The missing piece to the Caterham / Renault joint venture puzzle has been revealed in September’s issue of Top Gear magazine. For Drive it brings a mixture of emotions… excitement seeing it again and frustration that it will probably never go into production.
So where did it start for us at Drive? It goes back 5 years to an initial meeting with Caterham in Hethel, Norwich. The original project became a distant memory as aspirations changed with the introduction of a partner in major manufacturer Renault, a completely new package and advanced aluminium construction. As the engineering package was developed at Caterham and Renault bases, Drive’s design team were seconded to work at the Renault R&D headquarters in Guyancourt, Paris, forming an important conduit for the Anglo-French alliance.
Arriving at Renault, Drive’s close team of designers and digital modellers with Caterham’s studio engineers, were allocated space within the Alpine facet of the complex, an impressively large studio with several clay plates. It was one of the most exciting environments to work in, with the presence of some of the Renault concept greats dotted around the place; the Alpine A110-50, DeZir, and Twingo to name a few.
Sharing the studio space, facing each other were the C120 and AS1 clay models, two cars showing great potential with their two respective design teams working on them. If I could sum up the entire studio atmosphere, including the Alpine team, it would be passion. Passion was what drove these concepts forward.
The Drive design team lived, breathed and dreamt C120, flying out to France in the early hours of Monday morning and returning on a Friday evening for 6 consecutive months. Some weeks were tiring, stressful and occasionally deflating, with our attempts at the French language appreciated, even if laughed at by the canteen staff. Our commitment, comradery and passion pulled us through every time, to be part of history, taking part in something that would bring a British sports car brand into a new era. The sad demise of the joint venture was a bad dream. For a long time we couldn’t believe that with all the effort everyone put into the project and with it so close to being realised, there would be no exciting moment of that first drive.
So enough about our emotions….what of the car itself?
Biased I may be, but I believe there is no doubt that this is a great looking car, with fantastic proportions and pure surfacing. So how is it a Caterham? What defines the character of a Caterham? At Drive we aren’t just a hired arm that draws cars, we extract and develop core brand DNA, establishing a clear aesthetic direction that our clients understand and can incorporate in their brand’s future.
Establishing this new brand aesthetic was no easy task. Caterham was clearly defined by the Seven, a car with a cult following and essentially unchanged from the original design. First of all the C120 was to be a completely new package, and one that a Caterham has never used before – a mid-mounted engine. This already moved the vehicle far away from the instantly recognisable visual cues of a Caterham 7 (long bonnet, front engine), so we knew we would have to evoke that Caterham feeling in other ways. We were also aware that the C120 was to be an everyday car, as well as a weekend toy, aimed at taking on the more premium market of Porsche, Audi and BMW. With this in mind the language the car spoke was critical, this was to be the line in the sand for Caterham; a fresh modern interpretation of a historic brand.
The car is designed as a complete entity from front to back, a holistic approach. Starting with the overall proportion, it is lithe, nimble and carries no excess weight whilst remaining visually planted in stance. The front rakes back from the iconic Caterham nose to a short rear overhang. The arch lines communicate some of the iconic Caterham 7 design gestures, the combination of the long diving front agile arch line and the rear pert, perfectly poised line evokes the similar feeling you get from looking at a 7. It looks alive, on its toes and ready to be driven.
The car also feels like a complete entity, it is not a case of projecting design features on the side rear and front which can often make cars look disjointed, features and graphics encompass the wheels, giving it visual strength and a sense of purity, a holistic approach.
The front displays an approachable face, not too aggressive, but a well-balanced and open eyed character that evokes the same feelings you get from the 7. It’s serious enough not to be taken lightly. Everything works together to deliver maximum performance whist interpreting the Caterham design philosophy for the 21st century. Everything is there for a reason too, from the central grill, splitter and side intakes, designed for function hinting at influences from Caterham motorsport, such as their former Formula 1 division.
Following down the side of the car, the iconic side exhaust and graphics that you commonly see on most 7s is interpreted by a graphic that follows all the way from the central nose through to the side intakes and onto the body side. The surfaces and body side is all about losing as much visual weight as possible, with surfaces sculpted away whilst retaining a sense of beauty and tension. Moving towards the rear the stance of the car is exaggerated to show the power moving through the rear axle, with large arch blisters further enhancing this visual width.
The rear completes the strength of the car, hinting at the DNA of the 7 in a very modern and crisp way. Lamp positions are high as is the integrated spoiler, not only gain better performance but to give the car a sense of agility. Simple, clean lines make up the rear to further emphasise as much visual width as possible. Heat exits at the base of the rear screen and under the rear floating lamps, were all necessary to manage heat for the mid-engine package. Moving lower down, the number plate is located within the diffuser trim allowing the upper surfaces to be as clean as possible and retain some of that Caterham 7 box like rear end feeling.
Working with the Alpine team was a pleasure, we had our moments of course, whilst fighting for certain design features and gestures that related to each of the cars providing much discussion and debate! For a program that relied heavily upon financial necessities of sharing the complete running platform and common parts such as lamps, the result is two concepts that side by side have a totally different attitude, stance and feeling. Quite an achievement.
Sadly what you are seeing here is only a point in time and is not the finished article, I can tell you… it only got better! When you see those fantastic shots of the Alpine darting around the Alps or parked in the Italian sunshine at Villa d’Este in Lake Como….. imagine the Caterham C120 hammering through the roads of Norfolk or poised in the car park at the Linton Travel Tavern!
I could probably carry on talking about this car, the design and just how special we feel it is, for an eternity. It was a landmark project for Caterham, Drive and our team; something none of us will forget and I only wish you could see on the road.
Images courtesy of Caterham Cars