Track Day

20 miles South West of Fort Worth along SR 377, on the edge of rolling terrain that will eventually turn into the Texas Hill Country, is the one horse town of Cresson. Ah but wait, one horse? Perhaps not, for if one passes through (even while blinking) with the car (or truck, this is Texas) windows rolled down the distinctive sound of multiple horses screaming can be heard on many a day. For Cresson is the home of Texas Motor Sport Ranch, a member owned race track not quite visible from the highway, designed for those with too much money, or a passion for fast cars (or more likely both) to test their metal and even occasionally bend it. The facilities are very well done, with two separate tracks of 1.7 and 1.3 miles that can be joined to produce a 3+ mile track, garages, skid pads, a clubhouse and even condos with the requisite 8 car garage on the bottom floor! As a separate, but massively important, positive there's very little to hit if you manage to get it all wrong, other than other maniacs with the same passion ... sounds ideal. And ideal it is ... My beautiful better half gifted me (for Christmas) with a day at the track accompanied by a fantastically patient instructor (thanks Neil) from the Apex driving school. Fun was very definitely had by all, with the possible exception of Neil, and we will do it again sometime. In the four half hour sessions the car held up, I didn't embarrass myself completely and despite indulging in one rear end puckering 'tank slapper', which I somehow managed to collect; I avoided hitting anything that wasn't there to hit, even the Formula Mazda's screaming past at twice my speed ... Smokin' ...

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 ...

Tony Fernandes and the fine art of leverage

As I've noted before Tony Fernandes is an interesting character, and one who seems to be very clever at cross leveraging the money spent by his various businesses in support of other businesses and ventures in his portfolio. A classic example of this is the 'Air Asia' shirt sponsorship (Air Asia is Fernandes' Kuala Lumpur based low cost airline) that is carried by Queens Park Rangers, his London UK Barclays Premier League soccer team. Based on the TV exposure that the Premier League receives every week, as the most successful soccer league in the world, this is undoubtedly great advertising for the airline and keeps the sponsorship money within the Fernandes empire, very smart. But there is another and, to my mind, more interesting example of using leverage, this one using business connections with third party companies outside of this cosy family: A review of the current Air Asia fleet and aircraft order status shows than in operation today they have 101 Airbus A320 aircraft and a further 79 of this type on order. In addition, Air Asia placed a new order in June 2011 for 200 Airbus A320neo aircraft ('neo' stands for 'new engine option') for a significant fleet expansion. Ultimately the fleet will total nearly 400 aircraft. By any stretch of the imagination these are very big numbers, with hundreds of Billions of dollars spent and committed for these airframes and the their engines. Most of the aircraft in the existing Air Asia fleet were ordered years ago but for the June 2011 fleet expansion order there were two competing airframes under consideration, the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX. Both of these aircraft were derived from existing airframes but improved with new systems and new engines. As you can see Air Asia chose to continue with the Airbus product despite strong competition from Boeing. For most commercial aircraft currently available the manufacturers offer the airline their choice of two or more competing engines, usually from different engine manufacturers, and these deals are typically signed separately from the airframe. For both of the Airbus aircraft, the A320 of the existing fleet and A320neo there are, as expected, two choices of engine: For the original A320 the choice is either the GE/SNECMA CFM56 engine (SNECMA is GE's French joint venture partner for this engine type) or the International Aero Engines (IAE) V2500. For the A320neo the choice is for the GE/SNECMA LEAP X engine or the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G. When faced with these choices, for the existing fleet and for the new aircraft, Air Asia chose the GE/SNECMA manufactured engine  ... so, despite the size of the orders gaining them some leverage on pricing, Air Asia has still made an enormous financial commitment to both Airbus and GE, and this is where it gets interesting. Now let us cut to the Caterham F1 team, a team crying out for major sponsorship to help defray the very considerable cost of competing in this high profile and extremely popular global competition, and the very visible sponsorship carried by the cars at the twenty different races each year ... Based on the QPR example above it's hardly surprising that Air Asia's name is prominent as the title sponsor on the cars (see the 'Goodwood' post below), but can it be a coincidence that three of the other major sponsor names appearing on the cars are EADS (Airbus' majority owner) Airbus itself and GE? See for yourself in this photograph: www.caterhamf1.com/gallery/2012/studio-photoshoot,-september-2012#image-(18) I will happily, and somewhat rhetorically, leave answering the question posed above to you, good reader, using what I am certain is your own impeccable judgement ... I suppose it's true to say that those major corporate marketing dollars do have to be spent somewhere, so why not spend them on sponsoring a F1 team. It is, after all, a competition that has enormous visibility, global exposure and is as high tech' as competition gets, not really a bad thing for the makers of airplanes and jet engines to be associated with. Of course one could argue that the still relatively new Caterham F1 team, which today is not really competitive and runs around close to the back of the field, is perhaps not the optimum choice of team for GE and Airbus to sponsor; and that would be a point difficult to argue against. But then maybe, just maybe, Caterham may have a little leverage  ... quid pro quo.

The US Grand Prix, take 2

So, despite my decision to sample the delights of Orlando due to what I believed to be excessively high pricing, 265,000 people decided I was an idiot and that the fleshpots of Austin and F1 racing were the place to be last weekend. The really good news being that the track was universally hailed as something special, the organization exemplary and the race itself being a hard fought battle between McLaren and Red Bull drivers Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Not the greatest of races but a solid finish nontheless for the Caterham boys, both drivers finishing a lap down from the winner in 17th and 18th places, but at least progress from their grid positions of 21st and 22nd. Meanwhile here in Orlando, while the F1 boys were qualifying on Saturday, we were taking in the sights of the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios, including one of the better ones below: On Sunday while Lewis was hunting down and finally passing Seb' we were wandering the back lots of Disney Hollywood Studios, getting nauseous on the Star Wars 3D ride and politely declining my wife and son's invitation to join them on the 'Tower of Terror'. I'm a wimp when it comes to rides, except in a fast car ...