Caterham: the future


Caterham's new boss Graham Macdonald has literally moved one office up from where he was as financial director but his new job at the top leaves him with, as he admits, big shoes to fill.

The recent departure of Ansar Ali lacked the scandal of Dany Bahar's exit from Lotus and while Caterham isn't facing dramas quite as significant as those in Hethel Macdonald clearly has some battles ahead of him, not least how to move Caterham on from dependence on the Seven and its endless derivatives.

The closest to a new model in recent memory
The closest to a new model in recent memory
On a visit to PH Towers earlier today Macdonaldadmitted that Caterham had 'stalled' over the last couple of years, with a lack of new products beyond the 'parts bin' (his words...) but still wonderful Supersports. Cars like that can only keep Caterham going for so long though, Macdonald candid about progress with ongoing plans for a new road car and where he wants to take the company, including possible manufacture outside the UK.

Earlier in the year Ali revealed to us that the new road car would be in the £40-£50K bracket, sub-1,000kg, driver focused, front-engined, rear-driven and based around a monocoque tub of some description. He also declared his preference for a normally aspirated engine, without ruling out the possibility of supercharging, a la SP/300.R.

And it would seem Macdonald has picked up this baton and, broadly, this continues to be the basic blueprint that he will carry through to fruition. But will it be built in the UK? Possibly not says Macdonald, with an accountant's eye to profitability and exchange rates, though Caterham's British identity will be maintained wherever it's constructed he insists.

He's still open-minded about what'll be under the bonnet and apparently six-cylinder engines have been considered. But it'll more likely stick to four, with the necessary extra performance delivered by supercharging.

The ghost of the 21 does still linger though, this being the last time Caterham tried its hand at a road car and, by any measure, a spectacular failure.

Track only SP/300.R could bridge gap to F1
Track only SP/300.R could bridge gap to F1
Macdonald faces a tricky dilemma too. Visit the showroom just behind Caterham station and, in isolation, it would be easy to paint the brand as a retro 'they do make 'em like they used to' Morgan-esque operation. And yet, at the other end of the scale, you've got an F1 team and outspoken figurehead in the shape of Tony Fernandes ready to shake up the established order. Bridging the gap twixt the two is a challenge that will require more than just a few SP/300.Rs, and while motorsport is clearly important to Caterham, Macdonald's focus is on the road car business.

Seven variants will continue to come but, clearly, the new road car carries a heavy responsibility. And, as the Exige S proves, great product alone isn't always enough to translate critical praise into sales success. Interesting times and tomorrow Macdonald will assert his position with a year zero strategy meeting with Caterham's senior managers in an attempt to nail down what the brand stands for and how it will progress under his leadership.

Comments (154) Join the discussion on the forum

  • splitpin 22 Jul 2012

    Fair bit of sort of perhaps missing the point going on here?

    'Low conversion rate': many trackday operators use 7s (with good reason) as their trackday hire cars; who knows how many Customers, but likely a high percentage of will be just corporate people/groups of friends doing it as a one-off eg balloon ride done prior, bungy jump next on the agenda. Is 22,000 correct? I doubt it.

    Is 500 right?; don't know, but if it is 500-ish new cars built, that is pretty darn good and impressive for a specialist niche manufacturer. Gives me heart that if they select the right new product (to my mind, this is effectively 'what we already do taken on a few significant evolution stages'), perhaps they could double that and doubling one's output/turnover would be impressive in anyone's books.

    As for focussing on something like a GT86 as some sort of measure of what to do/where to go/at what price, nope definitely not - not only can you not compete with one of the World's largest car manufacturers (trying to do so and being seen to do so is a bit like offering to become shark-bait), it's also a completely different horse for a completely different course; blame the road testers who have probably rightly called it one of the best handling road cars for many years, hence all those pics of it hanging it's ass out on some track somewhere - what they of course fail to mention is that show-boating aside, virtually every Caterham ever made would still be able to gobble it up like a very light breakfast in terms of getting round a track in the shortest time possible.

    Top of my design brief as a 'given' would be no permanent roof and do we really need (anything other than really simple) doors?

    Much like Morgan did (oh so successfully and from the very edge of a precipice), Caterham need to play to their strengths.

  • DonkeyApple 22 Jul 2012

    Toaster said:
    Maybe but if one man could support a family and 50 odd employees without expansion and 'growth' supporting a niche low volume car purchased driven and enjoyed by a small but loyal base.....
    Although for most of the time that Graeme owned the business he was only really contending with Westfield and a UK centric market.

    Since then we had the boom of the locost competition, the massive growth of track days and numerous new cars like the Atom etc.

    Their market today is far tougher and more competitive than in his time.

    And on top of that the ever burgeoning weight and cost of red tape and legislation has added more and more fat to the pie.

    If they want to remain at the top and earn the revenues with enough margins to keep rolling out a great product they need to look at other products and markets because their competition will if they don't and then use those better revenues and more stable business to price out and kill off Caterham.

    Even if Caterham just wanted to remain doing what they were doing they can't as their competition will expand, dominate, take market share and price them out.

  • Toaster 22 Jul 2012

    Tuna said:
    So each year they get 22,000 people to drive their cars, and only 500 buy them worldwide? That doesn't strike me as a good conversion rate.

    I don't want to be down on Caterham, but despite the immense goodwill towards their car, I can understand why they might want to widen their range. That's ignoring the aspirations (and hangups) of their new owner, which are clearly playing a big part in the direction they're going.
    Maybe but if one man could support a family and 50 odd employees without expansion and 'growth' supporting a niche low volume car purchased driven and enjoyed by a small but loyal base I think that could be muted as sustainability, the other roads of expansion and global growth could just be as Chris Rea pointed out just a 'Road to Hell' with 'money flying away from him' But what do I know.

    If Lotus are struggling what hope of a 'new' manufacturer pinning the hope on the link with F1 and motorsport to launch a new car, it is a dilemma and not one for amateurs or the faint hearted.

    I just hope they get it right and the 7 is still being produced in England in 10 years time........



  • Mostro 22 Jul 2012

    A Ginetta G40 style chassis/body is the obvious safe step - day-to-day usability with basic day-to-day comforts, properly sealed from the weather, reasonable boot space, proper cockpit, probably less raw than the Ginetta in fact. Halfway between G40 and junior TVR perhaps. Maybe even a 2+2.

    But I can't see this competing in the £40K bracket for the bread n butter models; quality and prestige will be nowhere near good enough. Far better to go in at the £20-£25K range with a small fuel & emission efficient engine, majoring on handling and low running costs/VED. Use the GT86/BRZ ethos but less polished and cheaper. Then from this base, they would have all manner of opportunities for higher-powered halo models at £40K+ (call it GT3...) to steal the headlines and and feed demand for the base models.

  • DonkeyApple 22 Jul 2012

    Tuna said:
    So each year they get 22,000 people to drive their cars, and only 500 buy them worldwide? That doesn't strike me as a good conversion rate.

    I don't want to be down on Caterham, but despite the immense goodwill towards their car, I can understand why they might want to widen their range. That's ignoring the aspirations (and hangups) of their new owner, which are clearly playing a big part in the direction they're going.
    It is an interesting number. I guess the 500 is inflated by the number bought second hand though.

    But if you had a company which sold one product to one main geographic and that geographic had turd weather and a turd economy then it would be prudent to look to a product which could take your brand to where there is money and a growing scene for track cars.

    First mover advantage is vital. In the UK when you say 7 you think Caterham. Outside of the UK Caterham do not have that advantage by default and must work hard to earn it.

    I do think it boils down to how this car looks at the end of the day because I am convinced there is a market but there is competition and the best way to win is via visuals as we know they can do the mechanicals.

    For me, I would find it legendary if this new hard top Caterham looked remarkably identical to an S1/2 Esprit. smile

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