Caterham customers say life’s too short as sports car maker basks in buoyant used car sales

Time 7:09 am, July 7, 2020

Caterham inspires such passion for its sports cars that a coronavirus patient decided while in hospital that he just had to have one!

The CEO of the manufacturer, Graham Macdonald, recounted the tale when he appeared on Car Dealer Live on July 6, saying: ‘There was one instance where a customer had been struck down with the disease, in his hospital bed recovering and said “That’s it – I want to buy a car!”‘

Since the reopening of showrooms, Caterham has benefited from pent-up demand for the iconic vehicle – mostly for used models, said Macdonald.

‘It’s been particularly buoyant. We’re taking new car orders, but we seem to be selling an awful lot more of used cars,’ he said.

‘So I think there is a pent-up demand. I think people who have thought about buying the likes of a 7 in the past but never quite got round to it have suddenly realised “Do you know what? Life’s too short – I’m going to go out and enjoy it while I can, and I want it now while the sun’s shining and not wait six months until I can have a new one delivered.”

‘It’s been refreshing, and long may it continue!’

Caterham – whose cars are built in Dartford – has 130 staff, although some 96 per cent of them were furloughed, and it produced 550 cars in 2019, recording a £22m turnover.

The interview covered a wide range of topics and something host James Batchelor wanted to know early on was if there was such a thing as a typical Caterham customer.

Macdonald said: ‘I think – without wishing to put down my sales staff, who do an excellent job and happen to work particularly hard at this time of life where we’re coming out of the virus like everyone else in the industry – we’re in a fortunate position where our competition is probably not another car, it’s more like a motorhome or a jet-ski or a house extension or a new kitchen that the other half wants in the house.

‘So if someone walks in our showroom they have a pretty good idea of what they want, and I tend to split them into two categories: there’s one that’s your Sunday driver who wants the more traditional models and he will keep it in his garage and he will clean it regularly and it’ll be polished very regularly and cherished, and then he’ll take it out down the country lanes when the sun’s shining, he won’t take it out in the rain.

‘Then at the other end of the spectrum, you have your complete speed freaks who purely want a 7 because maybe they’ve done track days in their 911s or Boxsters and they’ve been overtaken by this silly little kit car and got mightily fed up by it, so they come in and we sell those kind of cars to people who just want to do track days or racing.’

Turning to the important and lucrative Japanese market, Macdonald said it was the largest for Caterham outside the UK, with more than 100 cars being shipped there every year.

He agreed with Batchelor’s points about how much the Japanese like the tradition and heritage of the UK.

He said: ‘We find bizarrely that if you hark back to the early days of the ’70s a lot of the Caterhams came in aluminium with green or yellow or black wings, and we still ship traditionally an awful lot of cars to Japan in basic aluminium with green wings or yellow wings.

‘Not many of them go painted at all, whereas in every other market 99 per cent of cars are painted with some lairy paint scheme with stripes or bright colours, that sort of thing.’

Batchelor highlighted the 7’s popularity – how it was still going strong decades after originally being built, even after designer Colin Chapman had decided he’d done all that he wanted to with it and that it was, to his mind, old hat – and Macdonald agreed wholeheartedly, saying with obvious feeling and passion for the vehicle: ‘Our intention and my intention as the CEO of this business, having been here now in this role for eight years, is to make sure we keep producing the 7.

‘Irrespective of what else happens within the business, the 7 I think will always have a place in everyone’s hearts and we will always be able to sell it in some kind of numbers that will justify us building it.’

Something major that is looming and unavoidable, though, is the 2035 ban on new petrol and diesel engines. Was that going to be a major headache for Caterham, Batchelor posited.

‘If I’m honest, it’s not something I’m wondering or pondering about at this moment in time,’ replied Macdonald.

‘For me, it’s still 15 years away. But as we sit here just now, we’ve looked at electric cars and the problem we have just now is using the current battery packs and motors.

‘We have a car that weighs 450 to 500 kilos, the batteries would add another 300 kilos and you would be looking at £100,000 RRP just to cover the cost of the battery and power plants, so for us it’s not viable.

‘But I think in 15 years’ time the development that is going on in that market means that someone somewhere will be looking to develop batteries, develop motors, and we will be able to buy those and package them in our cars.’

Lightness and agility are the ethos of the Caterham 7 and Macdonald said that things were still uncertain, adding that there may yet even be legislation that would allow Caterham to sell cars with internal combustion engines in small numbers.

In the meantime, though, he said: ‘If you add 70 per cent additional weight into a Caterham 7 it completely destroys the ethos of the product.

‘It’s about light weight and agility, and until we can do that we will resist joining the electrification bandwagon, because I don’t feel it’s right for the product.

‘We could do it, as I say, but it’s got a weight penalty, it would have a cost penalty and I’m sure there might be people out there that would buy it, but I think there’s an awful lot of people who would go “Do you know what? I just don’t see the point because it’s not a Caterham any more.”‘

The worry, as far as Macdonald was concerned, was that in 15 years the policy-making politicians coming through would be the youngsters of today who had never opened a bonnet or tinkered with an engine, so would be unable to understand and appreciate the fun of a car such as a Caterham, or indeed that they were driven on limited-mileage insurance policies, so not comparable to an average day car.

Watch the interview in full by clicking on the main image.

You can watch all of our Car Dealer Live interviews by clicking here

John Bowman's avatar

John has been with Car Dealer since 2013 after spending 25 years in the newspaper industry as a reporter then a sub-editor/assistant chief sub-editor on regional and national titles. John is chief sub-editor in the editorial department, working on Car Dealer, as well as handling social media.

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