As most enthusiasts know, the company was established in 1973 by Lotus dealer Graham Nearn, whose aim was to keep building the ultrasimple Lotus Seven sports roadster after Lotus founder Colin Chapman killed it because he felt it lacked the sophistication of a contemporary Lotus. When Sevens couldn’t be Lotuses any more, the ever-practical Nearn named them after the location of his showroom, so customers could always find him. It worked.
By the early 1980s Nearn had outgrown his headquarters and moved to Dartford, where the company rolled along happily until about 1990, when difficulties started arising. First there was an early 1990s recession, then during the recovery, Seven demand began to be affected by the success of rivals, notably Westfield.
In 2005 Caterham Cars was sold to a private equity company, Corvin, whose targets and ambitions were considerably more aggressive than the founder’s. But just as Corvin’s new men, Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards, were reshaping things, the Rover Group collapsed and Caterham’s supply of K-series engines ceased overnight.
Macdonald, unusual for his equal love of figures and cars, had just arrived as financial director. “Those were tough times,” he recalls. “First there was the complication of changing from Rover engines to Ford, and then our chassis builder went bust. We’d moved to a new supplier in Westbury, Wiltshire, with the aim of saving money and scaling up from 10 to 15 chassis a week.
“The supplier bought expensive equipment for the job, but it didn’t earn its keep and the costs sent them over the edge. We bought their business and convinced the bank to sell the new equipment. These days we have 20 people in Westbury handjigging and hand-welding chassis from laser-cut components we buy in from suppliers. It works fine.”
By 2009 Corvin wanted to sell and eventually found Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian-based entrepreneur known for his rapid expansion of budget airline Air Asia. Within weeks Fernandes (who had wanted Lotus but been frustrated) announced aggressive plans to expand Caterham’s horizons far beyond anything Nearn or anyone else could have conceived.
He rapidly acquired the former Team Lotus (rebadged Caterham F1) and established a Caterham Technology and Innovation (CTI) centre in Hingham, Norfolk.
He also agreed a joint venture with Renault to produce moderndesign Caterhams that would share key components and be sold around the world in partnership with Renault’s revived Alpine range.
They were bold plans that looked risky from the start, and it hardly helped that by 2012 Caterham’s two principals, Ali and Edwards, had departed to start their own venture, later revealed as the Norfolk-based Zenos sports car company. That left Macdonald holding a particularly lively and troublesome baby – at which stage his role was upgraded to that of CEO.