In this pandemic-struck world, bidding will only take place online

Covered in Red Bull Racing’s colors and sporting a sizeable wing in the back, it’s hard to fathom that this, the 1998 Ultima Spyder, is Ultima’s maiden effort at making a "car designed with pure road use in mind."

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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What roads they had in mind is unclear but something is abundantly clear: the only thing staying in the way of some neck-breaking action in case of a roll-over accident is a seemingly thin roll bar. Let us say it again, this car can be driven on the road, at least in Europe.

Head on the internet and, using your search engine of choice, type in "best weekend car". Don’t do it right now, read this article first and then do it. When you finally get to it, you’ll be overwhelmed by a variety of listicles trying to offer you a compelling picture of the choices you’ve got if you’re in the market for the perfect car to drive on your off days.

But we think very few (if any) of those lists mention this car. The product of a few quirky British minds, the Ultima started life as a racing car - you can tell - and over the years evolved to the point it can basically devour any supercar you’ll come across on the road. But the Spyder is from the early days so take a moment to enjoy that unique kit car feel.

The Ultima Spyder comes from a world where safety is overrated

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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The annual RM Sotheby’s Essen sale will no longer take place in Essen, Germany but you can still bid, between June 3-11, for your chance to own the sort of car that will frustrate all of your friends at a track day. Not too long ago, we discussed at length what makes Ultima’s latest creation, the US-friendly RS Coupe such an amazing piece of kit and, to make a long story short, it’s got to do with Ultima’s experience gathered after decades of racing in Britain and internationally, all the lessons being poured into the development of Ultima’s road cars. The Spyder was among the first.

"The Ultima is not a kit car: it may be delivered to the customer in component form but there is a world of difference between this car and the majority of its competitors," says Ultima Sportscars’ website. But back in 1993, when the Ultima Spyder was introduced, the specialized magazine treated it as just another kit car which may be why it received a flurry of rave reviews.

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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"What a superb driving machine. Razor-sharp responses, vice-like grip, storming performance, pure unadulterated exhilaration, perfect driving position, wild looks, top quality engineering - what more could you ask for?" asked himself Peter Filby in Which Kit. If you’re a hater, the answer could be "airbags" or, maybe "proper luggage space" or, let’s say, "crumple zones". The Ultima Spyder lacks all of the above and many more things you’re accustomed to finding in a car that’s been cleared for road use. And that’s exactly what makes it awesome.

The brainchild of Lee Noble, notably the founder of Noble Cars, the Ultima came into being in the early ’80s and spent the decade humiliating all matter of ’specials’ in British club races to the point that organizers simply devised an Ultima-only class for fear of losing all other non-Ultima competitors from their grids. The first Ultima was an awkward-looking contraption, partially reminding us of an ’80s Group C2 prototype (read IMSA GT Lights in the US) and partially looking like a land speed record-breaker.

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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But there was nothing record-breaking under the skin of the 1983 Ultima. As Autocar reports, Noble went out and sourced parts from a variety of cars to create his own automobile. The radiator is from an Austin Princess, the uprights, brakes, and steering from a late-model Ford Cortina, the rear brakes from a Lancia Beta (a car notorious for its awful braking ability), and the engine and transmission from a Renault 30. All of the internals were hidden underneath a slippery, Mulsanne-friendly fiberglass body sporting butterfly doors a la Mercedes’ 300 SL.

"Driving the Ultima around town is an interesting exercise," Autocar would report, "because you sit so low that you virtually see under Range Rovers, let alone lorries, and rearward vision is decidedly non-existent. Except for the wing mirrors, so named because all you see in them is wing." The final statement is even more true with the Spyder and its towering aerodynamic device.

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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Happily, as the years rolled by, Noble thought better of it and the Renault 30 engine, a 2.7-liter V-6, was ditched in favor of some American muscle courtesy of a small block Chevy V-8. The chassis cradling that 5.7-liter mill (you can also go for different powerplants if you so desire, the beauty of DIY cars) is of the tubular-steel spaceframe variety and, in pure race car fashion, adjustable double wishbone suspension is present all around.

To keep structural rigidity intact, the Spyder sports a central cell which is also helpful in keeping you alive if you’re involved in a crash. This possibility is forever looming when behind the wheel of an Ultima because here is a car weighing it at just 1,984 pounds with a staggering power-to-weight ratio of about 400 horsepower per ton.

In 2000, when Car & Driver tested the coupe version of the Ultima, nee GTR, they said the engineless "$100,300 beauty" is "quicker than the latest Porsche Turbo, any showroom Ferrari, even the fearsome Dodge Viper," if you are willing to throw another $40,000 on the engine and transmission. C&D tested a GTR fitted with a C5-specific 345 horsepower LS1 V-8 mated to a Porsche gearbox which was heavier by a few hundred pounds than the Spyder and yet "the Vette engine practically lifts the front wheels off the ground at full throttle."

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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With its short wheelbase, the Ultima is also brilliant in the twisty bits and that's also because the engine barely has any weight to push around to begin with.

Getting in and out of a fixed-head Ultima is a bit of a hassle but you can just jump in a Spyder with minimal effort. Once inside and fully strapped in the bucket seat, you’re facing a decidedly lackluster instrument cluster. The Alcantara-wrapped dash is reminiscent of any ’90s race car and that’s exactly what current Ultima owner Ted Marlow wants you to think. If you wanted to feel like in a Mercedes, you would’ve gone for the SL or something.

You’ve got a few switches and knobs and a few small gauges for oil pressure, temperature, and other things like that while the most important dials are up high in the middle: the tachometer on the left and the odometer on the right. The former tells you the Ultima would rev all the way to 7,000 rpm but, in truth, full power is available at about 6,000 rpm in fifth. The car you see here is outfitted with the Porsche G50/50 gearbox mated to a 355 horsepower Chevy V-8 engine.

Hate the Nanny State? Buy This Head-Chopping 1998 Ultima Spyder
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Without a roof in place, the Spyder won’t be as fast as the coupe (there’s also that wing out back that’s slowing you down) but be sure you’ll already be hitting 160 mph when you reach 6,000 rpm in fifth. The exercise of going from naught to 60 mph in an Ultima is a very easy one, the car completing the run in about 3.8 seconds while 100 mph is there in about nine.

1998 Ultima Spyder specifications
Engine 5,7-Liter V-8 Chevy-sourced
Horsepower 355 HP
0 to 100 mph 3.8 seconds
Transmission Porsche G50/50 five-speed

British motoring magazine Auto Express says, in the Ultima GTR buying guide (yes, it exists!), that "this may be a kit car, but the comprehensive factory support and decades of development behind it make it so much more." In other words, don’t be afraid. The Ultima Spyder probably won’t chop your head and, anyway, you’ll have fun with it before that happens, you can be sure of that.

Photo credit: Brian Buchard ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Source: RM Sotheby’s

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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