Thanks to an impressive automotive legacy and attention grabbing performance, Caterham Cars is currently experiencing the highest factory built production volume in the history of the company. Tim Brown met with operations director, Gideon Wigger, and took a look around the manufacturing facility responsible for the 2009 Top Gear car of the year — the supercar destroying, Superlight R500.
The Caterham sales team casually refer to their second best performing production car, the Superlight R400, as a ‘Ferrari eater’. Comparatively, the R500 features an extra 100bhp-per-tonne and the ability to reach 60mph in under three seconds (almost a full second quicker than the R400) and is quite simply an automotive monolith.
While the R500 is the pinnacle of Caterham’s racing pedigree, the vehicle manufacturer produces a total of eight open wheeled, open roofed vehicles based on the original Lotus 7 design.
Originally designed by Colin Chapman, the Lotus 7 was launched in 1957 at the London Motor Show. In 1973 Caterham Cars purchased the rights to the 7 from Lotus and continued the products development. In 2005 the Nearn family sold Caterham Cars to a new management team led by Ansar Ali and Gideon Wigger.
Curves in the road
Since then the business has undergone a transformation on a number of levels. The 2006 demise of Rover, which had traditionally supplied Caterham with its engines, saw the car company needing to source new engines for the first time in 15 years. Following a considerable investigative period, Caterham chose Ford as its supplier, opting for the 1.6L Sigma and 2.0L Duratec engines.
“Technically the R300, R400 and R500 now use our own engine,” says Wigger. “While it is a Ford factory built engine which we buy from Power Torque (Ford’s UK dealer), the development work for the engines has been undertaken ourselves and we complete the final modifications and assembly. For the R500, we buy a base engine and then modify the head and change the pistons, conrods and camshafts and then fit all of the auxiliaries.” The chassis production has also undergone a considerable adjustment. Traditionally the company outsourced the manufacture of its various chassis designs, which in 2005 included a total of 60 different variants. The new management team returned the chassis manufacture to being an in-house production which is now completed at the company’s Westbury site. At the same time, Caterham has reduced the number of chassis variants from 60 to five while still retaining the necessary custom options.
The manufacturing process itself has also undergone a significant alteration.
Traditionally the Caterham manufacturing process was designed around a one man, one car system where an individual would complete the construction of an entire vehicle. According to Wigger, this has been altered for a number of important reasons to a assembly line with individuals working from a designated station.
“The previous system did not allow for the flexibility that the sales team required.
It takes months to train an individual to be able to construct a fully built car particularly considering we have a number of different product offerings. By breaking it down to stations and takt times, it now involves smaller amounts of work for staff to learn.
In addition, the operators become more proficient at the individual tasks which also improves product quality. Where historically we had one man completely building an individual car, there was a lot more chance of product variation as one person will build a vehicle slightly different to another. Under that system we were unable to obtain a ‘conformity of production’ certificate from the UK Vehicle Type Approval authority, VCA. By moving to a stationed system, we have rectified that issue.”
Performance on and off the track
At the beginning of December 2009, the R500 was featured on the popular BBC television show Top Gear. Following a blistering performance on the shows test track, registering the sixth fastest lap in the show’s history, Top Gear made the R500 its ‘2009 Car of the Year’. On the back of that performance and the resultant cascading media and public interest in the specialised vehicles, Caterham now has its strongest order book in its history and is producing more factory built vehicles than ever before. “Since October last year,” says Wigger, “we’ve increased manufacturing every month in volume terms.
We currently build a mix of nine fully built cars and three complete knock downs (CKD or kit cars) per week.” The vehicle assembly takes place at the company’s Dartford site where both the fully built and CKD cars are constructed. Wigger explains the production process: “The first part of that process is that we will print off a works order and that will determine if the vehicle is to be fully built or a CKD. That in turn establishes how the parts will be picked. If it is a customer CKD, all the components will be picked and placed in to certain package groups such as suspension or lighting and packaged in to delivery boxes. The components will then be stored along with the engine, wheels and tyres to later meet up with the chassis assembly. We assemble about 30% of a CKD order including the fuel lines, brake lines, pedal box, fuel tank, wired harness and dashboard.
“If it is a fully built car, all the components are picked and placed on a trolley which will follow the vehicle along the production line. At the first station, the chassis is drilled and the fibreglass, wings and the bonnet are prepared. At the second station the pedal box is fitted along with a number of other components. Non-painted vehicles continue down the line whilst painted cars, are delivered to an external paint facility. Both the CKD and fully built models proceed along the six stations which operate on a takt time of approximately three hours each. At the end of those six stations, if it CKD it is packed with its other components and is ready for dispatch.” “Fully built orders move across to a second assembly line in which there are also six stations. Through those stages the engine, suspension, trim and the remainder fuel system are all fitted. The vehicle is then processed through a final electrical audit before undergoing a safety check and road test. Every vehicle, including those that are CKD, has a build book which not only tells the operator the specifications of the model but includes a sign off procedure for every safety critical item to ensure every vehicle that leaves the factory adheres to the company’s safety requirements.”
In addition to the production of the vehicles, the company also completely manages the Caterham racing competitions in the UK. The Caterham Academy, sponsored by Avon tyres, has been operating since 1995 and since that time nearly 700 men and women have been transformed from novices to starting grid racers. Operated by the company’s motorsport manager, Simon Lambert, the programme continues to increase in popularity and is currently in the process of expanding to continental Europe.
The Academy is only open to those who have never held a racing licence before, and all cars are identical, so racing is always very close and totally thrilling. The Caterham team guide would-be racers through the process of building the car, setting it up to race, getting a racing licence and getting on circuit for the first time.
Places for the Academy are in high demand and usually sell out more than six months before the start of the season in March. The company advises those that are interested to register as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Never stop learning
Caterham is proud of the exceptional product they produce and appreciate the accolades that have been bestowed upon the company. However Wigger says the team understands that there is always room for improvement both in terms of the production of the car as well as vehicle performance. As a result, the company has implemented a feedback structure to acquire information from the assembly operators as well as from the service centres and racing department. “The best feedback and information we have comes from the operators building the car because they live with it every day. Of course there is also the requirement for the acquisition of feedback from the field and we have the ability to retrieve that information through our servicing department, through our racing competition and through our dealers in Europe. That feedback system is paramount and we try and keep it as fluid as possible.”
The company also has a feedback scheme which stems from a closely monitored auditing process. “Every morning the operators all gather around a vehicle and any concerns are raised. That way continuous feedback is available to the operators looking improve the quality while also providing an opportunity for management to receive feedback from the operators around any issues they are having from a build perspective which might be related to suppliers or engineering. Another element we are currently putting in to place is what we have termed an ‘information centre’ which will involve the full strip back and audit of a randomly selected completed car. This will occur once a month and will provide detailed information relating to the production process.” This constant development ensures not only the high level of quality associated with Caterham Cars products but also the continued development and improvement of its vehicle offerings.
The company has just commenced the manufacture of its latest model, the 175bhp version of the CSR which is a European model with EU4 approval. Such strategic developments are in line with the company’s aspirations to develop new markets, particularly in Europe. With entry in to the Caterham family starting at only £13,300 for the Classic model, don’t be surprised to see a lot more of these impressive pieces of machinery sharing the tarmac let alone dominating proceedings at the local race track.