Building cars is hard, so when Ben Hedley started his business he started small. To be precise, he started at 75% of the size. The Little Car Company does what its name suggests, producing shrunken but drivable battery electric toy versions of full-size classics from the likes of Aston Martin and Ferrari.
View image in fullscreenBen Hedley. Photograph: The Little Car Company
The company has made its way to £10m in turnover and 60 employees almost by accident over four years, Hedley says, walking around the company’s workshop in Bicester Heritage, a converted Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire that has been turned into a hub for classic car businesses. The company made its first profits in the last financial quarter, despite supply chain problems that have hit automotive manufacturers big and small.
The replicas start at €36,000 (£30,800), meaning they can only be playthings for the rich. But Hedley is not content with building small, expensive electric versions of big cars. The company is launching an ambitious, even quixotic, effort to do the opposite: build a full-scale, road-legal version of a remote-controlled toy car that was popular when Hedley was a child. By next summer he hopes to launch a stripped-back, electric off-road buggy for £15,000.
Hedley, who worked as a retail consultant before becoming a repeat entrepreneur, stumbled upon the idea for the Little Car Company. He was importing cheap mini-replicas, but French carmaker Bugatti asked if he could come up with something better for the Geneva motor show. He spotted a business opportunity when aficionados got in touch afterwards asking for one.
View image in fullscreenAn engineer working on a Bugatti Baby. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
“We sold the concept and then we had to make the thing,” he says. “We thought, ‘let’s go as authentic as we can.’”
He borrowed an original version of the car, an open-top Type 35 racecar first built in 1924, and set about making it as close to the original as possible, but with a rule against fake exhausts.
Other cars followed: a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa designed with the help of original blueprints, and an Aston Martin DB5 at two-thirds the scale of the car made famous by Sean Connery in the James Bond spy film franchise. For the DB5 the company worked with Bond filmmakers to copy gadgets such as toy mini-guns and smoke machines from No Time to Die.
The hefty price tag means the replicas will be out of reach for all but the richest, but on Bicester Heritage’s track it becomes easier to see why wealthy car enthusiasts would consider forking out tens of thousands. With Hedley – a former speed skier for Great Britain – at the wheel the Aston Martin DB5 replica looks almost racy as he throws it round tight corners. Even with the Guardian’s somewhat more restrained accelerator use it does not feel all that far from driving a convertible electric car (if your head were sticking out of the sunroof).
View image in fullscreenOur reporter channels his inner Bond driving an Aston Martin DB5 Junior. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
That is where the idea for a full-size car comes in.
“We started thinking, we’ve got this cool powertrain,” says Hedley. “Jumping to build a city car was a bit too far. What if we took a small car and made it bigger?”
The model he chose is a Tamiya Wild One, a remote-controlled off-road toy first released in 1985. The Little Car Co’s version will be 3.5 metres long, 1.8 metres wide and weigh about 250kg – big enough to carry two people. Depending on how many battery packs are installed the range should start at 50km (30 miles) – more than enough for the average commute in the UK.
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A £15,000 price tag, if achieved, would put it within the range of kit car buyers. The Little Car Co is never going to be a mass market carmaker, but if it does manage to run the gauntlet of making the Wild One Max legal on non-motorway roads then the idea of people using them for urban transport does not seem inconceivable either (although probably in warmer climes, considering it will be fairly open to the elements). Cheap, small, electric runarounds like the electric G-Wiz or the Citroën’s newer cuboid Ami will be increasingly attractive as prices drop.
“This could be an alternative in the summer rather than jumping in a diesel SUV,” Hedley says of his prototype. “It’s brilliant fun. It’s just a completely different experience.”
Tamiya Wild One promo video from 1985.
Making the Wild One Max has been a lesson in just how many excrescences modern cars are built with, he says. Air conditioning, giant touch screens and electric seat adjusters add weight, and therefore extra carbon emissions and cost.
Starting his company in a pandemic and with a recession looming was “a little bit of a challenging exercise”, he says. “Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.” But he is undeterred, and is trying to raise £10m in the company’s fourth investment round in order to get more space. He eventually wants to build “thousands” of cars a year.
“We want to show electric cars can be fun and they don’t have to be 1,000 horsepower and 2.5 tonnes,” he says.