2013 Eve

As I write this it's New Year's eve, and about to be 2013, the year the Mayan's (not!) said would never come; I'm glad I avoided falling off the end of the world or perishing in some major astrophysical cataclysm. Truth be told if they had been right I would have been severely 'upset' for the world to end before the Seven arrived. I may still fall off the fiscal cliff but I'll be in good company and then it will be open season on politicians, about time too ... So, in the spirit of new beginnings, new year's resolutions etc., here are some of my predictions for 2013: The Seven will finally be delivered, despite the continued silence from Leafield. The fiscal cliff will turn into the fiscal ditch. Texas will vote 'no' to secession from the Union, but it will be close. The UK will vote 'no' to secession from the EU, but it will be close. Scotland will vote 'no' to secession from the UK when they realize they will have to fund their own social benefits. Despite huge efforts gun control will once again sink on the rock of the NRA. Rangers will win the Scottish third division. Liverpool will not win the Barclay's Premier League. Have a wonderful 2013.

The number 7, part 1

Seven, as we know, is considered a lucky number, but in motor racing it has a chequered history, so to speak ... In the motor racing world of the UK in the early sixties the number 7 was well known as the chosen number of England's great white racing hope, (now Sir) Stirling Moss. It could be said of Sir Stirling that he was not the luckiest driver who ever challenged for the world championship. Having finished second four times (once by a single point) and third three times Moss is frequently known as 'the greatest driver never to win the world championship'. He was certainly driving number 7 on the fateful day of April 23rd, 1962 when he suffered a near fatal accident at Goodwood in Rob Walker's privateer Lotus 19. While trying to un-lap himself, after losing time in the pits with gearbox problems, he was forced off the road onto wet grass and hit the barriers at high speed and without seat belts (which, believe it or not, were not mandatory at the time). He was cut from the wreckage and unconscious in hospital for a month and temporarily paralyzed on his left side for six more. Upon his eventual attempted return to racing the following year he decided he did not have the car control he once had and chose to retire; here is a link to his own account of the crash: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2226334/Sir-Stirling-Moss-82-relives-horrific-crash-50-years-ago-end-career.html The Seven car came by he number honestly, if not directly. Chapman originally allocated the 'Mark 7' identifier to a semi-stillborn 1954 project commissioned by the French Clairmonte brothers. As it happened the brothers took possession of a partially completed chassis and finished it themselves, calling it the Clairmonte special, which left an open number in the Lotus sequence. Chapman moved on with the Chapman / Costin designed Mark 8, and then the very successful Marks 9 and 10. By 1955 the true predecessor to the 7, the Mark 6 had ceased production after more than 100 cars had been built and delivered. Lotus' major seller became the Mark 11, the superb small sports racer, a few of which were delivered for road use but which was largely aimed at, and more suitable for, the racing market. Chapman, realizing that there was pent-up demand for a simple, light road car that could also be raced, a true successor to the Mark 6, penned the 7. In many ways the 7 is an amalgamation of the Mark 6 and the ideas seen in the Eleven, a legend was truly born. The first 7 was delivered to well-known Lotus racer Edward Lewis in September 1957 and the rest is history ...  

Jules-Albert de Dion

Comte Jules-Albert De Dion was a French Noble and founder of the automobile manufacturer De Dion-Bouton. Although the name of the manufacturer has long since passed into history the name de Dion has been immortalized in a suspension system used in a few select performance cars. De Dion, however, was not the inventor of the suspension system that bears his name; that was invented in 1894, for use in the companies' Steam Tricycles, by the co founder of the De Dion-Bouton company Charles Trepardoux. As a concept the de Dion system, sometimes known as a de Dion tube, is a step above the solid (or 'live') rear axle, swing axles (ask an original VW Beetle or Chevelle owner) or the Hotchkiss drive, but is generally considered inferior to a true independent rear suspension (IRS). The system typically consists of a tubular beam that connects the two rear uprights and keeps the rear wheels parallel, as the tube carries no drive torque the system is sometimes referred to as a 'dead axle'. The system employs a chassis mounted differential and drive shafts and is located by various links. Its major advantage over a live axle is a significant reduction in the unsprung weight of the suspension due the chassis mounting of the differential and elimination of any requirement for universal or constant velocity joints in the main drive shaft. This gives a major improvement in handling if engineered correctly without the complexity of a fully independent rear suspension. As originally conceived by Chapman the Seven had a live axle and for many years after the Caterham assumption of the program this was sourced from the old Morris company; it was the unit used in the eminently forgettable Morris Ital, a car so bad it was sold by Morris into license production in Iran. In late 1983 it became clear that production of this unit was going to cease and several management and engineering personnel, in true British tradition, discussed their choices at a local pub, the King & Queen. The production live axles available that could conceivably fit within the dimensions required, even when modified, were minimal; and not promising from an engineering standpoint. Those present pondered the inevitable conclusion that to continue production of the Seven they would have to abandon the live axle. Adoption of a true independent rear suspension was discussed, and several present pushed for the idea, but the consensus was that development of an IRS would be a major undertaking for such a small company. One of the engineers, Reg Price, suggested the de Dion solution and, as he had worked out that the cost of such a system would be around 100 Pounds Sterling less than a true IRS, the idea was agreed by all present over a pint of beer. There were some historical precedents for the de Dion, some early Lotus Sevens had been fitted with the system and some racing Sevens had been converted, so the idea seemed to fit. Price and another engineer spent several months developing the system and the first production Caterham with a de Dion rear suspension debuted at the 1984 Birmingham Motor Show. The system is now standard on all Caterham's except the Superlight CSR, and certainly works very well, ask anyone who has driven the car. So the name of a French Count, who didn't invent a 120 year old suspension system, lives on in a Caterham ...  

Boxing Day

In most of the English speaking world the day after Christmas is known as 'Boxing Day'. In these days of rampant consumerism it has become the equivalent of 'black Friday' for the non US English speaking world. The true origins of the term are lost to antiquity, although theories abound. One theory holds that the term refers to the day following Christmas when servants were allowed to return to their families, each  bearing a box filled with their yearly bonus, presents and possibly even left over food. Another theory posits that it was the day that tradesmen traditionally collected money in boxes for their year of service; this was almost true in England when I grew up, my parents and every other family certainly made sure that the Postman, Milk Man, Bread Man etc. received some kind of tip at this time of year. Memory is vague as to whether those tips were also offered to the local storekeepers, the butcher, the baker (no candlestick maker in my time) the tobacconist etc. Yet another theory has it that the term refers to the metal boxes placed outside of churches in the Middle Ages to collect money for the poor on Saint Stephen's day, which in the Western Church is the day after Christmas. The latter, it seems to me, is the most likely explanation, if not my favorite explanation. My favorite explanation, which is as far from a scholarly accepted theory as can be, but which shows marvelous invention and a true understanding of child behavior; is that it is the day that children play with the boxes their presents came in, rather than the presents themselves. Now that is a theory that fits my bill ...  

Graham Nearn, the man who saved the Seven, twice

The late Graham Nearn, co-founder and long time CEO of Caterham Cars, was the man who saved the Seven ... twice. The story of Caterham's purchase of the Seven from Lotus in the early Seventies is well-known and I've touched on it myself elsewhere in this blog. But that was not the first time Nearn and Caterham came to the rescue of the Seven in the face of indifference from Colin Chapman and Lotus. Chapman made no real bones about that indifference and the reasons for it. Here is a quote from a 1978 interview conducted by Nearn himself with Chapman, about the origins of the Seven, that gives some insight into his thinking: "It was just about the simplest, most basic, lightest, highest performance little car that we could come up with for two people at minimum cost. When I first started motoring myself it was the car I dreamed about. I always only built cars for myself. If we really get down to it, the reason that Lotus has changed is that my taste in cars has changed as I get older." From this it is pretty clear that Chapman's mind and taste was always moving forward, so no wonder that by the late sixties the car held little interest for him. The car had remained in production and gone through two updates in the sixties despite this indifference largely because it sold well and was a source of cash that helped support Lotus' racing and other projects. That came under significant threat in 1966 when Lotus moved from their Cheshunt factory, near London, to Hethel, an abandoned airfield in Norfolk and the place they are now synonymous with. Soon after the move to Hethel was completed Lotus' Sales Director Graham Arnold told Nearn that Seven production was unlikely to be re-started in the new factory. As Caterham's major source of business was distributing and servicing Sevens this represented a potentially fatal blow, and demanded a bold response. Nearn's answer was to place an order for twenty cars, a quantity that represented a potential major cash injection at a difficult time. Lotus, when faced with this tempting offer, predictably took a pragmatic view, reversed position, and re-started production ... Thank you Mr. Nearn, for the first time ...

The 175 bhp plan

As I mentioned in a previous post Caterham gives you lots of choices. Chassis, engine, brakes, gearbox, final drive, suspension, roll bars, there are lots of things to think about.  It makes your head spin, in a good way. Jeff Sloan of British Auto Specialists, bless his heart, is doing his best to guide me in the right way. "Look", he says, with that tall knowing look that tall knowing people have, especially tall knowing people who have sold several hundred Caterham's and have that gravelly Texan voice, "stick with the standard engine until you get used to the car, then upgrade to something more powerful". I, with that wide-eyed clueless look that short people have, think this is undoubtedly good advice. Although the very, very short ugly 'devil me', sitting on my shoulder, might not fully agree ... So, the short guy (me), is taking the advice of the tall guy with the gravelly voice (Jeff), when it comes to engine choice, I'm going with the 175 bhp Duratec. That's the plan, and I'm sticking with it. Now down the road things can change, and that's when it can get very interesting. Jeff, bless his soul again, can sell me an upgrade to 210 bhp relatively cheaply. Not a bad deal right, 20% bump in horsepower, no change in weight, sounds like a good deal ... until that devil in disguise, Dick Brink, sends you an oh so seductive email that promises 300 bhp at a very reasonable cost. Dick, proprietor of Texas Motor Works, the US Birkin distributer, has developed a supercharger kit for Birkin's/Caterham's/Westfield's that promises relatively benign performance under normal driving conditions but it transforms into a monster when needed. Hmm, 210 or 300, this will take some thought ... happily I really do have some time. Is it any wonder I'm excited.

Because they can

There's an old joke or aphorism: when someone asks "how can they charge so much for xxxx?" (substitute your favorite over-priced product for xxxx), the answer is: "because they can". Perhaps Apple comes to mind; although, in the interest of full disclosure, this comment comes from a self-confessed Apple fanatic. Anyway, this kind of pricing power usually comes from a vastly superior product or a product with no real direct competition, enter Caterham where they have the luxury of being perceived as the true heir to the Lotus Seven. In addition to the ability to set premium pricing there's another characteristic to this kind of power, some companies suffer from it. some don't: that characteristic would be lousy customer service. In the case of Apple, a superior product is also matched with superior customer service, in fact the customer service is inherently part of Apple's superior product. Think of the Apple retail stores, with their highest sales per square foot of any retail outlet in the world, and where the customer experience is unmatched. Compare this to my nine months of silence with Caterham and you can sum up my customer experience as: 'not so much'. Now, admittedly, this opinion comes at two times removed  from a direct experience, you work through your dealer and your dealer works through Caterham USA. But, and this is a big but, I am still waiting for any kind of explanation as to why shipping my car is three months later than originally promised. And why, I kept having to ask when will it ship with no proactive attempt to tell me what was going on ... I can speculate why, Caterham relocated their facilities over the summer, but speculation is not the same as knowing. Sending an email does not take long, and a phone call not much longer, so what exactly is the problem. Well, in my opinion (and as recently reminded by my brother in a conversation on this subject); in the words of the aphorism, they don't bother 'because they can'. It was ninety-nine percent certain that I wasn't going away as a customer, I wanted a Caterham and they had a substantial deposit, so they could take advantage, and by golly they did. In thinking about this in the larger world, this is probably true of most of their customers, they choose Caterham for very specific reasons, just like me. But this is clearly opportunity lost, and it speaks to the things Caterham will need to do if they become something more than a niche manufacturer of very fast nostalgic sports-cars with limited appeal. The Tony Fernandes purchase, followed by the announcement over the summer of Caterham's agreement with Renault to revive the Alpine brand and jointly produce cars, is great news; it further insures the long-term survival of the brand. But, something tells me that exposure to a larger customer base with a wider set of choices to make in the marketplace will soon lead to failure if the company does not become a lot more customer centric. Really Tony, take it from someone who has thirty years of experience in a very high-end service business, it does not take long to send an email, and a little bad news is much better than deafening silence. This is a lesson never learned or quickly forgotten by most of those businesses with monopolistic advantages; and the corollary to that is when the monopoly goes away, so does the business. Remember, just because you can, doesn't mean you should; arrogance or indifference does not sell well when there's a choice ...

What’s in a K-ter-em

Visit the Caterham web site, either Caterham UK or Caterham USA, and you will see that there are choices. Choices, choices, there are choices (to paraphrase Sir Richard Burton on the album 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'; I know, I know, it's a pretty obscure reference), not just choices in the basic car, but also in things like engine and gearbox. For a gearhead like me this is not bewildering or even challenging, it's heaven: how unique can I make my Caterham; as I tell my wife, at the end of the day, all it takes is money. Caterham are smart, the basic car is good but there is plenty of opportunity to upgrade it with an a la carte menu; Gearbox: 5 speed, 5 speed with long first gear, 6 speed, 6 speed sequential. Brakes: standard discs, ventilated, 4 pot calipers. Suspension: Standard, wide, superlight. Engine: 175 HP, 210 HP, 260 HP. Seat Belts: Inertia reel, 4 point harness, 6 point harness. etc. etc. ... all it takes is money. I've made my choices, now I have to live with them.

The Call

This week I got the call. No, not the call of nature, the call of the wild, the call to ministry or even the call to arms, (and actually, the call was an email) but this week I got the call from Jeff Sloan at British Auto Specialists to say that I have a VIN. Oh, and bye the way, now would be a good time for me to transfer a little money for the privilege (I quickly hasten to add that I'm having a little fun at Jeff's expense, he told me long ago about the terms on which you deal with Caterham, so that part was not unexpected at all). Having a VIN is another milestone along the 45 year dream, it means that somewhere in bowels of the Caterham factory parts are being assembled, bodywork painted and boxes stuffed in preparation for shipping. This being Caterham, it takes a lot less time to write about it than it does to actually make this happen, shipping will take place some time in the next few weeks, nobody is making commitments, especially not with the holidays fast approaching. But, it does represent progress after six months of silence. What a way to run a railroad ...