Six steps to survival by Britain’s boutique car makers, CAR+ September 2015

Published: 04 September 2015

► Surviving in Britain's car industry
► Six step how-to survive guide 
► Hints and tips from the bosses 

The UK’s low-volume luxury and sports car makers are famed as much for their financial soap operas as their global appeal. Aston Martin went bankrupt seven times in the 20th century, while Lotus’s car division has endemically lost money. But new technology, wiser heads and a smarter focus on costs could finally be mopping up the red ink; production is at an all-time high. We consulted Caterham, BAC, Rolls-Royce, newcomer Elemental and more to draw up these Six Steps to Survival.  

1) Don’t bank on Blighty

Last year Caterham sold a pitiful 32 cars in the UK, down from 192 in 2010. But it wasn’t a disaster because of record exports of 429 cars. The three-cylinder 160, which qualifies as a kei car, has been a Japanese hit. This year it expects to sell a near-record 500 cars. 

Aston Martin’s boss Andy Palmer (right) says lack of foreign buyers were partly to blame for Aston’s past precariousness: of the 70,000-odd cars the firm has ever made, only half have sold abroad. And Lotus’s biggest market is now Anglophile Japan.

2) Know thyself and thy selling point

Caterham admits its age-old, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive ex-Lotus set-up isn’t the ideal dynamically but it works. ‘It’s the compromises that make it such a fun car to drive,’ chief technical officer Simon Lambert says. McLaren won’t even do a 2+2 while customers are still figuring out the supercar brand. ‘I don’t want to start diluting it,’ boss Mike Flewitt (left) says.

3) Personalise to make ‘em pay more

BAC’s Mono single-seater costs £125,000, but customers can pay up to £300,000, according to its COO Mark Rayner: ‘We tailor a whole lifestyle around the person.’ Extras include steering wheels moulded for a driver’s palms. BAC started production in 2011, will make 20-25 cars this year and expects to be in profit in 2016. Rolls-Royce has this customisation down to a fine art. ‘We are building cars far beyond
£1 million,’ CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös says.

4) Keep it simple

Newcomer Elemental’s track-focused RP1 two-seater has no doors or roof, and that keeps a lid on costs: fewer legislative hurdles, no air-con, no demisting and no door seals. ‘Do your own and you’ll end up with something inferior costing who knows what,’ finance director Jeremy Curnow (below) says. They also have a cost-effective solution to sourcing modern dials – the same configurable digital instrument pod as used by the Ariel Atom.

5) Don’t build your own engine

That way lies death through debt – just ask old TVR. ‘We cannot afford to build our own engines,’ Lotus boss Jean-Marc Gales says, with an in-house V8 plan shelved. Lotus uses Toyota units, Ariel takes Honda’s, a revived Bristol will use a BMW powerplant, Aston is tapping AMG and for virtually everyone else it’s Ford. Well done then to McLaren for hitting profitability with its own 3.8-litre V8. 

6) Make friends with the Sims

Finalise the car on a computer and then build it. Jaguar Land Rover is pushing for virtual sign-off of all new models by 2020, saving millions on prototypes. It works for start-ups too. ‘In the 1990s a workstation was £50,000 and software £100,000. Now 3D software is £3000,’ says Elemental’s Guy Colborne. All design decisions are taken around a PC and when you get your pieces ‘they all fit’. Ta-dah!

UK low-volume production, 2009 vs 2014

Aston Martin 2649 in 2009  vs  3967 in 2014
Bentley 3596  vs  10,614
Caterham 348 vs 461
Lotus 1618  vs  1492
McLaren 101  vs  1751
Morgan 665  vs 698
Rolls-Royce 870  vs  4381
Total  9847  vs 23,364