Small ones are more juicy

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The banner headlines of the past 18 months read like the last days of Rome: “MG Rover collapses; 6,500 jobs go”; “Jaguar plant doomed - 1,000 face the dole”; “Peugeot quitting UK - 2,300 workers betrayed”; and, most recently, “900 jobs lost as Vauxhall axes shift”. Yet on two counts at least, and to the probable surprise of many, the end of the British car industry is not quite as nigh as all that.

First, other British car plants are either booming, or pottering along quite happily in high-ish gear. This year’s total car production, at around 1.6m, will be far closer to the industry’s peak - of 1.75m in the early 1970s - than its nadir of 880,000 during the industrial trench warfare of the early 1980s.

And second - well, take a stroll in the nondescript town of Barwell, set in the lush green countryside of Leicestershire. Pass the 800-year-old church and walk to the small industrial estate nearby, where you will find a small, utilitarian building with a handful of low, unfamiliar two-seater cars outside, looking at once mean and full of purpose. This is the home of Noble Automotive.

On its own, Noble does not account for many jobs - merely a handful when compared with MG Rover, Jaguar, Peugeot or Vauxhall. Neither does TVR, the Blackpool-based maker of brutishly fast, hair-chested sports cars; or Caterham, whose own tiny two-seaters are sold globally at the rate of 500 a year; or indeed Morgan, Westfield, Ariel or any other of the small carmakers scattered around the UK. Even the largest and perhaps most iconic of them all, Group Lotus, employs at most 1,250 people across the UK.

Put them all together, though, and one sees a universe parallel to that of mainstream British car manufacture: a unique industry-within-an-industry regarded with a mixture of puzzlement and envy by even the most prestigious carmakers from beyond the UK’s shores. Reliable estimates are difficult to come by, but it is likely that collectively, small carmakers and their suppliers provide as many jobs as all those lost at the big manufacturers in the past 18 months.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the British motor industry’s trade association, has identified more than 100 such small carmakers. No other country, not even the US, has remotely this many. But it is not so much the size of Britain’s cottage car industry that has the Mercedes, BMWs, Peugeots, Toyotas and Hondas of the wider automotive world looking on in bemusement; rather it is its vitality, ingenuity, innovation, flair, freewheeling talent and enthusiasm that has earnt their respect.

The reaction of such companies, who think nothing of deploying ₤10m and several dozen engineers on a few tweaks to a suspension system, starts to become more comprehensible the moment one steps through the door of Noble Automotive. The styling, steering, suspension, ride, handling and other key engineering departments are all gathered in just one small room. Remarkably closely, in fact. The twin elements of the styling department are of a mild blue-green and surmounted by a crop of slightly wavy, grey-black hair. The steering sensitivity assessment division protrudes from the sleeves of an unbuttoned, pale blue shirt. The crucial ride and handling development department perches atop two legs clad in blue jeans. The eyes, hands and backside of their owner are Noble Automotive.

They belong to Lee Noble, a 48-year-old Leicester native. Over the past five years, Noble’s light, mind-numbingly fast and agile cars have provoked such observations from the industry’s press as: “Be afraid, Ferrari”; “Noble is producing cars that can frighten the established players”, and “Is this Britain’s [Porsche] 911-beater?”

Noble himself agrees that, given all the resources of the big guns, companies like his should not really exist. That it does, he concedes, “is very difficult to explain”. He tries, nevertheless.

“I suppose we do produce something that, firstly, is well engineered and does exactly what it says on the label. And secondly we appear to have found a gap in the market. Other companies similar in concept to ours have gone under in the past by trying to be too clever; to get luxury too early and take on things like Corvettes. You have got to make something the big boys don’t.”

For Noble there are about to become two “somethings”. One is the M12 GTO mid-engined coupe, which has been the mainstay of the business since its introduction five years ago. It is a 352bhp projectile, weighing just 1,080kg (two-thirds the weight of a 911) and distinguished from more conventional “supercars” by a well-finished but simple interior, bereft of all the usual luxury sports car bells and whistles except those directly related to driver comfort and dynamic function. Later this year Noble will move distinctly further upmarket, when it delivers the M15, a yet faster - standstill to 100mph in less than 10 seconds - larger and more comprehensively equipped machine. The cars will be sold alongside each other: ₤49,950 for an entry-level M12 and ₤75,000 for the M15, firmly into Porsche price territory.

But Noble does not seek to tread on Stuttgart’s toes. Were both cars to achieve worldwide sales much over 300 units next year Noble would be not so much excited as apprehensive. “We fully intend to keep a lid on volumes. The core of the business is 200 to 300 a year and I see no reason in the world to change it. Sure, if Porsche didn’t exist we’d sell more than 300 a year. But Porsche has always existed and in a way it’s quite a different animal. Our cars are more focused in terms of handling and ability.”

Despite its soaring reputation, Noble is one of the smallest net contributors to UK specialist car-making jobs. “We - that’s me, another guy on a computer who draws the chassis, and two more on the bodywork - design and build the prototypes. We sort it, make it drive well, and make it look pretty.” But what Noble doesn’t do at Barwell is actually build the production cars. “They’re made in South Africa. I don’t want the hassle of having 150 assembly guys. Too many of the other small carmakers are so busy trying to make the cars that they don’t have time to fix faults in design, development or quality.”

Given the size of his much bigger rivals’ research and development efforts, Noble derives considerable satisfaction from being little more than a one-man band. “Basically, it really is just me. Just through experience I know what feels right.”

So he has a double first in automotive engineering from somewhere such as Cranfield University, then?

“To be honest, no. I was useless academically: absolutely bloody hopeless. I’m self-taught - I’ve been messing around with cars since the early 1980s. I started work as an apprentice auto-electrician. I was bored stiff. Then I had a motorbike accident which put me out for 12 months, and I couldn’t face going back.”

Instead, Noble bought himself a Hillman Imp for a few pounds and had some fun making it go faster and better. Gradually, fixing, repairing and improving mainly classic cars evolved into a business. The experience was invaluable, he says, in building up his practical expertise. “In the course of working on classic cars you learn decades of other people’s ideas; finding out by reputation and for yourself what is good, and what is bad.”

By 1990 he had confidence enough to start building his own cars under a name known by very few - but regarded with respect, and not a little awe, by British enthusiasts: Ultima. Sold by Noble to his friend Ted Marlow - both are spare-time racing drivers - Ultima is now based at nearby Hinckley, and makes more than 100 cars a year. All look as if they took the wrong turn at Le Mans and became road-going by mistake. Light, in the Noble tradition, they are typically powered by large US V8 engines of 500-600bhp. It is the Ultima - rather than Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche or any other of the auto-industry’s glitterati - that for years has quietly held the world road-car record for going from 0-100mph and back again: just 9.4 seconds.

At Caterham’s factory at Dartford, Kent, Ansar Ali is another member of the world of freewheeling, emotive engineering. In January 2005, Ali, an engineer who cut his teeth at Ford and Group Lotus, staged a management buy-in of the company making the Caterham 7. This was a car that - to the casual onlooker - has changed not at all since the late Colin Chapman wheeled one out for the first time, almost exactly 50 years ago. Now, after a difficult transition, the factory’s 50 production employees are still churning out the tiny, basic but shatteringly fast open two-seaters, half of which find their way to markets overseas.

“The attraction to me of buying it was the nature of the brand. It’s a unique product, still very true to Chapman’s philosophy of performance through light weight.” That said, the latest models boast a performance level - as well as price-range - that Chapman would struggle to recognise. Fully built (the cars are also available as kits), the range starts at ₤12,950, but tops out at ₤37,000 for the flagship CSR 260. That might sound an absurd amount for a car lacking the luxury of doors. But there is not a Ferrari short of the top-of-the-range Enzo that the 500kg, Cosworth-powered mini-projectile will not out-drag or out-corner.

Given its lack of interest in greatly increased volumes, “Caterham should be all about evolution, not revolution,” says Ali. “We’re not looking to compete against the Lotus Elise or TVR. If we tried we would fail because there are too many competitors - and because of the high level of investment required. We are all about making race cars which are road legal.”

That said, Ali is not averse to further expansion overseas, with India’s burgeoning middle classes - he is Anglo-Indian himself - high on the target list. China, on the other hand, is not. “It’s a minefield; not even on my radar. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were copies running around already, even though we’re not in there.”

Ali admits that it could be “tempting” to follow Noble’s example of moving production overseas in order to take advantage of lower labour costs - “but I have absolutely no aspiration to change manufacturing from being UK-based, and that applies to components. Ninety-five per cent of the bits are UK-sourced and I have no intention of altering this.” That does not mean ignoring manufacturing process improvements, however. Ever since the days of Chapman, the Caterham 7’s chassis has been hand-cut and welded. Now the process is about to become computer-driven, using robot cutters and welders. “The diehards will probably see that as blasphemous. But for every diehard I hope 10 other buyers will see it as a positive change.”

Educated abroad and widely travelled, Ali clearly revels in the culture of Britain’s specialist auto-industry and its many intuitive thinkers. “It’s a big attraction for me, coming from a background of Ford conservatism and rigid process. Lotus was much more about intuition and gut feel, but still accompanied by process. Caterham is a mix of intuition, gut feel, risk and no process. My job is to get the balance right.”

Without question, the Caterhams, Morgans and others of the specialist world are viewed with affection by workers for the mainstream carmakers, such as Caterham’s new engine supplier, Ford. One evening at Caterham’s Dartford plant, Ali was preparing to leave when he recognised some engineers from Ford’s Dunton research and development headquarters. Earlier in the day, they had been working with Caterham’s five-strong band of engineers on the new Ford engine installation, but it was now after 8pm. “What are you guys doing here?” he asked. “It’s OK,” one of his own men replied, “they’ve come back in their spare time after work.” Ali grinned. “That’s just the way this business is; the big guys can’t get goodwill like that.”

Financially, the specialist car-industry is notorious both for its volatility and its ability to make small fortunes for rich backers - take Jensen, Ecosse, Panther and Healey, for example. Other brands have had almost as many lives as cats: Lotus and Aston Martin have both been through several generations of first enthusiastic, then disillusioned owners before falling into the hands of much bigger carmakers - Ford, in the case of Aston Martin, Malaysia’s Proton, in the case of Lotus.

But life is a struggle for many specialist car manufacturers, with many living a hand-to-mouth existence. In the year before Ali acquired it, Caterham lost close to ₤200,000 on a turnover of ₤15m. In the same year, TVR’s long-time owner, North-Sea-oil engineer Peter Wheeler, decided to sell after recording a mammoth ₤11.8m pre-tax loss. It is now in the throes of a revival programme being led by its fierily impetuous new owner, the 26-year-old Russian oligarch Nikolai Smolensky.

Even Morgan - by specialist-car standards, as old as the Malvern hills where its cars are made - has been feeling the icy draught of competition. A decade ago the waiting list for its wooden-framed roadster was up to six years long. It still has fiercely loyal customers - but it is a smaller band, its numbers nibbled away at by the Mazda MX-5s, MG TFs, BMW Z4 and other such “niche” cars from the big manufacturers. Charles Morgan, the latest family member to run the business, could be pleased with Morgan’s retained profit for 2004 - but not with the previous year’s loss of more than ₤2m.

Even Group Lotus - at 4,000 cars a year, the specialist industry’s “giant” - is struggling to achieve breakeven, despite Proton’s help and resources. Mike Kimberley, Lotus’s managing director during the 1970s and 1980s and now a Proton-appointed group board member, has returned to its Norfolk headquarters with a five-year plan to turn the business round. Among other things, there will soon be a new family of Lotus supercars; Lotus is also looking to revive some of its past joint-venture links with big carmakers, links that resulted in such motoring icons as the Ford Lotus Cortina.

Kimberley’s intense, almost manic enthusiasm is typical of Britain’s entire specialist car industry, an enthusiasm that makes so many of its practitioners keep coming back for more - often against all the dictates of financial logic. Many, like Noble, are brilliant, intuitively innovative engineers and as such close in spirit to - and indeed interchangeable with - Formula One’s Sir Frank Williams or Ron Dennis of McLaren; people who, armed initially with not much more than a pencil, the back of an envelope and heads bursting with ideas, led the creation of Britain’s still world-leading motorsport industry. That industry employs 40,000 people and turns over ₤5bn, some 70 per cent of it going for export.

That interchangeability is exemplified by Caparo Vehicle Technologies - aka two engineers who worked at McLaren. You have to travel to the leafy lanes of Farnham in Surrey, just three or four F1 gear changes from McLaren’s Woking headquarters, to find them - and what is shaping up to be just possibly the maddest, baddest road-car on the planet.

If Ferdinand Piech, the dour autocrat who ruled over Germany’s Volkswagen group for so many years, thought that his pet Bugatti Veyron project would result in the supercar to end all supercars, it is approaching time for a rethink.

Admittedly when it comes to road transport the Veyron really is something else, almost whatever way it is measured. To order one - and more than 100 seriously rich people are currently waiting for delivery - the owner-to-be must write a cheque for around $1.5m. That fills their garage with a luxurious, two-seater ballistic missile, whose 1,000bhp will propel its owner, should they be daft enough, to 250mph.

Yet put it on a race track and the Veyron is unlikely to see where the Caparo T1 went. This British car is the creation of two engineers and designers, Ben Scott-Geddes and Graham Halstead, who learnt their craft at McLaren. It is at the far end of engineering’s philosophical scale from the Veyron. It embodies the thinking of innovative British auto engineers such as Colin Chapman, for whom lightness and sophisticated suspension design were the nearest thing to godliness. Chapman stuck his engines behind, not in front of, the drivers of his tiny, racing single-seaters, and went out to slay the giants of Formula One and Indianapolis.

The Veyron, on the other hand, is a - very fast - 2-tonne juggernaut. Were its (admittedly train-stopping brakes) to fail on the approach to Brands Hatch’s famous Paddock Hill bend, its inertial mass would cut the Veyron’s own motorway clear to Dover. Divide horsepower by its ponderous bulk, however - the standard method of comparing likely performance - and it has a less impressive, but still stupendous, 530bhp to propel each tonne.

The Caparo T1 has 1,000bhp.

Well, actually, it doesn’t. Its engine can muster “only” 450bhp. But it is required to propel just 500kg of carbon fibre and lightweight-metal chassis -one that looks unlike any other vehicle on the road, and most resembles a cross between a Formula One car and something out of Star Wars. It is a two-seater, but transforms its dynamics by seating its occupants in tandem. Its F1-aping aerodynamics provide such downforce, say Halstead and Geddes - who worked on both McLaren’s own F1 road car and Mercedes’ 200mph-plus McLaren SLR - that, just like an F1 car, it could drive at 120mph upside down through a tunnel. When cornering, it is claimed to create up to 3Gs in sideways force - triple that achieved by a modern saloon when emergency braking. It will go on sale later this year at around ₤150,000-plus; at this price, it is perhaps unsurprising that it made its first public appearance in Monaco, during this April’s Top Marques motor show.

Despite all the enthusiasm of this small, madcap and emotion-driven industry, this may be its last carefree and unsuspecting dance upon the beach. Many fear that a virtual tsunami of environmental- and safety-related legislation is on its way -laws that will make manufacturing specialist cars ever-more difficult. Caterham’s Ansar Ali acknowledges the reality of the threat. “There is such a lobby; it is gathering momentum and it could become difficult to control.”

He pauses for a moment, his face sombre. And then he brightens, as if such a thing could never happen: “Can you imagine a world without us - the Nobles, Morgans, TVRs and the rest?” he asks. “It would be a much, much sadder place.”

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