The world is full of wannabe super-cars, overgrown kit cars that make a splash appearance at motor shows full of promise and hype never to be seen again. There may be the occasional press release telling the world that the response has been overwhelming and that it will soon be going into production, but then it slides into oblivion and is forgotten.
This past April at Monaco the Freestream T1, a two-seater racing car for the road was revealed. Featuring its own supercharged 2.4-liter V8 engine delivering 480 bhp at 10,500 rpm, it has the performance of a Le Mans racer but with a range of 400 to500 miles from its 70 liter fuel tank. The car is also quite eye-catching—as such cars usually are—but for all this, one could not help having the feeling that it was another concept doomed to fail. However, there were two reasons to pause for thought: Ben Scott-Geddes and Graham Halstead. They may not be household names, or even well known names in the automotive industry, but what they did have was a recent career at McLaren Cars as part of the engineering team on the F1 and the Mercedes-Benz SLR. In itself, though, that probably would not have been enough to secure their future as an independent car manufacturer, but little did they know that their activities were being pretty extensively tracked.
Angad Paul is a typical entrepreneur. Born in London and a graduate of MIT, he is a successful movie mogul. While “Bombay Boys” may not ring many bells in the West, it was in fact one of the biggest-grossing English films in India and among the top three in the year of its release. He was also the Executive Producer of the immensely successful “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” which became a landmark event in British cinema and reached number one at the box office. As an aside to the movie-making, he also found time to co-found Chinawhite, an exclusive London club, and more recently the Aura Restaurant and Bar concept. However, his daytime job nowadays is as the chief executive of the Caparo Group of companies, a conglomerate with a turnover exceeding $1.5 billion. Employing around 4,200 people in the UK, U.S. and India, it has interests in many areas including steel, general engineering and automotive as a tier-two and three supplier. However, with big ambitions to move further up the food chain, it created Caparo Vehicle Technologies (CVT), and it is this company that took over Scott-Geddes and Halstead’s Freestream engineering agency.
In a further move to bolster its credibility, CVT then recruited Mark Findlay, Ricardo’s head of computer-aided engineering, as managing director, who then set about recruiting a team of around 30 engineers with the skills necessary for handling sophisticated engineering design contracts from carmakers and tier-one suppliers. His icing on the cake, though, came in August with the announcement that he had enticed Professor Gordon Murray to come on board as the director of advanced concepts. From time in Formula One where he spent many years with the Brabham team as the chief designer and then with McLaren, firstly with the Grand Prix team and then as the technical director of McLaren Cars, Murray has a formidable reputation as a man who knows all there is to know about the design and engineering of lightweight supercars. If there is one thing about the T1, renamed the Caparo T1 following the acquisition, it was its weight. At just 465 kg—the complete powertrain including the transmission weighs just 130 kg—it was the first car in the world to exceed the 1,000 bhp-per-tonne, twice the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron.
While the company has plans to sell the car on a very limited run basis, it really is little more than a showcase for CVT’s capabilities, particularly its approach to saving weight. “There is a great deal of talk nowadays about saving weight and yet every new version of a previous model seems to be wider, slightly longer and a bit heavier,” says Murray. “The manufacturers tell us that if they hadn’t applied some weight saving, the vehicle would have been even heavier, but that’s not really an argument for me.” Murray is rather dismissive of OEMs in their attempts to shed weight, saying, “Until now, car companies tend to pay lip service. They may set up a separate studio and give it autonomy but in reality it still has to operate within the rules. The lightweight part is also usually applied to a non- or semi-structural part like a carbon fiber boot lid or a thermoplastic front wing. It all helps, of course, but actually it’s a bit like the hybrid—‘Aren’t we good because we’re doing something for the environment?’ However, I think that certain companies, and there are some that are far more forward thinking than others, will realize that they will have to go to smaller, more flexible, lateral thinking outside groups. And this is where CVT comes in. We can be different because we are an extremely experienced small band of people that can react quickly, think on the hoof and will think laterally and outside the box a bit to make it happen.”
However, Murray points out that his group is not just into engineering a lightweight part, but the whole enchilada. “The last two years at McLaren when Ben and Graham were my two senior engineers, we had what were called ‘advanced concepts’ which studied how to bring composites to the high-volume market. However, it wasn’t just the pieces, it was the whole process and all the problems surrounding structural stability, high and low temperatures and the associated problems with the manufacturing and tooling processes, quality control and non-structural testing and all those issues. The principal is that we would supply the manufacturing process and do all the necessary crash test work, elevated temperature work and tooling projections.”
Nonetheless he is aware that it will not be an easy task selling his ideas to car companies as they tend to have very entrenched ideas, especially when it comes to large structures. “It’s one problem going to an OEM and getting them to think light, small or safer, but trying to get them to accept your geometry or platform is very difficult. I wouldn’t even try and do that because they have their own ideas and their own departments and they are so fussy about platform shape and its end use. That would be an uphill struggle for me. However, trying to sell them a new technology to something that they can see as an existing part, such as an anti-side intrusion beam, is easier.”
For all his pioneering work on carbon fiber in Formula One—in 1978 he was the first to introduce it on a Grand Prix car on the Brabham and also the first to introduce carbon brakes following the lead from Concorde—Murray is a great fan of thermoplastics. “I think that thermoplastics have a huge future in car parts. The plants tend to be small, easy and cheap to set up and far more cost-effective than a welding and assembly plant or a pressing plant. Another advantage of composites is that you don’t have to make 45 parts, you can make two. We actually got to the point, without giving too much away, where our little team thought we could produce a chassis for a low volume sports car, for example, in one part.” Murray recognizes, though, that thermoplastics are not stiff enough for body panels. They fail what he calls “the touch test,” whereby even if it is stiff enough for its application, such as a wing, if it clonks when someone leans against it, then it fails.
However, advanced composites are limited by the manufacturing processes. “Current advanced composites have an absolute volume of limitation,” says Murray. “Even with the technology we are looking at with the pre-preg carbon, even if we bottom out that production and quality control technologies, you are still talking only 5,000 to 10,000 units a year.”
It is still very early days for the company. “The building is not finished yet and we are only just beginning to let people know that the company exists, who we are and what we can do.”