It is three years since I first visited Westfield’s Kingswinford factory; a trip that made such an impression that it would ultimately lead to me working there. Yet just over 12 months later, my faith was lost and exit swift.
My return to the West Midlands brought back clear memories; the early morning battle through London’s “rat-runs”; the oncoming crawl past the Hoover Building; the kites gliding over much of the M40; and then the wend through the Black Country conurbation. Nothing had changed.
The roadside pubs were still boarded-up, the vacant land was still over-grown and Dudley’s once bustling High Street now littered with fast-fix wrappers and wandering youths. This is a region that has lost the power of its voice. But whilst the mega factories and sprawling steelworks may have gone, look carefully along the side streets, and in the run-down business parks, and you’ll see the glimmer of the weld and taste the acidity of the smelt.
The Boys from the Black Country
I am met at the door by Julian Turner, a man who despite having led Westfield for five years now is still only in his mid thirties. We sit and reacquaint ourselves, sipping coffee and easing back into the familiarity that once was the norm. And we start at the beginning; not Westfields’ beginning, (they’ll be 30 next year), but with the acquisition of the company by Potenza (his family’s investment vehicle).
“With hindsight, had this been a good move?” I ask.
“Absolutely” came the reply, “and it still is. We had clear goals and good ideas, but then the world changed.”
The tone and honesty take me a little by surprise. I’d expected a barrage of bluster but instead was facing a man who was relaxed and candid.
So we talked about their (historic) wish to float Westfield stock on AIM (London’s Alternative Investment Market), a less regulated environment than the LSE (London Stock Exchange). Small companies often raise around £1m in equity capital by listing here and Potenza had initially hoped that by now, they would have recovered a sizeable chunk of their investment and seen Westfield growing due to a fresh influx of investment.
But the downturn has scuppered this and any thought of a listing is now just a distant memory. And this has caused them to “dig-deep”, for as anyone in this industry can tell you, the type of product that Potenza inherited from Westfield’s founder, Chris Smith, was incapable of sustaining a viable ongoing business.
When the Turners bought Westfield, there were three key products; the SE (the Seven-style car, generally sold in kit form), the XI, a beautiful replica of the Lotus Eleven and their own-designed XTR (standing for eXtreme Track & Road), a sports car that was much admired but that had been badly compromised by making it road-legal.
In 2006, the auto-industry was entering a period of change. Brussels was tightening the legislative framework on safety and emissions and it was clear to the new management team that Westfield either had to adapt or die.
“It became clear” said Turner “that our cars had to change; they needed a ground-up re-design . . . they needed to become technically excellent.”
And so the process of change began. The XI and XTR were put to one side and the team set-about creating the Sport Turbo, the first car of its type to receive ESSA (European Small Series Approval), a scheme that allows low volume manufacturers to homologate and register up to 1000 of a type of car each year.
“The effort, the challenges and the cost were all immense” Turner tells me “but we beat Caterham and we now have a really capable product for our dealers to sell”. Which one of these statements is the more important to him, only he knows – I’m sure it’s the latter, but it’s probably a pretty close thing.
It had seemed inevitable that we would talk about Caterham, especially in light of Tony Fernandes’ acquisition earlier this year and the re-branding of Team Lotus to the Caterham name. There is clear envy of the loyalty and passion displayed by so many Caterham drivers but this is equalled by the pride shown when he talks about Westfield owners and their remarkable Club following.
“We’re like Marmite” he remarked, “you either love us or you don’t”. But this is where I hope he’s wrong.
Opinions will, of course, differ widely, but I see no reason why aficionados can’t admire both. We’re living in a new age; one where technology and the burden of regulation are overpowering traditional values. I think we should appreciate both marques for the freshness of their ideas and for helping to keep the British sports car industry alive.
A subtle shift of tone leads to a frank admission when I ask for his thoughts on how Caterham have taken themselves away from being a small kit provider to the new kings of cool.
“Whatever’s been said in the past” Turner says smiling, “you have to admire the way in which they’ve gone about building their brand. They clearly have some good people who’ve worked hard and have done a very good job.” He pauses for a moment. “And this is where we’re different” he continues.
“They’ve become marketing led whereas we’re very much engineering-based. We’re continually re-designing, re-developing and re-engineering our product; it’s what we do best”.
“I’d rather eat wasps”
If we were going to have a really frank exchange, I had to ask about the infamous review by Jason Plato on 5th Gear where he stated (in reference to the question of whether he would like to own a Sport Turbo) – “I’d rather eat wasps”.
Even when it’s warm and sunny, JP does not like Sevens. Give him a really badly prepared piece of **** on a cold, wet and windy day at Rockingham and.. well what had Turner expected?
I reminded him that this had always been an irritant to me and that Westfield hadn’t only let themselves down, they’d let their community down too. He agreed. Ironically, he tells me that the test was meant to be a comparison between the Sport Turbo and the new Caterham 175, however Caterham pulled-out just before filming. Westfield had been handed a golden bullet but instead of using it on their rival, they simply shot themselves in the foot.
West meets East
Moving on, I was keen to understand how the company is faring today. The good news is that despite the continued uncertainty within the Euro-zone, some 75% of Westfield’s business is now conducted overseas. However, Turner still recognises the value of their domestic kit business.
He is also astutely aware of the threat from the plethora of niche providers of similar “Seven-type” product.
“It’s ironic” he quips “that a business founded on the making of replica cars is now having its own designs and ideas copied”. One of Westfield’s strengths is the reputation it holds with its customers for the integrity of its work; “but make no mistakes”, he adds firmly, “as I said before, this is an engineering-led business; it always has been and it always will be, but this comes at a price and people looking to build a kit will always think of their budget first”.
This is the spirit that had first led me to their door. Neither of us were going to pretend that quality issues don’t sometimes arise, but the Westfield of today is far removed from when his family took ownership just five years ago.
In this short time, anyone will tell you how much the low-volume sports car market has changed. “Customers demand more and expect more” Turner tells me. It’s a simple statement of fact but one that has led to many within this industry failing as they struggle to meet the costs of transition.
But for all the optimism, Turner is aware that Britain’s use of its veto at the recent European summit could well cast a fresh shadow of doubt over trading relations with some of his key markets. Fortunately, he understands the value of Westfield’s local representation, such as the hugely charismatic Patrice Dumas in France.
Formerly Caterham’s road car agent, Dumas was said to have cried at the thought of leaving Caterham, but in 2008 he did and hasn’t looked back since. “We’re a family,” Turner tells me, “we know just how hard our agents work to generate sales and we have to be here to support them. We depend on each other.”
The Fernandes Effect
And what about the “Fernandes Effect”? Has the sudden global attention on Caterham and the Seven, proven to be a good or a bad thing for Westfield?
“Definitely good.” Turner enthuses. “We’ve been actively involved in building new markets in Asia and the Far East and the media interest that is now being given to the Seven is really helping people understand what this type of car is all about.”
But if I have one criticism of Westfield, it’s that their marketing, PR, web and social media presence do not do them justice. They are thin on budget and thin on people. If they’re going to take advantage of those beautiful green and gold F1 cars, showcasing Caterham to 600 million people worldwide, they need to deal with this and they need to do so quickly.
Pounds, Ringgits and Rupees
One of the key areas that Turner is keen to address whilst opening new markets is the delivery of value to Westfield customers. In light of recent agreements with DRB-HICOM in Malaysia and Incredible Cars in India, I ask if this means that Westfield will consider manufacturing at least some parts locally.
“Absolutely.” He tells me. “We’ll look to manufacture wherever it makes economic sense for us and for our clients”.
“And what about Kingswinford?” I ask him.
“The hope” he answers “is that we’ll slowly build operations here. It’s taking time but this is our home.”
The talk of the Malaysian deal brings me to another point. This was announced 18 months ago so I ask what has happened since. DRB-HICOM are one of the most significant corporations in Malaysia, with activities including the assembly of cars for the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Honda. Much is said to be riding on the tie-in, including new British jobs.
“Let me put it this way,” Turner tells me bluntly, “it’s taken longer than either of us thought but it’s been important that we both absolutely understand each other. We’ve now reached this point, and I’m told that there are now more Westfields in Malaysia than any other type of Seven . . .”
One of the other promised outcomes of the Malaysian deal was that there would be a new generation of GTM sports car (another Potenza brand). I ask if this will happen or has GTM been consigned to history.
“It’s being updated and it’s being worked on.” He states clearly. “There is a new car but it will carry the Westfield badge . . . watch this space!”
And this leads us nicely onto that other area of Westfield specialisation, the development and application of alternative power technologies for lightweight sportscars.
Much has already been written about the iRacer, Westfield’s all-electric and somewhat futuristic race car. But whereas some manufacturers only “talk”, Westfield has been active in developing practical EV and hybrid solutions. Now, they are at the point where iRacers have been sold to customers and interest is getting stronger by the day.
I ask if this means that all-electric and hybrid options will soon be commonly available across Westfield’s range.
“Let’s put it this way” he says pointedly, “Paul (Faithfull, his brother-in-law and technical head of Potenza) has done a brilliant job in establishing us as market leaders in alternative power trains; so if someone wants an all electric car, we can build them one, but at the same time, if they want a 300bhp supercharged Duratec, we’ve engineered that as well.”
This may have been a somewhat mischievous reply (referring to Caterham’s overdue SP/300.R) but I can see that he is keen, very keen to re-emphasise their credentials.
As we sip more coffee and swap more stories, there’s still one fundamental point I want to raise.
“So tell me?” I ask. “If Ansar (Ali, CEO of Caterham Cars) or Tony picked up the phone and called you, what would you say? Because these are difficult times for everyone and if collaboration can save costs and create work, then surely these have got to be good outcomes for everyone?”
Turner smiled. “I’d say my door is always open.”
There is so much more that can be said about this small corner of British automotive heritage, but perhaps the most important part of my visit was the trip through the factory just before I left.
It had been two years since I’d last surveyed the cars in build, the chassis’ being prepared and the store of newly gel-coated grp. Nothing had changed, and for once this was a good thing. Every face that looked-up, smiled and said “hello” was a familiar one. Men and women will spend their working lives here. They know how to build cars.
Images: provided by Patrice Dumas, Westfield France. During the next few days, Patrice will hand over keys to the 51st FW 300 delivered in France since August 2009 – an achievement he and his team are rightly proud of.
If you live in mainland Europe, give Patrice a call or pay him a visit at montée d’Avignon, 13090 AIX-EN-PROVENCE.