Caterham boss Ansar Ali has revealed to CAR his plans for a new affordable (and closed-wheel) sports car. There will be three different model variants, plus a racing version, and the first of these new Caterhams will go on sale in 2015.
A second Caterham model, to sit alongside the iconic Seven (pictured), has been in CEO Ansar Ali’s plans since he took over the company in 2005, but it’s only been with the subsequent buyout in 2011 by Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes that Ali now has the finances and backing to bring this new car to market.
So what sort of new model is Caterham planning?
‘We’re talking about car that we can sell into new markets, with a fixed roof and doors, a usable sports car,’ Ali told CAR. The plan is for a three-model range, with both a coupe and a convertible, plus a third variant that Caterham has yet to finalise.
The new model won’t be Seven-based, instead it’s new from the ground up. ‘We’re starting from scratch in terms of the platform technology and powertrain,’ Ali revealed to CAR. ‘We’re not trying to take the Seven and make it slightly bigger, slightly higher, slightly wider.’
Is this really going to be a true Caterham?
Ali is adamant that it will be: ‘We want to make affordable sports cars. We’re going to stay within the areas that we’re good at; we know what we’re not good at and we’re not going anywhere near that. Our cars are going to be raw, they’re going to be drivers' cars. We have started with the driving position and worked outwards.
‘Caterhams are designed for the driver: they are light, very engaging, and they have what I would call affordable pricing, so £30k-45k. They are a real experience to drive – which is what the Seven is all about – and there’s a lot of drama, which we want replicated in any future product.’
Why is Caterham building this new model?
To expand. Caterham currently sells around 500 cars per year, with Europe and Japan being its only significant markets. The company needs to appeal to new customers in new markets, and Ali has ‘no doubt’ that Caterham can sell 2500 units of the new car each year, split between the three road variants and the racing version.
The USA isn’t currently in Caterham’s road car plans (the SP/300R sports prototype should have a one-make race series there in 2013) so the new model won’t be federalised. But the Far East is high on Caterham’s agenda, helped by Caterham owner Fernandes’ business connections. Ali says that means new customer requirements: ‘We will offer doors, windows, and you can tick a box for air-con. Will air-con come as standard? No, but if we’re going to sell in the Far East, and India, and other emerging markets, no one’s going to buy a Seven, because apart from fact you might be too scared to drive it on the road, you’ll just die of heat exhaustion. We’ve got to be realistic about the opportunities and limitations of the Seven, and that’s where I see opportunities for new Caterham product.’
What about airbags and ESP? Not from the start, but Ali did reveal that Caterham will ‘package protect’ the new model by engineering it to accommodate the aforementioned technologies so it could pass whole vehicle type approval tests. The new car won’t initially be put through the tests, but if it ever comes to the point where airbags and the like become mandatory then Caterham won’t have to (expensively) rework the car.
What on earth will this new model look like? Caterham doesn’t exactly have a rich design history to draw on…
You’re right, and it’s the same question we put to Ali. ‘It’s a huge challenge. The challenge we set to a couple of design houses [Ali’s poker face breaks when we mention names like Pininfarina] we’re talking to was “We want a design language, not just a design for a car, but a Caterham design language”. And what’s interesting, honestly, is the number of esteemed, well-known designers who have phoned us up and would love to be involved. How does one do the next Caterham? How do you do the next Land Rover Defender? It’s one of those things, and we want a language that people recognise is the design language of Caterham.’
The project has been underway for six months, with the driving position and architecture worked on first, so only in the last few weeks have the design proposals been finalised.
What else do we know about this new Caterham?
A sub-1000kg kerbweight has been set as the target, and it’s refreshing to hear that it’s the marketing department that’s been behind the aggressive targets, recognising that Caterham must stay true to its values. It will only seat two people, and Ali revealed that design studies have been made of both front- and mid-engined cars. His personal preference is for a front-engined and rear-wheel drive model, a layout that’s akin to the Seven, and all variants will be closed-wheel. Think Mazda MX-5 and Ginetta G40R for a guide on size
With such a light kerbweight expect the new cars to stick with four-cylinder engines, but Ali says the power-to-weight ratios should be on par with the current Seven. Reckon on something similar to the Seven Classic for £30k, but a much faster model for £45k.
The new car won’t necessarily use Ford power like the Seven range though, Ali admitting that Caterham is talking to the Blue Oval, and other manufacturers. Initially the cars will be naturally aspirated, but forced induction models are part of the plans for later variants. An automatic gearbox (a proper paddleshift unit, rather than a torque convertor) could be an option.
What sort of convertible model has also yet to be defined: it could be a full convertible, or a targa model, but again Ali is leaning towards the former for the added driving thrills. The new car's tub (the material it’ll be made from has yet to be decided, but it won’t be carbon) will provide all the rigidity so creating the open-roof version won’t require any extra stiffening.
Caterham is debating whether to launch the coupe or convertible first, and the other will follow as the second model. We’ll see the first car in 2013, before it goes on sale in 2015. A new factory will build the cars (Ali says the car being sold as a kit carries too many negative connotations for new customers) and a location has yet to be decided upon, but it will be in the UK.
A racing version and a one-make series for the car are a given – ‘It has to be,’ says Ali, ‘otherwise it wouldn’t be a Caterham’ – but the majority of the 2500 units built each year will be road cars. As for what it'll be called, Ali says he hasn’t even thought about whether this new Caterham model will have a name, or whether it will be a number like the Seven.
The CAR verdict
It’s easy to scoff at Ali's plans, especially when his former employer (Ali was Lotus general manager from 2000-2005) made huge proclamations in 2010 for a five-model range, but is only now doing any significant work on the new Esprit.
However, for a brand that sells just 500 cars a year Caterham has huge global awareness, and its entry into Formula One (funded by Fernandes; its new 2012 car has a Renault engine, Red Bull’s 2012 KERS system and Red Bull’s 2011-spec gearbox) should only raise the company’s profile higher by the time the new road car is launched in 2015.
The emerging markets Caterham is targeting should have matured somewhat by then too, creating customers that want a raw driving experience. Caterham is not planning to abandon its values either, as some think Lotus is doing. Yes, it’s effectively doubling the weight of the Seven, but 1000kg is still very light for a closed-cockpit sports car.
And nor is it a last-ditch move, as Lotus’s five-car play is; Caterham has been profitable for a while, made record profits in 2010, and should soon post similar numbers for 2011. The new Caterham model might not be to the majority’s taste, but that’s never been the case, and long may that continue.
Ali: ‘Yes, we’re in F1, but let’s not get carried away. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I want to keep it low-key. If we get carried away, we lose what Caterham’s about and we lose our identity. We’ve got to keep that.’