How ex-Nissan sports car boss will rev up Caterham

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Bob Laishley tells us how he’s taking control of the British sports car maker’s future.

It’s been a big year so far for Caterham, which recently came under the wing of Japanese retail group VT Holdings and gave the first details of an all-electric version of the Seven, due in the coming years.

Another important announcement from the British sports car brand was the high-profile appointment of Bob Laishley as its new chief strategic officer, a position in which he will manage the rollout of new products and strive to keep the company thriving – and, crucially, compliant – as the automotive industry continues to transform.

A self-professed “car guy”, Laishley is best known for his work at Nissan, where, as global sports car programme director, he oversaw such heavy-hitting performance models as the 370Z and GT-R. Laishley spoke exclusively to Autocar about his immediate priorities at Caterham, outlining what needs to be done to see the brand safely past its half-century in 2023.

How have your first few weeks in the job been?

“It’s still early days. The first thing to say is that the guys in Dartford are doing an amazing job. There’s nothing broken with the business and the product’s great. It’s just about getting my feet under the table and learning a lot. Of course, I knew a lot about Caterham from the outside, but being inside is somewhat different. I’m trying to assimilate myself with more than 50 years’ history of the car, and to Electric Seven will have “that raw driving experience” Bob Laishley joined as strategy boss after a top role at Nissan Nissan performance boss takes control of the British sports car maker’s future understand that what we do in the future protects that heritage. That’s the most sacrosanct thing: to not do anything that will damage that long, long heritage.

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“Frankly, I’m really pleased and surprised with the reaction from a lot of people in the industry. The great and good of the automotive industry still say [the Seven] is the benchmark for everything that they do. It’s really quite humbling, and the responsibility of joining this group of people is not lost on me.

“I retired from Nissan just over a year ago and the plan was to do some consulting, but the new owners have coaxed me back into this role and there’s not many that would have pulled me out of what I was doing.”

What are the challenges in going from a big brand to a small one?

“It’s surprising that a lot of the issues faced are no different to OEMs. It’s just scale. The issues surrounding having a product plan that keeps customers engaged, keeping the vehicles compliant – they’re all the same issues.

“Maybe the solutions in some areas are a bit easier and in some could be a bit more innovative, but it’s remarkable how the challenges we face have very big similarities.

“One of the positive things in moving to this new world is the agility to make decisions very quickly compared with the big, slow juggernaut of a global OEM. That’s very refreshing.”

What does Caterham need to retain?

“Caterham’s attributes have always been about lightweight, agility, fun to drive – and all of those need to be retained. Previous owners have tried to change the shape and format of the Seven or the brand and, for various reasons, that hasn’t worked out so there’s something to be said for keeping some stability, and the priority is to keep stability moving forward.

“There’s nothing majorly wrong with anything the guys are doing. We need to build on their solid performance over the past few years. The first challenge is to reduce the waiting time for customers. There’s a long lead time today because of the production capacity we have, so we’re working on how to improve that lead time, and to increase the production rate to satisfy the orders we’ve currently got.”

Did you go in with certain ambitions?

“Graham [Macdonald, CEO] has a discussion ongoing around the EV and clearly we need to look at moving towards EV more. There are some technology challenges around that. The guys were far more advanced with their EV plans than I had thought from the outside, but that challenge for us is all about providing that same enjoyable experience but in an EV format.

“There are plenty of naysayers who question whether or not an EV should be done, but I’m very much a believer that we need to have that offering, and it’s my priority to deliver that experience that is fun to drive and still a Seven. I don’t want to read that whatever we deliver in that space isn’t built on the history of the Seven. We want to deliver that raw driving experience.”

How can Caterham benefit from partnerships?

“Partnerships only work where there’s some synergy. During the last 11 years of my time with Nissan, I brokered a lot of business relationships with Mercedes, Renault and Mitsubishi and, actually, Nissan worked with a whole load of OEMs you don’t even know they do – and my role was to build those relationships, in addition to the work on the Z and GT-R.

“The partnership route is extremely important to OEMs moving forward. Who Caterham’s partners are is a big question, and there can be synergies that help customers.

“If we can use common batteries, common motors, common suppliers – that will allow us to make products that are more affordable – then that’s great.

“The other advantage of working with partners is that you’re buying the assurances that the technology is proven, reliable – and we can focus on the things our customers want rather than focus on making the product work.

“It’s vital, I think, and we’re open to any discussion with anybody that wants to help us. Since I’ve joined, we’ve had quite a lot of offers from some surprising places…”

Could Caterham pursue exemption from upcoming emissions legislation as a niche volume manufacturer?

“Certainly, it’s an argument. But it’s getting tougher to make that argument with the authorities. I don’t know where that will go. Trade bodies like the SMMT will help and support the industry to lobby for exemptions, but globally the regulatory requirements are getting tougher for everybody.

“I don’t think we can plan on those exemptions as a way forward for the business.”

Ford is ending combustion engines in Europe. Could Caterham stockpile motors?

“We’re always looking at the best powertrain solution that we can use. Caterham’s got a history with different engines – it’s quite surprising how many have been used – but Ford has its own product planning and we have to make our own. That will potentially force us to look at other powertrain sources, either with Ford or somebody else. It’s too early to say who, what, where and when – but there are other powertrain options out there which suit our product.”

Felix Page

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