Skip advert
Advertisement
Features

231mph Ultima GTR640 on the Isle of Man – evo Retro

The Ultima GTR640 is one of the fastest accelerating road cars ever built. John Barker channels his inner racer and unleashes it on the Isle of Man TT Course

Midnight on the M6. Not the most romantic of settings, but strapped low in the thinly padded driver’s seat of the Ultima GTR640, it feels more like the Mulsanne Straight. Not because I’m travelling at any great speed, you understand, but because the Ultima feels as much like a Le Mans sports prototype as it looks. The Spartan cabin has a simple Stack instrument pack and an exposed, right-hand gearshift, while the view through the Porsche 962-style wrap-around screen is framed by a fat hoop of roll-cage and underlined by a valley formed by the swoopy front wings. It sounds loud like a racer too, which adds to the endurance feel of this late-night drive. 

Advertisement - Article continues below

I’ve always enjoyed the sense of adventure that laces a long drive into the wee hours, when most people are tucked up in bed. It’s just you, the car and the road. In the Ultima, the solitude is complete because although, against expectation, it is fitted with a stereo, I’m not sharing the trip with some graveyard-shift DJ – the 40W Sony is no match for the 640bhp 6.3-litre Chevy V8 hammering away behind.

> Lamborghini Aventador SV on the Isle of Man

The temptation to give the V8 its head is hard to resist. In theory I could lop a couple of hours off this journey using the GTR’s 231mph top speed. However, the twin fuel tanks are emptying fast enough as it is, and besides, we’re bang on schedule for the 2.15am ferry to the Isle of Man, the only place in the British Isles where the derestriction sign – white circle, diagonal stripe – means just that.

Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

No speed limit. Just imagine. Now add the GTR640, one of the fastest accelerating production cars in the world – zero to 60mph in 2.7sec, 100mph in 5.5sec and (the clincher as far as I’m concerned) 150mph in 11.8sec. That’s quicker than a McLaren F1. To be able to use the GTR’s full performance on real roads for more than 2.7sec, legally, is a prospect that makes driving for hours with chilly legs (the heater control eludes me) to catch an awkwardly scheduled boat easy to bear.

Amusingly I see no fewer than three police cars on the short run from the M6 to the terminal at Heysham. Photographer Barry Hayden is already in the queue in our long-term Forester. ‘I guessed it was you arriving,’ he says, as I climb into the passenger seat to warm up. When the time comes to load, the Ultima is held back then carefully guided over the ramps by the helpful Steam Packet staff and positioned on the lower deck with the trucks and vans. By the time I get upstairs to the main lounge, all the best pitches are filled by recumbent bodies, Hayden’s among them, so I slope off to the ‘quiet lounge’ and slump into an armchair. Panels reverberate with the pulsing of the engines and in the choppy seas there’s a mournful wail that sounds like the flexing of the hull. I sleep fitfully.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

At 6am we dock in Douglas, capital of this self-governed island that rightly claims to be the road-racing capital of the world. Down on the vehicle deck, I pop open the driver’s door and slide down into the cold Ultima once more. I’m gritty-eye knackered, but the sound of that huge V8 thundering into life in the echoing bowels of the ship is as invigorating as jumping into the harbour. It’s not the happiest of engines from cold, needing a couple of thousand revs to prevent the fire going out, and the clutch and steering are he-man heavy too, which makes manoeuvring conspicuous. I feel I want to hold up a little sign that reads, ‘No, I’m not trying to attract attention.’

A few hundred yards along the mostly Victorian, cream-rendered promenade, we find our hotel and slot into the car park, waking numerous guests in the process. I want to get some zeds but Hayden is keen to do a recce. The sun is just rising in a clear blue sky, painting the buildings red, so we dump our bags and take the Forester for a leisurely sighting lap.

That’s a lap of the TT Course, of course, which is to bikers what the Nürburgring is to drivers. But while the Ring is an Armco-lined racetrack-cum-toll road, the TT lap is wholly public roads; prosaically the A1 from Douglas towards Peel in the west, then the A3 looping up and round to Ramsey in the north east, and finally the A18 over The Mountain back to Douglas.

I’ve been here a few times before but, town centres apart, you don’t need prior knowledge to navigate the course because the tall orange boards depicting the bends and turns of this endlessly challenging, 37.73-mile lap are a permanent fixture. As you might expect, it’s the section over The Mountain that offers the best driving and photo opportunities. This 11-mile stretch is entirely derestricted but we haven’t seen much above 70mph in the Forester, and it’s taken us an hour and a quarter for the lap. Contrast that with the record lap of Peter Hickman on a BMW S1000RR, set during 2018’s TT Festival – he took 16min 42.7sec. That’s an average lap speed of 135.45mph; in a couple of places he would have seen around 200mph.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

After a few hours of heavenly sleep, Hayden and I venture back onto The Mountain to fulfil the photographic side of the assignment. It’s good to be free of the town. Even when it’s warm, the Ultima doesn’t like holding a steady throttle at less than 2000rpm, whatever the gear; the way it chunters on the overrun indicates that this
6.3-litre engine has a serious amount of valve overlap. It was developed for Ultima by its supplier American Speed, of Illinois, USA, with new cylinder heads with an included angle of 18 degrees between the valves, and bigger ports. You feel the benefits of the better breathing higher up the rev range, yes sirree. And if you’re willing to forego a bit more low-speed driveability, there’s a 700 or even a 720bhp version…

Once the GTR is rolling, the steering frees up and assumes good weighting; the clutch isn’t an issue either once you’re slotting swiftly between gears. This engine doesn’t waste energy creating the deep, guttural throb typical of big V8s; its note is appreciably lighter, its response more decisive, its reach much longer. Peak torque of 560lb ft arrives at 4800rpm, peak power at 6500rpm, but it will spin safely to 7600rpm, which helped achieve the record-breaking figures: two-way averages recorded at the Millbrook proving ground.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

There is an enormous amount of grunt on tap. Even stroking along on part throttle the GTR feels seriously quick. A kerb weight of just 950kg, 188kg less than the McLaren F1, and 640bhp ought to deliver an enormous shove when the throttle hits the stop. Boy, does it ever.

The Mountain is fast and flowing, with a number of deceptive curves and a reasonable surface. We round a corner in third gear with around 3000rpm showing on the Stack, and a long, perfectly smooth straight presents itself. I nail it. The response is instant and mighty and the Ultima lunges for the horizon like it’s been rammed by an express train. That’s not it, though. At around 5000rpm the V8 comes on cam and the acceleration spikes to a truly mind-warping level. It took me by surprise, I can tell you, rearranging my underwear and restyling my hair. Zero to 150mph a second quicker than a McLaren F1? I don’t doubt it.

This is acceleration so intense you have to steel yourself before hitting the throttle stop. To be honest, devastatingly fast overtakes rarely require more than half throttle but, you know, if you’ve got it… It would be fun to watch how rapidly cars shrink in the mirrors, but you’re suddenly eating up the road at such a spectacular rate that you’re far too busy minding where you’re going.

This is no one-trick, point-and-squirt supercar, though. You can feel the chassis working beneath you, gauge the level of grip through the rim of the Personal steering wheel and the seat of your pants and exploit that grip to whatever extent you’re comfortable with. There’s no electronic traction control, no anti-lock, no power steering – and you know what? You don’t miss them. Braking is massively strong, the pedal firm and easily modulated. Traction feels good, too, while the ride is surprisingly compliant. I’m looking forward to a full lap, but I’ll have to wait until the photography’s out of the way.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Anywhere on the UK mainland, a bright red supercar with a twin-plane carbonfibre rear wing would attract at least a little attention from the police, but here a couple of liveried police cars pass by without even slowing down. And apart from a couple of bikes and an Impreza STI we see hardly anyone going quickly until the evening ‘rush hour’. Even then it’s only a couple of very average, dark-coloured saloons being driven smoothly but briskly.

People don’t drive and ride fast just because they can, says Gavin Smith, who works for island-based motorsport DVD specialist Duke Video. ‘It’s a novelty when you first arrive,’ he says, ‘but it wears off.’ He reckons that, like most of the island’s enthusiastic motorists, he uses speed responsibly. The Isle of Man’s transport minister proposed adopting a national speed limit and the islanders voted it down. Good for them.

Hayden’s done for the day. It’s just beginning to get dark as I head from the pits downhill into the suburbs of Douglas. Pootling along at 30mph and stopping for a red light at the bottom of Bray Hill, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that, during the TT, bikes straight-line this junction with its kerbs and road furniture and white-painted semis at up to 180mph, cranked over and with the suspension on its bump stops. This section alone, less than a mile into the lap, illustrates why TT greats such as the late Joey Dunlop are held in such high regard. ‘I once asked a World Superbike racer if he would do the TT,’ says Smith, ‘and he said “No way”.’

The Course turns right at Quarter Bridge onto the A3, a section dotted with houses that is quite sensibly speed-limited for much of its length. It’s not quite straight or level, gently meandering, cresting and falling, which must be terrifying at TT speeds because any accident is going to happen at barely diminished speed, and three or four corners on from where the mistake was made.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Turning right at Ballacraine, things get more interesting. Through the twistier stuff and under canopies of trees there are 50 and 60mph limits here but it’s a difficult road to read so there’s not much chance of breaking the limits. The Ultima is wieldy and well balanced, its nose slicing keenly to an apex, steering weight modulating as the fat Goodyear F1 Fioranos grab at the tarmac’s changing topography. When the loaded front end begins to push wide it’s earlier than I expect but perhaps that’s because even on part throttle the Ultima is getting to the corners sooner than expected. There’s certainly enough torque on tap to neutralise the understeer with a bit of slip at the rear but, compact as the GTR is, there’s not enough of a sightline or road width to risk it.

The road must feel completely different when you can use the full width, and a two-foot-wide bike would thread through the rapid-fire sequences of bends so much more easily. Even so, it’s a particular kind of rider who can ignore the black and white painted kerbstones, the trees and lampposts protected by straw bales and see the road as simply a series of clipping points to be connected together, just like a regular circuit. I can almost imagine being able to do that but it would take much more willpower to maintain the same focus coming into towns.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Just beyond a third of the lap is Kirk Michael. I’m slowing to 30mph but the racers must still be deep into three figures, peeling into town on the wide, baize-smooth asphalt, clipping one shallow apex, then another as the houses begin to close in and the road funnels down into the narrow High Street. An involuntary shiver jangles down my spine. Then there’s the famous jump at Ballaugh, taken at a moderate speed but on a line that takes the riders close to clipping the jutting corner of the pub beyond.

Sulby Straight – a 190mph blast for the fastest – follows. It’s a largely derestricted section from here to Ramsey but although I’m pushing on I’m not using all of the Ultima’s power. Not even half of it most of the time, weaving through the gentle twists in the gathering gloom. Sections of the TT lap are so wonderfully smooth I’m sure they have been laid by bike-riding road-layers (it’s reckoned one in ten of the island’s 80,000 inhabitants has a motorbike). This stretch isn’t one of them, and the Ultima’s front tyres are distracted by the choppy surface and underlying camber, making the road feel even narrower than it is.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

The half-distance marker comes up before Ramsey and a time check shows that it’s taken me close on half an hour so far. It’s difficult to comprehend that Jim McGuinness on his R1 would be overtaking me about now on his second lap. At the crossroads in Ramsey, riders hang a right, ignoring the ‘give way’ sign, climb up May Hill between the guest houses with their sea views, round the shady Ramsey Hairpin and break through the tree cover onto The Mountain.

The Ultima takes the hairpin in second and without much effort the tail glides wide on the exit and hangs there for what feels like an heroic slide, the V8 blaring a constant note, the rear Goodyears eventually finding enough traction to match wheel speed to road speed. It’s a time-wasting flourish in racing terms but, hey, it’s good fun.

There’s not another car for the whole of the 11-mile run to the outskirts of Douglas. Visibility is good for most of the climb up to the foot of Snaefell, allowing the whole road to be used, but the cambers excite the GTR’s nose, and the bridges, whose lumpy, unforgiving walls are painted with bands of liquorice allsorts colours, have tricky lines. There are only brief moments of head-spinning full-throttle acceleration but we’re really moving, the suspension working hard to the point where it feels it would benefit from being a fraction stiffer, the whoosh of wind noise over the cockpit suddenly loud on a steady throttle.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Skip advert
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

This stretch of road isn’t the sort where you’re either hard on the throttle or hard on the brakes and it illustrates why a naturally aspirated motor is so satisfying. Compared with similarly powerful turbocharged engines there’s a solidity, an immediacy to the delivery that makes the horsepower seem somehow more real, more honest. You can measure it out, get just what you want exactly when you want it and work the grip to set the balance from turn-in to apex to exit.

‘The Verandah’ must be a real buzz during the race – or just plain terrifying. It’s a long, long, blind right which is taken on an almost constant radius while three clipping points come out to meet you. Sticking to the left of the road in the Ultima, it feels like a 50p coin. The road writhes right and left into Bungalow, we thrum over the tracks of the Mountain railway and then blast up Hailwood’s Rise, all 640bhp driving the rear wheels until into fourth the Ultima starts to jink around on the bumps.

There is one final, fabulous opportunity to feel the GTR’s staggering, other-worldly acceleration, though. At the exit of the smooth, sweetly cambered right-hand curve at Creg-ny-Baa, the road heads downhill dead straight for almost a mile. This is where the fastest bikes hit 200mph. It’s deserted. Hammer time. The Ultima hits hyperdrive in third, then fourth, then top. It’s utterly devastating, the most intense and sustained slug of acceleration I’ve ever experienced on the road. I’d love to tell you how fast I went but there was no time to scan the instruments, and anyhow I backed off and braked hard well before the kink at Brandish because who knows what’s around the corner?

There’s never been such a thing as a slow Ultima but with this car the company has come of age – the GTR is every bit as quick as its styling suggests. As the Americans would say, it walks the talk. Sure, you have to put up with some driveability issues, but this isn’t an everyday car. What’s more, fit and finish are superb. But the biggest surprise is the price: this factory-built example would set you back just £68,000.

The next morning we’re up early, sadly not for another lap but to get a shot of the TT pits before catching the ferry again: back to the M6 and the traffic, the speed cameras, killjoys and and knee-jerk politicians. I have a feeling we shall return.

This feature was first published in evo issue 277. Browse back issues here.

Skip advert
Advertisement
Skip advert
Advertisement

Most Popular

Toyota GR Yaris v Mercedes‑AMG A45 S v Hyundai i30 N v Honda Civic Type R
Hot hatch test final four
Group tests

Toyota GR Yaris v Mercedes‑AMG A45 S v Hyundai i30 N v Honda Civic Type R

The rally-bred Toyota GR Yaris, bombastic Mercedes‑AMG A45 S, thrillsome Hyundai i30 N and dazzling Honda Civic Type R are each brilliant in their own…
26 May 2024
Toyota GR86 v BBR Mazda MX-5 – car pictures of the week
Toyota GR86 v BBR Mazda MX-5 – twin
Features

Toyota GR86 v BBR Mazda MX-5 – car pictures of the week

In evo’s Track Car of the Year issue, we put Toyota’s GR86 up against a BBR-tuned Mazda MX-5 – these are our favourite shots
25 May 2024
New Audi RS4 Edition 25 revealed with uprated chassis and more power
Audi RS4 Edition 25 – front
News

New Audi RS4 Edition 25 revealed with uprated chassis and more power

Audi Sport marks the end of the RS4 with a 25th anniversary special with engine and suspension upgrades
28 May 2024