Zenos Cars - the full story

Just how easy is it to start a new sports car brand - or reinvigorate a dormant one - from scratch? Given how many people give it a go you must have thought pretty easy. Seeing how many actually make a success of it you realise it's not.

L-R: Ansar Ali, Mark Edwards and Chris Weston
L-R: Ansar Ali, Mark Edwards and Chris Weston
There's an accepted protocol to having a go though. First you release a sketch or rendering, possibly by a keen young design student taking his first steps or, if you're better funded, by an 'established Italian design studio' everyone pretends to have heard of but hasn't really.

For the car itself you have two choices - go lightweight, track focused and minimal and attempt to join the Caterhams, Ariels and Radicals of this world. Take spaceframe, insert Duratec derived powertrain (or similar), clothe in bodywork (or not, in Ariel's case) that either screams design ambition or straightforward racing car pretensions and hope you can carve a foothold for yourself in a crowded yet low volume market.

Big league
Or try and go after the big boys. For which you'll need a Chevrolet crate engine of some description, access to an autoclave for the essential carbon bling which may, or may not, have any functional value, a horsepower figure at least a third over 'regular' mass-market supercars, notional top speed in excess of 200mph and, if you can pull it off, tenuous endorsement by an old racing driver looking to make his retirement just that little bit more comfortable.

Ariel has its trademark minimalism and pace
Ariel has its trademark minimalism and pace
In either case having 'leaked' aforementioned rendering and a few non-specific boasts about performance/price/exclusivity via the internet and hoped for the best you then sit back and hope orders will come flooding in. If you're serious you might just scrape together enough funds to build a 'prototype' which, in the lightweight sports car example, will be shown at Autosport. Once. And in the latter displayed at some high fallutin' 'lifestyle' event on a golfing lawn surrounded by skinny women in expensive dresses and conspicuously older men with slicked back silver mullets and chunky watches. Again, probably just the once.

If you're lucky that's all it'll come to. Worst case? You actually get some orders. And then you're really stuffed, suddenly faced with the boring real world stuff like costing, parts supply, credit lines, homologation regulations and trifling details like a business plan and long term model strategy.

Radical does the Garagista thing to a tee
Radical does the Garagista thing to a tee
Fresh start
But what if you've already been through this mill several times before and still want to give it a go? What if you've seen the best and worst the industry can do to niche players and still haven't lost the passion to create something new? What if, like Ansar Ali and co-conspirators Mark Edwards and Chris Weston, you're on the brink of chucking yourself back into the snake pit with an all-new brand and product despite knowing exactly what you're taking on?

Ali will probably need little introduction to PHers. As the face of Caterham from 2005 until last year he was at the heart of the brand's transition from a family-owned business dependent on an iconic Lotus cast-off into a successful niche player that's since expanded into F1 and a partnership with a major global car manufacturer to build a massproduction sports car.

Caterham Seven stands as a major rival
Caterham Seven stands as a major rival
A parting of the ways saw him strike out on his own and since then he's been joined by two other former Caterham pals and based in a small industrial unit in Norfolk. Three blokes. A combined 50 years of experience in the business. An idea many months in the planning based on bucket loads of passion. Say hello to Zenos Cars...

Carving a niche
How can there possibly be room for another plucky British sports car brand though? Let's not dwell on the failures and look at three success stories. First, Caterham. An iconic product, steeped in tradition and with its heart based on the romantic dream that anyone could build one in his garage, if only he had the time. The car itself is much more highly developed - and expensive - than its image would suggest though and backed up with packed grids of grassroots racers progressing through a carefully organised structure of championships.

Then there's Ariel, with a clean-sheet, distinctive and beautifully conceived product that combines unique design with bat excrement performance symbolising the best of small-scale British enterprise and engineering. A small niche but a carefully nurtured image and passionate fan base, with a distinctive and adaptable car at its heart that embodies modern British design and ingenuity at its best.

Mule uses fabricated 'spine', extrusion to follow
Mule uses fabricated 'spine', extrusion to follow
Or Radical, based on a foundation of proven motorsport rigour and technology and building accessible track-focused cars that bring downforce, giant-killing performance and the proper racing car experience within the reach of those without multi-million pound budgets. A very modern twist on the British 'garagista' tradition.

Doesn't leave much space for a newcomer, does it?

A simple plan
Our news story
should have you up to speed with the basics about the car itself, the first of a three-stage product line-up Ali and the team have sketched out for the brand's long-term future. And where it differs from those who've gone before is that, for all the idealistic, infectious enthusiasm and passion of the guys behind it, at heart it's a properly thought-out project.

They started with the price point they wanted to hit. And then looked at what they needed to do to achieve that, working with established suppliers and the known quantities of production scale, parts prices, manufacturing costs. The boring number crunching bit most don't even consider until the orders have started coming in.

Transverse 2.0-litre Ford engine to go here
Transverse 2.0-litre Ford engine to go here
Every part of the car and its production is costed, meaning Zenos already knows how many cars it needs to build and sell and how much for it to turn a profit.

And if all that sounds a bit tedious then this is where the creative bit kicks in. A car in this market needs to have some sort of USP to capture the imagination of buyers, be that technical, commercial or ideally both. With Ariel it's that trademark chassis. With Caterham the heritage and looks. Radical the race proven engine and downforce. As Larry Holt of key technology and development partner Multimatic put it, "please don't do another spaceframe," recognising Zenos needs something to set it apart.

Core appeal
The central spine around which the Zenos range will be built is a single aluminium extrusion - the longest of its kind in an automotive application - and yet is a single component costing around £200. The bonded tub of extruded aluminium around which the Elise is built is an elegant and effective engineering solution but expensive to replace if damaged in a crash. A bent Zenos chassis would cost around a third of this, meaning even a prang serious enough to twist the chassis is an affordable repair rather than a write-off. This, combined with the neat panel material made of a recycled carbon fibre honeycomb, saves huge amounts of money while promoting a unique engineering solution that can be turned into a distinctive design and the essential aesthetic trademark that'll give the Zenos its identity.

Prototype chassis and wooden sizing buck
Prototype chassis and wooden sizing buck
The powertrain, suspension and brakes all use proven, simple components and design, built and costed to Zenos's scale and budget and reflecting the engineering backgrounds of the guys behind it. Knowing where to try something new and where to stick to what you know is a fine balance and one, already, Zenos seems to understand.

As it stands this is a project that flips the established conversation at the birth of a new sports car on its head. We've got no flashy sketches, no bold claims about earth shattering performance or world domination in the first year of sales. And the best bit? Well, it won't come with a carbon fibre supercar pricetag - more on this later - and Zenos wants PHers involved in the process. We'll bring you news of how you can do that as we follow the project through to the car's debut in the new year.

PHers are already talking about the Zenos - join the chat here.





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