As Caterham Cars unleashes its iconic Superlight R300 onto the Continent after achieving pan-European homologation, owner and managing director Ansar Ali has talked exclusively to PistonHeads about his upbeat outlook for one of Britain's leading niche manufacturers, in spite of the recession:
“Business is steady,” Ali told us in a frank interview conducted at Caterham’s Dartford, Kent factory last month. “We first saw signs of activity stalling in June and July last year, and were able to cut our cloth accordingly. We looked at showroom footfall, web traffic and other indicators that were softening in June, so we were ahead of the game and able to take some investment out.
“We sadly had to let go half a dozen of our 70-plus staff, but things are already looking up and if our order take continues we’ll probably have to man-up again – but I’d rather be facing a problem of how to build more cars, than a problem of how to sell them!”
Caterham currently has an order bank that’s full until mid-October, aided by an export drive that has seen upgrades to the dealer network abroad in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA.
“We now have very good representation abroad, whereas sometimes we had to rely on hobbyists,” says Ali. “Overall, we expect to sell around 470 cars this year, down 25-30%, but we have been able to gear our production to make sure we sell more than we build.”
Caterham’s Racing Academy, now established for 15 years, is also playing a big part in helping the company ride the financial storm. “Interestingly motorsport grids are up, and we run 140 Caterham Experience days annually,” says Ali.
“The Caterham Academy has been an amazing success, introducing people to racing at an affordable level. Our package now offers a turn-key solution, including a ready-built road-legal car for £17,995, and a competitive series of eight races. After completing a year in Roadsport A, our racers can upgrade to Roadsport B for another year at minimal cost and the Academy currently has 150 drivers participating in the UK, with similar series getting off the ground in Holland, the Czech Republic and potentially Portugal.”
Ali cheerfully admits he’s had a busy time of it since buying Caterham in 2005 – in fact he likens the experience running round in a hamster wheel – but he remains extremely confident about the company’s prospects.
“The latest R300 launch has brought the range up to strength, in fact it’s just about the most exciting range we could possibly have.”
Ali also has very firm views that the Caterham Cars brand is about much more than simply the metal.
“The Caterham philosophy that runs through everything is ‘where there’s a road car, there’s also a racer’, and that’s why so much of our product development is forged on the track. The Caterham brand is more than about just the Seven. It’s about road cars, racing, and the whole owning and driving experience"
“Although we’ve got a full compliment of product, we’re talking to our customers continually to find out what they want, and we’re not afraid to get opinions. We’re very well placed in terms of our product, marketing and motorsport. We will continue doing what we do, doing it well, and we’re ready to run when the recovery appears.”
PistonHeads Q&A with Ansar Ali
PistonHeads (PH): With the new R500 and the return of the R300 Superlight, the Seven seems to just get better and better. How much more can the car be improved and will it ever be replaced?
Ali Ansar (AA): There is always the capacity to improve both in terms of product quality, technology, efficiency and performance. Being the icon it is, the Seven can never be replaced and its attributes are more relevant today than ever before – lightweight, fuel efficient, compact and minimalist.
What technical innovations would you like to see on a Seven one day and why?
We have to be sensitive to the concerns and trends of today and in particular the gaining momentum of climate change and non-carbon fuels. The essence of the Seven is not only performance, driveability and simplicity but also visceral inputs such as sound, smell and physical vigour, which modern day driving aids typically override or suppress. Our challenge is to retain these attributes and yet remain relevant.
PH: Where do you see the company in twenty years time?
AA: Producing the Seven, providing a comprehensive amateur motorsport programme in key markets such as France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA, and leveraging in the same markets, the Caterham Drive Experience which is probably the most effective marketing tool an automotive manufacture could wish for - and by the way an evolution of the Seven with strong motorsport credentials but equally at home on the road!
PH: How is Caterham doing financially?
AA: Caterham is profitable and returned good financial results in 2008. We also forecast to return a profit in 2009 despite the global downturn and early indications are that we are on plan.
PH: We have seen the R300, R400 and R500 – would an R600 ever be technically possible and would you ever bring one to the market?
AA: We are fortunate to have two platforms that are very distinct from one another; the De Dion based S3/S5 and the CSR with independent rear and in-board front suspension. An R600 would be technically possible and, with the established following of the current Superlight ‘R’ range, we have credible options.
Do you think cars like Caterham will still be on our roads by 2050.
Given that the basic principles of road transport have not changed since Karl Benz patented his engine in 1879, I am confident that Caterhams will still be relevant in 2050. It would be a sad day for individualism and diversity if conformism is allowed to rule.
PH: Has Caterham ever considered branching out from the traditional front-engined, rear-drive, two-seat layout? Would you ever consider adding a totally different model to the range and what would it be?
AA: I guess Porsche is pioneering the way in showing how far an iconic automotive brand can stretch and I have no doubt that Caterham can harbour similar ambitions. However, our immediate focus is on front-engine rear-wheel drive cars, a sector in which we are market leaders and intend to remain so!
PH: You recently said the next Caterham would be designed in part by the public online. Could a Caterham really ever have an electric or hybrid powertrain?
AA: The world is changing at such pace I believe it would be naïve of us not to consider alternative powertrain sources, including electric and hybrid. Providing we remain true to the Caterham philosophy of performance through lightweight then I do believe our customers – old and new – would be receptive to new technologies.
Has a diesel unit ever been considered for a Caterham, and would it ever be a reality?
In the same way as it would be naive of us not to consider electric and hybrid powertrains, and like other sports car manufacturers, diesel is another option that we won’t dismiss at this stage.
PH: The Levante featured a 2.4-litre V8. Would this engine ever reach a more affordable Seven?
AA: The Levante is a commercial programme designed to deliver high-end engineering excellence and technological innovation. Therefore by definition it is a niche within a niche, so I do not envisage any immediate spin offs to filter through to Caterham production.
PH: What is the secret to Caterham’s success?
AA: Where do I begin? The Seven is the pivot that allows Caterham employees to approach their work with enthusiasm, dedication and commitment that, in turn, delivers product and services which our customers appreciate and value. Caterham’s heritage and the esteem in which it is regarded across the world, places a responsibility on us as custodians of a brand that is unique and yet accessible to all. Adherence to this philosophy is non-negotiable but it makes it ever so easy when we know we are responsible for one of the most engaging, exciting and liberating automotive products ever to hit the tarmac.
What car do you drive day to day, and what would you drive in an ideal world?
My daily commute car is a Golf GTi and when we start to take on Porsche in a few years time I will seek out an Aston Martin DB4 Series 2.
PH: You have £1,000 to spend on a car – what will it be?
AA: A Mazda MX-5
PH: Your best moment behind the wheel. Where, when and why?
AA: Driving my father’s white Mazda 626 en route to play in a school rugby match; some mates were also in the car. We were late and got stuck behind the opposing team’s mini-bus also en route to the club; a race ensued. As we approached the club house (with a lovely manicured lawn at the front), and still trailing, I decided to overtake the mini-bus on the approach driveway by careering off over the lawn! Predictably I lost control and spun the car; the lawn had muddy tram lines and a perfect ‘crop’ circle to which I never owned up – until today!