For a nation endowed with the DNA of such maverick automotive legends as Chapman, Cooper and Brown, it seems ironic that the marque which now leads the plethora of niche British sports car manufacturers is one that was only founded in the latter part of the 20th century.
In relative terms, Radical Sportscars has barely reached adolescence. Brash, loud and impetuous, they don’t do Sunday drivers, unless of course you spend your Sundays on track.. which is perhaps one of the reasons why we love them.
The story of how the engineer (Phil Abbott) and the marketing man (Mick Hyde) came together is already well documented. Abbott was a racer who wanted to incorporate light but powerful motorbike engines into the chassis of affordable sports prototypes, Hyde became a convert and Radical was formed.
Their growth has been prolific, yet despite the name (taken from a brand of tanning lotion once owned by Abbott), the concept was far from new. As far back as the late 1940s, racing car maker John Cooper experimented in using 500cc Japanese engines in his cars, and by the 1950s BMW bike-powered machines were becoming ever more common across Europe.
No, what made Radical so appealing was their method, and perhaps just a little touch of Hyde’s madness.
Standing in the midst of the expanding factory complex on the fringes of East Midland’s industrial heartland, it’s hard to imagine the toils and struggles of the early years, but under the gloss lies a frame crafted from late nights merging into early mornings, then back again.
This isn’t a business built from cash alone; behind the success is a team that has grown together, won together and laboured together. They may not have always agreed on direction, but Abbott, Hyde, designer Nick Walford and engine man Ted Hurrell have shared the most valuable attributes – they not only understood their business, they understood their customers too. And because they were racers, they continued to race.
In relative terms, Radical Sportscars has barely reached adolescence
Gone, though, were the TVRs, Ginettas and bikes. They raced their cars and they raced them hard. And on the journey home, the conversations were spared the familiar tales of the almost; instead, their time, and that of their suffering families, was spent in prolonged discussion as to how the experience could be made better, then better still. This is what makes Radical special.
Of course, the journey has not always run smoothly. With each new development, reliability issues have surfaced, often dominating the tone of the paddock. This is the risk to a motorsport business.
Cars are not being driven sedately around the country lanes, instead they’re being hammered over the kerbs of some of the hardest tracks you can find: So no matter what the drawing board says, the fragility of a race car being pushed to the limit will be easily exposed.
But Abbott’s resolve has helped to make the difference. He knows the frustrations that accompany parts failures and he understands the commercial risk in failing to address even the hint of an issue. It took a little time, but that’s why you’ll now find every new Radical engine warranted. And if they’re rebuilt at the factory, this remarkable (for a British company) guarantee is renewed again, and again.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Radical’s ability to continue moving forward though, is the way that they’ve managed the departure of co- founder Mick Hyde (who retired last year). Not only was a new financial partner needed who could fit comfortably into the boardroom, they also knew that they had to give added depth to the growing demands on the commercial team, capably headed by another former racer, Nick Dove.
As it is, they didn’t have to look very far. Christian Droop, Radical’s main man in Germany, understood the business, had the available funds, and was there to ensure that the growth of the business could be maintained. Meanwhile, a timely conversation between Abbott and EVO Magazine’s Roger Green led to the experienced journalist not needing to be asked twice to take-on the marketing role.
For an industry that relies heavily on the value of personality, appointments such as these can, within a moment, so easily destroy years of hard work. Abbott, I suspect, has chosen well.
It was at this point that I was going to talk about the physical transition within the business and the move away from adolescence, but this would be misleading. As I walked around the factory and talked to people on the shop floor as well as those in white shirts, it became obvious that there is a depth of talent, and skills, and understanding that resonates throughout.
“Yes”, there’s innovation right across the product range, and a number of youthful faces benefitting from a committed approach to training, but this is underpinned by craft and tradition. They might be one of our younger brands, but they absolutely ooze maturity.
Back in the summer of 1995, when the Clubsport was just a handful of scribbled notes and drawings, the vision was to build cars purely for the track; where the need for a carpeted finish could be overlooked in favour of a focus on speed and lap-times.
And this was a vision that has served them well. Other than Porsche, Radical has produced more racing cars than anybody else, anywhere in the world. At the latest count, some 1500 of them (a figure that is rising by almost 250 every year). But more recently, as the success of the brand has grown, so has the demand from others to tap-into the skills that were so evidently on display.
Today, Radical not only make race cars but also the fastest street-legal trackday cars. Take the SR3 SL for example – a Radical for the road. Now admittedly, the prospect of driving such a beast along the local High Street to collect groceries won’t appeal to everyone, and to be frank, most people with £70,000 to spare probably wouldn’t be considering doing so anyway.
Nevertheless, Radical has been clever with their thinking: Not everybody who wants to own a Radical wants to race one, and in certain markets, it’s becoming ever more important that track toys are also road registered.
The costs, however, of developing such a vehicle and gaining the crucial European Community Small Series Type Approval (EC SSTA) are significant, and generally well out of range for many low-volume manufacturers, but for Radical, it’s an investment that positions them as a serious player in a market that has traditionally resisted such a specialist product.
Then of course there’s the engine division, re-branded in 2011 to Radical Performance Engines (formerly Powertec).
Ted Hurrell might not have featured much in this story so far, but his impact on Radical’s emergence as a serious car maker has been immense. From just a handful of units in the early days, engine output now extends to some 800 units per year (new builds and refreshes) and therefore the contribution to Radical’s total revenues is ‘significant’.
Perhaps of more importance though is the range of activities that RPE are engaged in; such as the build and support of all the engines for Argentina’s TC2000 Series (South America’s leading Touring Car championship). And then there’s the engine development for the record-breaking car of Trevor Willis in the British Hillclimb Championship. This really is a serious business and far more extensive than the Le Mans Prototype cars that the company has made its name from.
And just as RPE is being used to power other chassis around the world, so another RPE (Radical Precision Engineering) is gaining growing recognition (and income) from delivering engineering solutions to an expanding portfolio of clients, in sectors as diverse as marine, medical instrumentation, hydraulic fracturing, and of course, motorsport.
Again, the impact on the bottom line allows this RPE to stand alone and proud (some 70% of earnings being derived from external sources) but likewise the benefit to the group when negotiating entry to new territories is significant.
For all the talk of diversification, motor racing is, however, still very much at the core of Abbott and Droop’s vision. There may be a global economic downturn but wherever Radicals are racing, grids remain strong, and they’re getting stronger. But that’s not where this particular chapter ends.
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Despite a focused range of cars that appeal to a widening group of users, there was still a gap at the entry-level that needed to be addressed. After all, the prospect of racing a finely-tuned, slick-shod missile amongst seasoned campaigners is still a daunting prospect to those contemplating their first steps into competitive motorsport. A solution had to be found, and so the SR1 Cup was born.
For Green, the barrage of comparisons to Caterham’s Academy has not been unexpected, but look a little closer and once again Radical has demonstrated their understanding of the market.
Entry is open to all novices, whether first-timers, or those still sporting the rookie “black cross”. Training is mandatory, professional support is openly allowed (because not everybody wants to home-maintain their car and tow it around the country) and pivotally, costs are laid-out on the table. There are no sprints or hillclimbs, and no hidden extras; it’s a race series for those who want to race in a car built by race engineers.
Yet before the series has even commenced, the motorsport team have already looked ahead and considered how they should go about encouraging drivers to continue. As a result, one of the key benefits to the new breed of racers is that sensible performance-restrictions have been built into their cars, meaning that when the second season arrives, the need for a raft of expensive upgrades becomes unnecessary – all they have to do is remove some of the limiting effects. It’s not rocket science. It is, however, the common-sense approach that has defined Radical since their early days.
As we peruse the first SR1s being readied for customer tests, I have to ask Green about the initial reception from the paying public; after all, they are the ones whose opinion counts the most. “Put it this way” he says, the smile growing across his face, “we (only) launched just over a week ago and have already received enough deposits to secure half a grid”.
And the story doesn’t end there. In recent months, we’ve featured stories of how TMG (Toyota Motorsport Group) in Germany has been utilising a Radical chassis to host their latest EV prototype. Already a record breaker around the legendary Nordschleife Circuit, Toyota are now competing in challenges around the world, taking the Radical name and reputation with them.
It may not seem like much, but if a global giant like Toyota with over 300,000 employees needs help from a small factory in Peterborough with a workforce of just 120, then Radical are clearly doing something right.
So this is a success story. Revenues now total approximately £20 million, with nearly £15 million of that coming from overseas markets. And they’re profitable too – netting £4 million last year, a considerable amount of which is being ploughed straight back into the business and used to raise the bar even higher.
I’ll miss Mick Hyde. I remember our very first conversation. I was looking for something to race and was about to buy a Caterham.
“Why do you want to waste your money with them” he told me, “you’ll have far more fun wasting it with us”.
Radical won’t be quite the same without him, but they’ve shown that they can move on and move up and show the rest of the world what Britain is really made of.
Next Stop: Ginetta Cars