TAKING people back to how motoring started and putting smiles on their faces – that’s what lies at the heart of iconic manufacturer Caterham Cars. Originally built as the Lotus Seven, the modern Caterham line-up is based around variants of the Seven – a two-seater, lightweight sports car with a range of engines.
It goes from the Seven 160 powered by a 600cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine to the 620R, which uses a supercharged 2.0-litre Ford engine and can hit 60mph in 2.79 seconds – around the same as the famous Bugatti Veyron. Caterham is punching high and can back it up with cars capable of offering serious performance.
All the cars are built in Dartford, Kent, and an impressive amount of attention to detail is lavished on each and every vehicle.
Engines are sourced elsewhere but are carefully examined, tuned and reworked to ensure they’re as good as can be.
The Caterham factory is a veritable treasure trove of engine parts, spare wheels and everything in between. The cars lie at the core of the operation, though, and Caterham recently changed from line assembly to cell assembly, meaning that each technician is assigned their own car, and once it’s completed they put their nameplate on the chassis.
The average build time of a Caterham is around 40 hours. However, the more powerful models in the range – the supercharged 620, for instance – take up to 50.
Of course, it’s widely known that Caterham cars are available in kit form – we’ve even built one ourselves, as featured in issue 18 of Workshop – and chief executive Graham Macdonald showed us the process that occurs before the kit is shipped to the customer.
We’re immediately distracted by a loud drumming noise in the workshop, however.
‘What you heard just then was the machine putting the chassis number directly on the car – they all come to us in blank aluminium,’ Macdonald tells us. ‘They’ll then have different exhaust holes drilled, depending on which engine is due to go in – twin outlets are for the most powerful versions. It then goes off to paint and will come back for what I call “safety critical” fitting – looms, brakes and fuel pipes, etc – then sent to the customer for final assembly.’
Indeed, Macdonald himself is one of those who have chosen to build the car. ‘I built my own Academy car,’ he confirms. ‘I thought, “I’m going to do exactly what my customers do and build my own.” I actually got a spare bit of the warehouse here and built it there.
‘Everyone says to me, “You must have had help”, but I genuinely did it all myself after work in the evenings – though I would get the engineers in the next morning to check whether I’d done everything right. I had a little guidance, for sure, but physically I did it all myself.’
Core elements of the car, such as the fuel lines, brake pipes and pedal box, are fitted before delivery, while the remaining parts are packed and labelled so that the building process is made a little easier. Caterham reckons that building your own car at home should take between 80 and 100 hours – although a technical team is just a call away should anything prove too tricky to fit. Once assembled, cars are tested then declared road-legal – simple.
Back in the factory, we see the cars split at the end of the initial assembly line – those that are destined for customers to build themselves are sent off, while those due to be assembled in the factory are assigned a technician.
The new cell system of building should mean that cars are built more efficiently, though there has been a change-over period to deal with.
‘The younger ones who have been used to just building certain bits of a car have got to learn the whole thing,’ Macdonald tells us.
Indeed, there are a fair few young faces dotted around the workshop. Caterham cars remain very much hand-built, something that their buyers – varied as they are in their particular needs – are most keen on.
‘We have the buyers who have always wanted a Caterham, those who initially buy a low- horsepower model and then run it for a year and think to themselves, “Actually, I want a bit more power” and so they’ll change it,’ Macdonald explains. ‘Then we have those people who use cars as toys, and will buy a car for use on the track and chop and change between models.
‘Finally, we have the polishers. They’ll keep the car for years, bring it out on sunny days and polish it – but it’ll never see rain. The cars will be kept in almost pristine condition. It’s everyone to their own after all – and we love them all.’
Despite rising costs – ‘being a small manufacturer, we don’t have the same buying power as larger ones, and while we try to retain the costs, we do find that they go up’ – people keep returning to the Caterham name time and time again. The popularity of the brand is at an all-time high. Its limited-edition Sprint, for instance, sold out almost immediately, while customers are walking into dealerships and happily joining the end of a multi-year waiting list just to get their hands on one.
‘I think we’re doing a pretty good job so far, and we’ve got an order book that is full to February 2018, so we’re almost 12 months forward and yet it doesn’t seem to be denting demand, customers are still ordering cars.’
He adds: ‘It’s almost seen as a positive thing. People think, “Wow, I need to get my order in quick.” It’s a great position to be in – we took over 600 orders in 2016, and we only built 504 cars.’
Many customers are choosing to part with big bucks on some of Caterham’s fastest cars. ‘We sell a lot of 620s – and they’re £50,000 cars. There was a week when we sold four of these, and a quarter of a million pounds-worth of sales in one week for us is a big deal.’
Motorsport remains at the heart of Caterham, with a range of series taking place each year. ‘We have six series and nearly 200 racers – so we’ve got a real amount of competition. The way it works with a ladder system means that all you have to do is keep upgrading your Caterham race car. You keep the same car for four years.’ Each racing series offers something different, with entry-level Academy races giving people the chance to enter competitions with similarly matched racers.
Top of the series is the Seven 420R, offering drivers more speed than any other Caterham race.
‘We have customers who want to race, those who want to track and those who just want to potter around – they’re really varied.’
How does Macdonald think a Caterham should be treated, though? ‘It’s about using them. If you’ve got a car like this, you need to use it. Whether it’s a Caterham or a classic car, it shouldn’t just be sat in storage.’
We can’t help but agree with him. He’s not been one to shy away from using one of his cars as a daily driver, either. The little two-seaters are notoriously exposed to the elements, with the plastic roof letting in gusts and gales when travelling at speed.
‘I drove it back to Crawley from a track session recently and chanced it with the weather. Then, in rush hour, it started raining. While that’s fine when you’re doing 60mph on the motorway, when you’re sat in traffic the car starts filling up! I managed to dive into Gatwick South terminal – underneath the monorail – and was just about able to raise the roof.’
He’s certainly practising what he preaches!
The idea behind the Caterham entry-level Academy racing series is that drivers are able to pitch up, race and drive home all in the same car.
Macdonald said: ‘We still have a number of our competitors drive into the race track, race the cars and then go home – the cars will also happily run on the same set of tyres for the entire season. Depending on how many track sessions you do, you may need a second set, but in theory they’ll last you a whole season.’
Each area of the workshop reveals hidden gems, with every bay kept meticulously tidy. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place – it’s instantly noticeable that people are proud of what they do and where they work. However, how has a company that relies on traditional mechanics and building techniques adapted to the modern motoring world?
Macdonald has an answer for that, too. ‘Our aim as a team here is to try our very best to comply with legislation as it changes to ensure that we can keep this the very best that it is.’
With autonomous assistance at the forefront of modern car safety, Caterham seems content with using the technology of the past – but that isn’t a bad thing.
Not only is the company adapting to legislation, it’s adapting to customer demand, too. Whereas 20 years ago Caterham cars would have been built to a relatively strict format, today the company can tailor each vehicle specifically to the needs of the buyer – something reflected by other manufacturers.
McLaren, for instance, has its in-house customisation brand MSO, while Aston Martin has recently launched Q. Caterham’s own is called its Signature Scheme.
This new area for Caterham was recently celebrated with a partnership with Harrods. The Signature Series offers buyers a wealth of customisation options, including a range of different interior leather selections as well as varied nose cone choices and dashboard trims.
You can even have the car’s rollover bar trimmed in leather.
Macdonald leads us to one particular car, finished in a deep burgundy colour. Its owner has specified a full titanium exhaust system as well as carbon race seats. Further through the workshop lies another bespoke car, this time with its tubular chassis painted yellow and its dashboard trimmed in race-spec Alcantara. Not just any old two-seater, then. It’s part of the way that Caterham has adapted to modern customer needs, and it’s a system that is obviously working well with its bulging order books. Caterham has an average annual output of around 500 cars, meaning that the little Dartford plant has to work very hard to meet demand.
As the year reaches its mid-point, it marks the middle of Caterham’s 60th-anniversary celebrations. The Sprint was released at the start of the year as an opening, so how will the company close its year? With another limited- edition model, according to Macdonald. ‘We’re in the planning stages for something set to come out at the end of the year – the Goodwood Revival Festival most likely – to form a bookend.
‘We’re still planning what to do exactly, but we know we’ll be celebrating the end of the anniversary at Goodwood.’
The classic racing event is a big deal for Caterham. ‘We always have a stand at Revival. I like it almost more than the Festival of Speed, I think that the way that everyone dresses up and the way that the classics battle it out on track is really good.’ The Seven Sprint was revealed at the last Revival event and, by the sounds of it, we’ll be seeing a new car at the next one. It, much like the Goodwood Revival, harks back to a bygone era, one not troubled by airbags or traction control.
There’s one thing that remains at the heart of Caterham Cars, however, and that’s fun. Macdonald feels the same, telling us: ‘It’s about fun and enjoyment – that’s what the product is all about. All right, the car is lightweight and has a great power-to-weight ratio too, but actually, what we want to get over to our customers is that it should be fun.
‘We try to get back to the basics of what driving is all about. Caterham cars bring you back to how motoring started – and it can’t help but put a smile on your face.’
From the very start of the building process, when the metal arrives in the factory for assembly and stamping, to the end, which sees fully-built cars sent off to customers, a sense of workmanship is very noticeable. There’s an amazing range of ages too, varying from new starters keen to get working to old boys who have seen the company change and grow.
There have been many British car makers producing hand-made vehicles through the years. Always keen to impress, many have failed to last. However, Caterham is different. It would appear that it’s going from strength to strength, avoiding many of the pitfalls that usually accompany small-scale, low-volume manufacturers.
Now with 60 years behind them, Caterham Cars still hold dear the original ideals set by Colin Chapman. Despite changes in legislation, they remain lightweight and – most importantly – exhilarating to drive. As the best companies do, Caterham is adapting to the times, refining its building process and offering a more personal experience than ever before.
With a brimming order book, customers queuing up to get their hands on a model and a thriving motorsport series, the future looks bright and fun indeed for Caterham.
Written by Jack Evans