We head northeast in the amazing V6-powered Rocketeer and discover rugged coastline, Gothic cathedrals, challenging moorland roads and a road race circuit in Scarborough Words: Steve Bennett Photography: Antony Fraser
We take the ballistic Rocketeer V6 mk1 for a two-day adventure to a sub-zero North Yorkshire
Right, time to fire up the satnav and hit the road again. There’s no time to lose because the ‘Beast from the East’ is coming. Remember that? Yes, for once the forecasters got it right and so we thought it prudent to get going the week before snowmageddon hit, particularly as we are heading for the bleak and brutal North York Moors and nearby coastline, with not even winter tyres for comfort...
And there is a slightly different flavour to this particular road trip episode. Often as not the car is not the star. Of course it must be an MX-5, but like so much in life
it’s more about the journey, the car playing the entertaining companion role, the means to the end, with some interesting places to drop into en route.
Not this time, however. The car is very much the star and a rather vocal one at that. And I don’t mind saying that I’m rather excited, too, but then who wouldn’t be with the prospect of three days at the wheel of an MX-5 with a Jaguar V6 engine up front?
That’s right, we’ve blagged ourselves a Rocketeer and Rocket Man is playing on a loop in my overexcited imagination. Doesn’t ring any bells? Rewind to Total
MX-5 issue three, when we tested what was effectively the prototype Rocketeer, which we rather liked.we rather liked the promise of what was to come, too, which is the car we have here for our northern road trip. It is, if you like, the production version, that you too could build from a mk1 or mk2 starting point and for a not unreasonable £5995. Go on, quickly do the maths. Even if you had to buy yourself a decent car to start with, you could have a 260bhp,v6-powered MX-5 for comfortably under £10,000. But we are racing ahead of ourselves.
The long drive north for me starts not
“Needless to say, there is a sense of anticipation as the key is turned and the 3.0-litre V6 spins up and crackles into life
at the wheel of a growling, big cat powered MX-5, but my own Red Roadster, which will be fulfilling the role of camera car. Photographer Fraser has the pleasure of pointing the Rocketeer northwards, seeing as he is rather closer to Rocketeer’s Farnham base.whichever way you cut it, we both have nearly 300 miles to cover before we rendezvous at the Fox and Hounds in Danby in the heart of the North York Moors. It’s as you would expect, hewn from granite to survive the harsh elements, with a welcoming fire and good Yorkshire ales. We would have gladly stayed for our supper had it not been country music night, so we flee into the darkness and head down dale to Whitby for a hearty curry instead. It’s tempting to leap straight into the Rocketeer, but this subzero, black night is neither the time nor the place to get to grips with a potentially skiddy driving companion. That can wait until the morning...
We’re no strangers to the North Yorkshire Moors. They are prime driving territory, particularly the 20-mile stretch that runs from the A170 to the A171, also known as Blakey Ridge, which is as stern a test as any for a car in the UK.WE won’t be putting the Rocketeer through that today. No, we have a rather more genteel day planned.well, genteel except for a few laps around the UK mainland’s only permanent road racing track.
Right now, though, it’s all about first impressions. Sitting in the morning sun the Rocketeer looks very grown-up in black with contrasting, deep-dished, anthracite grey Rota Minilite style wheels. Inside, the interior has been retrimmed in red quilted leather, which extends to the door cards, door pulls, gearlever gaiter and small luggage area behind the seats. The dashboard surfaces are soft to the touch, with the same red leather cladding the bottom half. Quality carpet covers the transmission tunnel and the footwells and a deep-dished, wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel adds that final touch. It’s more BMW Z4 in here, with a touch of Austin Healey, than Mazda MX-5. It’s a quality job, too. Rocketeer’s Bruce Southey is ex of Range Rover pimping outfit Overfinch, and so entrusted the retrim to Overfinch’s regular suppliers.
Needless to say, there is a sense of anticipation as the key is turned and the 3.0-litre V6 spins up and crackles into life. It sounds big and brawny, sending a deep pulse through the bodyshell as it shakes in a typical offbeat V6 way on its engine mounts. Blipping the throttle elicits a sonorous howl. Again, it’s more Z4 with a dash of Healey and certainly not small and four-cylinder. And why not a V8? Well, it’s not really the European way, is it? And besides, a V8 would alter the dynamics and balance too much. The all-alloy Jaguar V6 weighs no more than the iron-block standard Mazda engine and sits slightly further back in the engine bay. Theoretically the handling shouldn’t be compromised.
Trickling out of Danby and the Rocketeer feels familiar and very different in equal measure. The weighting of the vital controls is all very MX-5. Not surprising since the gearbox is standard, the power steering rack remains and the clutch – while stronger – is no heavier than standard. No, it’s just that big lump up front that has changed, and with it comes a very different propulsive feel. The Jag V6 was pretty good at wafting the retro-looking S-type saloon around, so imagine what it’s like here. It’s the classic big engine, small car combo. Oodles of power, wherever and whenever, with gear changing an option, and that’s before we’ve even left the village. It’s an MX-5, but not as we know it.
Pre the ‘Beast from the East’ weather
“Yorkshire folk are fiercely proud of their UK patch and its rugged charms, and taking in the coastline from Saltburn to Scarborough, it’s not difficult to see why
front, North Yorkshire is living up to its usual ‘four seasons in one day’ reputation. I know we Brits are obsessed by the weather, but it’s no great surprise given the wonderful variety we get thrown at us. I mean, who wouldn’t delight at a typical 10-minute weather window of sun, sleet and rain, whipped up by a brisk northerly gale? ‘Turned out nice again’ doesn’t really cut it.
Yorkshire folk are fiercely proud of their UK patch and its rugged charms and, taking in the coastline from Saltburn to Scarborough, it’s not difficult to see why. Bleak and beautiful in equal measure, with picturesque fishing villages nestling in natural coves and grand Victorian resorts and ports, it’s the northern Riviera. Following the coastal road we drop in to the fishing village of Staithes, which could have been lifted from Cornwall. And it is literally a drop, with the tightly-packed stone buildings clustered at the foot of a natural cove. Don’t try it in the summer: in fact, you will be actively encouraged to arrive on foot, but this being February, we trickle the Rocketeer down the steep cobbled road and coast into the harbour in search of a good snap.
Of course there is still fishing, but Staithes is mainly tourist-driven these days and its hard-to-get-to location means that it’s largely untouched by modernity. There’s plenty of the bijou and boutique about it, with lots of quaint B&BS, pubs and coffee shops. As a winter bolt-hole it would make for the perfect base-camp location to further explore the coastline.
We try not to make too much of a racket as we leave, but it’s steep and a first gear climb, and the twin pipes and V6 growl ricochet off the clustered buildings. Clear, and we head for Saltburn where expansive sandy beaches stretch out and grand Victorian buildings overlook the promenade: the imposing Saltburn cliff lift connects the two. The pier is the most northerly surviving British iron pier and the whole place exudes a former genteel past that is most definitely returning. Snapper Fraser disagrees, but Saltburn could become the Salcombe of the northeast, which would be a welcome leg-up to a resort which historically lies in the East Ridings of Yorkshire and a stone’s throw from Middlesbrough. In short, I rather like Saltburn.
I rather like Whitby, too. No leg-up required here. The fishing town/port is the jewel of the northern coastline, overlooked by the derelict Gothic abbey famous as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, of course, a mecca for that strange sub-culture known as ‘The Goth.’ Dracula is, of course, fictional, but Whitby’s most famous resident, Captain Cook, most certainly wasn’t and there is much to commemorate the great sea explorer, including a museum.
Even in late February Whitby is busy with tourists so we don’t hang around for too long, firing up the Rocketeer for the short hop to Scarborough. And how is the Rocketeer performing? Pretty well thank you very much, although it would be remiss of me not to point out a lowspeed running glitch, which is later traced to a dicky earth. And the truth is that the V6 machine will be getting a rather more thorough workout tomorrow up on Blakey Ridge.
It would be easy to dismiss Scarborough as all kiss-me-quick, fish ‘n’ chips and amusement arcades. And, yes, it’s all of those things. But like Saltburn it is rising out of that downward spiral as the grand Victorian facades and features are regenerated, and the fast food emporiums are joined by more upmarket establishments for a diverse mix. Not that we take any such advantage of the poncy seafront Prezzo or Pizza Express as we queue for fish and chips dowsed in salt ‘n’ vinegar.
But frankly we’re not here for the seaside delights. No, we’re here to explore Oliver’s Mount, the aforementioned road racing track that overlooks Scarborough from up high in the tree-lined limestone cliffs.
It seems almost to be a secret. There are no signposts for the circuit, but priming the satnav brings up Oliver’s Mount Road barely a mile from the seafront. It climbs steeply, passes through some parkland and then, opening up in front, is a narrow ribbon of super-smooth Tarmac and unmistakeable race track furniture such
“We arrive at the start with control tower, podium (which needless to say I can’t resist) and a fully marked up grid
as marshals’ posts and track barriers. This is the UK’S only public road racing track and has been in operation since 1946, almost exclusively for motorbikes because of its narrow width.
At 2.46 miles it’s not short, though, and as we start to explore and work at completing a lap, I am frankly astonished at this undiscovered track.well, undiscovered by me, at least. Many years ago I used to sprint and hillclimb a Caterham, and Oliver’s Mount was one of the championship venues, but somehow I never made it that far north. I’m kicking myself now.
The track rises steeply through woodland before plateauing and then returning downhill, where eventually we arrive at the start with control tower, podium (which needless to say I can’t resist) and a fully marked-up grid. There is a roll-call to all past winners of the major races that have been run and it’s a Who’s Who of British and international bike racing from Geoff Duke and Mike Hailwood to Barry Sheene and everyone’s favourite nutter, Guy Martin. And it’s a Guy Martin sort of a track, one that must favour the brave, although that applies to most motorcycle road racers really. Put simply, even with barriers in place and more erected for race weekends, there’s a lot of solid stuff to hit.
Right at the top of the circuit there is a very twee tearoom. During a downpour we take shelter and tea and cake. Bizarrely, there is no mention of the grubby business of bike racing and one wonders whether the place is even open over a typical race weekend. And check out the contacts at the end of the story, because there is a full season of racing to be enjoyed every year, including the Oliver’s Mount Festival of Speed in May, and the big event of the calendar, the Cock o’ the North Continental Road Races, in June.
Of course, as a public road anyone can drive around, and there is a 30mph speed limit, which we adhere to. It’s great fun, though, and you can really get a whiff of the potential atmosphere of a grid full of bikes at full-pelt.
It’s getting on a bit now, so we head off. Photographer Fraser wants to get a moody sunset shot on the moors with
RAF Fylingdales in the background, perched on the quirkily named Snod Hill. The radar base is part of the UK’S
Ballistic Weapons Early Warning System, although the huge and distinctive ‘golf balls’ have now gone, leaving just the rather odd-looking triangular edifice in Cold War grey.
With time to kill as the sun sinks
there’s time for a bit more Rocketeer tyre-kicking and under-bonnet gazing. The engine fit is snug rather than tight and sits in a custom-made cradle-cumsubframe. Bespoke exhaust manifolds easily slip between the block and the suspension turrets, while the crowning glory is a carbon-fibre plenum that utilises two standard MX-5 throttle bodies to inhale air through foam filters. Ignition and mapping is handled by a Motorsport Electronics ECU. All of this comes in the kit of parts. Bruce at Rocketeer can source an engine, too, which amazingly can be picked up for as little as £300.You could probably sell your standard lump for more. Fitting is designed to be DIY and it does look entirely possible. Indeed, there are some 25 kits now out on the market and some folk are using the kit for non-mx-5 applications including Ford Capris and Escorts.
A quieter night in the Fox and Hounds and a cracking pie and chips is washed down with one or two (maybe more) pints of Wainwrights. The following day we head up icy roads to Blakey Ridge to really test the Rocketeer’s mettle. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Rocketeer retains the MX-5’S standard suspension and spring rates, but then seeing as the car is no heavier then that makes perfect sense. There is little to beat the standard setup on British roads, and it’s so, so easy to make a mess of suspension.
Up on the wild moors the road unfurls over a series of crests. Roof down the V6 sounds fantastic and puts some real demands on the MX-5’S chassis. It’s not crazy with power, but there’s plenty enough to work the tyres and really get the back end digging in.what is a fairly two-dimensional standard experience is now a three-dimensional encounter as the extra power and torque, in particular, has to be rationed by the sentient onboard traction control system of brain and right foot. It’s fast – probably
Porsche Boxster S fast – but completely old school, in a way that sports cars just aren’t any more and in a way that the standard MX-5 has never aspired to, thanks to Mazda’s desire to keep it safe and fun, rather than fast and lairy.
The V6 could overpower and dominate in a way that, say, a Chevy LS1 V8 would, but it doesn’t. It’s as happy to cruise as it is to get on it, and very soon the default driving mode is to use the torque and the upper gears to make rapid but relaxed progress, the antithesis of the buzzy standard, 16-valve experience. It feels very grown-up, too, with its sophisticated black paintwork and red leather, which is all very Jaguar, really.
Time to go. The first icy blast of the Beast can be felt in the air. North Yorkshire is going to be hit hard as we make our V6-powered escape. We will be back on Blakey Ridge, no doubt, and Staithes, Saltburn,whitby and Scarborough. Oh, and the bike racing on Oliver’s Mount. Now that’s something we really want to see.
Top: Narrow, cobbled streets of Staithes. Don’t attempt this in the summer. Middle: Cliff lift in Saltburn. Bottom: Harbour photo opportunity, Staithes
In the shadow of Whitby Abbey’s Gothic remains
Continuing the Gothic theme: a spooky B&B, presumably for Goths only… Scarborough’s impressive Victorian townscape
Fylingdales’ ballistic missile early warning system on the North York moors
Bottom hairpin at Oliver’s Mount Many thanks to Bruce Southey for the loan of the Rocketeer. For full details go to: www.rocketeerltd.com
For 2018 season details for Oliver’s Mount check out: www.oliversmountracing.com
Oliver’s Mount is the UK’S only public road racing course. This gem of a circuit nestles above Scarborough. Below: On the grid!