Driving across California, some 6,000 miles from home, ensconced in a pale blue Chrysler Town&Country minivan is not the time to be engaging in a bout of crippling self-doubt. But it becomes clear, in conversation with photographer Justin, that we have committed ourselves to a trip across the world to drive a car nobody has ever heard of, in a place miles from anywhere, across an inhospitable national park, on the basis of a website and several late-night emails.
Though this sounds like the definition of a spirit of adventure, there is also the niggling worry that we will arrive in Palm Springs to find... nothing. "So, you've never spoken to anyone who has driven the car?" asks Justin, a hollow chime of disbelief in his voice.
"Er. No. Not actually, y'know, driven, driven."
"Do you know that the car is actually real?" "Er..."
"So how did you arrange all this stuff, then?"
Justin chokes lightly around his fifth Marlboro Red of the day. It is 5am, and California suddenly looks slightly less rosy.
Hours later, and we're stood outside the modestly named Hyatt Grand Champions Resort Hotel looking like pasty extras from a low-budget road movie. Justin is wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a fishing hat, and invariably smoking aggressively at overly chipper Californians whose teeth seem to glow with their own angelic light. I am less calm. The mobile phone number of the man we are supposed to meet here is suspiciously engaged. I begin to swear monotonously and wonder whether TopGear will take a story on the dynamic powerhouse that is the Town&Country. Justin's only answer is to blow twin plumes of blue smoke through his nostrils like a gay dragon missing a spark plug. Seconds later, a man called Wa-el Rizk walks out of the front doors of the Hyatt, and relief floods out of me like I've been punctured.
First a little background. Wa-el is an Egyptian entrepreneur whose background is in composite materials, but whose soul lives in motorcars. He is comfortably sized, barely cresting the five-foot barrier, shaven of head and broad of smile. He is also one of the most engaging and infectious human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. But before we can indulge, there's a snarl and bark from the entrance way, and a vision in silver hoves into view like a snapshot from a more exceptional age. The idle chatter dies away, and silence descends on the threshold of the Hyatt Grand Champions, broken only by the breathy imprecation of one of the valet parking men, who exclaims, with surprising quiet clarity, "Holy shit." Given what's just pulled up in the car park, I am forced to agree.
From a distance it looks as if some rich oddball is driving a £1.75m 1957 Aston Martin DBR2 on the road. But when it gets closer, you start to notice that this car, the Rizk DBR2 - despite carrying all the swooping, hippy shapeliness of the 'real' Fifties racecar - is lower, wider, bigger.
The driver is smaller in the body of the car than the Fifties original. It's like someone hijacked the essence of the Aston Martin and toned it. Which is exactly what Wa-el Rizk has done. Except in a twist of epic proportions, the Rizk DBR2 has gone several steps further than merely a beefy homage to an icon. It's been built from spaceships. Bear with me here, because this is about to get a bit weird.
Despite antique appearances, the car is actually built from a carbon-fibre monocoque produced in an aerospace-grade autoclave (in this case, one that Boeing uses), with a body sculpted from a carbon- Nomex sandwich. Those voluptuous curves are stupidly strong: 'undentable by human force' apparently, but also incredibly light. The Rizk weighs just 800kg. Added to that eye-widening pub fact is that the heat insulation applied liberally to the engine bay and underside is a substance called 'Aerogel' - a compound formulated by NASA to insulate the Mars Rover. Built to withstand the habitually harsh environment of the Red Planet, Aerogel is also so chronically hydrophobic that the car should see service well after you and I have turned to dust and interesting memoirs. The suspension is fully independent front and rear, riding on adjustable coilovers, with Wilwood disc brakes that run inboard at the back. And yet the engine, that growling, fierce-sounding engine, is actually a veteran 4.2-litre straight-six from Jaguar. The same one you'd find in an E-type. And for a carbon-Nomex, alien-tech confection, it's a delight to find that it runs on SU carburettors.
You can have a fuel-injected V8 or any V12 option, including auto-configurations, but that would seem wrong, somehow. Fair to say that when trying to define this car, it's hard to know where to start.
The driver is Ken Schutze, over six feet of exotica restoration specialist from Missouri, whose expertise has helped form the DBR2 to Wa-el's exacting specifications. His nickname, by the way, is 'Cowboy', he wears a proper Stetson and he talks like all British people imagine Americans do, in a kind of honeyed drawl that's utterly charming. For a minute, I stop and feel the sunshine beating on my eyelids. I'm stood with an Egyptian materials scientist entrepreneur, in the middle of the desert, having been joined by a cowboy in a replica of a British Fifties car made from NASA technology. If you'll just give me a moment...
A quick shake of the head, and it's time to take a closer look. First of all, you don't need to be shy with it, as Ken demonstrates by pounding on the bodywork with his fist. Carbon-Nomex might be prone to point-puncture, but glazed into panels in this format, a good solid smack means precisely nothing to it. The sandwich is roughly 1,500 times stiffer than a traditional metal body, which means you can't hurt it unless you start strafing around with a chisel - something quite reassuring when the extremities are unfamiliar event horizons. If this were a traditional aluminium-bodied car, we would now be picking bits of it off the floor and Cowboy would be looking quite sheepish. There's not much more to it than that, and a quick stab at the ignition, a first-time roar from the exhaust and we're off, in search of the Joshua Tree National Park and a little bit of extremeweather testing. If the thing has been built with components from the Mars Rover, a bit of heat and dust shouldn't faze it.
The freeway is a place of wonder. The Rizk cruises suspiciously easily; it doesn't buck or wander excessively, and it's not until you crest 80+mph that the aerodynamics start to feel a bit anachronistic. The five-speed manual is easy to use, if a bit slow, but then again, the old Jag motor is so torquey that you can leave the car in third gear for most jobs, and the brakes stop with the kind of easy retardation that speaks of modern discs and light weight. There's little forward protection apart from a little flycatcher 'screen, and yet the cabin is wide enough to scooch down into and hide from the wind blast that feels like the waft from a freshly opened stove. And exposed as you are, you realise that everybody loves this car. People in supergalactic SUVs towing motorboats and small houses wave, shout, thumbs-up. Instant fame and love.
After a few hundred miles and a quick poke around, you realise that the wonderful seats are disturbingly familiar. Probably because they are a set of Herman Miller 'Aeron' office chairs deconstructed, re-engineered with custom bracketry and installed in the Rizk. A stroke of utter genius, because the Aeron is one of the most comfortable perches ever invented for a backside. The springy weave of the seats is wide and supportive, yet gauzy and light, allowing air to circulate around your bum and back - something I'm pleased about, given that the current air temperature in Palm Springs is roughly 40° Celsius, and we're about to go out into the desert proper.
The wooden-rimmed Moto-Lita gives a wonderful period tactility, and yet is fully adjustable. And even though the seats adjust for height, they don't move, so swing a lever under the dash, and you can adjust the entire Tilton pedal box. You sit facing wonderful analogue Smith gauges set in a simple ally dash, and flick solid-feeling toggles for other functions, of which there are reassuringly few: indicators, ignition, hazards. And yet the central tunnel is bare carbon fibre and you have elbow-room aplenty. Some of the interior detailing is not to my taste, but is down to customer specification. Nevertheless, the various pieces don't make sense together, and yet they still add up. They add up perfectly.
Eventually, after being slow-roasted and gently weatherbeaten by suspiciously warm and gentle fingers, we enter the National Park, and the Rizk looks like it belongs; spectacular suddenly becomes gloriously unremarkable. The twists, dips, cambers and potholes of the road verify the independence of the suspension and the guttural gargling of the straight-six, which pops and bangs on the overrun, is discordant music to your ears. But it's not until I look down at the speedo that I realise, despite what my senses are telling me, despite the frenzied information downloaded through my fingers and bottom, despite the heady, laugh-out-loud fun I'm having, I'm only doing about 60mph, tops.
The Rizk absorbs all the aggregation of modern componentry and still manages to have soul at speeds a modern hot-hatch would laugh at. It's quick enough to scare yourself, sorted enough to prevent embarrassment, and yet so much more than that. It's immense fun. A joyful, intense relationship not just with speed, but with the entire experience. You hear it, smell it, vibrate in time with it, expose every neuron to the car and the environment. You don't need to go fast, because the experience is so saturated, even a mild pop to the shops is like your own nanoscale Mille Miglia. Suddenly, I think I've found my mid-life crisis. Sod a Porsche, I want one of these.
We aim it at the Joshua Tree's dirt and dust backroads and make enquiring noises in the direction of Wa-el and the Cowboy. Cowboy simply tips his hat and intones "There ain't anything you can break on that car that we can't fix..." and lets us loose. The next few hours are etched indelibly on my brain.
Cantering loosely down sand-covered roads sighting down a sine-wave of bonnet, lazy, dusty oppositelock applied at speeds rarely above a brisk trotting pace and the smell: scorched dirt, cooking tarmac, a whiff of hot oil, burning chrome and heat. Through huge rocks and small canyons we roar, through picturesque desert and slowly melting, sticky-to-the-touch, two-lane blacktop. We talk to Wa-el and Cowboy, and realise that in the fierce corporate world, there are still people making cars simply because they have an indelible passion.
Cowboy you want to be your beer buddy: great stories, great timing, great sense of humour and intensely practical. Wa-el is dazzlingly irrepressible. He could do anything. He may be short, but in terms of personality and sheer, gut-wrenching charm and enthusiasm, the man might as well be 12-feet tall.
The Rizk is a bit of both of them. Joyful, exciting, unique, slightly odd, even a little bit naive - a proper break from the norm. The ruthless attention to detail and complicated build means it is very doubtful that it will make them any money - and yet I'm not sure they care all that much. The proposed production run will be limited to just 50 cars, and after that the bucks will go into trust for those 50 owners - meaning that the buyers will, in effect, own the car in perpetuity. It is then that I realise, under an endless sky, with clouds caught mid-scud above me, that the Rizk DBR2 isn't really a car. It's like a child, raised with hope rather than expectation, love rather than fiscal projection. And as I point the long nose back into the desert, all I can think is that I want one very badly indeed.
Where to watch
Top Gear broadcasts on the BBC in the United Kingdom, Australia and on BBC America in the US. Clips are available in the video archive.
The article 'Trick of the light: A California road trip' was published in partnership with Top Gear Magazine.