The Fernandes Files – from Hethel to Darford via Malaysia

The Fernandes Files - from Hethel to Darford via Malaysia

It’s been no secret that Corven, the private equity group who funded the buy-out of Caterham from the Nearn family, have long been seeking to retrench their investment. Despite a barrage of gilded PR, the introduction of new models, and ventures with household names ranging from Top Gear to Marks & Spencer, life since 2005 has not been easy for the Dartford outfit.

Certainly, exports have been boosted by the decline in Sterling together with growing brand-emergence, but the cost of meeting tough new European standards, the global economic downturn, delays with parts supply and rising production costs means that rather than capitalising on their perceived strengths, Caterham can still only tread the murky waters of low-volume niche vehicle makers.

The news (broken by Sky TV’s Mark Kleinman) that Tony Fernandes (AF) together with his Team Lotus partners is set to complete the purchase of Caterham later this week should therefore come as no surprise. What it will do however, is to add new intricacies to the already complex argument as to the legitimacy of the custodianship of Lotus’s motorsport heritage.

Of course, things may well have been very different had the executives at Hethel picked-up the phone to Mike Gascoigne at any stage over the last 18 months and suggested that the two collaborate; but they didn’t. So now, we are faced with the intriguing prospect of an under-financed, over-ambitious, Malaysian-led Group Lotus having to square-up to a well-funded, single-minded, Malaysian-led Team Lotus. Add to the mix that Caterham MD Ansar Ali was once General Manager of Lotus Cars and Fernandes’ (reputed) £3m purchase price may turn-out to be one of his shrewdest investments to-date.

The value of an automotive business like Caterham can never be measured from the bottom-line. Neither should it be argued that the potential of new markets can be exploited with the benefit of inward investment. This is a game of chess, and Caterham are the well-positioned Pawn.

A quick look at Caterham’s current model range will immediately signal a limit to what can be achieved in terms of revenue generation; The Seven is an icon of not just Lotus’ but British motoring heritage. Nevertheless, it has the drawbacks of defined appeal, limited application and a longevity that long ago gave rise to a burgeoning after-market (so impacting on new sales); whereas the announcement back in January of the introduction of the Radicalesque SP/300.R must be seen in the context of what it surely was – an effort to place Caterham away from the generic identity of that of a Kit-car manufacturer (which has been a plague on Ali & co ever since they embarked upon their tenure.).

Tony Fernandes is a skilled entrepreneur and will clearly see what has just been outlined, but what he undoubtedly also sees are ways to affect Group Lotus’ business, particularly in key export markets, and at a time when they can least afford it. The mere threat of his involvement must surely be giving cause for thought in both Norfolk and Shah Alam as one look at a list of international Lotus dealerships will see many of the same names appear as Caterham agents. Something has got to give…

Moreover, Group Lotus’ plans to challenge the likes of Ferrari in the supercar market are already widely perceived as flawed and risky. So, if Fernandes can now impact their core business, there is just a possibility that he won’t even need to consider the outcome of the High Court ruling on his use of the Team Lotus name, because this very small investment in the once-docile Caterham may easily result in the whole of the Lotus business becoming vulnerable to a take-over of even more significant proportions.

It’s going to be a fascinating game of chess to watch and as with all the best tournaments, it will be standing room only.