Road Cars

You must always be careful what you wish for, but right now it seems that the takeover of Caterham Cars by Team Lotus Enterprises is good news all round. It’s good for Tony Fernandes who has always wanted a foot in the road car camp because it broadens his sphere of operation, but it also might be a handy brand to have at his disposal if the law courts tell him he’s no longer allowed to use the Lotus brand. Don’t rule out the possibility of a Caterham Formula 1 car if that happens.

What really excites me, however, is what it means for Caterham itself. During my brief, spectacularly unsuccessful career in the late 1980s money markets, the standard city boy uniform was a Porsche. Not me: I had a 2CV and a Caterham. And because I was young, stupid and didn’t know how to drive properly, I crashed it at Goodwood and couldn’t afford to repair it. Since then I’ve owned another, raced a third, built a fourth and driven countless others. They are in my blood.

Which is why I have watched the renaissance of the marque in recent years with undisguised admiration. Under the steady hand of Ansar Ali and his team, Caterham has been rebuilt into a globally renowned marque with thriving race series all over the world. Question is, where to now for its road cars? Having had its fingers scorched when last it tried to broaden the company’s appeal with a second model line (remember the Caterham 21?Anyone?), it will need now to tread cautiously.

But an opportunity exists, in theory at least. Caterham Cars came into existence in 1973 because Colin Chapman didn’t want to continue building what was by then an already 14-yearold Lotus 7 and Graham Nearn spotted an opportunity. The Lotus Elise is almost exactly the same age now as the Seven was then and features nowhere in Group Lotus’s future product plans, yet what Caterham needs is a credible product true to its values but rather
more user-friendly than a Seven. You can see where I am going with this. If Team Lotus and Group Lotus put down the boxing gloves for long enough to see the sense of it, a Caterham Elise appears to kill a flock of birds with a single stone.

Caterham is not the only small British manufacturer to be taken over since the last issue, but the circumstances in which Bristol found itself under new
management could scarcely have been more different. Unlike Caterham, which is a thriving business ripe for expansion, Bristol was effectively moribund even before the receivers were called in. Now it has been sold to a company bearing the name of another great marque from times gone by, Frazer Nash, and time alone will tell what, if anything, will be made of it.

The story of Bristol’s decline is a difficult one to tell, not least because of its almost total aversion to letting the press test its cars. In 23 years I never managed it. But while some people with opinions worth listening to lauded them (Simon Draper and the late Leonard Setright to name but two) even an outside observer could see what little product existed was antiquated, expensive and a world removed from the massively funded, state-of-the-art machines bearing the Rolls-Royce and Bentley names.

Their example suggests very clearly that what is required to breathe fresh air into these brands is not just investment measurable in billions combined with an innate understanding of what a modern product from the marque should be, but also the technical expertise and equipment to make it happen. It is not clear if or how Frazer Nash will be able to deliver this.

What should a modern Bristol be? To me, it should be the ultimate long-distance gentleman’s carriage: less ostentatious than a Rolls, less sporting than a Bentley, more discreet, timeless and longer-legged than both. It would need to do at least 500 miles between fills, doubling what you’d get from most similar cars, achieved by the fitment of a 120-litre fuel tank and a large capacity, seamlessly smooth, torque-laden V8 diesel engine of the type all the large German firms now make. For sales in diesel-averse markets like the US and China, petrol-electric hybrid power would be a necessary compromise. Its ‘three Rs’ would be ride, refinement and range. And yes, it is a little hard to see right now.

But perhaps no harder than Jaguar putting its C-X75 supercar concept into production. Back in the December issue, I reported seeing it at the Paris motor show and concluded that it was ‘just a concept car and that any production version is inconceivable in the next five years, if at all’.

It seems my visionary skills are short-sighted. Jaguar is putting the C-X75 into production for 2013, in a run of 250 cars to be sold for £700,000 featuring a hybrid powertrain capable of accelerating it to 100mph in a Bugatti-rivalling 5.5sec, yet offering emissions as low as 100g/km.

And outlandish as it seems, I am sure that this is exactly what Jaguar will deliver. It may be two decades ago, but the scars left by Jaguar’s only previous outright supercar, the XJ220, remain.

This, you may remember, was the star of the 1988 Birmingham Motor Show. It was a vast and beautiful thing, containing a 6-litre, V12, 48-valve engine which would deliver its colossal power through all four wheels.

Except that’s not quite what happened. In between conception and delivery recession hit, and the engine that was going to be used was replaced by one of half the size with half the cylinders and a secret life in the back of an Austin Metro rally car. Turbochargers meant the power was still all there and the XJ220 really would get very close to the top speed suggested by its name, but it was sufficiently changed from its original description to enable depositors facing uncertain and straitened circumstances to bail out of their commitments. They took years to sell and many for vastly less than the £403,000 advertised, and their reputation never recovered.

Jaguar cannot let that happen to the C-X75 (above) and it knows it. The specification is declared and, outrageous though it is, Jaguar must have total confidence in its ability to deliver exactly what it promises this time. Anything else would be lunacy. Best of all, a sizeable chunk of them will be racing cars, raising the possibility of Jaguar returning to Le Mans in force by the middle of the decade.

And talking of concept cars making it into production, I recently sat down with Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann, who confirmed that the ultra-light Sesto Elemento concept would indeed be built. He also confirmed that the production car would share the concept’s astonishing sub-tonne kerb weight and, thanks to V10 power, reach 0-60mph in 2.5sec. There are just three snags: only 20 will be built, none will be homologated so will be for track use only, and each will cost around €2 million… He does not foresee having trouble finding the customers.