumbs up and all the girls smiled. For a moment, I knew what it must feel like to be Brad Pitt.

IMG_5661Soon I was at my relatives home in Leicester. They both came out to take a look at the car, did some pictures and we all went inside to have lunch. The bulk of the pictures you see here were done after lunch, on their driveway. Not knowing much about locations, I thought I’d spend less time snapping pictures and more time driving (hence I forgot to take pictures of the interior, Oops!).

Seeing I had only two-hours left to return the car and the distance to travel is a bit more than an hour, and not knowing how traffic will be, I started heading back to Banbury.

IMG_5676On the route back, I took not one, but two wrong exits from the roundabout going onto M69. Since I was pressed for time, I took a note to see if there were any speed cameras between these two exits, and since there were none, I shifted down to second gear and stood on the loud pedal. IMG_5679Redline in second and into third, now I redline third and into fourth and now I’m reaching the exit ramp I needed to get off onto. A quick glance at the speedometer and it indicated 140 mph, that is 225 km/h on the road on a very short stint. The KZ1 in a matter of a few seconds proved why it is a supercar.

So as you can gather, I quite liked this car. I liked the looks, the performance, the sound and even the very well-made interior which housed knobs and switches made specially for the KZ1. The only gripe I had was rearwards visibility. You see, it has an electronically activated rear spoiler which stood up at 80 km/h, which made the interior rearview mirror redundant. So if there were any flashing lights right behind me, I wouldn’t know.

IMG_5660Sooner than I had hoped, I was back at the Ascari factory to return the KZ1 (a bit ahead of time). On one hand I was sad to say goodbye to the car, on the other hand, it was a relief to give the car back in one piece (driving on the other side of the road compared to Canada, and on narrow roads you’re not familiar with, damaging a car is high on your lists of concerns).

IMG_5666My time with the KZ1 was done, and since that day in April 2006, I have never seen another one. Ascari had wanted to make 50 examples of the KZ1 but only 14-cars were made. Ascari had planned an even more extreme A10 model after it, but slow sales lead to the company shutting down its car making business. The Ascari Race Resort in Spain is still alive and doing well.

Over the years, I have driven many exotic supercars, but the KZ1 has remained very dear to my heart. Maybe it was because of how this drive came together, or maybe it’s because I’m the only Canadian auto journalist who has driven one. IMG_5669Whatever the reason, I am extremely thankful to the people who made it happen for me. It was certainly worth the trip to UK. In the end, I even sold the story to a big local newspaper in Toronto, which allowed me to recover the money I had spent. So for me, as far as automotive adventures go, this one is hard to beat.

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