Published: 00:02, 01 August 2017
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 that vehicle: a two-seater, lightweight sports car with a range of engines.
Caterham is punching high and can back it up with cars capable of offering serious performance.
All their cars are built in Dartford and an impressive amount of attention to detail is lavished on each and every one.
Engines are sourced elsewhere, but are carefully examined, tuned and reworked to ensure they are as good as can be.
The Caterham factory, in Kennet Road, 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 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.
It is widely known that their cars are available in kit form and chief executive Graham Macdonald showed us the process that occurs before the kit is shipped to the customer.
We are 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,” Mr 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.”
There have been many British carmakers producing hand-made vehicles through the years.
Although always keen to impress, many have failed to last.
But Caterham is different.
Its latest accounts show it returned to operating profit in the last six months of last year after “a focus on cost control in all areas of the business”.
After revealing losses of more than £20 million in 2015, caused by a mothballed deal with French manufacturer Renault, it is avoiding many of the pitfalls that usually accompany small-scale, low-volume manufacturers.
Caterham Cars still hold dear the original ideals set by Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars, who designed the original Lotus Seven before the rights to make the vehicle were bought by Caterham in 1973.
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.
Founded in 1973 by Graham Nearn, when he bought the rights to make the Seven, Caterham has been producing cars at Kennet Road, Dartford, since 1987.
Not only is the Caterham adapting to the demands of today’s fluctuating motoring markets, it is also 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 the 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.
An earlier version of this article stated that Colin Chapman was founder of Caterham Cars. He was, in fact, founder of the Lotus Seven, the rights to which were later bought from him by Caterham in 1973. We apologise for the error and are happy to make this clarification.
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