Getting to Know the Birkin CS3XS Clubman—and the People Who Build It
The back end breaks loose halfway through an off-camber turn, as I prod the accelerator too harshly. Easing off the gas, the machine pulls straight—a big grin on my face and my heart pounding as I tear round the bend, tyres squealing.
The only thing keeping me from heading into the trees is the handiwork of a small band of craftsmen I met in Durban, South Africa—the home of Birkin Performance Cars.
Birkin Cars was formed in South Africa in the early 80s by John Watson—a fan of the iconic Lotus Seven. After being frustrated by high import duties, and lack of interest from UK-based manufacturers, John set about building his own Lotus Seven replica from scratch in his garage.
That first car was followed by another for a friend—and soon cars were being built to order.
I’ve been invited to the factory by Dean Knoop, who now runs Birkin Performance Cars with partner Ralph Smith. It’s a warm day in Durban, while I enjoy a journey behind the scenes with factory manager Santosh Ramsaroop.
The space is bigger than I imagined, and I count over ten cars in various stages of assembly. At full capacity, eight cars can be built per month. The current order list includes Birkins destined for duty as far afield as the USA and Japan.
Everything happens in-house, apart from paint. The steel tube frames are welded on a jig, the body panels are cut and shaped on vintage presses, and various suspension and brake parts are machined from billets of aluminium.
Parts and boxes are neatly arranged on shelves, and I have to fight the urge to start bolting things together. This is Santa’s workshop for gear-heads, run by a small and dedicated team of craftsmen.
Some of the men have been with the company since inception: Dumisani Memela has been clocking in since 1986; Roy Ramsaroop, Nyne Pillay, Roy Moodley have been with Birkin since 1990. Dan Pillay joined in 1995, Robert Mbili joined in 2000 and Anil Chatterpal is celebrating a decade this year.
With over 150 years of experience now being passed on to apprentices in the shop, the art of the hand-built sports car will continue for another generation.
A few weeks later I’m handed the keys to the Birkin CS3XS Clubman. The basic premise of this car remains unchanged from Colin Chapman’s original Lotus Seven: a lightweight, street legal race car, with ‘added lightness.’
With its stunning black and gold livery, and its low-slung, open wheel aluminium body, it’s a very attractive car. A few admirers are drawn closer to it in the parking lot where we are preparing for our photo shoot.
Driving the Birkin CS3XS is an act of commitment; a visceral experience engaging all the senses. It’s a simple, elegant machine—purpose-built to tweak the adrenal gland.
The cabin is basic and a little cramped for taller folk, but you feel more like a pilot than a driver behind the long nose anyway. Indeed, the Birkin coughs into angry life like a Spitfire, the race-prepped 2.0 litre Ford Duratec engine growling and burbling, ready for launch.
Acceleration is furious. The car weighs just over 630kgs, putting the power to weight ratio somewhere in the supercar range. I have to hold on tight through the first few gear changes, the exhaust note ripping the air close to my right ear. It’s a thrill watching the front wheels react to the road surface, while feeling the direct feedback on the steering wheel.
Tearing down country roads, wrestling with the steering wheel and enjoying the intoxicating fragrance of rubber, oil and a hot engine, it becomes clear why the brand has such a devoted following.
Lotus Seven fans, weekend racers and those seeking the purest driving experience: we’ve found your car—and it’s made in South Africa.