Dep-O Magazine

Driven: Frontline LE50

Simon Charlesworth March 2, 2012 9 Comments

AMONGST THE biggest crime a modern car’s spec sheet can contain is electronic power assisted steering. Its very ‘computer says no’ approach to the notion of steering feel is bad enough for anyone who despises lazimatic steering, but when combined with sickly over-assistance and ADHT fidgetiness, well… The air in the cabin can turn very angry and very blue. Experience, he say, EPAS is wrong and so it ever shall be.

Bearing this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I took to the wheel of Frontline’s new model, the LE50. A model which comes with…? Yep, you’re ahead of me, EPAS.

I’ve actually lost count of the number of Frontline fettled Spridgets and MGBs I’ve driven, but they have never failed to impress. Tim Fenna, the company’s founder and slide-rule demon, has an eerie talent for transforming classic sports cars into the slayers of modern performance machinery. Imagine a Yorkshire Terrier ‘servicing’ a Rottweiler, and this is quite an accurate analogy for conveying what could be termed as the ‘Frontlineness’ of its Porsche slayers. Surely though, EPAS was one step too far…?

No. After a brief chat at molto veloce, it’s clear that where megabuck multinationals have failed, once again, a small British company in Abingdon has succeeded.

The LE50’s helm is arguably one of the finest assisted racks that I have encountered. Indeed, some potential customers enjoying a test drive are genuinely shocked to discover that it has any form of power assistance – such is its sophistication.

Elephant escorted from the room, it was then very easy to enjoy the drive and commence the usual gushing. I’ve always maintained that MGBs offer a good platform for tuning and modification, but beneath its Abingdon skin, the LE50 is such a different creature that it could hail from another constellation.

This side of the windscreen, there is a semblance of familiarity – albeit clad in leather and alcantara. Beyond the laminated and heated glass though, there lies an experience more often associated with a powerful Caterham.

Key to a great sports car is synchronising the speed of the steering rack with the chassis’s ability to respond, and the body’s ability to withstand roll. In other words, steering lock should equate to turn-in. The standard MGB’s slightly soggy responses have been utterly vanquished, creating a car which is both eager and fluid. Although, Tim quickly pointed out that this can be tuned to something even sharper and almost more ‘acid’ – think pre-cat TVR Griffith.

Yet bumps and potholes, which would have made me swerve in my daily trolley, were dealt with such a degree of ride comfort and damper deftness that there wasn’t any risk of my buttocks being pummelled. The re-engineered suspension may bear few resemblances to the 1962 original, but astern there is still a live axle which accounts for 10% of the car’s overall mass. No matter what my right foot was doing – be it clogging it or cruising – the LE50 was never anything other than the epitome of straight-talking approachability and response, wrapped up in a mature package.

Only once before have I been so impressed by the location and behaviour of a live axle – and that was my first drive a late six-cylinder Bristol. A smashing classic, but a model which just couldn’t hope to compete with the LE50’s rabid high-speed sparring.

The limited-slip differential too should be awarded a gold star for its work ethic. Whilst the chassis will deliver you post haste to a corner’s apex, it would be in vain if all that torque and power (215bhp, equating to a power-to-weight ratio of 240bhp per tonne, a sub five second 0-60mph and a top speed of 160mph) were to be spun and frittered away into the ether. Even in the wet and slippery conditions, the LSD lends a quiet, well-mannered hand – a Jeeves to your indulgent Wooster – that is so subtle it is barely noticeable. Combined with brakes which stop hard, long and strong and these dynamics aren’t merely a fantastic accomplishment for a model based on a 50-year-old platform, they are seldom experienced in something built today.

Approachable, docile, beautifully assembled and refined when it needs to be – fast, composed, involving and intoxicating when it doesn’t. It brakes. It sounds like a sports car. It turns in with crisp gleefulness. It corners with so much invigorating feedback that it would shame both Paige and Hendrix. Its combination of speed and song would stump a twitcher for an accurate feathered parallel – and yes, it charms completely.

Is there a modern equivalent to the LE50…? A soulful performance GT that you could buy from a swish out-of-town dealership…? No.

So yes, I was wrong about EPAS – it’s still all about the geometry – and yes, the LE50 would make the perfect daily retro classic. However, I have yet to find the necessary wonga and, boy, have I been trying. Delving deep down the back of my magic sofa but still to no avail.

 

Dep-O stars 55

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