Slim, single and street legal

SOMETHING SINISTER: It's like a computer gaming character made real.
SOMETHING SINISTER: It's like a computer gaming character made real.

I inch out of a restaurant parking lot and onto California's Pacific Coast Highway, questioning my sanity. I've driven some strange contraptions in my time, but the BAC Mono is one of the oddest.

A single-seat machine with an open cockpit, the Mono looks like a simplified Formula One car. It starts at a lofty NZ$210,000 in the United States and I've never seen anything like it off the track.

There is a licence plate on the rear, however, as the Mono qualifies under a California exemption that makes it street legal, the lack of airbags or even a windshield notwithstanding. Apparently I'm the first US journalist to drive one.

My adventures as a guinea pig begin after the Mono is unloaded from an enclosed trailer and I clamber into the snug body (there are no doors). I strap into the five-point safety harness and jam a full-face helmet onto my head.

The Mono is clearly meant for the racetrack. "But it's also perfect for carving through back-canyon roads," says Shinoo Mapleton of Sector 111, its California-based US distributor.

We're just south of Malibu, with its canyon lanes threading through the Santa Monica mountains, so I'll soon find out - provided I survive the highway first.

The tallest part of the car, the column behind the driver, stands at about a metre, so I'm even less visible than a motorcycle. A Toyota Prius dwarfs me, and I can all too vividly imagine being run over by the Cadillac Escalade following too close.

The car is made by Briggs Automotive Company (BAC), based in Cheshire, England, and is the brainchild of brothers Ian and Neill Briggs. Press materials say they've worked on projects for Ford, AMG and Porsche, and wanted to create a car for purists.

The market for an amped-up go-kart like the Mono is narrow, but it certainly exists, consisting of speed fanatics fed up with heavy, modern sports cars stuffed with driving aids like traction control.

By contrast, the Mono weighs 635 kilograms and doesn't even have ABS brakes. Similar open-cockpit racers include the Ariel Atom and KTM X-Bow.

The Mono looks like a dragonfly with four wheels extending from each corner. The body is carbon fibre and you can spy the 2.3-litre, Cosworth four-cylinder engine peeking through the open bodywork. Mounted in the rear, it makes 206 kilowatts and 380 newton-metres of torque. Zero to 100kmh takes about three seconds.

The car arrives in the US in pieces where it is assembled by Mapleton's company. "Clients can get them registered in various states that allow special construction or kit car classifications," he says. The wait for delivery is a year.

Button controls are arrayed around the tiny, squared-off steering wheel with a digital screen sitting at its centre. The steering wheel looks quite similar to ones found on F1 cars - or video games.

The six-speed race-engineered sequential transmission is tricky: You shift using both the clutch and by pulling paddles behind the steering wheel. The clutch is heavy and unfriendly in stop-and-go traffic.

The engine burbles and pops and I wish I was wearing ear plugs. It does capture other drivers' attention, though, lessening the likelihood I'll be run over.

The Mono is as practical as one might expect for a racecar transported to the street.

The seat doesn't adjust, rear visibility is lousy and there's precious little space for my feet. Room for luggage? No. Yet the driving position is comfortable and the suspension much more forgiving than I'd expected.

Then I turn off onto narrow back roads, and it all comes together. The asphalts blurs in front of me, the wind snaps at my helmet and the Mono wiggles through curves.

The oversized tyres lend fathoms of grip, the brakes bite with surety and a small twist of the wheel turns the car. And the thrills come without racing. The Mono is so low to the ground that you feel like you're zinging along at warp speed even while driving reasonably. Besides, I half expect to be pulled over even while doing the speed limit. If I was a police officer, I'd want a better look at the Mono.

Up I go over steep hills, along narrow lanes cresting mountain ridges, through open sweeping turns. The few other drivers I see slow down and gape. I might as well be piloting a space ship.

The Mono has more to give - a lot more. But I'd prefer to explore its limits on the racetrack. I cruise back to the Pacific Coast Highway.

As the Mono idles roughly at a red light, I flip my helmet open, letting in cool ocean air.

A guy in a Mustang Shelby Cobra leans out his window. "I've seen some crazy cars in Malibu," he says, all grins. "But that is easily the craziest."

-Washington Post/Bloomberg